Consideration of Commons Amendments
Motion on Amendments 1 to 46
My Lords, this Bill has already been on a long journey, and has changed a great deal during that journey. Since its Second Reading in this House in November last year, it has been subjected to rigorous challenge and scrutiny through Committee and Report before being sent to the Commons.
The Government listened carefully and adjusted the proposals in the Bill. We continued to consult, listen and adjust as it moved through the Commons. Most of the amendments to which I am speaking were introduced by the Government in the Commons as part of the continuing process of scrutiny and modification. It is a pleasure to follow in the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Taylor, who did such an excellent and widely praised job of negotiating this Bill through its earlier stages in this House.
The Public Bodies Bill was notable during its time in this House not least for such contentious issues as Schedule 7 and the provisions on forests. However, it can and should be remembered as an outstanding example of the way in which the breadth and depth of experience in your Lordships’ House was used to improve a piece of legislation. I appreciate that this is a large group of amendments and that many noble Lords will be keen to move on to debate other issues in the Bill, and I will therefore set out as succinctly as I can the issues in these 46 amendments.
Amendments 1, 30, 31, 35 add co-operative and community benefit societies, as well as charitable incorporated organisations, to the definition of “eligible person” to which the functions or property of a body or officeholder can be transferred under the general order-making powers of the Bill. These amendments were welcomed by all sides in the Commons. I hope that they will also be welcomed here.
Amendments 2 and 3 require Ministers to secure Treasury consent before making an order that modifies an existing funding arrangement. This is in accordance with normal practice across the whole range of government.
Amendments 5 and 14 provide for there to be no requirement for a Minister or Welsh Minister to consult a body or office that is defunct. This does not exempt the Government from the need to consult—that is, to consult persons whom the Minister considers to be substantially affected and persons deemed to be appropriate—because the rest of the provisions in Clause 10 and 19 continue to apply. These amendments simply allow the Minister to lay a draft order without having to attempt to consult a body that has no members.
Amendment 21 adds stamp duty land tax to the list of relevant taxes in Clause 26. That clause limits the taxes that can be varied under the Bill to a list of relevant taxes. Stamp duty land tax was previously excluded from the list because there is an existing stamp duty tax relief for statutory reorganisations involving public bodies included in Section 66 of the Finance Act 2003. However, this relief does not cater for transfers to a non-statutory body for consideration. Stamp duty land tax should therefore now be included within the list of relevant taxes because there is a possibility that some transfer schemes will include land transactions falling outside the current stamp duty relief.
Amendments 22, 23, 29 and 59 correct a technical issue relating to cross-border powers affecting the Environment Agency, which is currently an England and Wales body, and supersede and replace current provisions in the Bill relating to the delegation of Welsh environmental functions, with some minor revisions.
The Bill allows Welsh environmental bodies to delegate devolved functions to the Environment Agency but, without these amendments, it would not allow the Environment Agency in its turn to delegate non-devolved functions to Welsh environmental bodies, including the new Welsh environmental body. This would mean that the current flexible arrangements under which the Environment Agency can delegate to its Welsh counterparts could not continue. This could pose significant problems in an emergency such as flooding in the border area or in areas such as management of the Dee estuary. These amendments ensure that the agency could delegate non-devolved functions to the new Welsh environmental body.
Amendments 24, 25 and 32 to 34 allow the Government to reduce the cost of back-office functions, such as HR, IT and payment processing, through rationalisation and delivering economies of scale in environmental bodies. Amendment 24 provides a clear, specific power so that the Environment Agency, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Marine Management Organisation and internal drainage boards could, with certainty, provide any back-office function to other bodies carrying out public functions. This would allow a shared-services model to be developed across the Defra network and with other government departments.
Amendments 26, 39, 42, 45, 48, 58 and 60 relate to the abolition of the regional development agencies. I acknowledge that many noble Lords, particularly those on the opposition Benches, have been staunch supporters of the RDAs. I commend them for the thoughtful and insightful contributions they have made on this issue in previous debates.
In March, this House supported the principle of abolition by approving the inclusion of RDAs in Schedule 1 before the Bill was passed to the Commons. Amendment 26 removes the RDAs from Schedule 1 and provides for their abolition in a new clause in the Bill dealing with RDAs. The effect of this amendment is that the abolition of the RDAs will no longer be progressed using the order-making power in Clause 1. Instead, the new clause contains its own limited order-making powers and procedure.
Amendments 39, 42, 45, 48 and 60 make provision for the commencement of the new provisions relating to RDA abolition. They also amend the Long Title of the Bill. Amendment 58 inserts a new schedule, which deals with consequential repeals to references to RDAs in other Acts.
Amendments 27, 52 and 61 relate to the Welsh language television channel S4C. The Government are committed to a strong and independent Welsh language TV service, supported by sustainable funding. These amendments put that commitment into legislation and, for the first time, set in statute a requirement that S4C receives sufficient funding for it to fulfil its statutory and vital role as an independent Welsh language broadcaster. Funding changes to S4C have already been implemented from this year, with the agreement of S4C.
The Government’s amendments do not change the policy announced last year on the funding of S4C; they simply represent a change to the legislative mechanism by which changes will be made. The proposed funding arrangements are reinforced by the proposed S4C-BBC partnership arrangements which were announced in October. The announcement followed extensive discussions between S4C, the BBC and DCMS, and represents, we feel, a great outcome for Welsh language broadcasting.
Amendments 28, 37, 38 and 62 address an inconsistency in relation to the trading powers of a number of cultural institutions. All institutions covered by the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 and the National Heritage Act 1983 can create companies to carry out some restricted functions such as producing publications or provide catering services at their own premises. However, only those institutions set up by the 1992 Act—these include the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery—can enter into shared services contracts and thereby supply services to other organisations, where this is incidental to the institution’s functions. These amendments will enable the institutions covered by the 1983 Act—the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England—to discharge their functions equally and competitively.
Amendments 40 and 41 make simple changes to the commencement provision set out in Clause 31 to prevent an unnecessary delay in Parliament undertaking the important process of scrutinising draft orders. Amendment 41 provides that Clauses 10 and 11 would come into force on the day on which this Bill is passed, which would allow Ministers to lay draft orders for parliamentary scrutiny immediately after Royal Assent. While Ministers will be able to lay draft orders and start scrutiny immediately, they will not have the power to actually make changes using the core powers in Clauses 1 to 5 until two months have elapsed. This amendment also clarifies that other provisions contained in the final part of the Bill, such as the interpretation provisions, will also come into force immediately. Amendment 44 would update a reference to the Football Licensing Authority in Schedule 1 of the Public Bodies Bill to reflect the commencement of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority Act 2011.
Amendment 46 inserts the public lending right in Schedule 1, enabling the abolition of this body and the transfer of its function to an eligible person. I would like to assure noble Lords that the right of authors to receive payment when their books are borrowed from public libraries—and I declare a minor interest in this respect myself—will continue to be protected in law, as will the statutory function of distributing the PLR fund to authors when this function is eventually transferred to another existing body. Which body takes over this function is subject to consultation at present, but it is our intention that PLR payments will still be administered by a body operating at arm’s length from government, and most probably also some distance from London.
Amendments 55 and 57 relate to Dover Harbour Board. These amendments provide an alternative route for transferring the functions and assets of Dover Harbour Board to a community body. These amendments are not Government amendments, and the Government did not seek them. Nevertheless, in recognition of the Committee debate in the other place and because the spirit of the amendments is in line with the principles of the big society, we have decided to accept their inclusion in the Bill. However, it is important to make clear that once included in the Public Bodies Bill, these provisions will not supersede, or otherwise affect, existing powers in relation to Dover Harbour Board, such as those available under the Ports Act 1991 and the Harbours Act 1964. These provisions were proposed as an additional power available to Ministers, and the Government propose to accept them on that basis.
Finally, Amendments 4, 6 to 13, 15 to 20, 36 and 43 make minor and technical changes that simply clarify and improve certain aspects of the Bill. I hope that that provides sufficient explanation and I beg to move.
My Lords, given that the Minister referred to the amendment on regional development agencies, perhaps I could raise a point in relation to them. I am very disappointed that the Government did not change their mind on their approach to regional development agencies, particularly in my home region of the north-east where there has been strong support for an agency over a long period of time. Indeed, a former member of this House, Lord Burlison, to whom I pay tribute, was very active in setting up a home-grown regional development agency there before it was sanctioned by government. That shows the longevity of this issue in our region.
One area where the regional development agency was active was in supporting applications for European funding for regional projects in regions such as mine. It is not clear who will take over that role. A great deal of money is going begging at the moment. Given that we are in a time of financial stringency, it seems quite wrong that in an area such as the north-east, which has high unemployment, regional projects are not going ahead because no advice is available to bodies applying for regional funds, and nor are there matching funds. This very important issue is gaining prominence in the region. I would be grateful if the Minister would at least address it in his reply.
My Lords, this is an extraordinarily different Bill—as the Minister said—from the one that was published. Frankly, it was then an appalling Bill, with its unprecedented number of Henry VIII powers and with profound and chilling implications for many organisations that carry out public functions. I contrast the Bill as it was—the so-called cull of the quangos—with the proliferation of quangos, including the biggest quango in the world, that we will see as a result of the Health and Social Security Bill that is before us at present. Noble Lords applied themselves to the Bill in the best way that this House does, in a very impressive example of the House enacting its role in our legislative process properly and fully. As a result of the changes that this House made, including the removal of Schedule 7 and of those clauses that would have enabled the sale of the public forestry estate, the Bill left this Chamber a much improved piece of work—not with all the changes that we on these Benches would have liked, but much improved.
In part that was because the Government, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, responded properly and appropriately to the concerns expressed by the House and by many people and organisations outside it. Further changes were made in the Commons—hence the number of amendments under consideration today—and I am pleased to say that we on these Benches warmly welcome Amendment 1, moved by the Minister. We also welcome the amendments relating to S4C, and some others. However, like my noble friend Lady Quin, I am deeply unhappy about the amendments relating to the RDAs. Their inclusion in the Bill encapsulates the topsy-turvy legislative process that the Government seemed bent on pursuing earlier in the Session. The saga of the abolition of the RDAs was a disgrace—a prime example of pre-legislative implementation that has had a profound and a negative impact on some regions, for example the north-east and the West Midlands. It is clear that not all RDAs were working as well as they should have been—but why abolish all of them just because one or two needed improvement?
Having said that, we will not vote against the amendments because we recognise that it is the end of the road, notwithstanding the paucity—or perhaps complete lack—of consultation on the issue, and the fact that there was extraordinary pre-legislative implementation of the abolition of RDAs, which we deeply regret. I hope that the Government will not pursue such policies in future but will seek to ensure that they legislate before they implement.
My Lords, I join my noble friend in expressing appreciation of the way in which our colleague and noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach handled this Bill at an earlier stage. His careful consideration of the points that this House was making has considerably enhanced its quality. I do not dissent from the view that the Bill was ill-considered when it first reached us. Indeed, it is an exemplification of the point made by a number of committees of this House on the necessity for pre-legislative scrutiny in matters of such importance.
A change that is particularly welcome is the nature of the scrutiny of the orders that will be brought forward in secondary legislation in consequence of the Bill. I am happy to see that that has remained, enabling further consideration to be given to some of the particular proposals. I am also glad that the Government have given further thought to the future of S4C and have included in the Bill a duty requiring the Secretary of State to ensure that sufficient funding is available. There was widespread concern in Wales that the original proposal would result in a serious contraction of Welsh language broadcasting. It is to be hoped that this change, which I gather has been welcomed all round, will remove that anxiety.
The RDAs were a particularly remarkable happening which, like the changes, were introduced even before the legislation was before the House. It is too late to cry over that spilt milk, but it may be said that the work done by the RDAs, including scrutiny of the European Union regional development funding and where it should be directed, must be done with effectiveness. I hope that the new arrangements for that will be reported with openness and frequency to enable Parliament to consider how successful those changes have been. On the face of it, they were rather remarkable changes to have been made without much prior consultation. What happens to European funding in particular is not a matter that is considered only by us, but will be considered by European Union institutions to see whether the money has been properly spent.
This House has proved its effectiveness and capability, its broadness of vision and its particular knowledge in preparing to tackle some of the outstanding problems that the Bill generated. I cannot think of legislation that has been given more careful or extensive attention that the one before us today. That it was worth while is manifested by the amendments that my noble friend has announced, and which were broadly approved in another place, and which by and large—indeed, almost universally—are to be welcomed. I hope, however, that such legislation will never be introduced again so soon after a general election, bouncing Parliament into decisions of such fundamental importance over such a broad spectrum of our national life.
My Lords, I would like to underline what my noble friend has said about Sianel Pedwar Cymru. It has caused considerable delight in Wales that the Welsh authority will now have the funding from the Government without compromising the status and editorial independence of the channel, which gives so much entertainment in Wales.
My Lords, could I ask the Minister to explain further the purpose of Amendment 55, which adds Dover Harbour Board to Schedule 5? It is a bit extraordinary to include one port from among 120 or so in this country, most of which are trust ports. I declare an interest as a commissioner of a trust port in Cornwall. Why add one port to a list including the Environment Agency, British Waterways Board and all these other bodies that we have debated, on the basis that the local MP thought that it was a good idea? Is this a precedent for local MPs around the country to come up with ideas for privatisation or mutualisation of their ports, and to come before the Ministers saying “Let us add this to the list and have fun”? As the Minister said, there is a perfectly good route for privatisation of ports in the Ports Act 1991. I would be grateful if he could explain the purpose behind this amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, for her kind words about the way in which the Government have dealt with this Bill. Unavoidably, a commitment to prune the proliferation of public bodies over the last two generations meant that the Bill was very complex. Therefore, I believe that a period of digestion in both Houses was justified. It was a complex Bill and we have done our best to digest the criticism of it.
Anticipating that there would be criticism concerning RDAs, I spent some time last weekend reading up on regional growth theory and a whole range of other things. I am still not entirely sure whether I hold to the spatial equilibrium theory or to the agglomeration growth theory, or whether I think that economics claims to be unduly scientific and sometimes does not entirely understand what is happening on the ground.
I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, that this Government are strongly committed to reducing regional disparities. None of us can be happy that the gap between London and the south-east and, above all, the north and north-west of England, in terms of incomes, house prices and even life expectancy, has widened so much under the successive Governments of different parties over the last 20 to 25 years. The regional policies of the last Government did not reverse that trend. As noble Lords will know, we are now in the process of setting up a regional growth fund and local economic partnerships based on city regions rather than the wider regions. I have to say, looking at the Yorkshire region, that the wider Leeds region is rather different from the wider Hull region, but that is an area that we shall continue to debate as these new measures are put in place. More will be announced in the autumn Financial Statement.
On the question of the European regional development fund, the Government have of course paid attention to it as it is an important part of this. The programmes will now be guided by local management committees which oversee ERDF investment and assess progress. These committees draw their membership from government departments and a wide range of local partners, including local authorities, LEPs, educational institutions, the voluntary sector and members of the business community. So the LEPs will play an active role in the delivery of European regional development funds, both through their membership of the local management committees and as potential applicants for funding. I can assure the noble Baroness that we do not intend to let that pot of money stay unused.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about Dover Harbour Board. One has to say that Dover is a rather larger and more important harbour than some of those in Cornwall with which he is concerned, so the argument for making an exception of Dover partly rests upon the importance of that port compared to many others. I accept that to some extent this is an anomaly, the result of an extremely powerful and well organised local campaign. We shall see how far this provides an innovation that may spread elsewhere. The noble Lord may think that a Conservative MP supporting a people’s port proposal is slightly counterintuitive. That is the degree of innovation that we are concerned with but, again, we shall see how this develops. There was very powerful feeling within the town, and in a democratic country one should occasionally—perhaps frequently—take the strength of local opinion into account.
Having answered some of the points raised, I beg to move that these amendments be now agreed to.
Motion on Amendment 47
My Lords, to assist the House, I will move the Motion on Amendment 47 formally because that will enable the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to move his Amendment 47A, to which I intend to speak in support.
Amendment 47A (to the Motion on Amendment 47)
My Lords, as the Minister has already announced the Government’s intentions, which he informed me about earlier this afternoon, I do not intend to detain the House with the contents of the speech that I would otherwise have given.
I would like to thank and congratulate the Government on the decision that they have come to. By deciding to retain the Youth Justice Board, they have provided a service to two separate organisations and bodies: first, the youth justice system as a whole, which has benefited from the leadership and direction of the Youth Justice Board since 1999; and, secondly, the Ministry of Justice itself, because it has retained an independent body capable of directing and overseeing the youth justice system on its behalf that is accountable and responsible to Ministers. This is particularly important in the light of the riots in the summer, because during that period the Youth Justice Board played an enormously important part both in liaising with, overseeing and helping the youth offending teams out in the community and in overseeing the introduction and reception into custody of people who required a great deal of help.
An interesting by-product of that is that people have realised that there is one group of young people in the criminal justice system who are not receiving the degree of oversight they could, and they are referred to as young adults, particularly those in the age group 18 to 21. I remember complaining about nothing being done for them in my thematic review, Young Prisoners, in 1998. There has been nothing done for them since. They are the poor relation and they are showing it. In the Youth Justice Board, the Ministry of Justice has a trained and experienced group of people who could take on this responsibility and help it out of a problem that is in urgent need of resolution.
Having said that, because all the reasons for my disagreement were discussed when the Bill came through the House, I beg to move.
My Lords, I too would like to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I do not know whether this is career enhancing or not, but I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on his influence in his department. I do not know what he slipped into the water at the Ministry of Justice, but he might like to give a supply of it to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, so that he can do the same at Richmond House in relation to the Health and Social Care Bill.
I pay tribute to the Youth Justice Board under the leadership of Frances Done and John Drew, the chief executive. They have shown enormous resilience during this rather lengthy process in which a sword of Damocles has been hanging over them as to their future. It is a tribute to their professionalism that they have kept going and have continued to provide a sterling service. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, during the London riots they did a good job and dealt with some very difficult situations. I think the whole House would want to pay tribute to their work.
My Lords, we are absolutely delighted with this news. It is the triumph of sweet reason and I congratulate the Minister on what has been his absolute grit.
Just to say a brief word, it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the work of the Youth Justice Board as it is currently operating. It works in the interests of the most vulnerable, difficult and challenging children. In doing so, the board is meeting the interests of us all as its work has implications for both our society today and the nature of our society tomorrow, of which these children will be part. It is also difficult to exaggerate the value and quality of the organisation that the YJB has become over the past few years under Frances Done and John Drew. Further, it advises the Secretary of State for Justice on the operation of the youth justice system. It is the overarching and co-ordinating body for the secure estate for children, for youth offending teams and, increasingly, for other government departments and agencies in both the voluntary and private sectors that make provision for children who offend. This is a great development and another reason why we should rejoice in the continued life of the Youth Justice Board as we know it.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, while the Minister, Crispin Blunt, already has wide-ranging powers of oversight in statute, he needs the wisdom and advice of a highly experienced and knowledgeable arm’s-length body that is expert in the field of children to inform and advise him. It is excellent to learn that he will continue to have that help from the YJB. I was going to say a bit more, as did the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about the board’s remarkable success in keeping the show on the road and doing such extraordinary work during the riots. It is a story that is not well understood or loudly told, but it has been absolutely extraordinary.
I end by saying that we are delighted and grateful that the work of the YJB can continue. It is the best possible news for the children whose challenges and needs can still be met, for their families and for society as a whole. We are the richer for this decision.
My Lords, perhaps I may add my voice to all those who have already applauded the Government on their sterling efforts and on seeing good sense. As one of those who perhaps was responsible for gently urging the Government to turn, I think it is only right and proper to add my many congratulations to the Government on taking this important step—not least because, having had the advantage of the help, advice and support of the YJB, I know that Ministers in the Ministry of Justice will quickly come to realise that they could never have made a better decision.
My Lords, I also want briefly to thank the Minister for this announcement and to say how grateful I am to the Government for the careful way that they have listened to the concerns of noble Lords, for the meetings with the Secretary of State and for their attempts to adjust their plans in order to meet those concerns. I am extremely glad to hear this good news today. There is much more work to be done. As the population of children in custody reduces, as it has been, those remaining in custody are more difficult and challenging, so we need the best possible systems and approaches in place to deal with these higher levels of need. Again, I would like to express my thanks to the Minister and the Secretary of State for this decision.
My Lords, I too was going to speak about heaven and sinners, as did the noble Lord, Lord Elton. But I would like to put on record that the sinner in this case is not the Minister, who I know will have done a fantastic job in persuading the department of the folly of its ways. The Minister himself is certainly not a sinner; he is more heavenly.
We on these Benches are absolutely delighted that the Government are doing the right thing. It might seem churlish, but I have to say that I wonder why it has taken a whole year for them to reach that decision. It was a whole year of insecurity, not just for the Youth Justice Board but for the youth justice system itself. As we know, the Youth Justice Board does a splendid job. By any standard of measurement it is a success story. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and others have said, following this summer’s disturbances —when there is, properly, great consideration being given to the need to tackle youth crime—the need for this excellent body is even greater. We should heed the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and look at the increased potential of this particular body in the difficult times in which we live.
We should pay tribute to the work of the Youth Justice Board itself, but also to the work and the voice of noble Lords all around this Chamber, led by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, my noble friend Lord Warner, the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and others, all of whom have played a huge role in persuading the Government that it would have been wrong to abolish this excellent board. Long may it continue in its excellent work, which is to the benefit of the youth of this country, but also to the benefit of each and every citizen of this country.
My Lords, I will certainly wish to see in Hansard the description of me by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, as heavenly. I will see what can be done about getting the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, expunged, because they definitely would be career threatening.
I intervene briefly to make it clear that, as I said at the beginning, we will not be asking the House to oppose the noble Lord’s amendment, and therefore ask to insist upon the amendment to remove the Youth Justice Board from Schedule 1 to the Public Bodies Bill. Noble Lords will recall that this House removed the YJB from the Bill on Report in March. Subsequently, a government amendment reintroduced it to the Bill in the other place. The Government realise that the future of the Youth Justice Board is an emotive issue. It is an issue in which this House has always taken the closest interest. It has therefore not been a surprise that noble Lords have scrutinised and challenged our plans for the future governance of youth justice.
I want to be absolutely clear that this Government remain committed to maintaining a distinct focus on the needs of children and young people in the youth justice system. We have never proposed to remove youth offending teams, nor have we ever proposed to dismantle the dedicated secure estate for young people or to effect a takeover of youth justice by the National Offender Management Service. We always intended it to be kept separate. The Government have consistently made clear that we want to build on the strengths of the Youth Justice Board. We recognise that since it was established by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 the Youth Justice Board has helped to transform the youth justice system. It oversaw the establishment of local youth offending teams, and has fulfilled an important role in reducing offending and reoffending among young people. It has also driven up standards in the discrete secure estate for young people.
During the debate on the future of youth justice, the Government set out to persuade Parliament that now that an effective youth justice system was in place, the oversight provided by the YJB was no longer required and direct ministerial accountability for youth justice should be restored. However, we have listened to the debates in both Houses during the passage of the Bill. We have listened to the points raised by respondents to the MoJ consultation and in the responses to our Green Paper. We acknowledged that there was considerable opposition to our proposal to abolish the Youth Justice Board. I must be clear, though, that the abolition has never been about saving money—the MoJ does not have major savings contingent on its abolition. That is why we are no longer pursuing the abolition of the Youth Justice Board as part of this Bill.
The Government still believe that there should be more direct ministerial accountability and involvement in youth justice. We believe, as many in this House believe, that there is a strong case for reform of the Youth Justice Board, and we will consider our options for achieving reform outside the Public Bodies Bill. For example, we have wide-ranging powers already open to us under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and other powers, which the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and I think at an earlier date my noble friend Lord Elton, referred to. We will consider whether we can use these powers in the context of more direct ministerial accountability but will do so in consultation with the Youth Justice Board and with the intention of working harmoniously with it.
I also have to put on record that the Youth Justice Board will remain within the context of the Cabinet Office’s policy on public bodies and its stipulation that all non-departmental public bodies should be reviewed at least once every three years. I will also remind the Cabinet Office that your Lordships’ House will continue to keep a close interest in the Youth Justice Board, so if it wants to back into that bacon-slicer again in three years’ time, it is up to the Cabinet Office.
I know that at these times this House can get very self-congratulatory, but tribute has been paid and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, read out the roll of honour. I have been in this House long enough to know that when the Ramsbothams, the Eltons and the Linklaters coalesce with the Warners, you are in trouble as a Minister. That was true in the previous Administration as well. The other point that has come through in contribution after contribution is that the real influence and power in all this has been the reputation of the YJB itself. It has been able to call on friends in its time of need because of that reputation. I associate myself with the tributes that have been paid on all sides of the House to its response to the riots during the summer and the very effective way in which it dealt with the problems of young people at that time.
I assure the House that we will continue to work closely with the YJB on all our youth justice priorities. Indeed, I want to put on record, as others have done and as I did in Questions earlier in the year about this, a sincere tribute to the work of Frances Done, the chair, and John Drew, the chief executive, and all the staff of the Youth Justice Board, who have carried on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable groups of young people over the last year while under the threat of abolition. I fully appreciate that that is not a happy position to be in. However, I can also say with absolute certainty that, even through this difficult period, the working relationship between the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board has been maintained effectively and at the highest standard. That is a tribute to the leadership and the staff of the board. The Government therefore support the noble Lord in his amendment and ask that this House insists on this amendment as passed.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the comprehensive nature and the spirit of his reply. I am very glad that he recognised that this House maintains an interest in the Youth Justice Board, because the House has a great deal of interest in expertise in the development of young people. I am very glad that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, mentioned by name Frances Done, the chairman, and John Drew, the chief executive, because during this period they have done two things: first, they have shown leadership of the system itself; and, secondly, they have show leadership of the board and the staff working for them during very uncertain times. They deserve the thanks not just of this House but of the nation. I do not propose to keep the House any longer because, thanks all those who have contributed, we have covered all the issues, including the thanks and congratulations to the Minister. I therefore beg to move that the House agree with the amendment.
Motion, as amended, agreed.
Motion on Amendment 48
Motion on Amendment 49
49B: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Conditions on the exercise of powers under sections 2 to 5
(1) Unless the conditions in subsection (2) of this section are met, a Minister may not make any order—
(a) under section 2 to merge the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council and the Civil Justice Council;
(b) under section 3 to modify the constitutional arrangements of the Civil justice Council;
(c) under section 4 to modify the funding arrangements of the Civil Justice Council; or
(d) under section 5 to modify or transfer functions of the Civil Justice Council.
(2) The conditions are that—
(a) the Minister has laid before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out in detail how the Government proposes that the functions of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council and the Civil Justice Council will be carried out in future;
(b) 60 days have elapsed between the laying of a report under paragraph (a) and the laying of any order for any of the purposes set out in subsection (1) above;
(c) the Minister has laid before Parliament a response to any report of any Committee of either House of Parliament on the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council or the Civil Justice Council published within two years of this Act coming into force; and
(d) two years have passed since the coming into force of this Act.”
My Lords, I am as delighted as anybody by what has happened on the previous amendment. I am also pleased that a concession has been offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, though I do not yet know what her reaction to it will be. I bound to say that that leaves me feeling slightly plaintive as the only one to whose modest concerns the Government appear to be unwilling to make any move at all. I have down an amendment in lieu but that is not the one that I am moving. I made it clear to the Minister earlier this morning that I would only move the amendment if it had any attraction to the Government as allowing them to make a move in my direction.
Amendment 49A not moved.
Amendment 49C (to the Motion on Amendment 49)
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 49C, with which I also wish to speak to Amendments 50A, 51A and 54A, which are related to the other amendments in what I regard as a group.
These amendments are designed to preserve some amendments inserted into the Bill by this House on an amendment of mine at Report—an amendment on which I had strong support from various parts of the House, including my noble and learned friends Lord Mackay and Lord Howe of Aberavon, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who I am delighted to see in his place. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay is manifestly not in his place, because I am. I do not want to read too much into that; he supported me before and I have not checked what his view would have been on this occasion, though I hope he would have continued to support me.
The purpose of my amendments was not to frustrate the Government’s original intention to abolish the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, if that is what they continue to wish to do, but simply to give them scope for greater flexibility if they wanted to do something more creative, on reflection. Let me be quite explicit in respect of the Civil Justice Council, which is named in some of these amendments. I say this particularly to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I had neither wish nor intention to damage the Civil Justice Council in any way, but I have long thought that there could be scope for some rationalisation between these bodies, and I am encouraged by the fact that the Master of the Rolls appeared to indicate that view in his remarks to the annual conference of the AJTC last week.
I shall not rehearse the arguments, as I set them out pretty fully on Report and noble Lords are slightly past wanting to hear them. But I shall make 10 points. First, good administrative justice—a fair system accepted by citizens for resolving disputes between the citizen and the state—is part of the bedrock of a society like ours. The second is that the Ministry of Justice has a sort of responsibility in this area, but its main specific responsibility is simply for that part of it that is covered by the Tribunals Service, not by much other essential machinery. It is not responsible for local authority tribunals, including those very important ones, to many citizens, that deal with education, exclusion and appeal matters and other local authority issues. It has no policy responsibility for ombudsmen, who are a key part of this whole set-up, and it has no policy responsibility for decision making and complaints handling of individual government departments, which is another crucial factor in administrative justice.
My next point is that the Council on Tribunals, now the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, is agreed to have played a major part over 50 years in improving a system of administrative justice that was bordering on a disgrace in the middle 1950s. There have been major improvements to which the council, under both titles, has contributed, not least the creation of the new Tribunals Service.
I am not sure which point this is—I have 10 in all. My next point is that the creation of the wider remit of the reformed Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council was fully supported less than four years ago by every group in this House, including the then Conservative opposition Front Bench and the then Liberal Democrat Front Bench. So to an extent this is going back to something that was committed to very shortly before the election. There was no manifesto commitment to its abolition and no mandate that can be claimed for its abolition.
My next point is that a key ingredient was the need for an independent voice for the interests and needs of the user of administrative justice systems. That cannot and would not be done by the Ministry of Justice—by people whose primary day-to-day accountability is to the Minister, not to the user or the stakeholder.
My next point is regarding the Parliamentary Ombudsman, whom people may like or not, but the Ombudsman’s comments on the proposed abolition in relation to the consultation document is worth a guinea per minute and quite short. I am not going to read it all out, but one paragraph of it says that her extensive contact with the Ministry of Justice in its various guises over many years gives her no confidence whatever in the ability of the Ministry to assume the functions of the AJTC. She goes on to say that however well-meaning and diligent individual officials may be, the Ministry simply lacks the institutional history, capability and technical knowledge to do that. I say hear, hear to that.
Then there is a devolution angle, which the Minister may not even have thought about. The Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council has a Scottish Committee and has always had one, based in Edinburgh. Since its reincarnation as the AJTC, it also has a Welsh Committee. Both these bodies are valued by the devolved Administrations. Nobody has made any decisions, but the Scottish Administration is looking at the possibility of creating a civil justice council, embracing the work of the Scottish Committee of the AJTC. Northern Ireland, which at present has nothing much at all in this field, is also looking at a model of that kind. From what I was told on Thursday, Wales, too, is looking at a council that would take on the work of the Welsh Committee. Would it not be ridiculous if, as a result of this, England—which started all this—became the only part of the United Kingdom without a body to provide what has been provided in England by the council and tribunals of the AJTC for more than 50 years in respect of oversight and a voice for administrative justice? I think it would be almost unbelievable.
Finally, not everybody will know—I hope the Minister does, certainly his departmental colleague, Mr Djanogly, does—that the Public Administration Select Committee in another place is conducting an inquiry into this abolition proposal. Having attended the hearing yesterday, I make the following points. First, the Ministry, according to the Minister in the other place, Mr Djanogly, as I heard him, intends to take in all the AJTC staff alongside building some modest increase in its own previously non-existent capability even to offer policy advice in this area. I must say that casts huge doubt on the savings figures we have been given, and it was clear yesterday that nobody knows what those figures are.
Secondly, it appears to be accepted by everyone that the MoJ cannot replace much of the work that the AJTC does, especially on the user front and in creating effective stakeholder relationships on a wide scale, as represented by the conference that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, attended and spoke at with great distinction last week. I do not believe the MoJ can do that. I do not know what the report will say, of course, because it has not yet been written, but from what I heard yesterday, I think it is highly likely that the Public Administration Select Committee will say that the Government need to look again at this. If they do, that means that an important committee in another place will in effect be saying that another place itself needs the opportunity for further reflection on this proposal. I suggest that your Lordships should give it that opportunity and I intend, subject only to the miracle of the Minister saying something that I do not expect him to say, to seek the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I had better intervene now so that I do not keep my noble friend Lord Newton in suspense for too long. Alas, as he knows, because we have discussed this on a number of occasions, I am not able to deliver the kind of assurances that I was able to deliver for the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
No, I am not seeking to wind up the debate. I thought that it would be useful for me to say something now so that there would be something for the noble Lord to attack me on afterwards—and then I can attack him after that. No, I thought it would be useful at this stage to state where we are coming from because, as I say, I had a number of conversations with my noble friend Lord Newton. I had a meeting with him and my noble and learned friend Lord Howe and I took their concerns back to my colleagues.
However, I have to make it clear that the purpose of the Government today is to restate their intention to abolish the AJTC outright, using the powers in Clause 1. I also make it clear that the Government have no intention of merging the AJTC with the Civil Justice Council. There is no appetite within Government or the senior judiciary to add to the CJC to the Bill. I am pleased that following a Division in Committee, noble Lords agreed to the proposal to abolish the AJTC. I am conscious that what my noble friend Lord Newton has been trying to do—I still use the term noble friend, as I hope he will—is to give the Government some wriggle room on this matter. Sadly, as I have just explained, the Government do not want wriggle room on this matter but to abolish the AJTC.
The Government’s rationale for abolition has been made in both Houses and on a number of occasions. The Government are committed to this reform because the AJTC is an advisory body whose functions are either no longer required or, in the case of its policy functions, are more properly performed by the Government themselves. The abolition of the AJTC will have no direct impact on judicial independence or—
My Lords, an intervention by the Minister may well have been useful but he is using every sentence he now utters in opposition to any move of any kind. Does that mean that there is no point in any of us intervening further in this debate after he sits down?
Absolutely not. I have heard Ministers make such speeches in this House but I will take advice from the Clerks. I am very willing to sit down and to listen to all the debate but the idea was to make it clear where we were coming from. As is shown by the Marshalled List, the Government do not intend to accept any of the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Newton. That is abundantly clear. Whether the noble Lord wants to hear that at the end of the debate or now is a matter of choice but I will look to the Clerk for guidance.
I understand that if I want to speak early for the assistance of the House, it is fine. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, will accept that and that we can go on. I do not see where it disrupts the debate and I look forward to his contribution, as I always do.
As I say, the abolition of the AJTC will have no direct impact on judicial independence or judicial decision-making. I want to make it clear that the AJTC is not a tribunal or any other form of judicial body. While it has observing rights, it is not an inspectorate and does not have the range of monitoring and reporting powers that an inspectorate would expect to have. The AJTC was set up to advise the Lord Chancellor, Ministers of the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales and the Senior President of Tribunals on administrative justice. One of the council’s functions is to keep under review the constitution and working of tribunals. However, we have moved on from a structure in which tribunals were funded by the department whose decisions they reviewed. We now have the unified Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service supporting the majority of central government tribunals and ensuring that tribunal users have access to timely and effective justice. Previously disparate management, procedures, appeals and funding mechanisms are now administered centrally by the Ministry of Justice. There are also a number of ways by which ministerial accountability is assured for the performance of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, further reducing the need for the kind of oversight that the AJTC provides.
The Ministry of Justice is committed to maintaining and developing its overview of the end-to-end administrative justice system. It is working with other departments and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales to ensure that there continues to be a UK-wide overview of administrative justice. It also has close links with the Cabinet Office, which leads on ombudsman policy.
Much is made of the AJTC’s ability to offer independent advice and I understand the principle; it is an important one. However, independence must be weighed against the effectiveness of such bodies if being so far removed from the centre means that they lack the ability to influence and drive change. I urge this House to view the Government’s proposals for administrative justice policy in this light.
It is my belief that officials are well placed to provide Ministers with objective, expert and impartial policy advice on administrative justice matters. That is what officials do in every other justice policy area. Officials have forged links with stakeholders in the administrative justice field that will enhance their role and capability. Indeed, the department intends to establish a group of administrative justice experts and key stakeholders, particularly those who represent the views of users. In practice, that will likely include those who practise or have practised in relevant fields. Such a group will provide a valuable forum for sharing information and best practice and will be used to test policy ideas and, initially, to help prioritise the administrative justice work programme.
In the light of the concerns that have been forcefully expressed on a number of occasions in this House, will my noble friend consider whether the new arrangements could be made rather more transparent than has been the case in respect of some ministries in revealing what the consequences of these inquiries are? Perhaps an annual report could be produced for a number of years so that we can judge how effective the proposed changes are in the event.
I am happy to take that suggestion back. It sounds a reasonable idea although I do not know what the cost would be. All I can promise my noble friend is that I will take it back and let him know, via a letter that I can put in the Library of the House, what the reaction is to that. The AJTC’s budget for the 2010-11 financial year was £1.3 million, compared with the Civil Justice Council’s budget of a relatively modest £312,000. That reflects the fact that AJTC members are paid while CJC members are not.
So it is for reasons of efficiency, economy and effectiveness that the Government are not seeking to modify any of these proposals. There is no other public body that could easily take on the functions of the CJC, which is why we retain it. However, I insist that the reasons for abolishing the AJTC are as sound now as they were when this House took that decision some months ago. Although I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Newton for offering us the wriggle room, it is not wriggle room that the Lord Chancellor wishes to take advantage of. He wishes for this House to confirm the decision that it initially took and proceed as soon as possible with the abolition of the AJTC. I hope that is of help to noble Lords in the contributions that they want to make to this debate.
My Lords, I wonder if I might add my support to each of the points made by my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Newton. With the greatest respect, the Government have misunderstood why his latest proposal would be very positive indeed. The approach that has been developed over the period for which I have been concerned with administrative law in different capacities is to see that access to and the administration of justice are both significantly influenced by what happens in tribunals. Therefore, there has been a policy of ensuring that there is no geological gap between what the tribunals and other bodies of that sort, including the ombudsmen, do and what the courts do.
At various levels and in various parts of the administrative justice system to which the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the Minister referred, there are now judges in place who play a leading role either directly or indirectly. They play it indirectly through the increasing incidence of direct appeals to the Court of Appeal from certain bodies and, where that is not possible, through judicial review. It is important to the rule of law that these bodies should be doing what is required of them.
What we have found is that both the criminal and civil courts need a council of the sort that the Civil Justice Council provides—one that brings together those who have personal and direct experience of the sharp end of running these bodies as chairmen, deputy chairmen or in some other such capacity, and very experienced practitioners. They should provide a brains trust, which could feed back from these bodies into the justice system as a whole. They can then perform their immediate responsibilities of improving the criminal or civil law, taking into account the position of these other bodies, and of improving the quality of what happens in the bodies to which I have referred,
The Minister made a case that all this could be done by the Ministry of Justice. No one has greater affection or admiration for the Ministry of Justice than I have, but I have to admit that there are certain fields in which practitioners have a greater insight than the ministry has. In the field of criminal justice, which is very important, and in the field of civil justice generally, which is equally important, it is now accepted that there should be a council, in addition to what the ministry can provide, to provide this extra insight into the subject. It is no answer to say that this insight can be achieved by the Ministry of Justice because such a body would supplement the ministry’s task and shine a light on this important area of providing justice that would otherwise not be available.
There has been a great improvement in the Bill—thanks to the debates on it—regarding the ability of the Ministry of Justice to listen. Having listened in turn to what the Minister had to say, I would to say to him, with the greatest deference and respect, that although there has been listening there has been no understanding of the nature of the body being put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Newton. For the reasons that he gave, I urge caution before deciding that this body should receive the chop. It should not be a sacrificial lamb.
My Lords, we have just heard a most helpful intervention from the noble and learned Lord because he has put the issue of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council into context. It is concerned with that part of the judicial scene that consists largely of tribunals—under one name or another—that seek to do justice as between the individual and the state. It is a field of judicial work that has become increasingly significant and understood by the public and the courts—because sometimes, through judicial review or appeal, the courts have had to hear cases that have been attended to first by tribunals.
During our earlier debates in this House, I proposed an amendment that was, I should say to the Minister, only narrowly lost. It would have deleted this body from the list of bodies in the Bill that were for the chop, as the noble and learned Lord put it. I was grateful then for the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, other noble and learned Lords in this House, and of course the noble Lord, Lord Newton. I do not know whether the noble Lord would agree with me, but one of the disadvantages of our debates on this subject is that the body is in the wrong place alphabetically. The trouble is that because its initial is A, it came at the beginning of a great list of bodies. Therefore, when seeking an amendment whereby this body would be deleted from the schedule of those bodies that were for the chop, we had to have a debate and vote fairly early on in our discussions. With respect to all those who took part, I do not think that the body received the justice it deserved to ensure its continued existence.
The noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, have just emphasised the significance and importance of the AJTC and the fact that it should not be abolished because it provides an independent voice on matters which are of tremendous importance to this relatively new set of bodies—we are talking about 50 or 100 years but that is new in the law—which deal with disputes between the individual and the state.
There is a case to be made for independent advice from a body such as the AJTC, formerly known as the Council on Tribunals, which had a slightly narrower remit. Its significance was that there were practitioners of all kinds who were independent and represented the customer—the ordinary person appearing in these cases. Those practitioners included academic lawyers. I state an interest in that I once was such, but they provided useful input into the Council on Tribunals, in part because they knew something about the ways in which these cases were decided in other countries. Therefore, a knowledge of these matters and how other countries deal with them was brought to bear in the Council on Tribunals.
The noble Lord, Lord Newton, has stated very clearly that, while of course the assistance and guidance of civil servants in the department is invaluable and essential, useful advice can come from elsewhere, especially when it is given not by a narrow group but with each person representing him or herself on a whole range of interests concerning tribunals. Those people come together and discuss the vital maters affecting tribunals, and that will be lost if the AJTC is abolished.
The attempt by some of us to preserve this body in some form at an earlier stage was defeated, and I have perhaps been biased in my remarks as to how that came about. However, it would be of great service to the community and to the rule of law in this country if we took a step today through the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, to ask the Commons to look at the matter again.
My Lords, the policy of the law over the past few years has been to focus more attention on tribunals and to do so because they are quicker and cheaper than the courts and they often have expertise that judges, for all their qualities, do not have. Surely we should be very slow indeed to abolish the body which will help to ensure that this policy of the law is promoted efficiently, economically and in an independent manner.
My Lords, perhaps I may add a few words to those already so ably spoken by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. He mentioned that the civil justice and criminal justice systems are already covered by a council, one for each. Noble Lords will know that approximately 63,000 cases come before the civil justice courts and that approximately 223,000 come before the criminal courts, but 650,000 cases come before tribunals. Although this afternoon we have talked loosely about administrative law, one has to understand that this is the meat and drink of the lives of ordinary men and women in our country. We are talking about the benefits system, immigration and all the issues that touch the lives of many poor people who do not have the wherewithal to go anywhere else. Therefore, this council’s role is at least, if not more, important than the councils that are being preserved for the civil and criminal justice systems. It is acknowledged by all who know the council’s work that it is a very precious resource. It safeguards the situation for the citizen, and in these days of fiscal austerity the need for it has never been greater.
Legal aid is being threatened. The proposed restrictions are severe. If implemented, the citizen’s need for an avenue through which administrative acts by the Government of the day can be challenged will be enhanced. The question is: if this amendment is not passed and if the Government are not asked to think again, how do they propose to retain the independence that has always been deserved and needed by the individual? How then do we ensure the transparency and fairness which we have all come to recognise as an integral part of administrative justice? I ask the noble Lord to think very seriously indeed about whether the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, is not a lifeline which the Government should now seize.
When dealing with mistakes—and I honestly believe that this is a very grave mistake indeed—Confucius gave the following advice, and I will read it just to help the Minister, who may be minded to accept it:
“Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes. But a man who has committed a mistake and does not correct it is making another mistake”.
I suggest that Confucius was right, and that the noble Lord should avoid that trap.
My Lords, the noble Lord has already given his views. He has had a little time perhaps to reflect on the debate, and one can only hope that having heard the debate he might come back a second time with a somewhat more responsive point of view than we originally heard. I certainly, from the opposition Benches, once again support the noble Lord, Lord Newton, on this. I thought he made the case eloquently once again for the value of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council and the impact for good that it has on the performance of many government departments in Whitehall. In particular, I pay tribute to the council for its focus on what it describes as improving initial decision-making as it affects members of the public. That is surely the importance of the council; it is concerned with administrative processes in relation to members of the public.
My noble and learned friend Lady Scotland referred to legal aid. It is interesting to reflect—indeed, my noble friend referred to this earlier in our debates—on the council’s comments on the impact on legal aid. I am not raising the issue of legal aid; the point is that the council has said that it believes that the Government bear responsibility for,
“causing many of the appeals in the administrative justice system … through poor … decision-making, poor communications … delay or through overly complex and … incomprehensible legislation and regulations”.
The council has been making these points for over 50 years and it has undoubtedly led to improvements in these administrative processes. There is clearly still some way to go. From what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said, we are to believe that everything will be all right because his department will be able to analyse the performance of different government departments, comment on them and encourage them to improve their administrative processes.
Is it realistic to think that the Ministry of Justice will be able to make that kind of statement and identify faults in administrative processes in other departments of government, let alone in itself? Of course, the Ministry of Justice will have to be subject to some kind of scrutiny by the team of officials that will be based in the Minister's department. The history of trying to influence government departments in this area surely shows that an external advisory body would be much more likely to have an impact, particularly if it were able to make public statements about the faults it finds in decision-making processes, than would a unit in the department of the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
I am very much persuaded that the council has done work of inestimable value over the past 50 years. I pleaded with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to reflect on comments that were made today and in the past few months. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, does not seek to revisit the debate and the decision of the House. He seeks to give a little flexibility to the Government to reflect and to await the results of the inquiry by the Public Administration Committee that is taking place. Even at this late hour, I urge the noble Lord to take up the offer from his noble friend. It is a very handsome offer, it would get the Government off the hook and it would enhance administrative justice in this country.
My Lords, when one gets advice from people ranging from Confucius to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, it is necessary to take a pause. However, I would like to House to return to the first principles of the Public Bodies Bill. The intention was to look at a range of bodies that had grown up to perform various functions. The philosophy behind it is one that I support. Over the past 20 to 30 years, Governments have got into the habit of passing the buck. When in doubt, one should set up an advisory body, an inquiry or a tsar—anything to prevent a Minister having to stand at the Dispatch Box and take responsibility for something that has been done. It is partly against that trend that the Public Bodies Bill set off on its journey some months ago.
Although it is always very tempting to take up the kind of options offered by my noble friend Lord Newton, as I said in my helpful opening guidance remarks the Lord Chancellor and the other place have listened. Both Houses came to a firm conclusion on abolition and therefore I am not tempted to go down the side road offered by my noble friend, however attractive it might be. We have mentioned the public expenditure aspect of this. Whenever one addresses problems, there is a tendency to say, “It is only £1.3 million”. However, that is more expenditure. Perhaps I may humbly say that you always know when a lawyer is insulting you because they are very polite about it.
I wish no disrespect to the noble Lord. I have just two comments. First, I wish he had taken part in our debates on the Health and Social Care Bill. His noble friend Lord Howe is busily seeking to hand over all responsibility for the NHS to the biggest quango there will ever be. Secondly, on the question of cost, will he reflect on the evidence that the council gives about poor decision-making, poor communication and delay because of overly complex or incomprehensible rules? Surely, the impact of the council is to help the Government to reduce expenditure. Does he think that his department will be publishing advice like that on the performance of itself and other government departments?
Indeed. One of the thrusts of our argument is that the sooner the Government get back into the habit of taking responsibility for their own inefficiencies, the better. My department and HMCTS are already working closely with DWP on a range of initiatives to improve initial decision-making. It is about time that government departments took responsibility and I concede a whole range of areas where initial decision-making is poor and causes expense. But that is not a reason to pass the buck to some other body. The job is for government to get on with improving the efficiencies.
The Ministry of Justice is well placed to ensure that administrative justice is a key part of the wider justice reform agenda. We are committed to developing a strategic UK-wide approach. We are also committed to ensuring that the right decisions are made the first time. When disputes arise we will provide proportionate, timely and cost-effective solutions and drive ongoing improvements in the system. The MoJ already has strong links with the devolved Governments and other government departments and is already demonstrating the benefits of this. The department is currently considering priority areas and the resources needed to take them forward. At present there is a core team consisting of staff of a range of grades which has access to the wider justice policy group. The team can freely call on legal and analytical experts.
Other issues were raised. Any idea of a merger with the CJC has been ruled out by the judiciary. I mentioned in my initial intervention that we would establish a group of administrative justice experts and key stakeholders to draw on their views. As for the Public Accounts Committee inquiry, my honourable friend Jonathan Djanogly gave evidence yesterday. We will certainly take note of any recommendations that the committee makes. However, I do not think that it will remove the central piece of our analysis, which is that the AJTC is an advisory body that is no longer required in the field of administrative justice. Robust governance and oversight arrangements are now in place with regard to tribunals and the development of administrative justice policy is properly a function of government. A source of advice that is independent of government is not a prerequisite. Civil servants in the MoJ already offer Ministers balanced, objective, impartial advice, and they can draw on expert advice on administrative justice reform.
The Government will ensure that they exercise effective oversight of the administrative justice system in a way that best serves its users. They will develop, maintain and enhance a UK perspective of the system as well as enhancing their links with stakeholders. The Government will expand the channels by which best practice can be shared and collaborative working developed across the administrative justice system.
I have been asked to think again but I say to the House that we have had ample time to think about this. This House has already made one decision on this body. The amendments of my noble friend Lord Newton may be either helpful or ingenious, whichever way one likes to approach them. However, at this stage of a Bill, when the other place has had ample time and ample consideration of these matters, the Government are entitled to say to this advisory House that we have listened to this advice but that we want to abolish this body.
My Lords, I started off slightly plaintive and have ended up more than slightly depressed. I can assure the Minister that I do not wish to become personal non-chums with him. Actually, I rather sympathise with him having to trot out all this stuff for the third or fourth time. He said he thought that the arguments were as sound now as they were at the beginning. From my point of view, they are as weak now as they were at the beginning.
I will make very few points as there is no point in going over all the ground again. I am hugely grateful to those who have spoken in my support. Rather unusually for this kind of debate, they have not only supported me and repeated some of the things that I have said, but all of them have added something significant to the arguments in the debate. I will not pick noble Lords out except for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, because the Minister said that the judiciary rules out any idea of this being combined in some way—the noble Lord used the word “merging”—with the work of the Civil Justice Council. At least in historical terms, you cannot get much more senior than the noble and learned Lord Woolf. I also have from three separate sources a report that the Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, who is also pretty senior, said at the AJTC conference last week that he could easily envisage an administrative justice committee of the Civil Justice Council and he seemed to think that it would be a good thing if the set-up were right. I see the noble and learned Lord the former Lord Chief Justice nodding. I do not think that it is right to say that members of the senior judiciary have set their faces against this. It seems to me that that is not the case. I believe that efficiency, economy and effectiveness have been covered with the figures that I gave and that have been given by others.
I must make the point that remarks about Ministers taking responsibility for decisions are completely irrelevant. This is not a decision-making body. This is an advisory body. The Minister said that the department would need to assemble some kind of stakeholder group. I do not recall his exact words. He put the emphasis on practitioners. That means reinventing the AJTC, in one way or another, when it already broadly carries out this function and more, because it links with users, not just stakeholders, judges and advocates. This ties in with the fact, as I learnt on Thursday last, that the tribunal service, which in my time asked the AJTC to run two of its user groups because it was thought that we did it better, has now scrapped all its user groups on the grounds that it cannot afford them. Where does that leave this argument?
There is very little else that I want to say. I do not think that the case stands up. I do not think that the Minister’s arguments stand up. I think that we need a body like this. I wish to seek the opinion of the House.
Motion on Amendment 50
Motion on Amendment 51
Moved by Lord McNally
That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 51.
Amendment 51A (to the Motion on Amendment 51)
Tabled by Lord Newton of Braintree
As an amendment to the Motion that this House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment 51, leave out “agree” and insert “disagree”.
My Lords, I do not intend to move Amendment 51A. I thought that it was worth a try, given the narrowness of the defeat on the first vote. However, I know when I am beat, and I am not going to grumble any further. I will go quietly—at least for this evening.
Amendment 51A not moved.
Motion on Amendment 52
Motion on Amendment 53A
Amendment 53B (to the Motion on Amendment 53A)
My Lords, I was, of course, absolutely delighted, as were so many others—in fact everybody, as far as I know—to see that the office of the chief coroner will continue. I know that this means an enormous amount to those people who have been bereaved, who have had bad experiences, and who have campaigned tirelessly in spite of their overwhelming grief to try to ensure that others do not suffer through our coronial system the hurt and sense of injustice that they at times have suffered. It was that motivation that lay behind the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which was passed in this House with support from all sides.
In agreeing to the office of the chief coroner, I would like formally to thank the Government and the Ministers, and while it might seem invidious to single out any two, I would particularly like to record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and also to Jonathan Djanogly, who is the Minister. They have both made themselves available to meet me and others at all times, and at times of inconvenience to them but when I was in London or when others could meet them. They have always been courteous, they have always listened, and they have always taken on board points that were made to them.
I would also like sincerely to thank all Members of the House who have supported the move to have a chief coroner, who have voted with their consciences in the past, who have asked questions, and who have given so much support to the drive to establish this office. I also thank, of course, the bereavement organisations such as INQUEST, the Royal British Legion, Cry and many others, the list of which is almost too long to mention. All have stood shoulder to shoulder in a campaign where at last they can see that, after more than 100 years, our coronial system will be modernised.
The chief coroner will establish independent leadership, set standards and ensure that all coroners, deputies and officers are trained. I currently have the privilege of being involved in this year’s round of training for those groups of people, and I look forward to the days when we all know, and indeed the chief coroner has made sure, that all coroners, all deputies and all officers have participated in training, which is currently voluntary but needs to be made compulsory to drive up standards.
All Members of this House will have received the letter that was circulated to us, and I would ask the Minister, when responding to me, to provide a reassurance that the appointment will now proceed without delay, and that there will not be a hiatus before these long-overdue reforms can start.
It is with sadness that I note, in the letter, the intention to exclude the appeals system from the process. If I might remind the House, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 in Section 182 states that the appeals process, which is Section 40, is one of the provisions of the Act that comes into force only,
“on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint”.
That means that, in fact, the appeals system could sit on the statute without any pressure for it to be implemented until such time as the chief coroner and the Secretary of State agree that the appeals system should start. That means it could sit there for five, 10 or 15 years. I know that the Secretary of State cannot decide without the agreement of Parliament to cancel the appeals system, which is why we have this amendment before us which aims to do that, but it could just sit there.
In the letter that we have all received, cost was cited. However, I remind the House that those costings have not had an enormous modern review because they were made by the previous Government in their impact assessment in December 2008, in which they estimated that the costs of the appeal system would be £2.2 million of the running costs. However, as the Minister, Mr Djanogly, informed the other place, no further analysis has been conducted by the Ministry of Justice.
The suggestion has been made that the appeals system could be based around a tribunal—even a level 1 tribunal—which would be far less costly than the current process of judicial review. I remind the House that judicial review is a difficult and traumatic process, particularly for bereaved people to go through. It also incurs substantial costs to them. In 2009 alone, there were 12 substantial hearings and a further six renewal hearings, so the number of people who feel that they have to go to that extent is not insignificant. The appeals system as laid out in the Act would allow for appeals about coroners but not over an enormously broad-ranging aspect. It would be about the processes and decisions—particularly about whether to hold, suspend or restart an inquest, or whether a post-mortem should be conducted in the case. That system did not open the door to wide-ranging litigation but very much made sure that the system functioned properly.
I suggest that any future decision on the issue should be taken on the basis of rigorous, sound costings and careful consideration by the chief coroner himself. It would seem that leaving Section 40 out of the Coroners and Justice Act does not allow this review to happen, as it should. If this goes through, the chief coroner will be forced to address his concerns over appeals in his annual report, which will go to the Lord Chancellor. If it is recommended that there should be an appeals system, there would need to be a decision that further legislation would have to be brought through Parliament. I seek an assurance now from the Minister that the chief coroner will be required to report on both the complaints system and the views of the chief coroner on the appeals system, as far as it goes.
I remind the House that, time after time, there has been a call for an appeals system. Disaster Action, whose members have been involved in all the major disasters from Aberfan in 1966 to the Zeebrugge ferry disaster in 1987, the London bombings in 2005 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008, has said:
“It is crucial that”,
the appeals system,
“be re-instated as part of the Chief Coroner's functions. Judicial review is”,
“and unsatisfactory method of dealing with unreasonable decisions by coroners”.
I also remind your Lordships that the “Marchioness” disaster occurred only a stone’s throw from this House. In 1994, a Court of Appeal decision upheld the complaints by Eileen Dallaglio and Margaret Lockwood-Croft against Dr Paul Knapman, the Westminster coroner who had conducted the basic inquest. The tragedy occurred in 1989. That was five years of appeal before those bereaved relatives had any justice. I also remind the House that the Dallaglios are really a very high-achieving family. Their daughter died on the “Marchioness”, but of course their son became an international cap in rugby and has become a role model for many youngsters in the UK. The family’s perseverance is to be admired.
In its second report, the public inquiry criticised the coroner for removing the hands of victims for identification purposes and stated that this should never have happened. I will not list all the other examples. They come from the report on Hillsborough, which was debated recently in the other place, and many other reports into the conduct of inquests.
My fear in not having appeals available is that expensive judicial reviews or the difficulty of persuading the Attorney-General to exercise his or her power of fiat is not the way to signal that we recognise when bereaved people are not being treated with the respect that they deserve. I am disappointed that the Ministry of Justice has not analysed the cost of judicial review applications against coroners and their decisions. Having a High Court judge as a chief coroner, who will be welcomed universally—of that I am sure—would mean that some legal issues that currently are resolved in the administrative court could be resolved by the post-holder himself or herself in a more cost-efficient way for families and for the public purse. That direct link with the coronial system may also be a much more powerful lever than has been exercised up until now on those coroners whose way of making decisions should be reflected on by them and revised.
As best practice becomes the norm and a chief coroner is able to drive up standards and improve the way that the system works, I and many others predict that there will be a reduction in the number of disputes; complaints will be properly handled; families will be able to be represented; and, as standards rise, the need for people to proceed right through to appeal against a decision will drop, not rise. Far from creating a litigious culture and an endless right of appeal after inquests, the carefully crafted framework of the Act that we have at the moment has the potential to reduce the need for so many bereaved people to engage in expensive litigation.
I hope that no one will feel that my plea for an appeals system in any way detracts from the importance of the post of chief coroner. I will listen with great interest to the response of the Minister for the assurances that I have sought before I decide how to act tonight. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, in this matter. I have only two points of divergence from what she has said, and they will be of a rather different character. I emphasise the noble Baroness’s praise for the efforts of Ministers to take up and address the fears that a number of us have expressed.
My first point of divergence from the noble Baroness is simply that she cannot praise herself, but I hope I may do so for her. She, and to some extent I, were participants in some of those earlier explanatory meetings after the initial flurry on this matter, when I found myself unable to support the Government, which is not my usual stance, because of the concerns that have been expressed. I know that Ministers have gone to an exceptional level of trouble, culminating in decisions this week to give us, in effect, the substance of what we want. It is perhaps difficult to score but as a percentage of the overall objective it is in the high 90s. I shall come back to that in a moment. It is an object lesson in how to do it.
To unpack the concerns that I and others expressed at the time, the coronial system, which had grown up locally and was delivered differently in different areas, had been perceptibly unresponsive to the needs of its users and often quite harsh to people who felt themselves vulnerable. In particular, it was uneven in its delivery. Something had to be done and I think the Government have now done it. I very much hope that the chief coroner, who has now been reinstated as the lead and the champion in this matter, will be able to take the agenda forward.
My other point of divergence from the noble Baroness is over the appeal system. It is of course right that we should raise that. It would be helpful if the Minister, in his response, said a little more about the managerial functions, which report to him in the Ministry of Justice; the judicial functions, which report to the chief coroner; and the overarching function of seeing that the system works satisfactorily and in accordance with the charter for bereaved people and is meeting their needs. He needs to set that out for us again, despite the helpful letter that he has circulated.
The area where I am mildly in dissent with the noble Baroness is that of appeals. Frankly, this is partly because when one has extracted nearly all the juice from the orange, it may or may not be prudent to put it to the final point. However, there is also a point of substance here, which I hope noble Lords will consider. One of the concerns that Ministers had was that in having a chief coroner they would be seen to be mixing up the administrative side with the judicial side. Although an inquest is a judicial process, it is not the normal kind of judicial process. I speak as a non-lawyer. It is not adversarial; there are no parties to it, although there are interested parties, including the bereaved families; and there is no judgment in favour of one side or the other. There are findings of fact, which may be right or wrong. Therefore, it is not necessarily self-evident that we need to cap this process of finding facts with a second tier of appeals, even if there are—as I am sure there are—some bereaved families whose concern, or duty to their loved ones as they see it, would lead them into further rounds of appeals until the process was exhausted.
I am not particularly keen on an appeal process, but one of the reasons why people wanted it was because the coronial system, as it had been delivered, probably deserved one because many inquests were flawed or not well conducted. There may be an argument that in those prelapsarian days, when we had no training and there was no overall supervision—which the chief coroner will now give—there was an uneven, patchy and unfair service. I hope that will be remedied without going through the second stage of an appeal process. If that was the major element of cost, and if it was a concern—as I am sure it was to Ministers—and it can be eliminated, whatever the exact figure, I think that would be sensible.
However, we have essentially secured the main prize: the survival of the position of the chief coroner. I remember the saying of the Roman poet: “You may kick out nature with a pitchfork, but somehow she will always come back”. This miraculously seems to have happened at the last moment with the chief coroner. I welcome that. The families of the bereaved will welcome it too, and we should not look the gift horse of government Ministers in the mouth. We should welcome what they are offering and accept it.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, for enabling Parliament to get back to the place where it should have been, and was, after the Coroners Act. She has done a tremendous job. It has also brought forth something that she mentioned briefly in her speech—she is now involved in the training of coroners. Already there is tremendous progress. I am also hugely grateful for all the work that my noble friend Lord McNally has put into this matter, because I am sure it is not easy to turn the ship of government around when it is sailing so fast in one direction. I can imagine the sort of effort that he had to put in.
The Royal British Legion and Inquest deserve particular gratitude, as do all the other organisations that signed the letter to the Times. A lot of them are run and supported by bereaved families, and it is not easy to go out and campaign when in the midst of grief. Some of those parents and siblings came to give evidence to parliamentarians about what had happened to them at inquests. I should like to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to those people for giving us examples of why not only the training but the attitude of coroners to issues such as timeliness are extremely important.
I have one question for the Minister. The charter on the table is not now just for bereaved people but for anyone who comes before the coronial system. Some of us, including me, certainly felt that it should be a charter for bereaved people. It is not yet finalised and I hope that the chief coroner, who will be in a wonderful position to cast his or her eye over the draft charter, will have an opportunity to comment on it and perhaps improve it in the light of the things that he or she hears when talking to coroners.
Finally, I wish to comment from a purely personal point of view on the issue of appeals. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, made some very good points about the fact that the issue could lie on the table and be implemented later, if necessary, but my heart lies with the government position, and it is not really a question of cost. In many cases, there will never be real satisfaction for the bereaved because, even though the process may have been thorough, timely and open, that is just the nature of bereavement; there is no satisfaction. If the chief coroner manages with all his other coroners to get the process right, there should be no need for appeals. There will obviously be an interim period that will not be entirely satisfactory, but the package on the table is all that we could have hoped for and is one for which I am particularly grateful.
My Lords, I am going quietly on Amendment 54, but not on Amendment 53. I will go more loudly, but briefly, on this. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on her success. I thank the Government for giving her that success, even though she is showing some signs of looking the gift horse in the mouth. I have one very small point that is not about appeals, but about suicides. I declare an interest as the chair of a mental health trust.
One of the problems with the coronial system has been the great inconsistency between the verdicts of coroners, some of whom, it is alleged—I am not an expert on this but I have been to a number of meetings with people who have studied it very carefully—prefer to find suicides as accidental deaths to spare the families. I cannot vouch for that, but that is what is reported by reputable researchers. The Department of Health is devising a suicide prevention strategy. I do not see how such a strategy can be devised, let alone measured, unless there is consistency in coronial verdicts around the country. One thing that is required from a chief coroner’s office is the need to ensure consistency. I should be grateful for an assurance that part of the role envisaged will be to seek to bring about greater consistency in the practice of coronial courts around the country. I believe that I see the noble Baroness nodding her head at that proposition.
My Lords, with reluctance I want to speak against the proposition of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. Before I do so, I reiterate all that my noble friend Lady Miller and others have said in this mini-debate about the worth of the efforts of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and indeed about how exemplary the combination of her efforts and those of others in this House as well as in outside bodies has been in bringing about the change in government policy that we have heard about today. That really is democracy in action.
However, there is one practical issue here that may not be sufficiently understood. I speak as one who at the start of his legal career was a coroner’s officer and indeed, on occasion, sat as a deputy coroner. The change we are making in creating the chief coroner post is, I believe, fundamental, and I think that it will have more ramifications than many realise. There is positive merit in waiting to see how it pans out over the next few years. Surely we do not want to rush into the creation of a new appeals mechanism without having the benefit of the experience of that changed situation. For that reason, if no other, I think that the position to which we have come—that is, acceptance of the chief coroner but at this stage not approval of a brand new appeals mechanism, especially in view of the fact that coroners’ juries find as to fact—may be the right one for the time being.
My Lords, when I last spoke in this Chamber it was on the occasion of the debate in advance of Remembrance Sunday introduced by my noble friend Lord Selkirk. In that debate, I expressed my grave dismay at the then prospect of the duties of the chief coroner being distributed between departments and various officials.
I spoke, and speak now, from a very precise position. I am honoured to be the president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain. Its members know above all others what it is like to suffer the loss of loved ones and to go through military inquests. Over the years, they told me in no uncertain terms how difficult it was if a coroner was inexperienced in dealing with inquests, the nature of the war scene and the military ethos. To put it bluntly, the Ministry of Defence could pull the wool over the eyes of coroners not experienced in wartime matters. As time went on and certain coroners became expert, life became very much easier. My concern when the last Bill, now an Act, went through was that there should be coroners who had experience and had been properly trained to deal with this particular aspect of the coroner’s duties. Therefore, one can imagine my dismay when this was apparently thrown out of the window and it was decided not to take it further.
I am therefore very pleased indeed that wiser counsels have prevailed, and I know that many have been involved in the persuasion. I am grateful to the Government for largely, if not entirely, rescuing the whole coronial system. I think it would be churlish not to offer my sincere thanks for this particular mercy. Since I feel I am getting a bit aged to be a rebel, I am also relieved that I have been spared that tonight.
My Lords, I, too, put on record my appreciation for the Government’s decision, having been involved at various times in this subject. As I recall, a chief coroner has been identified, but I cannot remember whether he has actually been appointed; he may or may not still be around. It would be extremely helpful if the Minister made very clear, having decided to go ahead with the chief coroner, that the appointment will be filled expeditiously, as will those of the medical officers and others who will assist him. To pass the Bill into law to include a chief coroner, without an assurance that those posts will be filled promptly, would be something of a pyrrhic victory.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister and the Government. I have worked rather hard to see that we have a chief coroner. One little area that is not often remembered is that when it comes to the military side, the widows, the mothers and the dead servicemen actually still belong to the Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for them. These people should not be left out of the thoughts of this new chief coroner—which I am so pleased about. I hope that on his introduction to this very important post, he goes across to meet and talk to the Ministry of Defence, and perhaps visits a battle zone—this would be rather sensible. He would then get the feel and the ethos, as the noble Baroness has just said, of military thinking on these occasions.
I end by saying one further thing which I have said on this subject in your Lordships’ House before. At the moment, thank God, the casualty and death rate for war is fairly steady and fairly low. However, some things can go wrong very quickly in an operational area, and somewhere the coroner’s system has to be geared up for a higher casualty rate coming in across its bows. At present, we are waiting one to two years for conclusion. If the rate was to increase and the coroners did not have a plan for this, then I can see bereaved families, widows and mothers waiting up to four years before conclusion. For the sake of the chief coroner, I hope that he will get to know the military and will look ahead for, God forbid, worse rates of death.
My Lords, I hope that I will have the tolerance of the House if I briefly ask the Minister a question about a somewhat tangential issue. The Lord Chancellor is quoted on page 8 of today's Times as saying:
“Everyone is agreed that the priority is raising the standards of coroners’ inquiries”.
I take it that he was referring to coroners’ inquiries of all sorts.
Following the Government’s extremely welcome acceptance of the need to appoint a chief coroner, will the Minister assure us that they will also accept the will of Parliament as expressed in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that an office of coroner for treasure should be established? Will he acknowledge that the appointment of a national coroner for treasure would lead to the elimination of lengthy delays, excessive bureaucracy and errors, as well as to savings in overall public expenditure as the activities of coroners in 45 local authority areas would be replaced by the streamlined, specialised work of a single national coroner, probably supported by a single staff member? If the noble Lord is unable to give that assurance, will he undertake to reconsider the matter urgently, and to correct the failure by the Ministry of Justice to include reference to the treasure process in the draft charter for the coroner service?
My Lords, it does not seem like a year since this House decisively rejected the Government’s firm plan to abolish the position of chief coroner by a majority of 112. It was a vote in all parts of the Chamber of which the House could be proud then and can be even prouder today. Of course I join in congratulating the Government. However, in this instance the congratulations must be slightly modified. The Government have given in at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. They deserve credit, but as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will recognise from his position at the Ministry of Justice, there is an analogy with someone in the dock who does not deserve the credit that someone who makes an early admission of guilt deserves. This is the equivalent of a change of plea at the moment when the jury is being sworn in. It is worthy of credit, and the judge will pass a lesser sentence, but he will not show as much leniency as if the Government had given way some time earlier. It is better late than never—but it is pretty late.
Of course, this is all immensely to the credit of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. She deserves huge congratulations on her success today. She will be the first to say that it is not just her success, but that of others as well. However, she deserves particular praise for her brave refusal to back down over this long period. So does the Royal British Legion—I declare my membership of a local branch—and other organisations that the noble Baroness mentioned such as INQUEST and Liberty, and those on all sides of the House and elsewhere who stayed firm and argued the case for the chief coroner.
Noble Lords should make no mistake—sometimes these things ought to be said—that the Government over the past 12 months used every means and blandishment, and a few extra, to persuade, if I may put it gently, those who dared stand out of the error of their ways. Individual meetings with the Lord Chancellor were not the worst of it. Seductive compromises were offered one day and a hard line taken the next. There were meetings and letters galore. I hate even to contemplate the pressure that the brave Conservative Member Andrew Percy, who dared to challenge the Government in another place, must have come under at a certain stage. I do not want to sound churlish—I hope that that is not my style—but I do not think the congratulations are quite as deserved in this case as perhaps they were earlier this afternoon.
I have no doubt that our Justice Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, played an important role in this. I also am in no doubt that the Sun, which I know many noble Lords read regularly, also played a pretty important role at the last moment. For anyone who has forgotten what they read in the Sun yesterday: they will have seen a story and then an editorial that condemned the Government in no uncertain terms for the stance that they were then taking. No. 10 reacted extraordinarily quickly. The Prime Minister’s spokesman spoke early yesterday afternoon and the change was announced yesterday evening—perhaps coincidence; probably not.
Whatever the result, the Government have done the right thing. They have accepted the chief coroner. That was argued for on all sides of this House during the passing of the Act, which was only two years ago. It is a great pleasure to be able to congratulate the Government on what they have done, but I ask the Minister who will answer this debate why Section 40 on appeals is being removed. If I remember rightly, many noble Lords took part in those debates, so why is it being removed? Among the strong and powerful arguments in report after report in the past decade, and eventually during the debate on the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 for the setting up of this post of chief coroner, the possibility of appeal on a number of issues, which is not huge, was set out in Section 40(2), as it was well nigh impossible to appeal under the present system. The only remedy, as we have heard, is judicial review, which is time consuming. As the Public Law Project argued:
“The cost of bringing a judicial review claim is considerable: in the region of £10,000 to £20,000 for a straightforward case, higher for a more complex matter. If a claimant is unsuccessful, they are likely to be liable for the defendant’s costs as well as their own. They are therefore looking at a legal bill of upwards of £30,000 if they lose, and they must be prepared for this eventuality, bearing in mind the unpredictability of judicial review proceedings and costs orders”.
We believe that it would be preferable for the chief coroner to have the power that Parliament gave him or her during the passage of that Bill, which was agreed on an all-party basis. That sensible step which we all agreed should not be implemented straight away—that is perhaps the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury—and that there should be a delay between the time the Bill was enacted and this section was implemented. There was no intention from any party that the appeals process would begin at once. If it remained in the Act it would be there if some time in the future a Lord Chancellor felt able to bring it in under the guidance of the chief coroner at the time. To abolish Section 40, which is what the Government propose, is the wrong thing to do.
If the noble Baroness were to put the matter to a vote—I can understand if she does not wish to do so—we on this side would support her. We regret that Section 40 is being taken out. However, I do not want to end on a depressing note. We are grateful to the Government for the action that they have taken.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for that non-churlish response. He must have been thinking of some earlier Administration when he talked about the main drive of government policy being an attempt to please the Sun.
This has been a very useful debate and I hope that I can give some reassurances. I cannot give reassurances on the question of appeals. As my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor said in his letter, to extend,
“the appeals system was by far the most expensive element of the original Chief Coroner role proposal”.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, as with most of the proposals, including that in the Division we had today, is rather cavalier about costs. I am afraid that the Government cannot be. I also think that enough doubts about the idea of appeals were expressed in the responses to make it prudent not to proceed with that at the moment. We have all been in politics long enough to know that simply to leave the appeals system hanging there would almost certainly invite the next campaign on this issue to commence straight away.
The Government started off this proposal with the idea that we would take on board most of the core part of the previous Government’s Act, but that we would give the responsibilities of the chief coroner to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, rightly said, the House very clearly rejected that proposal. I make no apology for the fact that the parliamentary process has done its job. This has gone through both Houses, we have listened and we have come to a conclusion.
I will deal with a number of points that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, ingeniously brought up the treasure coroner. I understand that the noble Lord has written today to my colleague, the Minister in charge of coroner policy, on this issue. I am assured that it is in fact a matter primarily for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but his point will be considered in due course. I know of his past responsibilities and continuing concerns in this area. Given the constraints on public expenditure and the usual caveats, I will give what support I can to what I think is a very sensible idea. However, if when I get back to the ranch I find out that there is no money, I will have to tell him so.
The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, made a powerful contribution. Again, one of the values of this debate is the number of suggestions that have been made. The suggestion that the chief coroner should get to know the military and do the kind of visits that he suggested is very sensible indeed. So is the suggestion that the chief coroner has the power to allocate cases and to bring in more coroners if, for any tragic reason, the casualty rate were to increase. It is never far from our minds when we hear those lists read out at this Dispatch Box that for every individual family affected, the casualty rate is 100 per cent. That is something that always gives us pause for thought.
I take on board the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, about the need for experience in military inquests. I pay tribute to her very long commitment in this area. If one listens to the interventions, one can well see that the chief coroner, when he or she takes up the post, will have a very full agenda. The military issue, which I will deal with in my broader remarks, will indeed be taken on board. I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who was one of the noble Lords who has fed in ideas on this right from the start.
Now we have a chief coroner. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, asked whether we would leave this on the shelf. It is a little bit like the points about the YJB. Even if there was some nefarious plot within the MoJ simply to accept this and then leave it on the shelf, I cannot imagine it would take very long for your Lordships to notice and to draw it to my attention. I think I am on pretty safe ground in assuring noble Lords that this appointment will go ahead with all due speed, and they can hold me to that in the future.
Of course, as has been said, there is no shortage of jobs for the new chief coroner. This rolling debate has reflected the concerns about the patchy nature of the coronial service: the lack of training; the lack of consistency; the lack of communications with the bereaved; and so forth. The new chief coroner has a big and serious job to do. To respond to my noble friend Lady Miller, yes, the chief coroner will be consulted as we draw up the new charter. Again, this task will be waiting in the in-tray when he or she takes office. I also take the point made by my noble friend Lord Newton about consistency on suicide verdicts. This, too, will be a very important issue for the new chief coroner when he or she takes office.
From the contributions made tonight, we accept the size of the job ahead for the chief coroner. This is not my central area of responsibility at the MoJ but that of my honourable friend Jonathan Djanogly, so I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friends Lady Miller and Lord Boswell in particular for helping me to try to understand some of the complexities of this issue and the importance of us getting it right. I also pay tribute to the campaign that has been mentioned of the Royal British Legion and INQUEST.
In the Armed Forces Bill, the Government accepted that the annual report on the Armed Forces covenant should include an analysis on the operation of the inquest system. This will provide a means for the chief coroner and other groups to inform Parliament on the progress of the reforms we are putting in place and to make recommendations on any further steps that might be necessary to ensure that bereaved families get the service from the inquest system that they deserve. Our new proposals go further than this, as implementing Section 36 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 will put the chief coroner under a duty to prepare an annual report to the Lord Chancellor on the operation of the coroners’ system which would in turn be laid before Parliament. The report must include an assessment of the consistency of standards between coroner areas. As I said, we are not implementing Section 40 of the Act and I have explained the very good reasons why not.
I do not want to go over matters that have already been discussed. We have agreed to give the chief coroner a range of powers in the Act to drive up standards across the system. These include powers related to training, monitoring, reporting and direction. We will also set minimum standards of service in a new charter to be published early in 2012. This will help to ensure that the coroner’s service across the country is delivered to the gold standard we all expect.
We have come a very long way since last December, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, reminded us. This new compromise before noble Lords today represents a further and very significant move to meet the concerns expressed in this House and elsewhere. As always with these things, it is open to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, to press her amendment. The Government would resist that for the reasons I have given, and would take it to ping-pong if we lost. I do not think that that is the right end to what has been a good debate. If I may say so, it is a personal parliamentary triumph for the noble Baroness and it marks the culmination of some very successful campaigning on the part of noble Lords on all Benches and some significant organisations outside. However, that is a matter for her.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the debate and I am indebted to all those who have contributed to it. I feel quite humble in responding because many noble Lords have far greater experience than me in certain specific areas. The Minister has gone a very long way and we have the essence of what we need. I recognise that there is disagreement over the appeals system, but there was no disagreement over the chief coroner, and that is what we have. So that noble Lords do not remain in suspense, I have concluded that it would not be appropriate to divide the House, but I would like to make one or two concluding remarks.
The appeals system that would have been put in place would have been precisely on the finding of fact to ascertain that the process to find facts had been correct so that the correct verdict was given. You cannot have a consistent verdict if you do not have consistent facts. Indeed, for families who know all the facts, that is where they achieve closure. Some people may have ongoing difficulties and feel bitterness over what has happened, but in the coronial system if they know that they have been heard and that all the facts have been looked at properly, that marks the start they need in order to achieve closure of their grief.
I am delighted at the reassurance given that we will appoint a chief coroner with all due speed, and I am glad that the Government will heed the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Slim that there should be a comprehensive induction programme for whoever takes the post. I also ask the Government to proceed as requested with the appointment of the relevant medical officers, because the victims of medical accidents need to know that the facts will be properly interpreted and represented to the coroner, particularly as coroners are not medically trained and are therefore dependent on the medical advice they receive.
It is to be hoped that the new charter will represent a way forward. The annual report will be read by many of us with great interest to see whether our expectations have been met. In an ideal world, in a few years’ time the annual reports will say that we have a good complaints process, that there is good resolution of complaints and that an appeals system as originally envisaged is no longer needed. I sincerely hope that there will be no need to come back to Parliament to try to reinstate Section 40, but that question remains hanging in the air tonight. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 53B withdrawn.
Amendment 53A agreed.
Motion on Amendment 54
54: Page 21, line 23, leave out “Civil Justice Council.”
Amendment 54A not moved.
Motion on Amendment 55
Motion on Amendment 56
My Lords, this amendment concerns a technical matter which has to go on to the record. It should have been moved in an earlier grouping. It refers to Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. I made my maiden speech in this House on the privatisation of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. On Report in March, your Lordships’ House passed government amendments that inserted the Advisory Council on Public Records, the Keeper of Public Records and the Public Record Office into Schedule 5 to the Bill. The intention was and is simply to put the administrative entity of the National Archives and one of its advisory bodies on a statutory footing, thereby strengthening its ability to perform an important cultural function. This further amendment, to insert Her Majesty’s Stationery Office into the same schedule, serves a similar purpose and therefore represents a minor technical amendment rather than a substantive policy change. It is supported by the chief executive of the National Archives, who is also Keeper of Public Records, and has been agreed with Buckingham Palace.
Motion on Amendments 57 to 62