Skip to main content

Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances (Abolition) Order 2012

Volume 737: debated on Monday 28 May 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances (Abolition) Order 2012.

Relevant documents: 56th Report from the Merits Committee, Session 2010-12; 42nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, Session 2010-12

My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances (Abolition) Order 2012, to add to the points that were made in the explanatory document accompanying the order.

This is an order to be made under the Public Bodies Act 2011—a number of noble Lords will have fond memories of that piece of legislation. It reflects one of the outcomes of the Government’s programme of reform for public bodies. The order will abolish the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances and pave the way for the reconstitution of its successor as an expert scientific committee.

I reiterate that this is not an attempt on the Government’s part to stem the flow of impartial and independent scientific advice on hazardous substances. We want this advice to continue, but we want to improve the process. We firmly believe this reform to be necessary and that there will be benefits from the successor committee operating in a different way, while of course retaining its independence.

We need new arrangements to reflect wider changes in the regulatory landscape for hazardous substances since the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances was set up, more than 20 years ago. We need to establish a broader, more strategic and proactive role for the successor committee in that landscape while meeting the continuing need for independent expert scientific advice in this area.

At the same time, we have taken a considered view of how better to manage scientific advice and evidence in my department. In particular, as an expert scientific committee, the successor body to the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances will work in a more co-ordinated and peer-reviewed environment under the purview of our Chief Scientific Adviser and our Science Advisory Council.

The rationale for this reform was, of course, articulated in the context of the passage of the Public Bodies Act in which we sought powers to abolish the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances. We also consulted widely, as required by the Act, on the future of the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances and, as we reported, there was clear public support for our proposals. We also have the full support of the devolved Administrations and have secured the required clearance from the devolved legislatures for the order.

I believe that we have this support because we have given thought to the successor arrangements, as I will explain shortly, in relation to the terms of reference for the expert scientific committee that will replace the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances. It has been decided, subject to the coming into force of the order, that the successor body will be known as the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee. This will avoid confusion with the existing committee, which will have been abolished, and mark the start of the new enhanced arrangements.

I turn to the report of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee and give the assurance to the Committee that in future all Defra orders deriving from the Public Bodies Act will carry the preface in their title, “public bodies”. This is a specific request of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee so that the statutory instruments can be clearly identified.

In its consideration of the order, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, now of course renamed as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, concluded that my department’s case for the order probably just crossed the statutory threshold for the exercise of public functions. I believe that our case is stronger than this and that this order, and the new arrangements which will follow it, will deliver the benefits that we anticipate. We have listened to the committee and responded to it, and as part of these new arrangements, and in anticipation of the order coming into force, I have agreed new terms of reference and, as I mentioned earlier, a new name for the successor body. I know from the report that there is particular interest in these terms of reference, with their central importance for ensuring that the new committee can operate in a truly independent manner. The report invited Ministers to say whether these terms of reference have been agreed in a form that will address the committee’s concerns. I believe that they have. I have arranged to share with the committee my recent correspondence with Professor Stephen Holgate, the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances, on this matter. As chairman-designate of the successor body, Professor Holgate has welcomed these new terms of reference, which are those recorded in the report of what we must now refer to as the Scrutiny Committee, as part of the information which my officials provided to assist consideration of the order. The only change made, for greater clarity, was to separate out in two supporting protocols the committee’s relationships with our Chief Scientific Adviser and Science Advisory Council, and with Ministers. We are getting ready for this change, and to this end I commend the draft order to the House.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the Minister and to have heard him talk about public bodies again, as the father of the Public Bodies Bill through this House. What a joy it is to hear him talk about it. Even though I disliked the Bill intensely, I enjoyed the way in which he steered it through this House and the way in which he listened. I am sure that he will continue to listen as we talk about some of the detail in these SIs.

I am also grateful to the Merits Committee, as was, for its 56th report on this order. As I understand it, it was the third order made under the Public Bodies Act that has been considered by the Merits Committee. As we know, the committee did not recommend it for the enhanced scrutiny procedure—we have one of those coming shortly—but made it clear that this was a close decision, as the Minister has said. In paragraph 18, the committee said that it,

“struggles to see much discernible benefit in the proposals”.

It describes the case for the order as “far from compelling” and says that,

“it probably just crosses the statutory threshold”.

I accept that the Minister thinks that it does a little bit better than just crossing the threshold, but it is important that that is noted.

The committee poses questions for the Minister to answer in the debate. In particular, it points to evidence from the Royal Society of Chemistry recalling that Parliament and especially this House insisted in 1989-90 that the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances was established as a statutory committee. This was to ensure that Ministers and officials took proper scientific advice before taking decisions on controls on hazardous substances.

Let me put the questions implied by the committee. I am grateful, through signalling, that I have gone first. I thought it would be helpful to the Minister’s in-flight refuelling if I were to answer the questions first to give maximum time for the fuel to surge through to the Minister. First, the current cost of the advisory committee is £30,000 per annum. Will the new body cost the same or less than that £30,000 and how much will the preparation form passing the order cost the department in staff time and Parliament in printing and staff costs? That will give us a rough idea of whether this move is good value for money.

Secondly, how will the Minister ensure that the newly constituted committee will, in the words of the code of practice for scientific advisory committees, be able to,

“operate free of influence from the sponsor department officials or Ministers, and remain clear that their function is wider than simply providing evidence just to support departmental policy”?

Thirdly, the framework proposed by the Government is as follows—I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. The new body is to operate within a closer network of expert scientific committees overseen by Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser—the Minister has said as much in his comments—and is to be supported by its Scientific Advisory Council, the SAC. The chair is to meet Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser at least annually to discuss its work. The chair is to attend the annual meeting of Defra’s Scientific Advisory Committee.

Fourthly, there is to be routine reporting by the new advisory committee after its quarterly meetings—it is worth knowing to whom—in addition to its reports on specific projects and its annual report. There is also to be other reporting to Ministers by the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Scientific Advisory Committee on the new body’s work. Ministers are to set and change the new body’s terms of reference—we have heard some discussion of that—and will possibly attend its meetings from time to time. I would be grateful if it could be confirmed that that is all correct. If that is all correct, what independence is left to the committee? Is not the price of better co-ordination and peer review that the Minister mentioned in his opening comments a loss of independence? The form of the set of questions is: what is the problem to which the Government’s proposal is the solution? For example, on which scientific initiatives have Ministers been less well advised than they would wish? Which scientific developments has the present committee overlooked?

Fifthly, the Government’s case for improved accountability and independence of advice hinges in part, as the Merits Committee and the Minister have said, on the proposed new terms of reference. Have they now been agreed in a form that would support this objective, as the Merits Committee requested? Will the Minister share with us the correspondence he referred to with the incoming chair?

Sixthly, if the current terms of reference in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 are out of date, could they not have been changed or a power inserted in the Act to amend them by statutory instrument subject to parliamentary approval? Seventhly, is not the key to these proposals that whereas the terms of reference for the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances are set out in statute and thus decided by Parliament, in future they will be set and amended by the Secretary of State? How will that be subject to transparency and scrutiny? Why was Parliament right in 1989-90 to insist that the committee was statutory, but wrong now?

Finally, if the purpose of the proposal is not increased ministerial control, is the real explanation that the Government want to be seen to be culling quangos—in the end the motivation for the Public Bodies Act—but because the Advisory Committee performs a sufficiently important role, it is keeping the members and staff intact and simply making an appearance of change? Should the Cabinet Minister responsible for public bodies not be watching this very carefully? This feels like business as usual. A name has been rejigged with a few words in a different order, but everything continues as normal with no real financial saving. In the end, a headline two years ago about culling quangos now has to be delivered and is taking up parliamentary time.

My Lords, these Benches support the proposal to abolish the advisory committee, principally on the grounds that we are satisfied that the replacement will be independent of Ministers, that it will continue to work openly and that the public and specialist interests will be able to attend meetings. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that in the absence of the terms of reference, it is difficult to find the discernible differences between the old committee and the new committee. However, I put that to one side.

It is quite clear in the explanatory documents that the consultation took views on the terms of reference and the name of the successor body. The Minister has been kind enough to share the new name and to give some indication of the terms of reference. At this point, there does not seem to be any clarity on the number of members and the scope of representation on the proposed new committee. We want to feel reassured that the scientific experts will come from a breadth of fields across the industry and more broadly to represent some of the consumer champions that have scientific experts on their staff to ensure that the general public can have full confidence in the scientific decisions that we desperately need from this committee.

My Lords, this has been a good debate. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, about some of the detailed questions he asked me, but I will be writing to him anyway because I would like to share the correspondence we have had with Professor Stephen Holgate and there is no reason why the terms of reference for the new body should not be included with the correspondence as that is what it was principally about.

The most important element of all this is accountability. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Knight, will agree, and my noble friend Lady Parminter knows from her experience, that science is highly valued in Defra. It is a science-based department. Indeed, our science and technology committee produced a report on the way in which departments handle their science, and Defra came out of it very well.

I see science as being at the heart of this. Ministers’ engagement in the science is also very important. That is why I have attended a number of these bodies during the relatively short time I have been in the department. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that I intend to attend not only the Scientific Advisory Committee but the committees that will be sitting under the framework of the Scientific Advisory Committee. I have regular meetings with the chief scientist. It is important that in an evidence-based department, which Defra inevitably is, Ministers are, as much as possible, scientifically literate and capable of being advised directly. I value independence, and there is no suggestion that the closeness of this body within the Defra family is designed to reduce that independence. The terms of reference make it quite clear that the department requires independent advice and wants to be able to be advised from a position of scientific authority about what it is best for the department to do. Political decisions have to be made on the basis of that advice, but it is the most important thing. The chairman and the committee are therefore responsible to the Scientific Advisory Committee and the Chief Scientific Adviser, as well as being responsible to the Minister. That is important to bear in mind.

This order is part of a wider package and is the first of a number of bodies within Defra where we are hoping to take advantage of what we believe is a better structure to bring into effect this particular body of our family. We do not think that there will be any saving in terms of money on this matter. There will be some consultation on the terms of reference. If noble Lords feel that they have comments to make, they would be perfectly correct to do so. The new committee will not wait to give advice; it gives advice, and Ministers are responsible for their reaction to that advice. The committee does not have to wait until it is asked before that happens. I am happy to share the terms of reference with noble Lords who are present—I have already given that commitment, as noble Lords would expect me to.

I have commended the statutory instrument to the Grand Committee and I hope that it will be supported.

Motion agreed.