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Regulatory Agencies: Monitoring

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Neville-Rolfe on 26 January (HL4107), how the activities of regulatory agencies are monitored to ensure their effectiveness in the scrutiny of the economic and public sectors they supervise.

My Lords, the monitoring arrangements for each regulator depend on how each has been established by statute, such as the different degrees of independence granted by Parliament to each regulator and different sources of funding. Some regulators are non-ministerial departments and are monitored and managed by their sponsoring ministerial department; others are non-departmental public bodies, which are subject to triennial reviews.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that rather confused Answer as to the situation. During this Parliament there have been many complaints about regulators, including those dealing with care quality and police complaints. Who will guard the guardians? Would my noble friend agree with me that there should be an overarching regulator to look at Ofcom, Ofsted, Ofwat, Ofgem and the like? It might be called the “Effectiveness Office”, otherwise known as “Eff Off” for short.

That was a good joke, my Lords, but this is a highly complex area in which quite naturally Parliament wishes some regulatory bodies to have a good deal of independence from the Government. There has been much discussion in this Chamber recently about the Equality and Human Rights Commission and how that should be maintained at considerable distance from the Government. On the other hand, the Care Quality Commission, for example, rightly is regarded as something which needs to be close to ministerial responsibility and on which Ministers are expected to answer to Parliament.

My Lords, I take the point that one does not wish to suggest that each regulatory body should be second-guessed day to day by any parliamentary process, but would it not be useful from time to time, given that many of these regulatory bodies are governed by secondary instruments covered by our committee structure here, to see what is happening at the interface, for example, with energy and transport? There are so many bodies where the interface is confusing. Consumers do not know where to go and are maybe pushed from one thing to another. Occasionally, some process should be found to review the accountability to the government department and, hence, to Parliament.

My Lords, these reviews do take place. The Environment Agency and Natural England were jointly subject to a triennial review, precisely to look at the degree of overlap. The noble Lord may recall that the Public Bodies Act examined the need for a number of statutorily established bodies that were set up a very long time ago and that the Deregulation Bill also touches on issues like this—125 triennial reviews of non-departmental public bodies have already taken place. I was interviewed for the triennial review into the Civil Service Commission, for example, which I think will recommend an expansion of the responsibilities of that body. A good deal of toing and froing is under way. Parliamentary committees and the National Audit Office also monitor the management of these bodies.

My Lords, is there not a danger of a parallel government arising of unelected regulators working with enormous powers over the heights of the economy and working in concert?

My Lords, the idea that these are massively powerful bodies operating outside parliamentary control is an immense exaggeration. If you look at recent appearances by the heads of some of these commissions and authorities before parliamentary Select Committees, you will recognise that Parliament certainly monitors what goes on very actively.

My Lords, will the Government consider supporting my Private Member’s Bill to set up a regulatory body to supervise the conduct of political polling, including by multimillionaires?

My Lords, I cannot begin to think who the noble Lord might be referring to, but I look forward with interest to him showing me his Bill.

Is the Minister aware that all 10 legal regulators, which operate underneath the Legal Services Board, agree that the board and the statute that put it into place are not working well and need radical reform? Can he say whether, if he is in government after May, a new Government will find time to reform it, which is what the regulators all want?

My Lords, I will certainly take that back if I am in government after May. I hope I shall not still be the oldest member of the Government.