Motion to Consider
That the Grand Committee do consider the Public Bodies (Abolition of the Advisory Committees on Pesticides) Order 2015
Relevant documents: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 21st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, this is an order to be made under the Public Bodies Act 2011. As detailed in the explanatory document accompanying it, it delivers one of the outcomes of the Government’s programme of reform for public bodies. The order will abolish the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the equivalent body for Northern Ireland as statutory non-departmental public bodies. The Government will then establish a new expert scientific committee.
I wish to make it absolutely clear that this is not an attempt on the Government’s part to stem the flow of impartial and independent scientific advice on pesticides—in fact, quite the reverse. We are very clear that the Advisory Committee on Pesticides has several strong features that must continue. These include: expertise, independence, impartiality, transparency, a direct line to Ministers, and the ability to initiate its own lines of inquiry. We will retain these qualities, but we see an opportunity to make improvements. I firmly believe that there will be benefits from the successor committee operating in a different and more flexible way, while of course retaining its independence.
We need new arrangements to reflect wider changes in the regulatory landscape for pesticides since the Advisory Committee on Pesticides was set up nearly 30 years ago. We need to establish a broader, more strategic and proactive role for the successor committee while meeting the continuing need for independent expert scientific advice in this area.
Over recent years, Defra has taken steps to improve its management of the wide range of scientific advice and evidence that underpins its work. As an expert scientific committee, the successor body to the Advisory Committee on Pesticides will work in a more co-ordinated and peer-reviewed environment. This is overseen by our chief scientific adviser and science advisory council. They do not interfere in the work of experts but provide valuable co-ordination, challenge and support.
We have consulted widely, as required by the Public Bodies Act, on the future of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. As we have reported, there was clear support for our proposals. We also have the full support of other UK departments and the devolved Administrations. We have secured the required clearance from the devolved legislatures for the order. I believe we have gained this support because we acknowledge that these other parties have a strong interest in the future arrangements. We have worked closely with them and with the committee itself to draft the terms of reference for the new expert scientific committee. The input of the committee members is particularly important because they will transfer to the successor body.
The draft terms of reference have been discussed at two meetings of the committee and small but important adjustments have been made. These changes have satisfied members that the draft clearly sets out a shared vision of the independence of the committee, its right to initiate work and its right to communicate directly with Ministers. This text has now been put to departments for final agreement.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee report on the order highlighted several issues to be captured in the terms of reference. These included addressing the comments by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides in the earlier consultation about independence and proactivity. It also mentioned the importance of the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government and the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. The report also called for the establishment of escalation routes to ensure that advice from expert scientific committees can be submitted directly to Ministers, as appropriate.
In flagging those points, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee nevertheless concluded that the Government have demonstrated that the draft order serves the purpose of improving the exercise of public functions as set out in the 2011 Act, in line with the considerations contained in it. The committee was consequently content to clear the order within the 40-day affirmative procedure.
I am glad to be able to confirm that the issues raised by the scrutiny committee are all carefully and fully addressed in the draft terms of reference for the successor body. I can also confirm, as outlined earlier, that the members of the current Advisory Committee on Pesticides and all the relevant departments have been closely involved in this work. The existing Advisory Committee on Pesticides has provided real value over a number of years and the Government are determined to carry over its strengths to the new body. However, the new structure will be more flexible and efficient. I commend the draft order to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for spelling out the content of this order. Clearly, with the passage of the Public Bodies Bill—four years ago now—the authority to abolish this committee, provided the Government followed the appropriate procedure, has been there.
In Committee on the Public Bodies Bill, I queried the wisdom of abolishing this committee, and my noble friend Lady Quin queried it on Report. The significance of that for those who are not all that familiar with the history of Defra is that my noble friend Lady Quin was the last MAFF Minister to have responsibility for pesticides and I was the first Defra Minister to have responsibility for pesticides. We relied very heavily on the objectivity of the statutory committee, as well as the operations of the pesticides department—PSD—within Defra, because there are always some very difficult, if not controversial, issues arising about pesticides.
The difficulties and controversy have, if anything, increased in recent years. A number of bans at European level have been contested by the industry and some others in crop protection. There has recently been a serious disagreement between the Government and our European colleagues on neonicotinoids. There are always concerns for wildlife and, in particular, the bee population, the effects of various pesticides on them and therefore on their ability to fertilise a whole range of cultivated and wild plant life.
Within what is a no doubt objective and highly scientific area, there are quite often serious disagreements between experts. One of my main memories of my time as a Minister in this area was one huge row where—I will not go into the details—somebody was appointed to the committee whom the crop protection industry was not particularly keen on. It was always important to ensure a balance on the committee, with a range of people. Of course, that is quite difficult for government appointments. Almost everybody with a scientific background in this area, whether at university or in industry, has at some point in their career been employed or had their research sponsored by companies within the industry. It is therefore very important that transparency, accountability, independence—from industry as well as from government—and balance are clear in the advice that the Government receive.
Actually, the non-departmental public body requirements help to ensure that. My concern about the abolition of the committee was that we might lose that balance. The Government have gone through the correct procedures to ensure that there is understanding of the new way of carrying things out. I appreciate that and have every faith in the Government being very diligent in ensuring that that balance and independence are still there. They put it within a wider context where, effectively, this is an expert committee reporting to the science advisory council, which oversees the whole of Defra’s scientific work. That makes sense to a degree, provided that that is well resourced and that the expert committees covering specialist areas maintain the balance and independence I referred to.
I accept the Government’s good intentions within this area but they have to recognise that it is one where, publicly, media-wise and in the scientific community, controversy can jump out at Ministers who are without great expectation or, frankly, much knowledge of the balance of understanding on the scientific argument. That means the Government must be able to defend whatever future, more flexible arrangements are put in place. The Government refer to flexibility of advice. That should not be too ad hoc or Ministers would be open to the accusation that they have chosen the advice from those people most likely to favour their or the industry’s position. That would be unfortunate in an area where a degree of objectivity has generally been respected over the years.
Pesticides used in our agriculture and horticulture have an important effect on the countryside, wildlife, bystanders, rural communities and the productivity and economic structure of our agricultural sector, so this is an important issue. I hope that the new arrangements work as well as the old ones. I dug out the latest annual report. It is clear from even the summary of the activity—where there were 12 important authorisations of pesticides, some more authorisations of equipment and some serious discussions about the regulatory regime of pesticides in that very year—that that intensity is unlikely to diminish.
I appreciate the idea of having the overall science advisory council in place with the expert committees supporting it. I hope that the overall activity of Defra science will not be reduced—I was a little alarmed this very morning when I heard a media story about the effects of the cutbacks at Kew Gardens. Defra and MAFF have always had an important scientific role. Defra is important not only in the regulatory sense but in making sure that the evidence is properly financed and resourced in this area as in others. I am therefore taking quite a lot on trust in the proposition to abolish this committee, because, as the documentation logically states, we cannot set up a new committee until we have abolished the old one, so we do not know quite what the new committee or ad hoc committee will look like.
I hope that the Government will ensure that the new committee maintains the same high standards and recognises that Ministers and civil servants will need objective and independent advice, and that there is a substantial public interest that goes beyond the esoteric aspects of quite complicated science. With those remarks and those cautions, I welcome the Minister’s presentation and do not propose to oppose the order.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I agree with him about the complexity of the issues that arise. He said that the intensity of activity is unlikely to diminish and I am sure he is right. I agree with him, too, that objectivity is crucial and I accept much, if not all, of what he said. We absolutely respect the need for that objectivity, for independence and for the transparency, accountability and balance that he referred to. I further agree with him that the effect of the Public Bodies Act should be to ensure that these qualities are safeguarded, but, more than that, there is a strong will across government, both at ministerial level and—as has been strongly impressed on me—within the Civil Service and within Defra, to ensure that they are.
The noble Lord wondered whether there was a danger that scientific expertise might reduce and referred specifically to Kew. On Kew, we have seen in the press all the bad news that the Science and Technology Committee chose to air. If he was to review the detailed evidence that the committee heard, he would read the evidence from the Chief Scientist at Kew, who has completely rewritten its science strategy so that it is much more focused on Defra’s business, to help us achieve what we want to do, and on the good that can be done for the country’s biology and botany and so on. I think that the noble Lord would be hugely impressed with what they are doing at Kew, which reflects what we are trying to do elsewhere with our science.
The maintenance and even improvement, where possible, of our scientific advice are a top priority for me. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his words and I hope that the Committee will approve the order.