Public Bodies Bill [Lords]
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Mr James Rhys, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Power to modify constitutional arrangements
‘(4) No order shall be made under this section which will or may compromise the editorial or operational independence of Sianel Pedwar Cymru.’.—(Mr Mark Williams.)
‘(3) In determining or prescribing any amount to be paid to Sianel Pedwar Cymru under section 61 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 the Secretary of State shall ensure that the amount is sufficient to enable the Authority to fulfil its public service remit in respect of S4C Digital under section 204(3) of, and paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 12 to, the Communications Act 2003 throughout the period to which the amount relates.’.
‘(ea) the National Assembly of Wales, if the proposal relates to Sianel Pedwar Cymru,’.
‘For section 61 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (funding of Sianel Pedwar Cymru) there is substituted—
“61 Funding of Welsh Authority
(1) In 2012 and thereafter at intervals of five years the Secretary of State shall pay, or shall secure the payment to the Welsh Authority of, such amount as may be agreed between them to cover the cost to the Authority during the five year period of—
(a) providing the Authority’s public services (within the meaning of section 207 of the Communications Act 2003), and
(b) arranging for the broadcasting or distribution of those services.
(2) If the Secretary of State and the Welsh Authority cannot reach agreement for the purposes of subsection (1) by the end of August in the year preceding that in respect of which a payment to the Authority must be made, the Secretary of State shall by order prescribe an amount which is sufficient to cover the cost of the Authority referred to in subsection (1).
(3) In determining or prescribing an amount for the purpose of this section the Secretary of State shall ensure that the amount is sufficient to enable the Welsh Authority to fulfil the public service remit in respect of S4C Digital under section 204(5) of, and paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 12 to, the Communications Act 2003 throughout the period to which the amount relates.
(4) The Secretary of State shall not prescribe an amount less than the amount paid to the Welsh Authority in the preceding year or preceding three year period, as the case may be.
(5) An order shall not be made under subsection (2) unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(6) If a resolution required under subsection (5) is not approved, the Secretary of State shall secure that the Welsh Authority is paid an amount which is not less than the amount paid to the Authority in the preceding year or preceding period, as the case may be.
(7) The Secretary of State may discharge the duty in subsection (1) by making payments himself or entering into an agreement with another person for that person to do so (or both).
(8) In discharging his duties under this section, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the Welsh Authority’s operational and editorial independence.
(9) Any sums required by the Secretary of State under this section shall be paid out of money provided by Parliament.’.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The only part of my speech that I managed to complete before the Adjournment referred to my pleasure at serving under the chairmanship of Mr Amess. One of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, who is not here at present, said that I had previously gone through the same convention and that I had got it out of the way, but I was not just getting it out of the way. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, too, Mr Robertson.
We are addressing a complex and difficult issue, which I will explain, and I will set out my reasons for supporting the Government’s position. The issue has attracted a huge amount of interest, and not only judging by the many hundreds of e-mails that we have all received. Because of my history of support for the language and for S4C, I have received many telephone calls and Facebook messages. I have been inundated as never before since becoming a Member of Parliament or at any point in my public life. The campaign has been incredibly impressive and the effort has been huge.
At an early stage I should admit that I understand the previous comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and by the hon. Member for Arfon, who is not in his place at the moment. I agree with a lot of what they said. I will not repeat their points, which I might have made had I spoken first, but I will address the issues that they did not. I will conclude by expressing my concerns and by seeking reassurances from the Front Bench.
It is not just today. We will be making a decision today, but we then have to go forward. There will be issues for future discussion, so reassurance on the record today will be helpful. From a statutory point of view, the issues relate to S4C, but the issue is not S4C, it is the Welsh language and S4C’s role in reversing the language’s remorseless, seemingly inevitable decline and in promoting the language for the future.
As an aside, I fancied being a writer, rather than a politician, when I was younger. I once wrote an essay on the future of the Welsh language at an eisteddfod that
I can reasonably say that Wales is a cultural nation, and the language is key to that. The language is what makes Wales different, and when people learn to speak it, it changes their entire attitude and approach. The language and S4C are crucial.
I refer to my personal history, because it is typical of the information and background about which the hon. Member for Arfon talked earlier. I come from a family in which every ancestor spoke Welsh as a first language—they are all from Montgomeryshire—but none of us did. I never heard my parents, who both spoke Welsh as a first language, speak Welsh to each other or in front of the children. At that time Welsh was the language of failure. To be successful, people had to be English and dominated by English. That has changed hugely. When I led a development agency, the economic benefit of the language became apparent to me, but it was only when I became a Member of the National Assembly for Wales that I really wanted to learn, and I did learn. Over the past 10 years, I have become quite fluent in the language and S4C played a big part in that.
I still remember my first interview with Rhuanedd Richards, who now has a position in Plaid Cymru, the party of the hon. Member for Arfon. Four words were written on a card, and it was hugely difficult to speak them. However, I can now do Welsh language on S4C’s “Question Time”. A lot of that was due to the support and the opportunities that S4C has given me and hundreds of others. Without it, I would not have learned. I am pretty certain that without it we would not be able to say that the future for the Welsh language was bright.
What I am saying might cause some nervousness for the Whip and Ministers, which is why I made it clear at the start that I support the Government amendments. However, there will be disagreement between me and the members of other parties who have tabled amendments. I have two reasons for supporting the Bill. First, maintaining the link in funding as it stood would not have been sustainable. The fact that the deficit had to be tackled meant that there would be public spending reductions. The funding for S4C would have increased at the rate of inflation when every other body was suffering cuts. It was inevitable that the link had to be broken. One could argue that it should not be broken, and say that consequences would arise from breaking the link, but it was inevitable. However, we do need reassurances from the Front Bench about those consequences.
The second question is about what underlies the purpose of the Bill, which is accountability. If public money is being spent—it is taxpayers’ money—there must be accountability to Parliament. In theory, it could be devolved to another institution, but there still has to be accountability to those who represent the public. That is what the Bill does. Questions of independence clearly arise from that, and it is that aspect that I wish to question in the last part of my speech.
I seek assurances from the Minister. The first has to be on future funding. We know that for the next five years the level of funding has been clarified. That takes us to 2015, but we do not know what will happen after then. However, Ministers have stated that sufficient funds will be made available. What I want—I suspect that many of those who have written to us want it—is for the Minister to go as far as he can in ensuring an adequate level of funding for the Welsh television channel as we know it, so that it will continue to deliver the kind of services that have made such a difference to the future of the language. That is crucial.
The second issue is the channel’s independence. There is huge concern that the BBC is a dominant body in the broadcasting world. Many find it difficult to understand how that domination can be controlled or managed to ensure that S4C remains genuinely independent. I hope that the Minister will tell us how that independence is to be retained. There is still work to be done; agreement between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, S4C and the BBC has not yet been reached, so reassurance on that point will be incredibly helpful to many.
Another aspect is editorial and programming independence, under whatever framework is agreed. It would have been helpful if we had seen that framework before today’s debate, but that was not to be. Agreement has not yet been reached, so there is an element of uncertainty. That is why this discussion must go forward, but the independence of S4C is crucial. Unless that is guaranteed as far as possible, the people of Wales will not trust the arrangement.
The governance structure is not in front of us today, which is a pity. The transparency of that new structure is important, because we have to understand exactly how it will work. We must know what is happening and there has to be some genuine accountability, so hon. Members, who represent the taxpayer, can see the exact agreement.
Finally, I want to ask about independent production companies in Wales, because the creative industries there have been an engine for growth. It is a cultural nation and those companies are hugely important for Wales’s future. A concern is that the BBC, which is a programme maker, will want to make programmes for S4C, when, as part of the existing arrangement, the BBC already makes £20 million worth of programmes a year. There must be absolute certainty and a cast-iron guarantee that the remaining funding—near the £80 million mark, or whatever it may be—is for independent companies. We do not want the arrangement to mean that some of the spending goes to the BBC.
There are many other points that I would have liked to make. This may sound strange, because even though the hon. Member for Arfon and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion will vote differently from me, I agree with much of what they said in their speeches. They were reflecting serious concerns across the nation, from all parties on both sides of the House, and we are looking for as much reassurance on those issues as we can get today.
In the Committee stage of a Public Bill, there are few issues that Members can honestly describe as iconic, but I have no hesitation in describing the matter before us now in those terms. It is iconic not only for people in Wales, but for many people from Wales who live outside of the country and wish their children to learn the Welsh language, so that their families do not meet the same fate as was met by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and my father, where the Welsh language was once spoken in their families, but was not passed on to their children.
S4C is also vital inside Wales for normalising the use of the language. I speak from personal experience, brought up, as I was, in a household where one parent did not speak Welsh. I was always encouraged to speak the language and my community was bilingual. However, had it not been for S4C, I would not have not been able to speak Welsh in the way that I can today, and that is true for thousands of people across Wales. For that reason, I am here to speak to amendment 38, which seeks to remove S4C from schedule 3 of the Bill, and against new clause 2.
We have heard warm and supportive words from both sides of the Committee. Although I welcome that, we have to go beyond it into serious commitments. New clause 2 aims to abolish S4C’s existing funding arrangements, which are now carefully set at levels that reflect the channel’s commitments. They are replaced with a vague and undefined commitment to “sufficient” funding, as defined by Ministers, which brings to mind a phrase used by Lewis Carroll’s Humpy Dumpty:
On the question of what is sufficient funding, does the hon. Lady believe, as I do, that the judgment on what is sufficient on a day-to-day basis will not lie with Ministers at all, and that S4C will be dependent on the BBC’s judgment?
Susan Elan Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but with the best will in the world, and even if the best model proposed was that of subsuming S4C into the funding structure of the BBC, one has to recognise that the BBC will be facing its own cuts of 16% and will have greatly reduced funding anyway. That is a great problem.
We are not here to make special pleadings for Wales. All we ask for is parity. Channel 4 itself is not in the Bill, and there is no sense that a Minister should be deciding the fate of Channel 4 in the same way. All we ask for is fairness and equality for our Welsh-language fourth channel. I know lessons have been learnt—I hope so—and the all-party Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, chaired by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), commented that the original proceedings, which were undoubtedly shambolic, were undertaken with undue haste. We saw how S4C’s future was decided the night
Our cross-party report stated categorically that S4C is a value-for-money project. Indeed, around this time last year, or perhaps a little earlier, many of us enjoyed certain stories in the newspapers. We were almost waiting for the next selection suggesting that four people watched S4C, all were called Jones and, possibly, all lived in Caernarfon, apart from the three I know who watch it in Rhosllannerchrugog—a bit like the BBC Parliament channel at times—but that is not so. Looking at the figures in the Ofcom submission, we note that in 2009, 17% of all people in Wales watched S4C, down from the previous year. We do not know what the next census will say, but the previous one put the proportion of Welsh speakers in Wales at 20% to 21%. The 17% figure is therefore an extraordinarily high one and—dare I say it?—probably higher than the percentage of people, excluding Members of Parliament, who enjoy watching our good selves on the Parliament channel.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): To clarify the issue of viewing figures, would the hon. Lady not praise S4C, as I will, for the increase in viewers during a typical week in 2010? The increase was 12%, representing 616,000 citizens in Wales. The summer events programme of S4C saw an increase of 47% in its viewing figures. That is a growing success story, and we do not want to jeopardise that with what is proposed.
Many believe that S4C is not only a value-for-money project, which it is, but has played a crucial role in supporting and increasing the use of the Welsh language. I was most interested in the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire about an essay for which he won an award many years ago. Only this morning, I was looking at a totemic work in Welsh, “Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd”, by Islwyn Ffowc Elis, who is sadly not alive today but had he been, he would have been a constituent of mine in Clwyd South. In 1957, he wrote an almost Orwellian vision of two kinds of Wales: one where Welshness and the Welsh language was thriving; the where the Welsh language had practically died. That was the view in those days.
I will not go greatly into the history because we are not here for that; I will keep to the terms of the Bill. In my maiden speech, I made reference to the Welsh knot, and there were many other such factors in Welsh life as well, so it is no accident that, in historical terms, the Welsh language declined. Some such forces were statutory in origin, and our duty as law-makers, in support of the
I spoke at a debate on media regulation in Westminster Hall yesterday and the Minister made some positive comments about S4C. A part of me smiled, because when the same Minister spoke before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs he confessed he had never watched the channel; but he did have some liking for “Fireman Sam”—so that is progress.
Glyn Davies: It is completely unacceptable to make any derogatory reference to “Fireman Sam”. I have a three-year-old granddaughter and I have watched some 20 episodes about 50 times in the past month.
Susan Elan Jones: There will certainly be no future derogatory references to “Fireman Sam”. I am sure if Fireman Sam were here he would not only be speaking in favour of his channel—he would be voting for it.
It is nonsense to have a debate in which our only Welsh language television channel is seen as an obscure and expensive project, and a prime candidate to fill up a cuts quota. I believe in all seriousness that as a result of the Government’s proposals the future of S4C is in danger.
The Government have no excuse for not listening and making changes. I am not the greatest fan of the Thatcher Government; however, it is fair to say that they were prepared to change their mind. Interestingly, Earl Howe, whom I see was speaking in the other place, is totally against the changes to S4C. Perhaps the lady was not for turning, but she turned on that issue, because there was some recognition of its importance to the people of Wales. That importance remains today.
The Government may claim that they have listened to people in Wales by removing S4C from schedule 7. That, scandalously, would have allowed them to abolish the channel in future. I believe it would have been possible to keep the logo, although I cannot really see the point of that. They also plan to shift it out of schedule 4, and I support that; but they plan to do the same work through new clause 2. That is not enough. S4C needs to come out of schedule 3 and out of the Bill altogether. The BBC merger, funding reductions and uncertainty must not be allowed to go ahead.
I know that the Government will try to reassure us about funding. Under new clause 2 there would each year be a grant of funding that the Secretary of State “considers sufficient”. That is not good enough. Can we imagine the uproar in the House if suddenly Members of Parliament were told “We will decide on your salary, expenses and allowances: they will be what we think is sufficient”? That is what Wales’s only Welsh-language channel will face.
I am sure that the Government think that the provision sounds reasonable, but what does it mean? Nothing, in short: the warm but meaningless words lack precision or any specifics. How on earth is S4C to plan for its future if it does not know how much money it will receive every year? How can it rely on Ministers to judge what is sufficient if they have already shown a lack of understanding of the channel? If their understanding has improved, I welcome that.
Hywel Williams: The provision will affect not only the channel itself but private organisations—independent producers—including many in my constituency. There will be a knock-on effect on them. Like the channel, they will not be able to plan. There is a large investment in my constituency from Cwmni Da, and that investment, with 50-odd jobs, could hang in the balance.
Susan Elan Jones: I agree that the Bill affects a large number of jobs in the Welsh economy and the broadcasting industry—jobs in many different parts of Wales. It is a great worry. The word “sufficient” could mean anything in the world, and that is why it has been chosen. The Government will also try to reassure us over independence. We have been told in warmly worded statements about their unerring commitment to a strong future for Welsh-language programming and to S4C as an independent service. If that is true, however, why cannot S4C be taken out of the Bill and treated in the same way as Channel 4?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I am worried about the hon. Lady’s continual references to Channel 4. Channel 4 does not receive public money. She does not want S4C to be treated in the same way as Channel 4.
Susan Elan Jones: I do not wish to be impolite, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understands my point. Channel 4 was originally included in the Bill, but it was taken out by the Lords. The hon. Gentleman should read the debate that took place in the Lords.
The Government, through schedule 3, want to take S4C’s independence away. The schedule looks innocent, but it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that will allow the Government far-reaching powers over the way in which S4C is run. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has talked about the governance structure. The powers of modification to constitutional arrangements allow Ministers to change S4C’s key personnel in the future, block appointments to the board, or otherwise control the management structure. Ministers could therefore block the appointment of a person they do not like, or fill the board with people they do. How exactly is that supposed to guarantee editorial independence? It seriously undermines the channel’s ability to hold the Government to account.
If S4C stays in schedule 3, the Government have the ability, incredibly, to prevent it from employing any staff at all. Removing that power would be a sure-fire way of killing off the channel should any Government wish to do so. I know the Government will tell us that they do not wish to do so and they would never use the powers, but that prompts the question: if they do not need the powers and think they are wrong, why on earth is S4C in the schedule? It is welcome to hear that the powers will not be used, but I want to see it before I believe it. That is why S4C must be removed from schedule 3 and from the Bill. If it is not, it is Welsh-language programming that will suffer the most severely.
The Government claim that they are committed to Welsh-language broadcasting, but those assurances ring hollow from a Government who have not considered the full effect on one of their key institutions. They do not seem to realise that the current success of that
In 1901, there were five counties in Wales where 70% of the population could speak Welsh. Over the past 20 years, that has not been the case in any Welsh county. For all the success stories, Welsh has declined as a community language. However, thanks to initiatives such as S4C, we have seen a rise in Welsh speakers, although we should bear in mind where we have come from: at the start of the 20th century, 60% of the people of Wales spoke Welsh. It is anticipated that the figure will be 20% or 21%—more, I hope—in the census results, thanks to initiatives such as S4C. If we want to protect the language, we must take it seriously and support the institutions that use and promote it successfully, which is what S4C has done.
The Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into S4C found that it played a key part in supporting the use of Welsh in homes and communities, and that it has brought Welsh into many homes where it would not have been heard otherwise. Crucially, we found that it provides value for money in doing so. S4C is doing well for Welsh and nothing else is going to step into that breach if S4C fails as a result of the Government’s current plans. A suite of rooms at the BBC controlled by Ministers and funded according to their assessment of what “sufficient” happens to be is not good enough.
I have said previously that I am not against having a debate on the future of S4C. Indeed, the leaders of the four main parties in Wales, including the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, have jointly called for a review into and an independent inquiry on S4C’s running. I support that, but the Bill will kill off the possibility of meaningful future debate. It aims to allow widespread, far-reaching and irreversible changes to S4C’s management and structure without further debate or scrutiny in Parliament. That is why we must take S4C out of schedule 3, through amendment 38, and reject new clause 2, which would cut off its funding. That is also why I want to press for a Division on amendment 38 at the appropriate time.
Earlier, the hon. Member for Dover spoke eloquently about localism and decentralisation. At another point in the Bill, he will raise issues pertinent to his community, and I am looking forward to that debate and our discussions. When hon. Members make this decision today, all I ask is that they will consider those of us for whom the issue is deeply pertinent and iconic. Those communities that have seen a decline in the Welsh language are now watching that change. The future of the channel and the Welsh language is in Members’ hands today. If S4C is removed from the Bill altogether, we will be able to have a proper discussion over what is best for its future. Otherwise, I am pretty sure that S4C as we know it will not survive. I urge hon. Members to put the vagaries of the party Whip and machine aside
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I rise briefly to support the speeches made by my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire, and for Ceredigion, which I have probably mispronounced entirely. One may ask why this issue would affect or interest the constituency and people of Dover. Like Wales, we are far from London, and we often feel forgotten about and neglected in—dare I say—a London-centric world. Inevitably, there is strong sympathy towards localism and decentralisation, but they must be effective.
It is no secret that not all Government Members are fully fans of the BBC, and some of us have had concerns about it at times. If the reform happens, one wants to ensure that S4C and Welsh TV are successful over the longer term. Increasing viewing share is particularly important. It has come down in recent years from, I think, 3.4% to something more like 3.1%, and one wants to see that increase. One wants more of a sense of a renaissance in the culture of Wales and for the Welsh language to be preserved, which my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire spoke about eloquently and passionately. I think I am right in saying that S4C was the creation of a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher, and it is in many ways a Conservative triumph and success story. It has been much loved and cherished by the Welsh Language Society and Welsh speakers across the board.
Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman is closer to Wales than he thinks, because Dover is actually “dyfr” which means “the big water” in Welsh and that is where it comes from. I just thought that I would enlighten the Committee.
Following the praising of the decision to set up S4C, I want to emphasise the cross-party consensus in Wales on the matter. As the hon. Member for Clwyd South said, the Conservative party along with Plaid Cymru, the Liberals and Labour have taken an evenly fine view, and that is reflected across Welsh society in general.
Charlie Elphicke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I believe that Ministers have at heart the cultural renaissance of Wales and the future success of Welsh language television. Sometimes, people in England, like me, do watch S4C. Those who subscribe to Sky, as I do, can actually watch S4C, as I have. I regret to tell the Committee that I cannot understand a word of it, but I have seen from time to time what seem to be some good soap operas. I am sure that other Members will be able to tell the Committee more about that, including my hon. Friend the Minister, who seems to be able to watch it and understand it from Somerset.
“We welcome the commitment made by the DCMS and the BBC that S4C’s editorial and operational independence will be maintained under any new partnership arrangement between the organisations. However, we have concerns about how this will work in practice. We call on the Government to spell out exactly how this independence will be guaranteed under the new arrangements.”
Wherever one stands on the movement across and the future funding of S4C, the key concern across the board for the Government is to ensure that S4C and Welsh TV is really successful, that it maintains its independence and cultural identity and that that is not squashed out of it by the dead hand of the BBC. Some of us in the Conservative party have our suspicions about that. How will that independence be preserved so that Wales can have the cultural renaissance about which my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and the hon. Member for Arfon so eloquently and beautifully spoke?
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): We welcome you back this afternoon, Mr Robertson. We have had an interesting debate and all the speeches have been powerful in their own way. They referred to the importance and interconnectedness of culture, language and identity. I have great sympathy for the points that have been made. I try to speak more clearly and to enunciate my words carefully when I come here because if I spoke in my normal Yorkshire dialect some people might find me difficult to understand. Parts of the Yorkshire dialect have died, and that which was retained was spoken in the mining communities by the men who worked underground so it was a male dialect more than a generic one. It is sad to see the death of a dialect, let alone a language.
Culture, language, a sense of identity and a sense of place all come together. When they are coterminous with a nation, it is clear how powerful the language is. It is at the core of identity. Of course, we know the language expired in a variety of different ways but, as was mentioned in several contributions, the British state played a role in seeking to eliminate the language. That is the truth and we may as well speak it out. That is partly how it happened. If that is the case, as it is, and what I have just said about identity is the case, which it is too, it is incumbent on Parliament, not to do any social engineering, but to create institutions that help to right a wrong that was done by previous generations of people in this place and elsewhere.
S4C is a partial attempt to assist in remedying that process. It is right that it was established. There has been much talk of the way the channel came into existence. There was a struggle for identity and that continues in Wales. There was a huge debate in the country and in the House about whether the channel should come into existence. The Government were in one mind and then another. In the end, justice prevailed. I say all that because we are about to change the way in which S4C operates in quite a fundamental way. I want to dwell on that for a few seconds, although I shall not speak for long because the contributions that have been made were so powerful.
The process by which the channel came into existence and the parliamentary debates and scrutiny that took place at that time will not take place this time for the reasons I gave earlier when I spoke on clause 2. The Government have decided to proceed with fundamentally changing the constitutional character of S4C by secondary legislation. I will not refer to the financial issues, although they are relevant. It cannot possibly be right to tinker with a television channel that is about identity and news production—the Government should not interfere in any way with news production—by changing the constitutional structures without a proper debate. Questions remain in my mind about how clause 3 will work.
Glyn Davies: I just want to ask the hon. Gentleman for clarity on his position. Two controversial steps are being taken; one is to break the link in terms of funding, which is a particularly important issue, and the other is to secure some funding from the BBC licence fee for S4C. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would make it clear whether the Opposition disagree with either or both of those steps.
Jon Trickett: We would prefer this debate to take place through primary legislation so that we can have proper accountability, rather than spending half an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon on an order that has not yet been laid before us. It is wholly inappropriate to tinker with a television channel. As everybody knows, how the funding operates can affect the independence of the channel, and I would argue that the way it is funded is only one aspect of the wider constitutional problems raised by clause 3 and schedule 2.
“the name of the body; the chair of the body…members of the body…employees of the body exercising functions on its behalf…the body’s powers to employ staff; governing procedures and arrangements…reports and accounts; the extent to which the body is accountable to Ministers; the extent to which the body exercises functions on behalf of the Crown.”
All those powers have to be exercised in a particular way, and we will come to that later. It cannot be right, however, to make such a change through secondary legislation. It cannot be right that a Minister should have such sweeping powers over an institution that is about culture, the reproduction of language and the production of local, national and international news. No doubt the Minister will say that he intends to exercise those powers carefully and through an intermediary institution such as the BBC, but the truth is that those powers are in the Bill. They will be implemented in future years not by primary legislation, which can be properly scrutinised, but by secondary legislation.
I listened carefully to the points that the hon. Member for Ceredigion made. He made an eloquent speech, but it felt to me as though he was having a huge internal debate over exactly how he feels about these actions. He said that he would not vote for the amendment because he believed—this was the only point he really made, on which he rested his case—that everybody has to be accountable. The problem is that we are not dealing with a normal clerical or administrative function; we are dealing with a TV channel. TV channels require independence, and I do not need to spell out why that should be the case. In the case of an institution created to help to reinforce a culture, which to some extent was oppressed by the British state, it is even more important that independence is guaranteed. Is not there a tension between the need for independence on the one hand, which is absolutely essential for a TV channel, and the case he makes for accountability on the other?
I believe that every institution, including TV channels, if they are funded publicly, should be accountable. That is obviously the case. However, the way that we choose to make certain institutions accountable should not
I shall bring my brief comments to a close. There is an amendment, which adds a subsection to the clause, which says that we want independence to be guaranteed. I put it to the hon. Member for Ceredigion, who tabled the amendment, that it is difficult to see how, even if that subsection is added, independence can be genuinely guaranteed given the extraordinary, sweeping powers—I will not say, “dictatorial”—that the Minister is taking for himself this afternoon, if he gets his way, over a TV channel. It simply cannot be right that that should happen. We will certainly vote against the proposal unless the Minister pulls some kind of rabbit out of a hat, though I cannot imagine he will.
Mr Heath: I shall open the debate by saying something that Ministers do not often say when standing to suggest to a Committee that they will not accept an amendment: I have a great deal of sympathy with all hon. Members, with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Hemsworth, who was a little out of his depth on Welsh matters. They spoke with enormous conviction and feeling for S4C. I understand entirely where they are coming from, the concerns they have and why they want to express them in the Committee today. Under different circumstances, I might well be expressing the same concerns, which is why it is very important to me that I answer them as best I can, and that is not because I am directly affected by S4C.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned that I used to watch S4C, and, yes, I did. I used to dip into “Pobol y Cwm” every now and again to catch up with what was going on. [ Interruption. ] I am also extremely familiar with “Fireman Sam” and the events in Pontypandy. I do not remember there being a huge Welsh speaking population there I fear, but I hope that is improving. I remember Italian being spoken rather more often than Welsh in Pontypandy. Somerset is not a million miles away and it is a county with a Welsh name—Gwlad-yr-haf—where we used to get Welsh programming on our TV sets. I grew up with Television Wales and the West, which some people may remember. It became Harlech Television after that.
As a child, I watched Welsh programmes, although not often. There was not much of it and it was not enough, but it was there. I wondered what language they were speaking and wanted to know more about it. That engendered a personal interest in the Welsh language, which has persisted. A reason I used to watch Sianel Pedwar was an attempt to learn a bit of Welsh. I failed because I could not get round the mutations. If I could only look up things sensibly in a dictionary I, as an Englishman, would get on better with my learning of
Hywel Williams: The point the Minister made about “Fireman Sam” exemplifies the generic nature of the channel. As some hon. Members will know, “Fireman Sam” is actually “Sam Tân”. It was produced in Welsh first and then dubbed, as were “SuperTed” and a host of other programmes, especially ones for children, and those programmes are sold overseas.
The point about S4C is that in some ways it mimics the generic output of other channels that are much better resourced, such as the BBC or ITV channels, on a fairly modest budget in broadcasting terms, and sells them overseas in Italian or whatever. That is part of the problem of having the budget cut so severely.
Mr Heath: I honestly did not know that “Fireman Sam” was originally Welsh and then English, rather than the other way round. I knew “SuperTed” was. The Italian reference was to Bella; I hope she is still Bella in Welsh. That is enough of that; we will get into childhood reminiscence if we are not careful.
I know the huge importance of Sianel Pedwar in the renaissance of the Welsh language. That was desperately needed and it has fulfilled the role admirably. The Government recognise that. It is precisely because we want a sustainable future for S4C that we want to ensure that the arrangements for funding and governance are in place to enable that future to be a bright one.
If I take issue, it is with the more apocalyptic tone that some members have taken, suggesting that in a few years there will be no S4C. No, that is not the case. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire raised a number of issues and I enjoyed listening to his speech, as he clearly spoke from the heart. He asked for a number of assurances. I start by giving some of those assurances. Those who do not want to believe in assurances from Ministers will not. However, they are real and are the intentions of the Government, and will be demonstrated as we conclude the ongoing negotiations about the future governance of S4C, so that everyone can see. The start of that is the agreement with the BBC that has been laid in Parliament this afternoon. Everybody will be able to see that, and it guarantees the funding arrangements for S4C during the comprehensive spending review period to 2015. There is a clear statement of intent that shows that the fear of the apocalypse is misplaced.
It is incumbent on everybody involved in the debate not to use hyperbole to suggest something is happening when it is not. That will unnecessarily alarm people and produce the reaction of which the hon. Member for Arfon warned. I do not want that to happen in any case, but certainly not on the basis of a false prospectus, which would be sad. There is more agreement on the subject than one might detect from the tenor of some of the debate both inside and out. There are some basic principles where there is not a huge disagreement.
Several times the position of the political leaders in the Welsh Assembly has been mentioned. I do not want to misrepresent their views, because that would be entirely improper and I take careful note of the points that they have made. I have the letter here, which is signed by Carwyn Jones, Ieuan Wyn Jones, Nick Bourne and Kirsty Williams, and in which they raised their concerns directly with the Prime Minister. Their concerns are largely about ensuring that there is a proper consultative process, so that we have an agreed future for Sianel Pedwar. In their letter two things leap out of the page at me. The first is that it states:
“a comprehensive examination of all aspects relating to the governance and regulatory oversight of S4C, including where political responsibility should lie, on the basis of ensuring a secure and sustainable funding stream for the channel.”
Mr Heath: That is why I did not want to misrepresent what the political leaders in Wales said. I made it plain that part of what they are saying is that we need to reach a consensus on future funding. It is not my intention to misrepresent that. On a key issue, which is whether we should retain the existing legislative position of the straitjacketed increases in funding for S4C, there is a readiness to accept that every single broadcasting organisation is facing a cut in revenue at the moment. S4C, inevitably, cannot be entirely protected from that, which is why the change in the Bill, in primary legislation, is required.
Mr Heath: It is not possible to compare the funding of S4C and the funding of the BBC as a whole. As the hon. Lady knows, the BBC has been asked to take on substantial extra responsibilities. That is not the case for S4C. There is not a direct read-across. I picked the hon. Lady up on Channel 4 in my intervention, because she said that Channel 4 had not had the same cuts. Too right, Channel 4 has not had the same cuts, because Channel 4 does not get any money from the public purse.
Mr Heath: In any case, it is important to recognise that the annual total available to S4C—some £90 million in 2011-12, which will go down to £83 million in 2012-13 and stay there until 2015—will be cut, but it is not a massive cut compared with what is happening in the rest of the world and this country. If I was trying to make a partisan point, I would say that it is rather less than the cuts in public funding proposed by the previous Government. To describe it as catastrophic is to over-egg the case.
The second point in the letter from the four political leaders in Wales was on recognising partnership arrangements between the BBC and S4C. Again, we are not talking about something far outwith what is reasonable. The BBC and S4C have acted in partnership for ages. The hon. Member for Hemsworth talked about the devastating attack on news collection and delivery caused by the Government’s interfering with S4C, but the BBC does that for S4C. That is how it operates at the moment, so it was perhaps not his best point. The letter states:
“We agree that there may be potential for increased efficiency and effectiveness in delivering Welsh language media services through improved partnership between the BBC and S4C. This partnership has been a feature of S4C’s many successes in the last 30 years.”
It is a question of developing the future structure in a way that satisfies the very real concerns expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion and for Montgomeryshire and by the hon. Member for Arfon. That needs to be reconciled with a secure future for the service. The most important thing that we can do is give some assurances.
Jon Trickett: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s arguments, but the problem with his case is that it is not in the Bill. We have not had a chance to explore the evidence he has presented, or his references to ongoing conversations and to a document that is to be tabled in the House this afternoon; nor is it our duty to do so, because we are considering the Bill as presented to the Committee. Does the Minister accept that this is not the appropriate way to deal with such complex issues?
Mr Heath: I do not really accept that point. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but Government new clause 2 will make the funding arrangements and the protection of those arrangements explicit in primary legislation. I have told him that the agreement with the BBC making that explicit has been tabled before the House and is available to Members. Everyone will have a chance to look at the agreement in detail and absorb it before the Bill reaches the statute book. The details of the governance arrangements are the one missing bit, and I am about to give the Committee some clear assurances on that. The reason we cannot put that before the Committee today—and I believe the hon. Gentleman knows this—is that the negotiations between the BBC, S4C and the Government are ongoing. I can tell him what we intend the outcome to be, and, obviously, we will not accept something that falls short of that intended outcome.
The Government are not going to accept an agreement between the broadcasters that falls short of the assurances I am giving to the Committee. The House will perhaps
The secondary issue will be well considered inside and outside the House. When the Bill was first published, the Opposition said that they had intended to pursue a similar process—we were told that we had, in fact, stolen their Bill—so it is not such an exceptional way of going about our business.
I will now deal with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and others have said. Let me be absolutely explicit. My first assurance, in response to one of the points made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, is that future funding levels are sufficient for S4C to meet its statutory duties. We set out the funding levels for the period of the spending review subject to the passage of this Bill. Government new clause 2 will ensure that S4C receives sufficient funding in the post-review period. That will be enshrined in legislation and will ultimately remain the responsibility of the Secretary of State.
The hon. Member for Clwyd South did not like the word “sufficient”. I am not sure what word she would use instead, but for most Government functions that safeguard is not there; it is simply expected as the normal duty of the Secretary of State. The fact that that term is in the legislation is a considerable advance, and it is not uncommon in legislation where there is such a commitment. To apply more detailed criteria is simply to invite judicial review. The previous Labour Government and Governments before them were always careful not to do that, and we are in the same position. I assure the hon. Lady that the term provides a protection for future funding. We have been clear that at the end of the funding period, which is set out plainly, the review will ensure that that funding goes on at an appropriate level.
Susan Elan Jones: It was not my purpose to debate with the Minister which adjectives we like best. My concern was over specifics about funding agreements, recognising the substantial cut that the Welsh fourth channel will face, and we ask that the Government be specific. It is not about the word “sufficient” per se, but the fact that it is totally meaningless.
Mr Heath: I do not honestly know what the hon. Lady wants. If she does not want the primary legislation to provide a safeguard ensuring that Ministers provide sufficient funding for the future, she surely does not want the primary legislation to set out future funding for eternity. That would be an absurdity. Both sides of the Committee have accepted that we have to move away from the previous formula. I do not know what the hon. Lady wants, other than perhaps simply to make a point.
The second assurance I can give, which is important for the understanding of governance, is that the board of S4C will not have a majority of people from the BBC on it. The Government have made it clear that the BBC will not have a majority on either the S4C board or the S4C executive. The next assurance, which I think is critical—I have heard hon. Members’ suggestions—is that S4C will have total editorial and programming independence. The Government have made it clear that S4C will be and must be editorially independent within the framework of the partnership. It will be for Ministers to judge the extent to which that is enshrined in the agreement, but we are confident that we will secure an agreement in which that is made absolutely clear.
Hywel Williams: Having a majority of people not from the BBC is interesting, but does the Minister have any views about the requirement for super-majorities for some decisions that might be taken? That would essentially give the BBC a block on such decisions.
Mr Heath: No, the Government are not entertaining that sort of suggestion for the editorial programming independence of S4C. If the hon. Gentleman has fears about that—I understand why he would be suspicious; that is perfectly proper; it is his job—the new governance structure will be enshrined in a dedicated and transparent agreement and laid before Parliament. He will have the opportunity to look at it. He has the opportunity today to look at the funding agreement, the new BBC agreement. He will have the opportunity to look at the governance arrangements in due course once they have been concluded. He will then be in a position to judge whether they meet the needs of the service.
It is crucial to understand that, in exactly the form that was suggested in the letter from the political leadership in Wales, the relationship between S4C and the BBC will be a partnership. There is no question of S4C becoming a subsidiary of the BBC. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion pointed out, it has a different structure from Alba. Alba is to a certain extent a partnership with MG Alba; nevertheless, it is still a BBC channel. This is not and will not be a BBC channel. It will be Sianel Pedwar Cymru and will remain that, but it will have that enhanced partnership with the BBC while maintaining its editorial independence.
Mr Heath: May I just make one last point and then I will give way? There is an important assurance to give to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, but the issue was also raised by other members of the Committee. The current use of independent production companies will be retained. The Government have made it clear that 100% of S4C’s commissioning budget will be spent in the independent sector, as now. That is an important assurance in the context of the Welsh language, and for the enhancement of the creative industries and the wider creative community in Wales. I know how well it has done. This is not simply a transfer of all functions to departments of the BBC. That is not the intention.
Mr Heath: The level of accountability is simply in terms of the funding arrangements which will be set. The accountability is almost in reverse. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will have accountability through the terms of the Bill to ensure that sufficient funding goes to S4C to meet its needs. I mentioned the prospects of judicial review earlier and I said how all sensible Governments avoid the prospect of justiciability on a triviality. The basic decision would be subject to judicial review of whether a sufficiency had been provided.
I found it interesting that the hon. Member for Hemsworth appeared to be arguing for a complete reversal of his Government’s policy during their entire period in office. He said that he now favours devolution of responsibility for broadcasting to the Welsh Government and Welsh Assembly. [ Interruption. ] That is clearly what he said. If he did not mean to say it, I would be happy for him to correct it.
Jon Trickett: It is important that we all listen carefully to what is said. There will always be disagreement on Committees and perhaps we all seek to misrepresent each other to a degree in order to strengthen our own arguments. I did not make such a case. I simply asked why the Minister is giving the powers, which are so sweeping, to other Ministers to apply to the channel. I said that it struck me that there was a tension between the argument for accountability, which he now denies will happen, and the argument for independence. That was my central point. Those are the questions that I asked.
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman must have asked them in a slightly odd way, because he gave the impression that he thought that a Minister in the Welsh Government should have responsibility for these matters, which, as I have said, is not his party’s position. Some would argue that that is exactly what should happen—one member on the Committee’s Opposition Benches and another on the Government Back Benches seem to think that that should be the case—but that is not the Government’s position at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman has said that we are giving ourselves sweeping powers, but we are not. As far as S4C is concerned, the Bill is putting into primary legislation a change in the funding arrangements. It also includes a provision for future changes in governance, which will not be determined by a Minister alone. The Bill does not give those powers to the Minister. It just gives powers to the Minister to introduce proposals on the basis of what is agreed between S4C and the BBC. That is a crucial distinction. Listening to the hon. Gentleman, one would think that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will be sitting in Cardiff directing what will happen next in Cwmderi. That is not how it will work.
I hope that my assurances have helped the Committee. They are genuine assurances and can be checked against delivery. This will not happen in a vacuum or behind closed doors. Things will be laid out and clearly put forward.
Susan Elan Jones: The Minister may have misheard some mutations in what my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth said and in what I said earlier about Channel 4 and its presence or, indeed, non-presence in the Bill. One never knows when the odd soft mutation might get in the way. On the powers in schedule 3, which my hon. Friend has addressed, does the Minister honestly believe that it is the job of the Government to prevent a television channel from employing staff? Would he say that these are not appropriate powers and that he does not think that they will be used? Can the Minister tell us, hand on heart, that he considers it right that the Government should be able to utilise those powers?
Mr Heath: Of course it is not. The schedule applies to a wide range of public bodies. [ Interruption. ] Yes, I understand the structure of the Bill. Obviously, the hon. Member for Telford has not read about how these things work. Clause 3 gives the power to modify constitutional arrangements. Would a Minister have the power to actually put before the House the new agreement between S4C and the BBC without clause 3? The answer is no. That is why S4C is included in the schedule—without it, there would be no power for a Minister to introduce that proposal without a new Bill and a new Act. That does not seem to be a terribly sensible thing to do when negotiations are now at a late stage. We will have a proposal. Does that mean that Ministers will manage the staff of S4C? No, of course it does not. I ask the Committee to use sense when reading the Bill, rather than going off on flights of fancy.
As I hope I have indicated, the Government are committed to a strong and independent Welsh language TV service, supported by sustainable funding. We have explained why, in order to do that, the existing legislative arrangements must be changed. The hon. Member for Arfon was kind enough to say that he did not expect a Welsh exception to the rule, given the difficulties currently facing all public bodies, but at the moment, there is a Welsh exception, because S4C has a statutory link between its funding and the retail prices index.
The Government amendments put the decision into legislation and, for the first time, set in statute a requirement that S4C receives sufficient funding to fulfil its statutory and vitally important role as an independent Welsh language broadcaster. As I hope the Committee agrees, guaranteed, inflation-proof funding from the Government is not tenable in the existing financial climate. The decision to change S4C’s funding arrangements is part of the cross-government drive to reduce the cost of public bodies and improve their accountability. Public broadcasters, like every organisation in receipt of public money, must reflect the financial context in which we now work.
It is important to note that the funding changes to S4C have been implemented from this year, with S4C’s agreement. Because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been making payments to S4C in line with the reduced levels that were announced at the time
I am acutely aware of the passionate interest in S4C—and even if I were not, I would be now, after listening to today’s debate and receiving one or two e-mails on the subject. Not only is that apparent in the Committee, but across Wales and elsewhere, which is an important point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover has said, we inhabit a digital world in which S4C can be accessed anywhere that can pick up a cable or satellite broadcast, and a large number of people who do not live in Wales have an interest in the Welsh language and in watching S4C. I am aware of the channel’s importance, its iconic status, and the contribution it makes to the cultural and economic life in Wales.
I reiterate, therefore, that the Government’s proposals do not alter the policy announced last year on the funding of S4C. They simply represent a change to the legislative mechanism by which alterations will be made. The proposals do not, in any way, undermine the Government’s commitments to a strong future for Welsh language programming, to S4C as an independent service, and to a review of S4C’s strategy and finance before the end of the comprehensive spending review period, in order to inform future funding levels for S4C.
In fact, the amendments reinforce the Government’s commitment to S4C. The new clause will set in statute a requirement that S4C receives sufficient funding to be able to fulfil its statutory role as an independent Welsh language broadcaster. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport wrote to the chair of the S4C authority in October 2010, setting out the funding for S4C for the spending review period up to March 2015. The Secretary of State considers those funding levels to be sufficient for S4C to provide its public service. As I have mentioned, however, he has made it clear that there will be a review of S4C’s strategy and finances before the end of the spending review period to inform decisions about S4C’s future level of funding.
It is also worth noting that constructive discussions are under way between S4C and the BBC about the new governance structure that will underpin the new funding arrangements from 2013. It will be subject to consultation with absolutely everybody who has a legitimate interest in it, and I happy to reiterate that that will include the Welsh Government. I believe that the Government’s amendments are a clear signal that our plans to reduce the fiscal deficit by cutting the cost of public bodies in no way undermine our continuing commitment to a strong, independent and sustainably funded Welsh language broadcaster.
I have listened to the arguments for the amendments proposed by the hon. Members for Clwyd South, for Arfon and for Ceredigion. I do not believe that removing S4C from schedule 3 is in the long-term interests of S4C. Without it, we cannot establish the long-term partnership between S4C and the BBC that was set out in the spending review. That partnership will allow S4C and the BBC to benefit from efficiencies and shared expertise, which will support a strong and sustainable future for the channel. The partnership is also necessary to allow the BBC Trust to retain accountability for the licence fee funding it provides to S4C, which the Trust has a duty to do under the terms of its charter.
A number of other amendments have been put before the Committee today, with good intentions. However, I believe they will undermine rather than secure the aim of a sustainably funded, independent Welsh language broadcaster. Therefore, I cannot recommend that the Committee supports them.
Amendment 55 proposes that S4C’s operational and financial independence will be written into statute by the reforms. The Government have made clear their commitment to S4C as an independent service, but our proposals will achieve this within the partnership arrangements. That wider context is crucial. Defining what independence means within the partnership arrangement is a substantive part of the discussions between S4C, the BBC and DCMS, and securing S4C’s editorial independence is a shared objective of all those involved in the discussions.
The Government have made it clear that S4C must be satisfied with the partnership arrangements before they are implemented and, therefore, a level of independence with which S4C is satisfied must be agreed. No one involved in this issue can have a greater incentive to protect S4C’s independence than S4C itself. However, attempting to protect S4C’s independence by stipulating operational independence in the Bill would undermine the essential reforms that the Government have proposed. The partnership must be meaningful and clearly defined, where S4C is editorially independent, but the arrangement must also allow for the BBC to offer expertise and support, and exercise financial accountability for the licence fee. That financial accountability by the BBC could be undermined by stipulating operational independence in the amendment, and so we are not in a position to support its inclusion in the Bill.
Amendment 54 would place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that S4C Digital is sufficiently funded to undertake its statutory duties. That is a worthy objective, with which the Government fully agree. Indeed, that is the aim of the Government’s amendments to which I have already referred, and I would urge hon. Members to look again at the wording of the Government’s proposed new clause, which represents a good deal for S4C as a whole, not just S4C Digital, which is referred to in the amendment.
Amendment 54 to clause 4, however, relies on S4C being included in schedule 4 of the Bill, and the Government have already made clear, in a written ministerial statement on 11 July, why S4C should not be included in schedule 4. If the Government were required to alter S4C’s funding arrangements using the powers in clause 4, there would be a requirement on the Government to consult. As I have already stated and as was outlined in the written ministerial statement, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has concluded that it would not be appropriate to consult on that element of the reforms. That is simply a matter of the importance of ensuring that we have the funding arrangements for S4C in place this year.
Amendment 57 would have the effect of devolving an element of responsibility for broadcasting, which in the Government’s opinion is rightly an issue that remains the responsibility of UK Ministers. I know there are some on the Committee who do not take that view. However, that is the position held since the advent of the Welsh Assembly, and directly through the Broadcasting Act 1981.
Retaining broadcasting as a reserved matter is the most effective way of maintaining national standards and securing broadcasters’ independence. There is a greater benefit to the nation in having broadcasting reserved and, while the majority of S4C’s audience resides in Wales, as I have said already there is a significant and growing minority who benefit from the service in the wider UK. By placing a duty on the Government to seek the consent of the Welsh Government for their constitutional and funding reforms, the amendment would have the effect of partly devolving broadcasting. The Government have not taken that position.
Mr Mark Williams: My hon. Friend’s interpretation of the amendment is right in terms of the part devolution of broadcasting responsibility, which is for good reason. Several of us alluded to the holistic approach that broadcasting has assumed in Wales in terms of Welsh Assembly education policy and other cultural matters. There is an importance that the Government need to recognise.
Mr Heath: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. S4C is qualitatively different from other broadcasters, with the possible exception of ALBA, although it is different. S4C plays an important role in the Welsh media and education in encouraging the very welcome growth of the Welsh language, both in Wales and elsewhere.
The Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly are important partners. If I stand on a narrow constitutional interpretation, I hope my hon. Friend will not misunderstand me: we cannot devolve the responsibility under present arrangements, but we can fully involve the Welsh Government and Assembly in the outcomes that emerge from discussions between S4C and the BBC. It is essential that we do that and that the consultation is meaningful and ongoing, including, in due course, the review and so on.
My hon. Friend may have noticed that Baroness Rawlings made very specific assurances that the Welsh Government would be formally consulted on the order using clause 3 and that there would be a full public consultation. Assembly Members would, as a matter of principle, be able to make representations and the Secretary of State must take all those views into account when coming forward with the final proposal. However, I do not believe that an amendment to the Bill requiring consultation with the National Assembly of Wales is necessary. We have not specified such a requirement for any other body.
Proposed new clause 5 represents a significantly altered version of Government new clause 2 to set out S4C’s long-term funding arrangements. Proposed new clause 5 would, in practice, serve only to undermine the stability and funding of the broadcaster in the long term. It is clearly not sustainable or practical to suggest that the Government can go on funding S4C with greater and greater sums each year. In 2010, the leaders of each of the four main parties in Wales acknowledged that the existing funding arrangements that stipulate S4C’s ever-increasing budget are unsustainable, as indicated in the letter. If new clause 5 were accepted, we would be in a similar position to that defined by existing statute, albeit that the funding would not be index-linked. That would not be a sensible way forward.
One undertaking that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has given to the BBC is that he will not seek to place any new financial burdens on it in this licence fee period. Therefore, there is a risk of unpicking the agreement that it set out with S4C over the continuing funding.
I hope that I have been able to reassure hon. Members that the Government’s proposals and commitments provide the assurance they seek and which they rightly demand on behalf of viewers of S4C. Specifically, the Government’s proposals ensure that future funding levels will be sufficient for S4C to meet its statutory duties; they make it clear that the BBC will not have a majority on the S4C board or executive and that S4C will continue to be afforded editorial independence; they provide that the proposed new governance arrangements will be fully agreed with S4C and then subject to consultation; and that S4C’s commissioning budget will continue to be spent entirely in the independent sector.
I hope that on that basis we will have set a very clear benchmark for the continuing prospering of S4C in its essential role in Wales. I hope that the Committee will not accept non-Government amendments, but will be able to support the Government amendments. I look forward to the agreement on governance, because it will underline the commitments that I have given today, to which I hope members of Committee listened carefully and which will do exactly what they are seeking to do in protecting the interests of the channel, the Welsh language and their constituents.
Mr Mark Williams: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, and I do not question in any way his sincerity in putting forward the Government’s view. He used the phrase “checked against delivery” and it is sadly my contention that we are not in a position to check against delivery at present. The discussions between the BBC and S4C are still taking place, and we do not know the outcome yet. At the start of my comments this morning, I said that the amendments in my name and that of the hon. Member for Arfon were probing. That remains the case, and we reserve the freedom to return to those matters at a later stage should that be required.
I understand the Minister when he mentions Government assurances, but the proverbial proof of the pudding has to be in the eating, and he has more confidence in the discussions between S4C and the BBC than I do currently. I still question the capacity of S4C, under the arrangements, to operate in a fully independent manner when debates are still to be had on whether BBC Wales staff members should become part of the management team. It remains to be seen whether that issue can be resolved, and I believe it to be incompatible with the concept of an independent S4C. We still have the ultimate position whereby the BBC could withdraw funding from S4C in extreme circumstances if it deemed S4C not to be meeting the terms of the operating agreement. That does not strike me as a partnership, but rather as one smaller organisation being dominated by another. We also still have the question of funding post-2015, which seems uncertain.
I return to the point that I made in my initial remarks, which was that there has been a consensus not that the review would take place at the end of the spending review period, but that there should be a full review.
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Clwyd South about the word “sufficiency” and the inability to provide a definition of what “sufficient resources” means at present. The Government amendment was tabled with good intentions, but it still does not address the stability arguments that were put forward by Members of the House of Lords way back in 1996 and by Lord Howe of Aberavon more recently in the House of Lords debate. We will however return to those matters if the opportunity arises at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendments address the EHRC, and a number of Members will wish to speak on that matter. It is well known on the Committee and elsewhere that the EHRC provides a number of functions. I want particularly to address the human rights issues, but the arguments I deploy would work equally well on the other matters.
I want to go back to a point I have made twice already. The relationship between the individual and the state is important, and it is important that we get it right. Over the centuries, that relationship has been redefined from time to time. The liberty of the individual against an over-mighty state was one of the great reasons for Parliament coming into existence in the first place. In recent years, Parliament has taken the view that some human rights are inherent and that we ought to provide protections against the state making incursions into those rights. That has been addressed in several ways and, from time to time, the debate has been contentious.
There have been many debates in the media, the House and elsewhere on the precise way in which those rights should be protected. I have no worries about having such a debate, but this is not the place to have it. The debate should take place elsewhere, and it might
That is not the matter before the Committee today. Before us is something far from that debate, and I do not believe this is the appropriate place to have such a debate in any case. We have before us a suggestion that, by keeping it in the schedule, the EHRC should be subject to the powers set out in clause 3, which we have just discussed. I am extremely worried about that, and I am not alone. Distinguished people, both in this country and abroad, have taken a very dim view of the proposals on the human rights aspects of the EHRC.
Before I turn to the worries that have been expressed, Lord Lester, who is hardly a supporter of my party, made an interesting and succinct point in another place that is worth repeating. In many ways, his point encapsulates the arguments that I and other Opposition Members have been seeking to pursue:
“Legitimate ends do not justify unconstitutional or disproportionate means, especially where they erode…fundamental rights and freedoms.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 November 2010; Vol. 722, c. 99.]
I have already conceded that it is not unreasonable, as an end, to say that the EHRC and the way in which it protects human rights might be reviewed. I will not have the Minister continually saying that we are defending the existing structures, because I have made it quite clear that that is not the Opposition’s view.
Although the ends may be legitimate, the means by which the Government are setting about them are not. That is not simply my view, but one that has been expressed in written evidence to the Committee. The Government did everything that they could to prevent witnesses from appearing before us, but they could not prevent written evidence from being submitted. Yesterday, I went to my inbox and found my way through the forest of e-mails about the matter that we have just discussed, and I came to the written evidence on this matter. I am not always the most diligent person when it comes to reading annexes and appendices, but because we have a duty to attempt to raise appropriate issues I read the annex. It contains a letter from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
Will the Minister clarify whether there has been further engagement with the ICC since the letter was written in June 2011? The ICC, which sounds like a worthy body but perhaps one to which we would not normally pay a huge amount of attention, has a power to accredit a nation or to remove accreditation from a nation according to how it handles human rights. At the moment, we have an level A accreditation. This letter is a barely coded suggestion that that accreditation may be called into question by how the Government are proceeding. This is an important document, because it raises precisely the arguments—in some cases almost word for word—that the Opposition have been making. It talks, for example, about the
The letter is before the Committee, so everyone will have been able to read it, although I imagine that perhaps not everyone has done so. The letter indicates that the “Paris Principles” require independence in relation to how we protect human rights. The letter also acknowledges that that is not incompatible with being accountable. The ICC accepts that national human rights institutions should be accountable, but insists that they should also be independent.
The letter says that some of the Government’s proposals threaten our “status of ‘A’ accreditation.” In a sentence that I thought was slightly chilling, the letter states that Governments in north Africa, where, as we know, the Arab spring has been taking place, would be looking carefully at how we handled the protection of human rights. We must not in any way signal to those whom we have encouraged to take part in the Arab spring uprisings that they should follow the line that we appear to be taking, which would result in the removal of level A accreditation. I am told that such accreditation does not apply, for example, to Iran. I assume we would not want to join Iran, but that is the risk we are taking.
The ICC says publicly that there are three issues of greatest concern about the way this has been presented, and which put in jeopardy level A accreditation. Members who are listening—and I see that not everybody may be listening to every word I am saying [ Interruption. ] I am disappointed to say that, but I have brought them to life now. Members who were listening will recognise that the arguments made by the ICC are the same we have used time and again in relation to the Bill.
Precisely the point we have been making all day. The ICC is adamant—there is no equivocation—that it is not right to amend our national human rights institution by means of secondary legislation: no ifs, no buts. It would not be appropriate. Given the sanction which the ICC is capable of applying, we need to listen carefully to the Minister’s arguments.
“Given the particular constitutional place of national human rights institutions in the architecture of the state it is critical that any amendment to their mandate, structure, powers or functions be carried out through a parliamentary process which is open, transparent and with opportunity for public submissions.”
Those are very serious words that we should listen to, although not necessarily because we acknowledge that the ICC is the supreme authority in the universe. However, the ICC entirely reflects the arguments we have made: we are with the Government in wanting to review the quango state; we accept that areas of the state have grown over the years that should be subject to review; and we are particularly interested in looking at administrative and other functions that could be handled more efficiently. However, some institutions are important to the constitutional “architecture”, as the letter describes it, of the state itself. We do not believe they are sacrosanct—it is possible to look at them to see whether they are working perfectly—but they are so fundamentally important to the way the state operates that they simply should not be handled through secondary legislation. More importantly, those institutions should not be subject to the draconian powers relating to human rights contained in clause 3.
Let us remind ourselves that the Minister is being given powers, subject to an order going through the House, to transform the nature of any institution, including the EHRC, in schedule 3. He is subordinating the EHRC to the Executive, but the Executive power is capable of damaging human rights—the rights of individual citizens. As I said earlier, Parliament came into existence, in part at least, to resist monarchical power: the power of the monarch against the individual citizen. That is why human rights are so important, and protecting them is one of our primary duties in the House of Commons.
Because the Executive can from time to time behave dictatorially towards individuals, human rights institutions were put at arm’s length from the state and from Executive power. That was the right thing to do. As I have said and will say again for the last time, that is not to say that everything the EHRC has done in relation to human rights has met with my approval; however, it can be reviewed. To subordinate it to ministerial power and to the Executive acting on behalf of the Crown is simply wrong.
The Minister is sure to say, “It’s not going to be like that. We are going to guarantee independence”, and so on. That will be the thrust of his argument. But that is not in the Bill. The Bill gives us no idea how this will work. The risks are too great to allow this particularly important institution to be subjected to the powers in clause 3. The second line of argument the Minister will fall back on when his first fails will be, “Don’t forget. It is going to be subject to an order.” That argument has been made time and again in Committee.
The point is that the orders that the Minister can bring in are secondary legislation. They do not allow for the scrutiny that is needed for any institution, particularly one that deals with human rights. It is clear that among the international comparators, we will be judged severely if we proceed down the track of using secondary legislation. I do not know whether the letter on which I have to some extent built my case has been superseded by further conversations and guarantees the Minister or his colleagues have made to the ICC. The Committee does not know—it is not party to the
The issue of the rights of individual citizens against those of the state is a very important one, and there should be a pause so that we can have a proper conversation about how we deal with it. The Opposition would have views on how the proposal might be improved in some way, and there could be a national conversation. However, the Government are trying to avoid a national conversation. The proposal is simply wrong. I said during the last debate that the Minister would have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Frankly, on this issue I cannot see that we will follow the Government, but we will listen carefully to his arguments.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Robertson, and to see how well you are looking. I completely associate myself with the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth has made so eloquently. This important issue is about the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which I shall refer to as the commission. Hon. Members will remember how that body came into being. If I may paraphrase a famous phrase, there were three people in this marriage: the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. Those bodies existed to protect people and did an excellent job.
As far as the Human Rights Act is concerned, those bodies merely reflected the situation that was going on in Europe; we were simply bringing rights home. Hon. Members will recall that the European convention on human rights was set out after the second world war, when there were great atrocities done to the Jewish people and Gypsies—Travellers. That is why people in the international community said, “This is enough. We mustn’t carry on like this. Governments—people in power—cannot do things in the people’s name against their own people.” That is the background; those are the rights we are protecting under this body.
The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976, which were introduced by a Labour Government and show that we did do some good things at that time, were groundbreaking pieces of legislation that changed the face of society. We take lots of things for granted now, but I and hon. Members will recall a time when curry was seen as something very unusual, something that foreigners had. However, it has now become the nation’s favourite food. As a councillor in the late ’80s, I remember sitting there reading section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which stated that we could not promote gay and lesbian rights. We could not teach them; we could not publish them. That legislation has now been repealed. Such a situation was an atrocity that we would not consider now, but that was the climate at the time.
Even now, women apparently do not do work of equal quality to men, and we are paid less. There is still a pay gap for women. We cannot even contemplate what the situation is like for disabled people, but there was a time when they could not even get into a building. That has all changed now, and I put it down to the Human Rights Act, which led to a general feeling that equality must be promoted. That is what the commission does.
There should be a commission free from political interference. I will come on to how the commission could be set up, and I would like the Minister to consider the possibility of an independent commission. However, even in 2011, the case of Gibson and others v. Sheffield City Council shows that women carers are not paid the same as their male counterparts. Male carers were given a productivity bonus, even though they were doing the same work. That is happening in 2011—we are talking about now. Women make up 51% of the population and we should be paid equally, just as we are here.
As I said, three bodies were merged, and since 2006 the commission has effectively been allowed to get on with difficult work. It also deals with religious tolerance. That issue is rearing its head, and we have to look at it and become more accepting. The Government should consider having an arm’s-length body that is transparent and reports directly to and is accountable to Parliament. There should be no interference at all in that body, which should be allowed to get on with its work.
So far, each successive Minister for Women and Equalities has been based in a different Department, and the commission has followed them around to each Department. There should be a stand-alone Department. The Government talk about costs, but actually, the figures show that this provision costs only £1 for each person living in Britain. That is a small price to pay for equality, and I am sure that people would realise that how we have changed as a society shows that it is a price worth paying; £1 is nothing.
There has been much talk about the Human Rights Act. That legislation is about more than whether a prisoner wants to read a magazine from the top shelf. That is just an exaggerated example of what the Human Rights Act does. Most of the rights in the Act are qualified rights. There is a margin of appreciation that allows for a range of discretion, through which the convention can be interpreted differently in different member states to take account of cultural, historical and philosophical differences between Europe and the nation in question, so people do not have to fear anything from the Human Rights Act.
Charlie Elphicke: The hon. Lady talks about the margin of appreciation. She will recall that the House of Commons recently debated the potential margin of appreciation relating to the voting rights of prisoners, and it was explained to the House that that margin may not exist and this country will have to give voting rights to prisoners. Does she think that that is the right way forward?
Valerie Vaz: The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he said that the margin of appreciation “may not exist”. That is a matter for the lawyers and it is something that we can debate later. But Europe has never said that a nation state should not debate issues as important as that one.
It has never been more necessary than it is now to show that human rights are important. The Foreign Office should not be hampered in the good work that it is doing in promoting Britain throughout the world. What do we say to those people involved in the Arab spring? We say, “You must have human rights.” At the same time, however, there is a possibility—as my hon.
We have a great tradition in this country of the rule of law. One of the fundamental aspects of the rule of law is that it should not be arbitrary or uncertain. I am concerned that aspects of this Bill are arbitrary or uncertain, and that should be changed. The commission should continue its work unhindered, so that we continue to be the kind of country where tolerance and equality exist.
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I want to associate myself with the remarks that have been made by my hon. Friends today. It is not my intention to repeat those remarks, and nor is it my intention to repeat the points about the importance of parliamentary scrutiny when such wide-ranging powers as these are given or changed.
It is inherent in the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that it must not only have the necessary independence from the Government but that it must be seen to have that independence, given that its role—indeed, its entire purpose—is to hold the Government to account and to challenge them. The commission must hold itself not only to some arbitrary standards, but to the standards that it has set for itself. Sometimes, however, by design or by accident, it fails to meet those standards.
For more than a decade now, I have worked with children and young people in a variety of settings and for a variety of reasons those children and young people have been badly treated, not only by the state but by society as a whole. I have worked with refugee and migrant children, Traveller and Gypsy children, homeless young people and those with disabilities. I will depart from the argument made my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South slightly by saying that, although I welcome the progress that has been made, as a society we are far too complacent about the way that we treat people with disabilities. We fail to recognise that it is our mindset that must change rather than expecting people with disabilities to adapt to the sort of exclusive society that we have created.
I have also worked on many occasions with young people who find themselves, either by accident or as a result of their own actions, in institutions that too often receive little scrutiny or that are lacking in transparency; the spotlight cast on those institutions is too small. Children in those situations can be subjected to some of the most appalling treatment and the work of organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission is crucial. In relation to this debate, the independence of such organisations, in areas such as custody, immigration detention and the care system, is also absolutely essential.
One thing that I have learned through working with children in all of these different situations in the past 12 years is that it is absolutely no use having rights and protections enshrined in law if there are no means of enforcing them. Although we have a host of protections for children in those situations—particularly the UN convention on the rights of the child—if we cannot ensure that they are applied to an individual or to the group that they belong to, they matter not one jot.
I am extremely concerned about some of the changes that are happening elsewhere, particularly in relation to legal aid, and about the removal of grants from some of the major advice agencies. They will have a detrimental impact on the ability of individuals to seek redress and to hold the state and society to account for how they are treated. One of the great things about the Equality and Human Rights Commission and its role as an independent agency that challenges Government is that it can raise an issue on behalf of particular groups. I have seen it do that many times over many years.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South that there is a major case for the reform of the EHRC as our major national institution, but I would argue in favour of strengthening rather than weakening its independence from Government and its ability to challenge different Departments to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves. In particular, I would like to see the EHRC have a chair who stands absolutely independent of Government. Having worked with the former chief inspector of prisons, whom I admired enormously, I have seen how individuals can drive forward whole agendas and improvements just by virtue of their energy and past experience. The independence of those individuals is essential.
I would also like to see the EHRC have the ability to take on test cases on behalf of particular groups. I have seen for myself, in many ways, how that can be the most effective vehicle, not just to highlight issues but to promote redress.
Because of the EHRC’s particular role, it is entirely inappropriate for Government to be able to interfere with its composition and especially its functions to the extent that clause 3 allows. I say that for two reasons. First, on credibility, the groups with which the EHRC is required to work are not just sometimes suspicious of authority, but they have often had enough of well meaning people coming in and trying to do good when they cannot see any particular reason for that participation. In short, some of the so-called disadvantaged groups have been researched to death. When organisations turn up and say that they want to conduct inquiries, which is one of the major tools that the EHRC has at its disposal, it is essential that the groups trust not just the expertise and the remit, but the independence and credibility of the agency, so that they can participate and so that the EHRC can do its work.
Secondly, the issue is important because, having challenged Government on many occasions, often through the courts—with the help of a number of independent bodies and agencies, including the EHRC, the chief inspector of prisons and the Children’s Commissioner—I know that the relationship between those agencies and Government is incredibly uneasy, uncomfortable and often embarrassing. Ultimately, however, it is an important relationship for both sides and for people in general. It is crucial. To a large extent, when senior staff who work at those agencies decide to take on a democratically elected Government, they stick their necks out. They feel incredibly vulnerable in doing so and I assure the Committee that, when they do that, they do not do it lightly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth has said, it is an essential safeguard in a democracy that they are able to do that on behalf of people who, because of the way we decide to treat them, often remain voiceless in society.
If Ministers can simply remove a function that they do not like with one stroke of the pen, or, worse, remove a function that proves particularly effective as a safeguard for some of those groups, that safeguard will then disappear. It will disappear for some of the most vulnerable in our society and it will have a particular impact on them, but I firmly believe that, as a result, we will all suffer and that this is absolutely the wrong approach. I say to Ministers that, in reality, the knowledge that the Government could, at any time, make such changes will act as a brake on the actions of the EHRC and similar institutions. It will make the commission more cautious, less brave and less able to act as a voice for some of the most voiceless people in this country. It is right that the EHRC should be subject to scrutiny and to challenge and, I firmly believe, that it should be the subject of reform, but it is absolutely wrong that it should have its independence compromised to the extent that the powers in clause 3 allow.
First, I emphasise the possible loss of funding as a result of the Government ‘s proposals. By reducing the budget of the EHRC, cuts will be passed on to voluntary bodies and advice agencies that provide important, essential advice. It is not at all clear how the funding gap will be plugged, especially because more responsibilities, as we have seen elsewhere in the Bill, are being given to citizens advice bureaux, and there are huge cuts to legal aid. I am concerned, as are a number of agencies that give advice about a whole range of discrimination issues, how people will get advice in future. Will the Minister address that point in his remarks?
Secondly, we are concerned that the wide-ranging powers that relate to schedules 3 to 5, taken together, could mean that the EHRC is changed so substantially that it is nothing more than a body in name only, with most of its enforcement functions gone. The Minister must address those real and important concerns this afternoon.
We know that the EHRC is not against change and reform, and Opposition Members are happy to see that, too. However, it is the way in which reform is being undertaken that worries us. If the Government want to change the EHRC, they should do so through primary legislation, so that the reform could be clear and transparent, and there would be effective parliamentary scrutiny. Everyone would then know what the Government wish to achieve.
That is an essential point because, as we are all aware, it is not as though the EHRC’s work is done and dusted, and we can now abolish it and move on. Previously in the Committee, we discussed ways in which women still do not have parity with men on boards of companies. A similar point about equal pay was raised just yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions. There is the issue of women’s representation in politics at a whole range of levels, and many areas are still not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Acts. A huge body of work has yet to be done, and there are many individuals who need advice about their specific situation.
Valerie Vaz: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is aware that two important inquiries are going on at the commission. One is on Fiona Pilkington, the poor woman who was disabled and was harassed, and the other is on the human rights of elderly people in care.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important point, which reminds me that one thing the commission wishes to do is extend the legal advice that it can give beyond these test cases, so that it will be able to give individual legal advice. We would very much like the Government to look at that matter.
It is not as though the job is done. An important function must still be carried out in terms of enforcing equalities legislation, in addition to the human rights legislation that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth described so effectively earlier. Unlike some issues that we have discussed, we have an idea about the changes that the Government want to introduce, and that is why we are so concerned. The Government propose to repeal the commission’s general duty under section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, to remodel section 8 to restrict the commission’s enforcement action to the Equality Act 2010, to remove the commission’s good relations function, to repeal the commission’s power to make provision for conciliation services, and it goes on. We know that the Government still intend to carry out those changes—like my hon. Friend, I am learning that appendices should always be looked at. In the back of the consultation paper “Building a Fairer Britain”, which is part of the consultation on the changes to the EHRC, we have a list of questions. Question 1 is:
The Government are therefore consulting on the powers and functions that they want to change. Why not wait until we have the outcome of the consultation exercise? If the Government intend to listen to what comes out of the consultation, they could then bring forward primary legislation, rather than expect us to give such wide-ranging powers, to keep the body in the schedule and to run the risk of the powers of the commission being so reduced that it is rendered completely ineffective.
Jon Trickett: I must admit that the appendix escaped my attention, but those questions all seem to have a particular character. They all seem to lead people to develop a critique of the EHRC, which is fine, but only if there questions in there such as, “If you were faced with arbitrary power, would you welcome somebody independent of the Government to defend you?” Are the sort of questions that might reinforce the need for an agency, albeit a reformed one, in there as well?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): The hon. Lady has kindly read out a list of questions under a general title of “Do you agree with what the Government are proposing?” Does she acknowledge that it is possible to answer that question with the word “no”?
Returning to the issue of accountability, there is some consensus across the Committee that we would agree to a strengthening of parliamentary scrutiny of this body, rather than to control by the Executive. In taking note of the outcome of the consultation and then bringing forward primary legislation, the Government will be able to respond positively to the points made during the consultation exercise.
David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Is this not symptomatic of what we have been told throughout the entire Committee stage: “We are going to take sweeping powers—but we are consulting at the same time”? Speech after speech from Ministers has said, “We want these powers.” They are sweeping powers, and I am sure that some Government Members would oppose such powers tooth and nail if they were in our position today. This is symptomatic of the way that Ministers are asking us to approve the Bill’s plans in this Committee and in the House more generally, while they are being consulted on. Is that not the worst type of politics? Does that not cause loss of public confidence in the whole style of government we have in this country?
Roberta Blackman-Woods: Yes, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. These actions add to the cynicism we know is out there. It would be helpful to have a statement from the Minister this afternoon about exactly how the outcome of the consultation will be disseminated and how the Government will act on it.
A number of us, particularly in the Opposition, have fought long and hard for the equality legislation we have. When it went through Parliament we looked very carefully at bringing all the various bodies together to ensure that there would be a very strong enforcement function. We do not want anything to diminish that function.
Mr Hurd: I have learnt a great deal this afternoon. Thanks to the hon. Member for Arfon I learnt something about the Welsh origins of the word “Dover”. I learnt that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover spends time watching a TV channel the broadcasts of which he does not understand a single word, which was an interesting insight. It is a sign of his fatigue after slaving so hard on behalf of the people of Dover. I also learnt that I have something in common with the hon. Member for Hemsworth, which is that neither of us is an institutional
The Opposition amendments would prevent the Government from making changes to the commission’s constitution and funding arrangements and from modifying or transferring the functions it currently carries out, so we will resist them. There is clearly a difference of opinion, or perhaps a misunderstanding of intent. I can entirely understand and have a huge amount of sympathy with the position of the hon. Members for Walsall South and for City of Durham. They pointed out that we have made considerable progress with the equality agenda, in a way that is increasingly embedded in how we think, live and work. That is the way of sustainable change. I understand any concern that that might in some way be jeopardised by a Government intending to reform public bodies set up to regulate and enforce equality.
The whole purpose of our reform is to try to make the body more effective. There may be a difference of opinion here—a different starting point—but our whole intention is to make the EHRC a more valued and respected national institution. Our view is that the way to do that is by encouraging it to focus on the areas where it alone can add value as an independent equality regulator and as a UN-accredited national human rights institution. In doing so, it must be able to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money and be accountable. Our view, which is to be debated by those who know what they are talking about, is that in part it is the sheer breadth of the commission’s statutory duties that has contributed to what we see as underperformance to date, hampering its ability to articulate clearly its role and present a coherent programme of work. That is why we are embarking on reform.
Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): The Minister is embarking on a cogent explanation of why the status quo is unsustainable. Does he agree that the issue is not only financial or a question of refocusing the commission on its core agenda, although I agree with him on that? In my view and that of my colleagues, its agenda should be anti-discrimination, rather than positive discrimination or the wider social agenda. A more important point cuts across the whole quango agenda: the same body should not be performing a lobbying function, a review function, a policy making function and then an enforcement function. It goes against the grain of accountability to allow the same body simultaneously to perform all those roles at one and the same time.
Mr Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for his opening contribution to the Committee, which is extremely welcome and comes from a great deal of experience. I entirely agree. To some degree, he validates the point I was trying to express: it is the breadth of what the commission takes upon itself that has the potential to undermine its effective role and what it alone can and should do.
On 14 October, the Government announced that they intend to retain—that somehow got missed, I think—but substantially reform the commission, focusing on its
Opposition Members came back to the point about the public perhaps not being sufficiently involved or allowed to express their voice in this process. However, the consultation appears to have been genuine. The Government have received in excess of 1,000 responses. There will be a response to the consultation in the autumn. Experience has taught me that autumn can be quite a long season in Government terms, but my sense is that we want to get on with this, and so the response to the consultation will be forthcoming soon.
We propose three key areas for reform. The first is to clarify the EHRC’s remit, amending the Equality Act 2006 to clarify the commission’s core functions of regulating equality and anti-discrimination law in Great Britain, fulfilling EU equality requirements and being a national human rights institution. Listing in schedule 5 is necessary to effect those changes. The second key area of reform is to stop non-core activities and, where appropriate, make alternative provision by Government, or by other voluntary or private sector providers. Again, listing in schedule 5 is necessary to effect some of those changes. The third key area is to clarify the EHRC’s relationship to Government and strengthen further its governance and systems to provide greater transparency—a word that came up—and value for money. Listing in schedules 3 and 4 is necessary to effect those changes.
The issue of independence came up in a number of speeches from Opposition Members. The Government recognise the importance of the commission’s being able to exercise, independently of Ministers, its core regulatory functions, as well as those founded on international and EU obligations. The consultation proposals for a combination of legislative and non-legislative reform would ensure that the Government, the commission and Parliament have a clear and shared view about the nature and extent of the commission’s role—the “what”—which will leave the commission the necessary discretion on the “how”, while increasing accountability on its performance. The consultation closed in June and we are in the process of considering the responses received.
My main point on independence, which the hon. Member for Hemsworth did not pick up on, is that in the process of debating the Bill in the other place, the Government accepted an amendment which became clause 7. It requires that the modification or transfer of a function by an order under the legislation must not prevent it from being exercised independently of Ministers where it is a judicial function, whether exercised by a court or tribunal; where its exercise involves enforcement activities in relation to obligations imposed on a Minister; or where its exercise otherwise constitutes the exercise of oversight or scrutiny of the actions of a Minister. Lord Lester was cited, reasonably, as a gadfly in this process—great man—and he was quite right to press that point. Following discussions with Lord Lester,
The hon. Member for Hemsworth mentioned the letter from the ICC. I can confirm, although he knows this anyway, that the ICC wrote to us over the summer, and we have responded to the points that were raised. I am assured that officials from the Government Equalities Office will work closely with the ICC to develop the reform proposals in light of the consultation responses. I stress that we are not proposing any change to the commission’s human rights remit or its independence in holding the Government to account on their compliance with equality and human rights law. Our reforms seek to focus the commission on those core functions. We want the EHRC to become a valued and respected national institution that is more effective in its core role.
Lisa Nandy: I take on board the Minister’s points, but will he respond to my particular concern that an organisation that knows its functions may be changed or removed if it takes a particularly brave or challenging stance is much less likely to do so?
Mr Hurd: I am not entirely sure that I buy that argument, or see its relevance, because any transfer of functions is subject to the processes of this enabling legislation. What emerges, therefore, will be black and white, agreed, understood and out there. I am not sure that continued uncertainty in the case of the EHRC will in any way undermine its purpose. Their lordships in the other place have nudged us to underpin that independence, which is the purpose of clause 7. In short, we want to maintain the commission’s independence as an equality regulator and as a level A national human rights institution—we do not take issue with that—while improving its performance, transparency, accountability and ability to perform its core functions. That is the underlying aim of the reform. I ask the Committee, therefore, to accept that the inclusion of the EHRC in each of the schedules is necessary, and I ask the hon. Member for Hemsworth to withdraw his amendment.
Jon Trickett: I am grateful to the Minister for the genial way in which he responded and attempted to address the issues that we raised. I am also grateful for his acknowledgement that we have not made a case for the defence of the status quo. His point interests me, and he makes a strong case that the structures, as they are or have been, are in need of review.
That is not the difference between us, nor is that where the Minister says he wants to be at the end of the process. There will be a national discussion, because many people in our country will be affected by the legislation in one way or another. Women make up the majority of our population, and other parts of the community rely on the legislation to some extent, too. It is also true that the changes embraced by the Minister require cultural change, rather than simply being imposed by statutory bodies such as the EHRC.
There has been a cultural shift in our country. We only have to look at the battle to introduce civil ceremonies. They were resisted, and there were concerns about whether we could reach a consensus on them, but there is a total consensus now and the ceremonies have become a matter of some satisfaction for almost everyone in the country. Much of that is cultural and so it should be.
The result of the review must be an independent organisation with teeth. That is not to say that it should not be accountable. Accountability for how the money is spent, whether value for money is obtained and whether the organisation is streamlined ought to be achieved through transparency, so that the public can see how money is being spent, and ultimately through parliamentary processes. What would be wrong—it is the problem with the Bill—would be for accountability to be through the Minister and through the Executive.
I have already spoken about human rights. I will not go into detail about the Paris Principles, on which decisions are made about accreditation, although I could. They make it quite clear that however an institution of this kind is structured, it must not be subordinate to or subject to the decisions of the Executive, but the Bill will produce entirely that situation. However the judgment finally emerges from the ICC, it has said that, whatever happens in the conversations, the proposed changes are so substantial that the UK would be required “to re-apply for re-accreditation.” Our peers are clearly worried about how we are proceeding in relation to human rights legislation. The same arguments apply to the equalities aspects of the EHRC. I will not reproduce them, because it is quite apparent what they are.
I want to finish with a couple of points that relate to clause 3. The Minister may have in mind a particular institutional form that will guarantee independence. He has shared part of what is in his mind—or in the minds of his colleagues who are directly responsible for the EHRC’s functions—but we have to deal with what is in the Bill. The Bill confers overwhelming powers to contain, change and effectively subject the EHRC to ministerial decisions, albeit that that will have to go through secondary legislation. That is disturbing.
Mr Raab: I am not sure I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, and I want to rewind 30 seconds. Is he seriously suggesting that Britain’s membership of the International Criminal Court is being cast into doubt by these changes? Is that what he meant by the ICC? If I have heard it wrong, I apologise.
Jon Trickett: I know that one of my colleagues will come back to me and intervene in a second with its precise title. I am referring to the organisation that sent the letter from which I quoted earlier.
Jon Trickett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment, which gave me time to ensure that I had the initials right. It is the ICC, but it is the International Coordinating Committee. I read out the full title earlier, and I will not reproduce it again. It demonstrates that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton was listening to the second part of my speech but probably was not quite listening to the first part. There is a lesson there for both of us. Next time I will commit such things to memory so that I have no doubts in my mind, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman should listen to the whole debate rather than just part of it.
The point I was just making was that the powers in clause 3 are enormous. I accept the Minister’s stated intentions, but we are asked to vote on the Bill, not on what the Minister has said. The powers are too great to give. The EHRC needs to be reformed, and it has accepted that. However, it should be reformed outwith the process we are engaged in today.
I note that the Minister did not give us comfort that the conversations with the ICC are going to enable us to retain our accreditation. He said that conversations are still going on. The Government’s actions do not give us confidence that the independence of the body will be preserved. We have seen deep cuts in financial provision, which have already resulted in major disruption in the institution. Ministers have clearly flexed their muscles on the EHRC; I think because they disapprove of some of its actions. I do not believe it is simply about value for money. I believe there is a philosophical difference, which remains hidden. Cuts in funding are being made in order to bring it to heel. That is not an appropriate relationship between a Minister and an independent body. It is for those reasons we suspect the Government’s intentions.
Mr Hurd: There is a difference of view on that. We genuinely see ourselves as encouraging the organisation to become more effective, by doing less but doing it better. The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the ICC, and he is entirely right that the changes proposed will require re-accreditation of the EHRC as a national human rights institution. I am not directly involved in those conversations, therefore I cannot give him the total reassurance that he seeks. However, I am sure there is nothing in our correspondence with the International Coordinating Committee—which I am happy to send to the hon. Gentleman—that indicates the risk he talks about. That is another undertaking for him—to see some of the correspondence, which I am sure will reassure him.
Jon Trickett: I very much appreciate that, and the Minister’s confirmation that it is the ICC. I think there is a third ICC, which is something to do with cricket. The point I was making while winding up is that we agree at least that there should be some change. However, we are suspicious of the Government’s intentions, though the Minister has given us some assurance. The truth is that we watch what a person does rather than listen to what they say. Watching what the Government have done so far is not encouraging. We therefore wish to press the matter to a Division.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I just want to make some brief comments and to look at an issue that the Committee has not looked at so far. It relates to a number of bodies—the Broads Authority, the internal drainage boards, the Joint Nature Conservation Council and the National Park authorities. To speed up the business of the Committee I thought I would make the same point about all of them, but there is a more general point. Are the Government looking at the cumulative impact of changing the functions of a whole range of bodies that have been set up to conserve our natural environment and protect our beautiful countryside? We have not so far heard anything about the cumulative impact of changing functions across that range of bodies.
Huge anxieties have been expressed by a whole range of organisations which want to know whether the Government are doing that and about the extent of the changes that will be brought about. The Government did not really deal with the argument put forward in the other place that if they are merely going to propose minor changes, legislation already exists to enable them to do so across this range of bodies, either in local
Hidden within that issue is a question about whether the powers could be so extensive that they could, for example, lead to the privatisation of national parks. That key question needs to be asked. The final point that I wish to make is, again, about the Government pre-empting public consultation, because we know that a consultation is out there about a number of these bodies. There are some very substantial questions and anxieties to be addressed.
Mr Hurd: I can address those concerns directly in the context of this stand part debate on schedule 3. The clause gives Ministers the power to make provision by order to amend the constitutional arrangements of a body or office, and those powers are rightly limited to apply only to those bodies listed in schedule 3. In drafting the Bill the Government took the decision that we should be specific about the powers that will and will not apply to individual public bodies. Those bodies named in schedule 3 are given certainty about the Government’s intentions through the Bill. I can also confirm that listings in schedule 3 are subject to the sunset provision in clause 12 of the Bill.
Schedule 3 is necessary to give effect to the power in clause 3 and to enable specific reform proposals, including increasing the independence of bodies such as the Theatres Trust by removing the role of the Secretary of State and the reforming of the board structure of Passenger Focus to deliver administrative savings. As with all the principal order-making powers in the Bill, the use of the powers in relation to functions of the bodies named in schedule 3 is restricted by the safeguards that are described in clauses 7 and 8 and elsewhere. Orders are subject to approval by Parliament following a period of statutory consultation.
Schedule 3 is required to deliver a series of proportionate reforms such as those that have already been discussed by the Committee. Those reforms are designed to increase accountability and effectiveness in the delivery of public functions and, far from reducing a body’s independence, in many cases they will in fact serve to support it.
The hon. Lady asked whether anyone is effectively looking at the cumulative impact of the reforms, but she will know that Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are responsible for that. However, I will undertake to write to the appropriate DEFRA Minister to ensure that he understands the concerns expressed in Committee.
I reassure the hon. Lady that all the proposed changes will require consultation. I am assured that some of the changes will be very minor, but that new powers will be needed in the Bill. As I say, the point of the Bill is to create an enabling framework to allow subsequent reform where no existing legislative framework opportunity exists. The provisions are listed in the schedule for a reason, but all changes will require consultation. Her points about how joined up the measure is and whether people are thinking about the cumulative impact raise serious concerns. I will make sure that the relevant
‘( ) The consent of the Treasury is required to make an order under this section.’.
Mr Hurd: I warn the Committee that the prose about to fall from my lips has been written by officials at Her Majesty’s Treasury. The amendments will protect existing financial scrutiny arrangements that ensure Departments consult the Treasury on the use of financial and funding powers, including those relating to proposed financial powers under clauses 4 and 6 of the Bill. As Committee members will know, the Treasury controls public expenditure of moneys voted for by Parliament to ensure that public money is used within agreed limits as Parliament intended.
Therefore legislation, both primary and secondary, with expenditure implications should be agreed by the Treasury. That approach is consistent with existing legislation and with the convention that funding and financial powers are exercised by Ministers in conjunction with Treasury consent. It is also consistent with the requirements set out in “Managing Public Money”, regarding the provision in legislation for such consent. The amendments will not add a regulatory burden to Parliament, and other public bodies are already routinely consulted with and seek Treasury consent in its role as the guardian of public expenditure. The 2010 spending review outlined tough departmental spending plans that are crucial towards reducing the country’s budget deficit. The amendments will ensure that the money for which Parliament has voted will be used appropriately by Departments.