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Lord Redesdale: My Lords, like all noble Lords, I thoroughly support the work of the Crown Agents. However, perhaps the best way that I can describe the Bill is to say that it is a bit like the spectral figure of the headless horseman which haunts the moors above Elsdon in Northumberland. Many people who have seen the spectral figure have been able to describe the horse. They have even been able to describe the body that is on the horse, but they have not been able to describe its head. We are left feeling slightly uneasy about the Bill because certain issues that need to be considered have not been covered.

The Minister has given us as much information as she can, but she has left out such issues as the corporate structure and the question of debt or equity. She has been unable to put flesh and blood into the Bill by putting the word "foundation" on the face of the Bill. Noble Lords on this side of the House believe that the Minister will achieve what she has set out to achieve in the Bill. If things happen in the way in which the Minister has suggested, I believe that we shall have a very valuable institution. However, I hope that some of the issues can be discussed further in another place.

6.15 p.m.

The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, I have nothing but praise for my noble friend the Minister and I am amazed at how accessible she is. It does not matter where she is—Paris, Downing Street, or in her car—she always manages to keep in touch. We are exceedingly lucky.

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I have had some thoughts on the Bill and wonder whether we have asked ourselves the following questions, which I should like to put to the Minister: do members of the Treasury travel with my noble friend on some of the terrifying journeys that she undertakes? Do they share the dangers and the uncivilised circumstances that my noble friend has to put up with in her job? Have members of the Treasury ever been seconded to the Crown Agents to see how they work? When they have done all that, perhaps they might understand some of the important observations that have been made in your Lordships' House.

It is only by understanding to the fullest extent the problems of others that it is then possible to instigate the principles of total quality management. Surely the Bill has the objective of prevention, not detection. Until it is viewed in that light, the survival of the new Crown Agents must cause some concern to us all, particularly as regards their constitutional and financial position.

We must again consider the question of charitable status. I am concerned that all the potential good that is determined by the Bill's structure could be of no avail if charitable status were imposed on the Crown Agents. It must not be imposed. The lawyers are divided and the Charity Commissioners are against it. Charitable status must not be imposed.

We must now rely on another place to take up the battle. We must keep on keeping on to ensure that the Crown Agents are not left in a limbo of indecision. As so many have said, the Bill as it stands does not achieve its intentions for the Crown Agents. Indeed, it does not achieve the intentions of my noble friend as it stands at the moment; and it definitely does not appear to achieve the intentions of the majority of your Lordships.

We have but one opportunity left to us and I hope that when the Bill comes back we shall see some changes which I know that everybody will welcome. In the meantime, we can do nothing but wish the Crown Agents, who have become friends over these weeks, God speed.

6.16 p.m.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend the Minister on having carried the Bill this far without altering a comma or full-stop. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, had a rather romantic vision of the Bill. I am afraid that I have a more housewifely image: it is like gruyère cheese, totally wholesome but full of holes. I believe that that description fits the Bill.

I should like to comment on two major points that have been made throughout the passage of the Bill and on which we might be able to conclude with some kind of agreement. I turn first to the foundation. My noble friend has given us considerable information about the foundation and we on this side of the House have no doubt whatsoever that her word will be kept and that what she has said will be implemented. Although to me it is perfectly anomalous that we should have spent so much time discussing the foundation without defining it in statute, I have no doubt that the foundation will be set up exactly as my noble friend told the House.

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We have been told that the setting up of the foundation is unique, so I wonder how we can sometimes be told that nobody will want to create a precedent. There is no precedent because, as we have been given to understand, the foundation is a unique creation.

I must say from this side of the House how much we all welcomed the idea of open government. Regrettably, I do not think that this is a good example of open government—after all, a foundation is being created, but we are not allowed to see that stated on the face of the Bill.

With regard to charitable status, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will have received much legal advice on this point. I am sure that she will have wished for that famous one-armed barrister who cannot say, "On the one hand, it is this but, on the other hand, it is that". I am sure that my noble friend will wish that she had been given a satisfactory conclusion. As a modest barrister myself, I understand that there is absolutely no objection to whether the foundation is or is not granted charitable status. It is entirely a political decision. Presumably, the Treasury will decide whether the foundation is to be given charitable status. In my view, how that decision should be taken is not a legal matter.

The Government are seeking to retain some measure of control over the Crown Agents, presumably carrying on a "nanny" policy of passing it to the Charity Commissioners. That is surprising considering that the numerous privatisation measures which the Government have so far undertaken have proved to be a great success.

I should like to draw attention to the words of my noble friend the Minister when she said:

    "Certainly the Government would intend to be a member of the foundation with power, for a limited time, to ensure that no substantial changes could be made in the objectives of the foundation without prior government agreement".—[Official Report, 28/2/95; col. 1442.]

The only purpose of granting the Crown Agents charitable status would be to protect the objectives, but that point is already covered for at least the next five years without the necessity of such status.

With the successful record of privatisation over the years I am surprised that the Government have not been able to see that the Crown Agents, who have performed magnificently over the past few years and about whose efficiency and effectiveness no one in the House has any doubt, should not have that measure of control held over their heads when they launch forth as a highly successful commercial and trading operation. I can only say in conclusion that I wish my noble friend well and thank her for her great contribution to the way the Bill has been handled in this House and hope that, when it is dealt with in another place, the comments made during the Bill's passage will be taken on board.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the general welcome they have given the Bill. I do not believe that it is as controversial as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, sought to make out. While I understand that he must oppose, it has been an interesting example of how the Liberal/Labour friendship pact is building up yet again.

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Many noble Lords who spoke in today's debate have made kind comments to me. It was not a case of making the best of a difficult brief. I can genuinely tell the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that. This is a good organisation which needs to be freed up, but freed up in such a way that it fulfils the important social and developmental objectives we all share. I must have given assurances about the Government's intentions so many times that the Hansard writers will be looking to see whether a comma or a dot in my assurances has been altered.

Unqualified assurances are never given by any government, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, knows well. I have thought back to some of the things he said many years ago, and I do not remember him ever giving an unqualified assurance. He will understand that I will not guarantee that, in a fast-changing world, the Crown Agents, or any other body, can be left unchanged in perpetuity. That is not the world in which the Crown Agents live, and it is certainly not the world in which people in developing countries live. Everyone has to earn their way. The Crown Agents must do so too. They must trade fairly and profitably. They will be controlled by members of the foundation.

The memorandum and articles of association will be produced as quickly as possible and without delay—whatever that means in the noble Lord's view. I do not intend to hang about with the matter, because this particular horseman is not headless. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was looking for a head, but if the horse is the foundation, I am happy because that horse will have a head and a tail and all that is necessary that goes between the two.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned some of the debates we had previously. I do not want to repeat myself endlessly. Suffice to say that I should put on record that one of the reasons why the aid budget as a percentage of GNP is not increasing is that the GNP itself is going up, even though at the same time the volume of aid is gradually increasing. It may not be by as much as he and I would like, but that is happening.

I turn now to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, my noble friend Lady Elles, and other noble Lords, about the foundation being on the face of the Bill. Anyone who has followed our proceedings knows that we intend the eventual owner of the Crown Agents in the private sector to be an independent foundation. There is no doubt about it. It is unnecessary for the foundation to be on the face of the Bill, as I have said so many times.

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