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Lord Lucas: I hope that I shall be able to give the noble Baroness some comfort on this matter. We are very much ad idem as regards wanting this body to be properly accountable. What we are doing and what we propose to do, we believe, will be as good as that which the proposed amendment seeks to achieve. Responsibility for the corporation rests with the Secretary of State. He allocates funding to the corporation and sets the broad targets which he expects it to achieve in support of government policy.
Lord Williams of Elvel: I apologise for interrupting the Minister at the beginning of his speech, but there lies the problem. The Housing Corporation is responsible to the Secretary of State. If the Housing Corporation and Housing for Wales are to be properly accountable, they should be properly accountable to Parliament and not the Secretary of State. We have heard time and time again that the Secretary of State cannot answer questions because the organisation involved is a quango or a new next steps agency. That is the problem which appears in the first sentence of the noble Lord's brief.
Lord Lucas: I understand that that is an argument advanced in relation to quangos. However, we believe that it is a structure which has great advantages in some circumstances; namely, it can be allocated clearly defined tasks in a limited policy area where some distance from day-to-day politics is a positive advantage. We believe that that applies to the Housing Corporation and that it is better off with its present status. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, may not be aware that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on 3rd July, will be advocating that powers be taken away from the Ministry of Agriculture and given to a new quango.
Lord Lucas: It illustrates the point that, in the right circumstances, the noble Lord's party is prepared to advocate the use of the particular structure which is used for the Housing Corporation. It is something which has positive advantages, and we believe that that is so in this particular case. Nevertheless, it must be made properly accountable.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: I hesitate to intervene in a debate which is certainly not my concern. However, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred to my noble friend's Starred Question which is tabled for 3rd July. I do not wish to read my noble friend's mind but I believe that he is suggesting that the Food Standards Agency should be placed within the Department of Health rather than remain a responsibility of MAFF. That is certainly my understanding of the phrasing of the Question. If that is the reference which the noble Lord makes, I suspect that he is mistaken.
The corporation is required to report annually to the Secretary of State who, in turn, is required to lay copies of the report before Parliament. Parliament exercises its oversight of the corporation's performance through its normal processes. It may require the Secretary of State to report to it on any specific aspect or it may call the corporation to account for its performance to any of the committees established for that purpose in another place. It is also subject to the oversight of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The corporation supports and assists the Secretary of State to meet government policies and objectives. It rightly falls to the Secretary of State to set targets for the corporation covering each of its functions. That is done through the annual corporate plan prepared by the corporation and discussed and agreed with the Secretary of State. In setting out its proposals for approval the corporation is expected to have regard to the impact its plans will have on the sector and to ensure they make a contribution towards the Government's objectives. The corporation has also established a practice, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, whereby it publishes annually at the commencement of the financial year a three-year planning document where it sets out in detail the objectives agreed with the Secretary of State.
The committee chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, has recently examined public spending bodies, including housing associations. One aspect it looked closely into was the openness and accountability of the corporation in its regulatory function. It recommended that the corporation give more consideration to bringing into the public arena more information on its performance as a regulator and the lessons learned from its regulatory interventions in housing associations and registered social landlords.
In general, the Housing Corporation, like other public bodies, takes its responsibilities seriously and is striving to be more open and consultative. Following debate in another place, we introduced a series of statutory duties to consult. But there is a danger of over-prescription.
The noble Baroness proposed that the corporation be required to consult annually before setting its performance targets under its regulatory powers as detailed in Clauses 30 to 38 of the Bill. The corporation is required to take soundings from the sector and those involved in it before submitting its proposals covering all of its functions to the Secretary of State for approval. A separate exercise here would appear to be unnecessary.
The noble Baroness also proposed that the corporation publish its proposals and arrange for publication, at least annually, of a comparison of performance against the targets set. We support the thought which lies behind that, but the corporation already publishes an annual report which is presented to the Secretary of State and laid before Parliament. That would seem to be the appropriate vehicle for such comparisons.
The corporation is taking forward a number of measures designed to improve its accountability to Parliament, the registered social landlord sector and the wider public. It strives to be a best practice organisation. It is accountable to the Secretary of State and serves a vocal and well-informed sector. To introduce a further requirement for consultation and publication would be an unnecessary administrative burden and would be unlikely to add to the information already in the public domain, particularly in view of the further assurances that I have given today. I consider the new clause to be unnecessary. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: The Minister said that the Housing Corporation and Housing for Wales are responsible to the Secretary of State. He then went on to say that they should be distanced from politics. I do not believe that I need do more to ally those two comments than say that the Minister cannot have it both ways. What the noble Lord described could be put in rather different words; for example, a rather cosy tete-o-tete between the corporation and the Government, not the consultation that the amendment proposes.
The Minister told us that the Nolan Committee has recommended that more information be put into the public arena. He also gave us assurances that the corporation is actively considering those recommendations and that it will take action later this year. We are so often reminded about the shortage of parliamentary time. However, we have a big housing Bill before us which deals with the Housing Corporation. Why do the Government fear using the Bill as a vehicle for widening the responsibilities of the Housing Corporation in the area of openness, transparency and consultation; and, indeed, as regards working with others in the sector?
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.