|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, called for a review of the criteria on the local staff scheme. The Foreign Secretary in announcing the assistance scheme last October made it clear that we may well review the criteria for former staff in the light of experience, and most would accept that that is entirely wise.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, rightly drew attention to the persecution of Christians. The UK continues to support the Iraqi Governments efforts to promote national reconciliation and protect all Iraqi communities regardless of faith or political persuasion. We also support protection efforts through the Red Cross and the UNHCR. We condemn kidnap and murder and particularly that of Archbishop Rahho. It was a cowardly act perpetrated by individuals who have rejected dialogue and peaceful politics, which is something that we wish to ensure is defeated in Iraq because it benefits no one and holds up the pace of improvement that is much needed in that troubled country.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, drew attention to what he saw as the inadequacies of our funding. We are offering supportand I have given some examples of that. The noble Lord asked about support from the UK from David Shearer, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq. We have actively supported his efforts for a better co-ordinated humanitarian assistance scheme. We are one of the first donors to pledge support to the newly launched UN consolidated fund which brings together UN and NGO programmes in Iraq.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the enforced return of failed asylum seekers. We enforce return only to those areas assessed as sufficiently stable and when we are satisfied that the individual concerned will not be at risk of persecution or in need of humanitarian protection. We recognise that action by insurgents has created difficult problems in some areas but we do not accept that this applies to all areas. We made it clear in 2004 that we would have a programme of enforced returns and we reached agreement with Iraq about enforced returns in January 2005, and began removing Iraqi nationals at the end of that year
20 Mar 2008 : Column 429
Enforced returns will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, as is quite properly the case. Enforced returns on charter and scheduled flights operate to Erbil for those who are from the Kurdistan Regional Government area. Voluntary returns are possible to all parts of Iraq. There have been three charter flights, all going to Erbil in the KRG area of Iraq. I can give further details on some of that in correspondence and I am more than happy to do so.
We have given other forms of assistance through DfID. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about this. DfID work with the Basra Provincial Reconstruction Team has helped leverage investment of over $205 million of central funds from the national Government in 2007. By the end of 2007, DfID infrastructure projects in the south improved access to water and power for over 1 million people. DfID funded advisers going to the centre of government there and helped established procedures for effective functioning of their Prime Ministers office and Cabinet and reformed human resource and procurement systems in the Iraqi Ministry of Labour. Some £132 million worth of funding for humanitarian agencies has been provided since 2003 and I gave details of more recent allocations. We have funded independent radio and TV outlets which began broadcasting in 2005. We gave particular support to Basra radio station as a credible radio station in the region. We have also helped to entrench international human rights law by training more than 200 judges and prosecutors, which has potential for long-term benefit in sustaining a system reliant on the rule of law.
Questions were asked about the operation of the Gateway scheme. It is only right that I spend a little time covering that. It is a discretionary programme which operates outside the Immigration Rules. Since its implementation, 1,208 refugees have been permanently settled here from African and Asian countries generally. As I said earlier, we are pleased to announce an increase in the Gateway quota. As I said, we have allocated 500 of the places within the programme to Iraqi refugees. Cases will be selected by UNHCR in accordance with its priority categories. That includes female heads of household, survivors of violence and torture, those with medical needs and others. Other nationalities will also continue to be considered.
On progress to date, the UNHCR has submitted 62 applications covering 184 individuals to the BIA. The first Iraqi refugees, up to 300 individuals, will be interviewed in the Middle East by border and immigration staff in May 2008 and resettled permanently from July of this year.
We also operate the mandate resettlement programme which resettles refugees with close ties to the UK. Since January 2007 we have received 78 applications
20 Mar 2008 : Column 430
Noble Lords also asked how our endeavours compared with those of other countries. Finland has a quota of 750 for 2008 and an allocation for Iraqis of 300; Norway has a quota of 935 with an Iraqi allocation of 150; Sweden has a quota of 1,800 over two years with an allocation of 600 for Iraqi refugees; Denmark has a quota of 1,500 over three years with no allocation planned for Iraq, although 200 LE staff have been assisted. Our allocation is as I have described. Ireland has a quota of 200, with no allocation yet made for Iraqis; the Netherlands has a quota of 500 with an allocation for Iraq of 140. I am happy to provide more and further international detail.
I have exceeded my time. Our policies show that we are providing significant support to those organisations that give assistance; we could all argue that there could never be enough assistance so far as Iraqi refugees are concerned. We appreciate in particular the work and support for our military effort in Iraq that has been provided by many Iraqis, who have placed themselves in a vulnerable position. We continue to seek ways to give them further assistance; our programme will at all times be reviewed to ensure that we do that. We have increased our resettlement programme to accommodate larger numbers of Iraqi refugees. We will continue to assess and grant asylum to those genuine asylum seekers. In addition, we have set up an important programme to recognise the valuable contribution that Iraqi staff have made and those who have had a particularly close and sustained relationship with our Government and their endeavours in Iraq. We will reward those staff with either a financial package or relocation to the UK, and we look forward to welcoming the first Iraqi staff to the United Kingdom in the next month and the months to follow.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I will endeavour to cover through correspondence those points that I have failed properly to cover this afternoon. I look forward to continued discussion and dialogue on this important issue.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this short debate. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Howell, the deputy leader on the Conservative side, for his very powerful speech. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who raised the position of the Christian community in Iraq, and he was absolutely right to do so. He also raised the question of the 1,400 Iraqis who are being asked to leave. I am not sure that we had an answer to that, but I have the letter here which is the authentic policy of Her Majestys Government. I assure him that what the Guardian said is absolutely accurate.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who raised among other things the position of women in Syria, which is critical. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace,
20 Mar 2008 : Column 431
I realise the time; I will go on for two minutes, as it is so serious. The Minister in his reply made a number of points about direct finance going to the European fund and the amount being done for staff. All those contributions seem to me extremely modest. He talked about my example of the tailor who, although he was helping the British forces was unfortunately not directly employed, so we would not help him; that more or less encapsulates what we have been talking about.
Again, I thank everyone for taking part in the debate. I do not think that the Governments reply matches up to the challenge. I warn Ministers that this issue will be raised again. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order is being made under the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 and is intended to make the Comptroller and Auditor-General the statutory auditor for four non-departmental public bodies and for the NHS Direct NHS trust. I am grateful for the assistance that we received from the National Audit Office in preparing these provisions.
This is the fourth time that we have taken such an order through Parliament since 2003, although it is the first time that we have used the order-making powers in the Government Resources and Accounts Act to give the Comptroller and Auditor-General statutory audit responsibility for an NHS trust. It might be helpful if I set the draft order in context.
In 2003, the Government implemented key recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, on audit and accountability in central government. In particular, the Government responded to concerns expressed in Parliament by strengthening the statutory powers of the Comptroller and Auditor- General in two ways: first, by making the Comptroller and Auditor-General the statutory auditor of certain non-departmental public bodies, where he is not already the statutory auditor; and, secondly, by giving the Comptroller and Auditor-General greater powers of
20 Mar 2008 : Column 432
The House may recall that in 2004 and 2005, the Government continued this policy by extending the Comptroller and Auditor-Generals statutory powers in respect of a further six non-departmental public bodies. Since the policy was established, new primary legislation to set up a non-departmental public body usually includes provision for the body to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The four non-departmental public bodies affected by the order have either recently been reclassified as non-departmental public bodies or were established under arrangements or legislation in which no provision for audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General was included. The Treasury has worked with the affected non-departmental public bodies to prepare them for the Comptroller and Auditor-Generals audit. In line with policy, current audit contracts need to run their course before the Comptroller and Auditor-General begins auditing the non-departmental public bodies.
This order is intended to continue the process that Parliament approved in 2003, 2004 and 2005. It provides for the Comptroller and Auditor-General to be made the statutory auditor for the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation, the Independent Living Fund (2006), the Ombudsman for the Board of the Pensions Protection Fund and the Pensions Ombudsman. In doing so, the draft order applies a long-standing policy, endorsed by all sides of the House, that non-departmental public bodies are to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General.
The order also provides for the Comptroller and Auditor General to retain statutory audit responsibility for NHS Direct, even though it has become an NHS trust. I thought that it would be helpful to explain the Governments reasoning behind this, given that this body is not specifically a non-departmental public body. NHS Direct was formerly a special health authority. Indeed, it was made subject to Comptroller and Auditor- General audit in an earlier order under the Government Resources and Accounts Act. NHS Direct became an NHS trust on 1 April 2007 as part of the implementation of the review into the Department of Healths arms-length bodies. But the National Health Service Act 2006 provides that all NHS Trusts are to be audited by the Audit Commission.
In the Governments view, however, NHS Direct remains a national body, as opposed to all other NHS trusts that provide services locally. It is right that NHS bodies that provide services locally should be subject to audit by auditors appointed by the Audit Commission. But NHS Direct NHS trust provides services at a national level. Like other similar bodies, it should continue to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and this order provides for that.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order. I also thank the Minister and the Government Whips Office for their efforts this morning to ensure that we debate the right order. There was some confusion as to whether it included the Churches Conservation Trust, but a revised order, which we understand was laid before your Lordships House, was located. The Churches Conservation Trust was within the first order laid but is not within the order that we are debating this afternoon, and we are content with that. I am sure, however, that the Minister will share my concern that those responsible for managing the paperwork processed in your Lordships Houseadmittedly a large taskshould identify and learn the lessons from what went wrong in relation to this order.
The House will know that these Benches have always supported the report by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman. It is logical and right that public sector bodies are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General and so we support the order. However, I have a couple of points to raise with the Ministerhe would not expect to escape for Easter without a little work.
My first point concerns how it is possible today for a government department to create a public body without, at the same time, creating the appropriate audit arrangements. The Independent Living Fund, for example, seems to have been created by a process that avoided parliamentary scrutiny in 2006. What audit arrangements were made at that time? This order applies the audit arrangements with effect from 2007-08 but what about the earlier period? Who audited that? What was the involvement of the DWPs accounting officer at the time that the fund was set up?
I do not understand how the Pensions Act 2004, which created the PPF Ombudsman, did not at the same time set up the correct audit arrangements. Do parliamentary draftsmen not have audit arrangements in their checklist for new legislation when creating new public bodies? If not, I suggest to the Minister that, in this post-Sharman age, they should.
Can the Minister explain what audit arrangements were applied to the PPF Ombudsman before this financial year, and, perhaps of more concern, what have been the audit arrangements for the pensions ombudsman in the 15 years since the Pension Schemes Act 1993 was passed?
The second area that I wish to deal with is the NHS. I shall not object to the appointment of the C&AG to NHS Direct instead of the Audit Commission. The Government have put forward a local versus national justification for this but the arrangements for NHS audit, as I have argued in the House before, are odd. The C&AG has always audited the summarised accounts of the NHS, but some clever footwork by the Audit Commission allowed it to grab the bulk of NHS audit work when my partys NHS reforms in 1990 put an end to the nonsense of the Department of Health
20 Mar 2008 : Column 434
That brings me to my third point: whether it is sensible to continue with two public-sector audit systems. The two have already been combined in Scotland and Wales and I understand that the combined organisations work well. Mr John Tiner, who carried out a review of the NAO last year, recommended that, once the governance arrangements of the NAO have been strengthened, a merger of the NAO and the Audit Commission should be pursued. The report gives a number of powerful reasons in favour of merger. Mr Tiner puts six years as the appropriate timescale for reviewing the arrangements. I hope that the Minister will agree that this area should be looked at on a much timelier basis.
My fourth area is the audit of publicly owned companies. When this order was debated in another place, the Exchequer Secretary said in response to a question from my honourable friend Mr David Gauke that 40 to 50 companies were expected to be brought within a similar order to the one that we are debating today. The ability for the C&AG to audit companies was included within the Companies Act 2006again with our support, although it was done in a rather complicated way. Will the Minister give a timetable for the new order? I believe that the appropriate supervisory arrangements have now been put in place and that the practical obstacle of the former C&AG's chairmanship of the Professional Oversight Board has been dealt with by Sir John Bourn's retirement. We hope that the Government will now move quickly on this and I ask the Minister to say when we will see the relevant order.
My last point concerns Northern Rock. I am sure the Minister does not expect to escape from Northern Rock in any debate these days. Northern Rock remains a company and the C&AG is now able to audit companies. I am sure that the Minister will say that the Government's ownership of Northern Rock is temporary and that it is, therefore, appropriate to stick with commercial auditors. I will not argue that point with him today. But in the mean time, will the Government ensure that the C&AG has access to Northern Rock so that it can follow the eye-watering amounts of public money that have been poured into Northern Rock and so that C&AG can ensure that taxpayers are getting value for money.
The Government Resource and Accounts Act together with the Companies Act give the Government all the powers that they need. They just have to keep true to their own public audit policies and use those powers.
Lord Addington: My Lords, I have very little to add to the discussion. If there is a sensible, more coherent way of doing this that avoids two forms of auditing, why are we not using it, as the noble Baroness asked? I wonder whether the Royal Ulster Constabulary George
20 Mar 2008 : Column 435
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as always I am grateful to noble Lords for contributing to the debate. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on two grounds. First, she has asked sufficient questions to make for a lively exchange in the last business before the House before Easter and, therefore, has guaranteed that neither she nor I are doing anything else except being entirely constructive about public policy. Secondly, I thank her for her understanding approach to the problems with this order. For a short time, we had the wrong order in the office. I hasten to add that my department, the Treasury, was not at fault, for which I express the greatest relief. The noble Baroness is right that that mistake should not have happened and I have taken steps to ensure that it does not happen again. I apologise for that.
On the general issues that she raises, I begin by saying that the new audit arrangements for several of the bodies to which she refers reflect that they have rather diverse histories. She asked why they were not previously subject to that form of audit. The independent living fund has had a fairly modest and fixed budget over the period and it has been adequate to make awards to all the qualifying applicants. She will appreciate that in that framework there has not been enormous strain on ensuring that the resources are adequate and spent effectively. Nevertheless, we have taken this opportunity to ensure that the fund will now have increasing resourceswe have taken steps to account properly for expenditures and its work.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|