Public Bodies Bill [Lords]
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Mr James Rhys, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
It is a pleasure to welcome you back to the Chair, Mr Amess. This is the second of two important issues for rural communities that the Committee will consider. The amendment seeks to remove the Commission for Rural Communities from schedule 1.
It is impossible to overlook the essential work that is done by the Commission for Rural Communities, and it is important for the Minister to assure the Committee, members of the public and rural communities that the interests of rural communities will not suffer by the abolition of the CRC. As we know, it was created by section 17 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. As some hon. Members will remember, debating that legislation took a lot of time, and that serious and important debate took place just over five years ago.
The CRC is a statutory body, funded by the Government, to help ensure that policies, programmes and decisions take proper account of the circumstances of rural communities. That is essential to our discussion, with a particular focus on disadvantaged people and areas suffering from economic under-performance. The CRC has three main functions: it provides an expert adviser, giving objective, evidence-based advice to Government and others; it acts as an advocate; and it acts as an independent watchdog, monitoring and reporting on the delivery of policies nationally, regionally and locally.
I first wish to focus on the process by which the Government have reached their position on the CRC, and offer the Minister the opportunity to address the issues that have arisen, particularly due to a lack of consultation and undue haste on the part of the Government to put the body into schedule 1. Will the Minister comment on the consultation with rural communities and their representatives? What has been the outcome of the consultation, and have the Government taken any of the points raised into consideration?
Will he also tell us whether he is confident that those affected by the changes will have been given the opportunity to voice their opinion before any decision in Parliament is enacted? A concern raised by a number of people in rural communities is the undue haste by the Government to centralise the functions of the CRC into the Department, and that that may ultimately be to the detriment of rural communities.
Secondly, I wish to focus on arguably the main reason for the Government’s abolition of the CRC—the projected savings that will be made by bringing its responsibilities in house. The Government briefing published last year suggests that, by abolishing the CRC, savings of £4.5 million will be made, after the transitional costs of £2.5 million are covered. That is a large sum, particularly considering that the CRC’s budget before the recent cuts was £5.8 million. Will the Minister provide the precise and current estimated savings, including transitional costs, of the CRC’s abolition?
Once taken in house, the forecast DEFRA spend is estimated to be just £1.3 million a year. That is £4.5 million less than the CRC spent in 2009-10. That is a big difference and clearly not simply a result of efficiency savings. Will the Minister assure the Committee that all the statutory duties and work of the CRC will be carried out to the same standard by DEFRA, given the huge difference in the budgets allocated to the CRC and to the Department to undertake that activity?
As I have highlighted, the CRC was subject to massive cuts in March 2011, when its budget was slashed to just £450,000 for the year and it was left with a skeleton staff. It is clear from the CRC’s evidence that, although many cuts have already happened, some of its responsibilities have not yet transferred to DEFRA or been allocated to new bodies. How many staff of what remains of the CRC are in place at the moment? What duties, if any, does the CRC retain? Given that the CRC had statutory duties, will the Minister assure us that those duties are being undertaken during the transition period? Who is undertaking those duties? Is the new department within DEFRA up and running, and is it running at full capacity? What is the size of the new department? Is there any further information about the department’s staffing and its level of responsibility?
The problem with the Minister’s hasty plan to abolish the CRC is that there is no mention of how the new arrangements will ensure that the Government’s policies are rural-proofed to the same extent as they were when they were subject to the independent and expert analysis of the CRC. Dr Stuart Burgess was, until his post went, the rural advocate and head of the CRC. He is, as the Committee is aware, a man with many years’ expert experience of rural affairs, and he has raised one example of such a problem. In traditional statistical sources, such as the indices of deprivation, deprivation is not shown as a significant issue for rural areas because of rural areas being geographically substantial and with low populations. We need someone with expert knowledge to argue that such a definition disguises the needs of the rural poor and can sometimes lead to such areas being overlooked.
I am sure the Minister is aware, given his constituency, that a large number of rural households lived in fuel poverty in 2008 and that the average rural house price was six times average household income in 2009. How will DEFRA address such issues when at least some of the subject matter is clearly external to the DEFRA brief?
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The hon. Lady’s point on the independent voice is critical. Frankly, many of our rural communities lack confidence that political parties of either persuasion are addressing their concerns. Looking at the work of the rural advocate, one such concern is rural fuel poverty, on which my hon. Friend, the Minister, has done a huge amount of work. An independent voice is needed, but it cannot be covered alone if the work is subsumed into DEFRA as part of a unit.
Much of the CRC’s work is research-based, and I am sure the Minister is aware that the CRC has published an annual state of the countryside report that is key to measuring and monitoring social, economic and environmental trends in rural areas. How will DEFRA maintain that level of research? The cost of producing such reports can be considerable and requires proactive evidence-finding visits and engagement at local level. I am not confident that DEFRA civil servants, who are largely based in London and who have numerous other demands on their time, will be able to carry out this work and understand the communities that they are dealing with.
My third point concerns the value that transparency gives to the CRC in enabling it to fulfil its role as an independent voice for rural communities. Since its creation, the CRC reports have been made public at every stage on its website and in hard copy, which has maximised the participation of rural communities in the policy process. Can the Minister guarantee that that practice will continue at DEFRA? In contrast, as many members of the Committee will be aware, advice to Ministers is often confidential, and civil servants sign the Official Secrets Act. There are vast differences between the abilities of a Department and of a statutory body such as the CRC to be fully open. The Government say that ministerial accountability to Parliament will ensure transparency, but can the Minister explain to us how that will be any different, in practical terms, from the current situation for Departments?
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Many Members will have read at least a summary of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on rural communities, which highlights the differences between rural communities and those in urban and suburban areas. One fact in the report that was striking—in addition to the differences in income levels—was that in terms of population, our rural communities will always be a minority in the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to questions such as fuel poverty and bus deregulation, the independent and slightly different perspective of the Rural Advocate is a key part of the situation for rural communities?
Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She highlights some of the specific areas in which it is essential to have a Rural Advocate, and in which the independent voice has been so powerful. There has been an independent voice for rural communities
“the notion that what is provided by an independent body can be substituted for by a unit in a department. In my view, that is complete and utter rubbish. Whatever else, I think we need an injection of independence in this”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 March 2011; Vol. 726, c. 770.]
Government Members have argued that it is up to MPs to be champions of their rural communities. I agree, and I think that MPs have an important role to play in advocating for their constituencies. However, as the Committee is aware, MPs do not necessarily speak with one voice, which means that if we simply rely on MPs, some messages that come from rural areas will be diluted. In addition, it is not possible to say that Ministers can take on that role in government, because they change positions, sometimes quite often, and they take time to get to grips with their brief. There might, therefore, be a lack of coherence and consistency if we simply rely on Ministers.
There is a further point about this matter. Even the most junior Ministers have many considerable, wide-ranging responsibilities within their remit, as things stand. They simply may be unable to put the amount of time into this area that the Rural Advocate and the Commission for Rural Communities could. It is evident that the Government have not fully considered the implications of the addition of a role, previously done by a dedicated, focused individual, to a Minister within DEFRA. Will the Minister explain how the consistency achieved with the CRC will be continued within DEFRA? In particular, I am keen to know, as are many people who are following the debate, how DEFRA will accommodate the role of the Rural Advocate within the Department.
There is a further, linked issue, which was raised in the other place and remains unanswered, about the ability of junior Ministers to press a case and carry the same authority that an independent advocate, such as Stuart Burgess had, when dealing with other, often more powerful, Departments. Ministers in a Department—in this case, DEFRA—may find it difficult to put pressure on more senior Ministers in other Departments. A key role of the Rural Advocate, therefore, may be lost with the transfer of functions.
Following on from the issue of independence, there is a question about the ability of DEFRA to fulfil a vital cross-departmental role, and about the person who will be given this new role within the Department. In recent
Significantly, the CRC has also advised a number of Government Departments—not only DEFRA—on a range of policy issues. Some examples of those have included: promoting the interests of local people in the decision-making processes for rural communities; highlighting several examples of community-led plans and services, similar to those envisaged in the Localism Bill; leading the establishment of the rural coalition, to bring together formerly disparate organisations that represent rural interests into a single national forum to enable and encourage discussion; and championing, across Government, the need for digital access in rural areas, which is reflected in the Government’s commitment to extending broadband across the country and the recent announcement by Ofcom that it will insist that broadband becomes cheaper in rural areas. On that last point, the Government’s recent removal of the 50p tax on bills to fund rural broadband demonstrates the acute need for an independent adviser.
Ministers are extremely busy and juggle responsibilities for more than one area of Government policy. Without the setting up of an independent rural adviser, I do not see how DEFRA can take on the duties and responsibilities of the CRC to the extent and to the same standards achieved by the CRC before it was affected by pre-emptive Government cuts.
Dr Stuart Burgess has investigated in full the costs of maintaining an independent rural adviser. He concluded that the establishment of an adviser could be achieved on a small annual budget of no more than £400,000 and would provide an independent rural voice at the heart of Government. Will the Minister ensure that disadvantaged rural communities—a minority voice even with the excellent work and assistance of the CRC and Stuart Burgess—will not be disadvantaged by the Government’s proposals? Will the Minister assure us that an independent voice representing the interests of rural communities will remain?
“The big risk is that the small and weak voices tend to get ignored. They have the added problem of trying to persuade the powers-that-be that the superficial image of the countryside as a rather well-heeled place of rural tranquillity is not true. You have to punch your way through the chocolate-box image. It is that important role that I think will simply get lost if the Rural Advocate is removed.”
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): May I set the record straight? I think that last week some Members might have thought I was at Hillsborough, but I was not. I was at a football match when the Hillsborough disaster happened.
“The beauty of our landscape; the particular cultures and traditions that rural life sustains; these are national treasures, to be cherished and protected for everyone’s benefit. It’s not enough for politicians just to say that—we need leaders who really understand it and feel it in their bones. I do.”
I do not know what happened, but there seems to be a Welsh flavour to the Committee. I am lucky in that I have visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for the past 10 years. Anyone who goes to St David’s and Fishguard on holiday will know exactly what it is like when rural areas are protected and where there is one body for everyone.
I am privileged to have served the previous Government as an independent lawyer at the Treasury Solicitor’s department. The National Assembly for Wales, later known as the Welsh Assembly Government, was a client on planning issues. We knew that the national park had to be preserved for everyone as an independent body that looks after the interests of Wales. Standing on top of Garn Fawr and looking out across the Atlantic or seeing the Preseli hills one realises that there are things bigger than we are and things that have to be preserved. It is a beautiful area of Wales—just as other parts of Wales are beautiful—and I encourage everyone to visit it. The surfing is absolutely excellent.
Going to St David’s, one can see change; where there was a greengrocer, there is now Window on Wales—a gift shop. Little businesses should be encouraged and protected. All around the area are people who come from all over the world—Germany and everywhere, even England. It is a well-preserved area and that should be maintained.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham mentioned another aspect, however, which is poverty. People do live in poverty, and they must be protected. The Commission for Rural Communities, as most hon. Members may have seen, does several useful things. It looks at housing, planning, transport and children and young people. It is important that we are here not just for ourselves, but also because we want to leave something good behind for following generations. We know that people in rural communities are having difficulty living in their areas. Housing and jobs are major problems.
People are beginning to realise that children in cities need to go outside. Michael Morpurgo has set up a city farm. Wales has many wonderful farms, which children should visit. They need to know that apples do not just come from Tesco, but from trees, but many children do not understand that. It is part of the Prime Minister’s general view of well-being that one goes to the countryside to get a sense of perspective about what our lives are like and to get a sense of well-being. Again, my sense of well-being for the last term has come from visiting Wales.
We know how hon. Members felt following the Boundary Commission’s report. With the stroke of a pen, some of us may not even be back after the next
We know that the Forestry Commission does important work, and it should have been consulted. The Minister has had an about-turn on that commission, but it goes hand in hand with the Commission for Rural Communities. There cannot be a U-turn on the Forestry Commission without the Commission for Rural Communities. It does important work and must be preserved just as our green and pleasant land must be.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I thought that we would be having a brief excursion away from Wales today, but we are back in the Principality and that is not such a bad thing either. I welcome you and other hon. Members to the Committee this morning, Mr Amess.
I am grateful to the hon. Members for City of Durham and for Walsall South for their comments on this important issue. It is certainly important for me, because some of us have sometimes felt that we were ploughing a lonely furrow—to use a rural expression—over the past decade or so when pressing the interests of rural communities. It is great to hear members from both sides of the Committee expressing their concern about issues such as rural poverty, because, exactly as the hon. Member for City of Durham has said, the idea that we all live in beautiful cottages with roses around the doors belies the fact that many people in rural areas not only live in degrees of poverty, but also do not have access to many of the support mechanisms that are available to people in similar circumstances in towns. How we ensure that the Government have a proper realisation of the interests of rural communities is, therefore, important. The hon. Member for City of Durham set me a challenge right at the beginning when she said that I need to persuade her that the interests of rural communities will not suffer, and I will do my best to do that in my comments and responses today.
I will address the first of the central concerns about the Government’s proposal to abolish the CRC, which is the loss of an independent voice to ensure that the Government are held to account on their rural policy making. It is an important point of principle—this is not the last time that the Committee will hear it enunciated—that democratically accountable Ministers should take direct responsibility for policy functions. Ministers in DEFRA feel that a single centre of rural expertise operating within DEFRA will be able to engage more effectively and at an earlier stage in the development of policy across Government, ensuring that rural needs and opportunities are properly understood before decisions are made. It is no criticism of either the CRC or the Rural Advocate to say that I think having that strong voice within Government is absolutely essential to making sure that other Departments hear what is being said by the advisers who are working directly with rural communities.
Mr Mark Williams: Will my hon. Friend confirm that, despite what we have heard, that is the model that applies in Wales? We are talking about an English-only body today and, welcome as it is to hear about Wales, we have not had the benefit of such a body in Wales over the last 11 or 12 years.
Mr Heath: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is why I thought that we might have a brief interlude from Cymric discussion this morning on this English body. Nevertheless, I am always happy to hear about both the joys and beauties of rural Wales and apply the experience from the Principality to England.
The hon. Lady made some other points that I want to address. She asked about consultation, a point made also by the hon. Member for Walsall South, who said that there needs to be proper consultation before a body like this is abolished. Yes, of course. That is what the Bill says. It is absolutely clear that nothing can be done as a result of the inclusion of a body in this part of the Bill without a proper public consultation process. Assuming that the Bill reaches the statute book, there will be a 90-day public consultation which will be published this autumn. The Bill provides that there cannot be secondary legislation bringing into effect the abolition without that consultation process and then Parliament’s consent. It is axiomatic that Ministers will want to look at the responses to those consultations before taking a step forward.
Mr Heath: I do not want to retrace steps in terms of the rationale adopted as the basis of the Bill. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office has made clear the criteria we use to assess public bodies across the whole of the government sector to see whether they should be included in the schedules. That is an initial tranche or filter. Those that fall outside the criteria are not included in the Bill.
A fundamental issue that the Committee must get its head around is that we are not abolishing any public bodies in the Bill. We are providing the legislative vehicle by which that process can then take place, which involves consultation and further parliamentary scrutiny. At that point it will happen. It is a two-stage process. This is paving legislation, something that the previous Government were also keen to have, I believe. I was certainly led to believe that that it was felt there was a need for a vehicle for looking at public bodies. Therefore it is a two-stage process. Those bodies that are included in the schedules are those that meet the criteria for consideration. That consideration then has to take place before a final decision is taken.
Mr Heath: I accept the validity of what the hon. Lady says. However, one has to start somewhere, and we would be criticised by hon. Members if we suddenly announced abolition without any parliamentary process. This is the opportunity for people to talk about the process and the legislative vehicle. We will then go through the subsequent process. In this instance, I do not think we are losing expertise, as I will go on to say, because of the changes that have already taken place. Let us be clear: Ministers have taken a view about what they think might be the right solution, but we must test that through public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. That is a perfectly proper process.
The hon. Member for City of Durham asked me about the savings. Let me be as explicit as I can. It is estimated that implementing the Government’s new approach to the rural policy functions will in total generate net savings of approximately £17 million over the comprehensive spending review period of 2010-15. That is not to be sniffed at. Let us all be sensible: we are trying to find savings as part of the process, as well as finding better ways to carry out policy and government functions.
The first phase of the transition was completed by 31 March 2011, as planned. By consolidating resources within an expanded rural communities policy unit within Government, and working with the CRC to design and influence a more streamlined operating model, DEFRA has already reduced annual spending on its rural policy function by approximately 60% from the 2010-11 baseline. Under its new operating model, the CRC receives £450,000 per annum funding towards its delivery costs, and is provided with back-office support—finance, human resources functions and so on—by DEFRA at an estimated cost of £80,000 per annum. The annual resource cost of maintaining the CRC as an arm’s-length body is, therefore, estimated at £530,000 per annum. The cost of abolishing the streamlined CRC is estimated at approximately £150,000.
Mr Heath: It depends first on how that body operates and, secondly, from whom it takes its advice and with whom it communicates. I will go on to that in a moment. Thirdly, having spoken to Ministers in DEFRA, I am clear that they wish to retain an independent element within the policy advice that they receive, and I know they are working to that end.
I will come back to that, because I want to be clear in answering the hon. Member for City of Durham. She asked about the new rural communities policy unit. It is
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): I apologise if I missed this figure in the run of numbers that the Minister gave a moment ago, but, as I understand it, there have already been some compulsory redundancies at the commission. How much was spent on those compulsory redundancies?
Having addressed the staffing, I will now deal with some of the other issues. It is critical that the new RCPU works. The unit has already been established and is built on DEFRA’s existing rural policy team. Staff with other backgrounds and expertise have been brought in, including, as I have already indicated, those transferred from the CRC.
One of the new unit’s key objectives is to develop open and transparent ways of working. It will collaborate, where appropriate, with organisations representing and supporting rural residents, enterprises and communities, which will give those stakeholders an opportunity to influence the unit’s priorities and projects.
The process will be open. The RCPU work programme will shortly be published on the DEFRA website, and the unit will use a variety of methods to provide public updates on its progress and impact. We will have a transparent process for both policy advice and information collection, which is how Dr Stuart Burgess worked. I pay tribute to his work—it would be quite wrong for us not to say what a valuable role he played—but I am not sure that his valuable work was always transferred into the policy, legislation and programmes of the previous Government, which was my constant criticism. Nevertheless, that was not for want of strong advocacy on his part.
It is key that DEFRA Ministers are able to champion the cause of rural areas and to lead policy from inside the Department. Many other organisations have a part to play in that, too. Such organisations already advocate strongly and effectively on the behalf of rural people. DEFRA Ministers will be accountable to Parliament for the way in which they fulfil their role as rural champions. Inevitably, some elements of the work of DEFRA and the RCPU will take place behind the scenes. I make no bones about that because it is to be expected. A lot of the work will be open, however, as the previous advocacy process was open. Additionally, there will be the application of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has already indicated that it wishes to scrutinise the work of the RCPU. We welcome that. It is further evidence of the importance that many people in the House and elsewhere attach to the interests of those living and working in rural areas.
The RCPU will bring together, for the first time, a consolidated picture of the Government’s broad range of policies and programmes for rural people, businesses and communities through the publication of a rural statement, which is an important innovation. As stated on the DEFRA website, the RCPU will also publish its rural programme work plan, which will be updated annually.
I will now address the concept that a small group of civil servants will not be able properly either to understand or represent the concerns and priorities of rural people. As I have already mentioned, three offices—Bristol, London and York—have already been established to maximise the chances of recruiting and retaining staff with a background and interest in the relationship between national policy and local delivery. Since its creation in April, the RCPU has been carrying out a careful assessment of the rural evidence base and considering how best to gather evidence related to current policy issues as well as more strategic long-term evidence about the changing characteristics of rural places, communities and economies.
When the hon. Member for City of Durham and her colleagues look at the website, I would welcome their views on whether the programme will meet the needs that the unit should meet. The unit will be working closely with other organisations. It says in my notes that DEFRA’s officials will be taking a more proactive and public-facing approach than has previously been the case. I am not sure about the phrase “proactive and public-facing approach,” but I think it means they will talk to people and listen. I welcome civil servants talking to people, listening and providing advice. Among those to whom they will be talking and listening will be the Rural Coalition, which is already engaging with a wide range of businesses and other stakeholders that are interested in the rural economy growth review, and supporting the development of DEFRA’s new rural and farming network.
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): I am delighted that DEFRA officials will be listening and going around the countryside meeting good folk in rural communities, although I am not sure what they will be letting themselves in for. A very good publication from the commission was the regular report, “State of the countryside”. Will officials continue to produce that, and will it be publicly available?
Mr Heath: That is covered, really, by what I have already said. There will be an annual statement, which will effectively carry out the same role. One perfectly legitimate concern that hon. Members have expressed is about independence. We have to establish independence to ensure that Ministers in the Department can convincingly argue their case on the basis of good advice. We have rural-proofing mechanisms, but they have not always worked terribly well, and I want them to work better. Of course, I have an interest in that, but for reasons of good governance we need to make sure that rural-proofing works better, because too often legislation has appeared to be based on an urban and suburban model without really understanding what happens in rural areas. Ministers in DEFRA are still exploring options to ensure a degree of independent advice.
When we debate the future of the CRC, if this Bill becomes law, following consultation Ministers will be clear about how they will be given independent advice and how we ensure proper audit of the rural-proofing that the Department is carrying out on behalf of rural communities. We are seeing a focusing of rural policy expertise within Government, which I hope will remove duplication, improve efficiency and enable resources to be more effectively focused on securing practical outcomes in priority policy areas. For the time being, the CRC remains in operation as a more streamlined body, and it will continue to do so until such time as—subject to parliamentary approval—it is abolished. Until that time, the commission will retain the ability to perform, albeit in a different way, the statutory functions required of it by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.
I hope I have addressed the principal concerns expressed by the hon. Member for City of Durham and persuaded her that our proposals will create a more effective and stronger measure for producing the voice for rural communities that we all want to see. I recognise some of the concerns that she and her colleagues have expressed. I can only assure her that those are at the forefront of Ministers’ thinking in developing the policy and ensuring that we end up with a measure that enables DEFRA to perform its role more effectively, and which ensures that the rest of the Government are aware of the impact of policies on rural areas. On that basis, I hope she feels able to withdraw her amendment.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the Minister for that detailed response. There was much in his answer that was reassuring, but I want to deal with the question of the Bill being enabling legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan pointed out, the problem with Ministers arguing that the Bill is simply enabling legislation is that several bodies mentioned in the Bill seem to have been substantially dismantled, at least, in advance of the legislation being passed. That is producing many problems for several organisations and for us in seeking to scrutinise the Bill carefully.
Nevertheless, the Minister made several reasonable points, particularly about the programme of activities that will be taken up by the RCPU, but we may need more reassurance on how it will maintain a high level of activity across Departments. One issue the Minister did not mention was how the RCPU will work across Departments to produce reports on rural poverty, for example, with a severely reduced budget. That needs to be explored further. We are all looking forward to seeing DEFRA civil servants being proactive—going around the country and holding focus groups, for example. I am sure we will all want to take part in that, and we look forward to seeing how it will work.
I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he will reconsider the question of ensuring that the Rural Advocate remains a strong independent voice for rural communities. The Government have assured us that they will look again at that, and presumably they will come back with something on Report. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
This is a probing amendment to try to discover, as we have been unable to do from any other source, why the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board is included in schedule 1. As we know, that public body gives advice on matters relating to the allowance not only to the Department for Work and Pensions but to a range of doctors and other health professionals involved in the Department’s work on disability benefits. We would simply like some information on how that work will be undertaken in future. It is a complex area of benefits legislation that requires, as we have seen, that specialist advice be given to the Government. It is not at all clear how that advice will be maintained. I want to hear from the Minister why this body is on the list and how the advice will be maintained. We want an assurance that Ministers will get the whole range of information about these complex benefits.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Amess. It is unusual to debate an amendment that does not involve any discussion at all about Wales, although to attune myself to affairs, I found myself in Wales yesterday.
I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham for her brief and clear explanation that this is a probing amendment and that she is seeking information. If that information has not been forthcoming, I apologise on behalf of the Government. Our case is straightforward. The body is effectively defunct and the Department feels that it can source the information and advice it needs more effectively. I shall take a few minutes to explain why the Department reached that view. I totally understand the hon. Lady’s starting point that we are moving into a period of complexity and change with the reform of the disability living allowance, and all our constituents want to be reassured that the Government are well advised through that. I hope my remarks will give the reassurance she seeks.
The amendment would remove the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board from the list of bodies to which the Bill applies. I cannot see any circumstance in which that would be desirable, but I need to explain why. As is clear to the Committee, the Government intend to reduce the number and cost of public bodies, so removing the board from schedule 1 would impact adversely on that intention. The board was established in 1991 to provide advice to the Secretary of State, which he may refer to from time to time, on matters relating to disability living allowance and attendance allowance. The Government want to place on record their thanks to the members of the board for the advice they have provided over the years, which has genuinely contributed to policy debates in the Department. However, I ask the Committee to note that the board has not been asked to provide any advice since November 2008.
Medical experts, including DLA decision-makers and departmental medical officers, are already providing the Department with medical advice and medical input into policy decisions. The Department believes that it can obtain, when required, expert medical advice in specialist medical fields using what it calls task and finish groups. For example, the Department has set up a specific advisory group to work with it on the creation of the new assessment for the personal independence
Roberta Blackman-Woods: Can the Minister give some reassurance on the range of skills on which the Government are drawing in setting up the task and finish groups? It is said that one advantage of the board was that it brought people with knowledge of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, social work and nursing together with medical practitioners and disabled people to be a strong, independent voice to Government on the needs of disabled people. Will he reassure us that the task and finish groups are also multiagency and independent?
Mr Hurd: I hope I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. For example, the Department is designing the assessment for the new benefit—the personal independence payment—in collaboration with a group of independent specialists in health, social care and disability. That group includes two members of the board, recognising their experience and expertise. It includes individuals from a range of professions such as occupational therapy, psychiatry, physiotherapy, social work and general practice, as well as representatives from Radar and Equality 2025. The Department therefore feels that it is accessing a wide variety of tailored, relevant expertise, rather than maintaining a non-departmental public body in perpetuity. That is the basis on which it wishes to proceed. If I have given the Committee some reassurance on that point, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the Minister for that response, which gave the Committee some additional information and some of the rationale for why the body is on the list. The Opposition recognise that the whole landscape of benefits is about to change and there will be a need for a different arrangements within the Department. In agreeing to withdraw the amendment, we will want to check that these task and finish groups keep the voice of disabled people right at the top of the agenda, in addition to other groups that rely on the benefits system. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
All of the matters we are discussing on the Bill are important, but a few of them touch on questions of life and death. Touch wood, we have done well in recent years with safety at sports grounds. We can never be complacent about the way that large crowds of people, sometimes quite excited and frequently with small minorities who become over-excited, conduct themselves. We need to be sure that it is right to abolish the Football Licensing Authority. In the spirit of the non-partisan way in which the Committee has worked, I will not pray in aid anyone from the Opposition Benches, because, as I am sure the Minister is aware, there were many speeches by Government Members defending the Football Licensing Authority which, after the recent passage of legislation, is now called the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. Many comments were made by the Sports Minister about how important the body is, which I will refer to as I address the issues.
Let me briefly recall how the SGSA originally came into existence. There were a number of dreadful incidents. The Hillsborough one still has a huge place in the national memory. It is impossible to recall that day, the tragic images that we saw and the relatives’ reactions afterwards, without feeling a touch of sadness. As we know, there are unresolved issues relating to those events, and I was glad to see that the Government were considering whether they could publish some records.
Afterwards, the Taylor report emerged. It made a series of recommendations, which were implemented by the SGSA, with some care. The report wanted to see the closure of the standing terraces, new safety measures at exits and entrances, a new advisory committee on stadium design, and crucially, the Government’s identity card scheme being dropped on the grounds of safety, which was a suggestion that the Government reluctantly carried out. All those measures were to be enacted by an independent body, outside of central Government. It would be focused on developing expertise in the management of large crowds, and at venues where large crowds can sometimes move very quickly.
Since then, there has been no incident of any significance in the UK within a sports ground, but there have been some elsewhere in the world. We remember the Heysel stadium disaster, which took place before Hillsborough, or there was an incident in which 84 people died during a match between Guatemala and Costa Rica. Hon. Members may also recall that 43 people died in a match between the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, only ten years ago. We have seen other incidents, too, and frequently, when such an event takes place elsewhere, or when a Government wish to review sports ground safety, they come to the UK and ask the FLA—or now, the SGSA—for advice. We are seen as a world centre of excellence in maintaining sports ground safety, and that expertise has been developed within the body that we now propose to abolish.
It is right to ask why we would want to close down an organisation that—touch wood—has done so well inside the UK and is seen as a centre of excellence throughout the world, particularly given that a series of new venues are coming into existence in London, because of the Olympics. We hope that there
Mr Hurd: I just want to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to confirm that he understands that no body is being abolished until after the Olympics, and that no matter what happens to the specific organisation, the Government intend to keep its functions and transfer them to another body. There is no intention to take any risks at all with football safety.
In response, I say that if I were employed by the SGSA—given my expertise and the great pride I would take in my organisation’s work to secure safety at sports grounds over the past few years—and I then discovered that the authority’s life would not be extended and its functions would be placed elsewhere, I might feel unsettled, at least. More than that, I might decide to seek employment and use my expertise elsewhere. Many countries in the world, English-speaking or not, are looking to reproduce the kind of authority we have here. I accept that the intention is not to see the body disappear before the Olympics. However, the truth, I am told, is that the staff feel unsettled and some may decide to move on. There is a settled body of expertise there and I am worried that some of that may be lost. Will the Minister address how we ensure that we do not lose that expertise, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics, but also beyond? There are events every weekend where stadiums are occupied by large numbers of people.
As I just said, the new Sports Grounds Safety Authority Act effectively extends the functions of what was the FLA and is now the SGSA. During the Committee stage of that Bill, the Minister said the matter was urgent because the Olympics were not far away. He added:
“A body of expertise has been built up in British sport and we are not able to use it for the most important event that British sport is now facing.”––[Official Report, Sports Grounds Safety Authority Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2011; c. 5.]
It is not as though the body is spending huge amounts of money: I think it costs about £1.2 million a year. That seems a large sum, but to secure the safety of football and sports grounds throughout the UK— considering how many events take place over a weekend, never mind a 52-week period—it is not a huge amount.
David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that this debate did not close with the Taylor report and its response? He will be aware of a safe standing at football campaign, which I support. It is about putting safe standing areas back into football grounds for those who want to use them. There are examples across Europe of where that has been done successfully, such as in Hamburg, where there are safe standing areas. The management of crowds is evolving; there are more options now. A number of Premier League and Championship clubs may wish to look at
Jon Trickett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was not aware of that campaign, but I am aware that many people feel part of the ambience has been lost with all-seater stadiums. I sometimes feel that when I go to a football or rugby match. It was felt that standing crowds were dangerous, but perhaps that was due to the way the stadiums were configured. If it were possible to reconfigure them, standing might again be permitted. That would be a matter for debate. I tend to feel that if it were possible, it would be a good thing to achieve. However, I would want the absolute technical assurance of an independent authority before I could vote for such a proposal. I do not want on my conscience—I am sure nobody does—that we agreed such an action and then an incident took place. That is how I feel about the authority itself. I am not a Luddite who simply defends existing structures—my political philosophy suggests that many changes in our country are absolutely necessary—and the Opposition are not attempting to defend institutions without an argument or rational discussion. In a case such as this, however, I would not want to have on my conscience the abolition of the authority without a categorical assurance that the level of technical expertise that had been brought together will be kept together and exercised independently.
I have referred to the recent legislation that allowed the FLA to cover the Olympics. A series of bold statements were made in Committee and on the Floor of the House, with which I could seek to embarrass the Government. I will not do so too much—[ Interruption. ] Well, I may be tempted to embarrass the Government slightly, if hon. Members think that that is appropriate. The hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) said in the Commons on 4 March:
Frequently, we British believe that we are the best at almost everything, and perhaps we are often among world leaders, although not on every occasion; I do not want to be represented as a narrow-minded chauvinist. Where we have developed expertise—we have, in this case, through a tragedy—that ought not to be lost. I am worried about that, and I wonder what the hon. Member for Woking will think about the abolition of an organisation that he believes is unlike any other in the world. The Minister made an extraordinary positive statement about the FLA:
“It has played a crucial role in transforming spectator safety at football grounds over the past 20 years…It is a pretty lean and efficient organisation, and it offers excellent value for money. It has nine inspectors, who are based in the regions and who work tirelessly with football clubs and local authorities…It is a world leader in sports ground safety…In short, its expertise is valued and respected nationally and internationally.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 548, c. 550.]
The Minister has said it as well as I or anybody, even an employee of the organisation, could. We must ask, therefore, given the scale of risk to our fellow citizens in
Lisa Nandy: Does my hon. Friend agree that those of us who have football grounds in their constituencies—I am privileged to have the excellent Wigan Athletic in mine—feel a responsibility to ensure the safety not only of their own constituents but of those who visit and watch football games? We will all be listening closely to what the Minister has to say on this point and looking for concrete assurances about the safety of people in our constituencies.
Jon Trickett: My hon. Friend is making a very fair point. Wigan is a renowned sporting town, although I cannot say that I have massive admiration for the rugby league club, because they recently beat a Yorkshire team, and rugby league is my sport. My constituency contains two rugby league sports grounds: Wakefield Trinity and Featherstone Rovers. The crowds are, lamentably, not as good as they ought to be, given that excellence is displayed on those playing fields. None the less, we want to know that people from our area, and people who come to our area from, say, Wigan, are well looked after in a safe ground and are able to observe sport in a safe environment.
I will now conclude my comments. I have not tried to overstate it in any way, but this is a major decision. I am not convinced that it is right to abolish the FLA, even though we know that there will be a successor body. The Minister will have to make an extremely powerful case; otherwise we may feel that we ought to press the amendment to a Division to test the view of the Committee.
Right off the bat, it is important to say that, as the hon. Gentleman powerfully said, football safety is extraordinarily emotive. Even so many years after the event, the word “Hillsborough”, for those of us alive at the time, conjures up powerful associations and images, not least for me. My father was Home Secretary at the time, and I have heard him speak quietly but powerfully on a number of occasions about the impact that going round the hospitals the day after with the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had on him. I do not think anyone on this Committee would quibble with the importance that the hon. Gentleman attaches to the issue. We all know how important it is, and I hope that no Opposition Member feels that the Government are in any way taking a risk with something so serious. To use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase, we cannot be complacent. I hope that, by addressing my amendment and by responding to his amendment, I can assure the Committee on that point and that we can avoid a Division.
Government amendment 1 is necessary following the successful passage of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority Act 2011. That private Member’s Bill was introduced with full Government support by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) in June 2010 and received Royal Assent on 12 July 2011. The Act will, when commenced, reconstitute the Football Licensing Authority as the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and expand its advisory role. The key point is that we want other sports to benefit from the authority’s expertise, to which the hon. Gentleman paid appropriate tribute. So
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the FLA is currently engaged with Government officials on the necessary planning and detail work to ensure a smooth transition to its expanded advisory role. When both the Government and the FLA are satisfied that the FLA is ready, we will put the 2011 Act into force, and the FLA will become the SFSA. We anticipate that that will take place later this year and, in all likelihood, before the Public Bodies Bill receives Royal Assent. The amendment is therefore necessary to change the reference in schedule 1 from the FLA to the SGSA, as it will soon be.
Amendment 40 seeks to remove the FLA from schedule 1. As I hope I have made clear, the Government are not seeking to abolish the valuable existing role of the FLA in relation to football ground safety. This is, as I have said, about trying to create an environment in which that role can be expanded. The Government are also not taking any risks with football safety during the process of transition. While the inclusion of the authority in schedule 1 allows it to be abolished as a separate body, the Government are fully committed to transferring its expertise and functions to another body after 2012. The Government’s recognition of the importance of preserving the roles and responsibilities of the authority is underlined by our support for the expansion of its advisory role to other sports through the 2011 Act. The broad support across sports for the expanded role shows that the need for the authority’s expert advice is now much wider than football.
David Wright: I welcome the Minister’s comments. Throughout the Committee’s proceedings, he has dealt with our issues in a positive and genuine manner. If its role is to be expanded, will he confirm whether the organisation will have enough capacity? He has outlined that more sports will be taken on under a new authority. Will there be enough capacity in the organisation to ensure that sports grounds are monitored and safe and that football is safe alongside all the other sports grounds where people gather and enjoy some of our nation’s greatest games and events?
Mr Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. That is exactly how I intend to continue. The human capacity is clearly an important issue, because the authority’s expertise lies in human beings. That was an important point of his, because, as the hon. Member for Wigan pointed out in an earlier debate, change creates uncertainty. The Government, the authority and the people managing the process have a strong responsibility to recognise that and to manage the risk appropriately. On the staff at the FLA, no decisions have yet been made about the future staffing of the FLA or its successor. There are currently no plans to make any staff redundant. We are keen—it is essential—to ensure that the current expertise is retained. In my further remarks, I will address the balance of my response to the hon. Gentleman’s important point, because we are trying to achieve an outcome
It is a natural progression to integrate the work of the FLA with that of a body with wider responsibilities, and we want more sports to benefit from its expertise. The authority has a well earned international reputation as a leader in its field, and we will not do anything to threaten that. However, the truth is that its small size means that it is not currently able, in the Government’s view, to fully realise its potential. The backing of a larger organisation would allow the authority to deliver its services for less. It would be able to explore opportunities for sharing back offices, accommodation and such. Additionally, the authority could also further improve its commercial potential if it were part of a larger organisation with greater reach and commercial expertise in areas such as publishing, training, support and commercial partnerships. We are taking this course of action precisely because we want to give the authority greater freedom by expanding its role and we do not want its current size to become a constraint to fully realising those potential benefits. We are therefore committed to finding a future home for the authority that will enable it to build on its significant successes so far and to continue to develop in future.
I recognise that there may be concern to know now where the authority’s functions and expertise will be transferred after 2012—not least among the staff at the FLA. That is entirely natural, but the Government believe that it would be premature to rush to a decision without full consideration of the options, so that the benefits for the authority, any host body and all of sport can be maximised. The Government are committed to ensuring a smooth and successful transition and to take no risk whatsoever with the authority’s core football safety responsibilities. We have made it clear that we want to consult with interested parties that would be affected by the proposal, to allow them the opportunity to comment. That will naturally include the relevant football authorities. Therefore it would be wrong to speculate about potential host bodies before we fully consult those with an interest in sports ground safety and the work of the authority. I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman with those remarks and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said. Before concluding his remarks, will he explain to the Committee why the Government have decided to place the body in schedule 1 and not schedule 5, where some modification could be made to its functions in a later period?
I was drawing my comments to a close. I hope that I have reassured the Committee that the Government do not intend to take any risks at all with football safety. We recognise the expertise in the current FLA, but we want that expertise to be available to a wider body for sport. We think that expertise can develop and flourish in a different setting in a larger organisation where some
Jon Trickett: I am not completely convinced by the Minister’s argument. As I understand it, the amendment changes the name of the organisation and then in effect abolishes it. It changes the name, but the fact that the organisation is in the schedule means that it will be abolished. I think that is the total effect of the Government’s actions.
Listening to the Minister, I found some points persuasive. For example, we can always make the case that it would be good to pool back-office functions on occasion—personnel, computers, accounting, payroll and such things. In a small organisation, it is clear that there may be some benefits to increasing scale by merging functions with another body. However, he made some other points too.
Mr Hurd: A body may be abolished, but the critical thing here is that the functions will not be abolished but simply transferred to another body where that expertise can be allowed to expand more productively, as I have argued.
Jon Trickett: Okay, so I am with the Minister so far on sharing back-office functions with a larger organisation. The term I used in an earlier Committee was “residual functions”. These are core functions—sports ground safety. I accept entirely that the Government want to place them in a larger organisation. He also said that the Government were not yet in a place where they can indicate what the future location might be and that though he does not anticipate redundancies, presumably among specialist staff, he cannot say where they will be. That leads me to reiterate the point I made earlier. There are already anxieties among the staff. They do not know where their future home will be—a bit like some Members in the Committee this morning reflecting on the boundary changes we all face. Some of us do not know where our future is, but we know we may have one, although it may not be in this place. That is another story, which I will not pursue further. We become anxious, and the anxiety we are all feeling is shared by the staff of the authority.
If we were to lose the world-class expertise that those people have built up it would be extremely unfortunate. Perhaps the Minister can tell us on another occasion at what pace the Government intend to proceed in relation to that decision. The Minister then said that he thought there was an opportunity for commercial income. There may be many managers of sports grounds who do not have in-house the expertise of those staff. It may be possible to generate some income. That is a powerful argument and one that we would not want to resist. But we would add a caveat that the work of raising commercial income should not displace the core inspectorial function of the organisation. Again we would look for some certainty about that.
This is a very difficult ask for the Minister. If a disaster were to take place I would not want to feel that I had simply sat on my hands and given the Minister a clear path to make a decision over which I had had no influence. On the other hand, I am not ready yet to
Again, this is largely a probing amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth made a compelling case last week for having charities added to the list of bodies to be considered under a transfer of functions under clause 1. We would not necessarily want to oppose functions and responsibilities going from a public body to a charity. However, the Government need to give the Committee some reassurance about the process of transferring functions from the National Consumer Council to citizens advice bureaux, as that seems to be their intention.
First, is the Minister confident that, and can he assure the Committee that, citizens advice bureaux have enough resources—including staff and volunteers, where appropriate—to undertake these new responsibilities effectively? Can he also reassure the Committee that there is good liaison between the staff in the National Consumer Council—the staff who are left—and those responsible for organising the new functions within the citizens advice bureaux? There appear to be two areas where such liaison is essential. First, the citizens advice bureaux will be taking on this new role regarding energy, and they will be the lead representatives for consumers on energy and postal services. Secondly, they will be the principal consumer advocates for many other services. Those distinct roles differ from what the CAB did previously, and Opposition Members want to ensure good liaison and exchange of information in advance of the transfer of functions.
We also want reassurance that the CAB will be able to carry out its other existing functions. Perhaps its most important work is on financial inclusion. We know that the Government will give additional money to the CAB for financial inclusion work, but we want to know that that will not be affected by the transfer of yet more responsibilities and functions to the CAB.
Funding is a greater concern. We all know from our constituencies that citizens advice bureaux are being affected very negatively by cuts, largely from local government, because local government is no longer receiving enough money from central Government to support all its voluntary sector organisations as it used to do. Citizens Advice itself is not anxious about the question of having the expertise and ability to undertake these functions, but individual bureaux are concerned about whether they will have the capacity to carry out their functions, given that their services are being cut across the board.
There is yet another issue on which we want reassurance. In addition to liaison between staff in the two organisations, is any liaison taking place with, for example, stakeholder meetings, or all the different organisations that might be affected by the transfer of functions? Are the Government talking to them, and are they listening to any concerns that might exist?
Time scale is another issue. There seems to be a huge question mark over whether the statutory transfer of powers will happen before or after the powers have been transferred in practice. As we pointed out this morning, although the Bill is enabling legislation, with much of the abolition of particular organisations, a transfer of powers seems to be taking place in advance of the Bill going through the parliamentary process and receiving Royal Assent. This issue is important, because crucial regulatory functions are undertaken by the National Consumer Council in representing consumers. How will those be addressed? Where will legal responsibility lie for advice that is given if the transfer of functions happens in advance of the statutory transfer? The Minister needs to address that important issue.
My final question is about reviewing and monitoring, which will be new responsibilities for the CAB. No one is suggesting for a minute that, given the right resources, it will not be able to undertake those additional functions, but the duties will be different. Will the Department monitor what happens to ensure that the consumer’s voice is not weakened in any way by the Government’s desire to abolish the National Consumer Council?
Mr Hurd: Consumer Focus has been placed in schedule 1 because the Government believe that its functions will be better carried out by transferring them to the Citizens Advice service, which includes Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. The previous Government merged the National Consumer Council with Energywatch and Postwatch, and the new National Consumer Council, which took the name Consumer Focus, began work in October 2008.
As the hon. Lady alluded to, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on proposals to extend the process of rationalising the functions of consumer protection bodies, in order to eliminate confusion and duplication, strengthen local delivery and provide a stronger role for front-line consumer services. She will know that that consultation closes on 27 September. We have to await the end of the consultation process and will, of course, consider all responses very carefully indeed. However, we believe that the proposals are a positive step forward in consumer advocacy, and build on the strengths and expertise of Consumer Focus and what went before it.
As I think the hon. Lady alluded to in her closing remarks, consumers need protection no less than in the past. Increasingly sophisticated products and services need an increasingly clued-up consumer to take maximum advantage, and avoid the pitfalls, of the marketplace. I think we all understand that. In Government, we need to ensure the delivery of assistance and advice to individual consumers at the point of need at a local level. At a national level, we need a body to continue with quality research, and which is capable of taking on the big policy issues of the day and fighting for the consumer interest with big business, regulators and Government.
The Citizens Advice service, which we all know from our constituencies, is widely recognised and trusted by the public. It is, as a brand, a source of information and advice that people can trust. I can think of very few better in the market place.
Mr Hurd: I will come on to that, because that is a consideration. When transferring functions, it is important that the resources are there to exercise the functions properly. On the hon. Lady’s point about increased demand on the CAB, I endorse it wholly. I think we have all experienced an increase in our work load, because the conditions out there are very tough for a lot of our constituents. There are more problems out there and that makes it even more important that our constituents, the people we represent and serve, know where to go for the best quality advice and that there is the resource to support them.
On the question of the best place on which to concentrate resources and to guide people to, the CAB has a distinct advantage in terms of brand and trust, and we should seek to use that for the benefit of our constituents and ordinary consumers. As everyone knows, it has local representation through citizens advice bureaux in communities throughout the country. It offers a presence on the high street for people to call in to get advice and information. It can cater for those who need personal contact—people are not necessarily comfortable with a telephone or an online service. It can assist vulnerable consumers face to face to identify problems and help with solutions. It has a huge amount going for it as a network of trusted support.
It should also be made clear that the CAB has an excellent track record of advocacy on behalf of consumers at a national and local level. The Government’s consultation proposes to build on that brand awareness.
Mr Mark Williams: Will the Minister say a little about the Department’s appraisal of the coverage that bureaux are able to offer across the country? Some of us in scattered rural areas are concerned about the extent of the CAB network—through no failing of the bureaux themselves. We have seen a contraction of some services and of our constituents’ ability to access support from the CAB. There is a worry that the network is perhaps not quite as robust as some are suggesting.
Mr Hurd: That is an important consideration for the Department. It will look carefully at the responses to the consultation, which has not yet closed, to give itself comfort that the network is sufficiently robust. That consultation process may throw up some questions and challenges for Government in reinforcing the resilience of the network. My constituency, for example, is being asked to consider many changes to legal aid and various other issues, and the Government are wrestling with that to try to smooth the transition and make the process as easy as possible for the network under difficult circumstances. That is all part of the consideration that the Department has to make in launching a serious consultation and considering the responses to it.
I was talking about the role of Citizens Advice in terms of advocacy, not just individual support on behalf of consumers at national and local level. The Government’s consultation proposes to build on that brand awareness and existing work of Citizens Advice and direct resources for non-financial consumer education, information, policy and advice to it.
Questions were asked about the capacity of Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, which are charities, to take on the functions currently carried out by Consumer Focus. I am glad to confirm, as an important part of the response to the hon. Member for Ceredigion, that Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland are enthusiastic about these proposals and positive about their capacity to make them work. Work is under way to establish what needs to be done to ensure that Citizens Advice can take on this important, enhanced role.
The hon. Member for City of Durham asked whether there was adequate liaison, with the conversations taking place that she and I would expect. According to all the evidence I have seen, I am satisfied, as is the Department, that the process of liaison is going on in a positive way.
Mr Mark Williams: The Minister mentioned the enthusiasm of Citizens Advice in Scotland and England. I am going to inject a bit of Wales into the debate. Has there been any specific discussion with the Welsh Assembly about having the capacity to develop, like Scotland, a uniquely Welsh model?
Mr Hurd: I have a feeling the hon. Gentleman knows the answer. It would astonish me if the Welsh did not have a view on this subject, and as I understand it that view has been expressed, is being discussed and is part of the consultation.
Jon Trickett: I do not think the Minister has saved a penny so far. Does he imagine that all the money currently devoted to the budget of the body he is about to abolish will be transferred to the CAB? If not, will it be more or less, and if less how much less? Does he have a business case? As we have said, the CAB is short of resources.
Mr Hurd: There is a wider issue about the resources available to CAB for the functions it currently exercises, and I will address that. It is the Government’s intention to allocate some resources to the transferring of new functions. The Department is obviously keen in that process to do its job on behalf of the taxpayer, and to explore every opportunity, hopefully, to deliver more with less. However, it is difficult at this stage to be explicit about the potential savings from such an approach until the consultation process has ended and the Government have come to the House with a firm proposal and a supporting business case.
I have sought guidance on the Welsh issue and it seems to confirm that, as I said, there are ongoing discussions. I stress that the key objective is to provide a better service to consumers. We can do that by bringing together the policy and research expertise in Consumer Focus, especially in the energy and postal services sectors, with the long-standing success of Citizens Advice and its bureaux in helping consumers at the sharp end, on the high street and via their online and telephone advice
The hon. Member for Walsall South asked about the resources that are available to Citizens Advice for its existing functions. There are concerns about that, and I have had a number of meetings with representatives of that network from across the country who have talked about the stress they are under, not least as a result of uncertainty about local authority funding. The Government take that issue extremely seriously, and a number of advice centres have been beneficiaries of the £107 million transition fund that the Government have launched. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Ministry of Justice have put in place measures to restore some funding to the network to help it through this process of change. The Government take the matter very seriously and would not consider transferring functions to a network they did not feel was fit for purpose. In the light of that explanation, I hope the hon. Member for City of Durham feels able to withdraw her amendment.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the Minister for his response. He made a very positive case for Citizens Advice which we do not dispute. I hope it is obvious that our main concern is whether Citizens Advice is being given enough resources to be able to undertake its functions effectively. That becomes even more important when we look at the context in which citizens advice bureaux are operating.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion for mentioning legal aid. We know that local bureaux are having to consider increasing the amount of legal advice they give to people, because so many people will not have access to legal aid in future. I have mentioned financial inclusion. A huge change to benefits is also taking place, so the number of people taking advice about welfare benefits is also increasing—precisely when the number of local authority welfare rights units may be decreasing.
We still have a number of concerns about resources, and we would like the Minister to give us some more reassurance in writing if possible. He did not refer to the legal issues concerning the statutory transfer of powers. It might help the Committee in its deliberations if we had a written statement about the transfer of powers, detailing when they will happen and who will be legally responsible for advice at a given stage. If the Minister undertook to look into those two matters and give us further information, that would be extremely helpful.
Mr Hurd: I thank the hon. Lady for her constructive approach. Both her requests are entirely reasonable, and I will consult the relevant Department. It would be my wish to write to her and to the Committee to place on the record what we can at the moment about future intentions.
The hon. Lady talked about funding, and she knows it is our intention for Citizens Advice to receive funding from the regulated industries in the same way as the National Consumer Council does now. Until the consultation has finished and the Department has responded to it, crystallised its plans and come to the
This probing amendment is designed to elicit the Government’s reasons for including the regional fisheries advisory committees in schedule 1. Although there is a wonderful fishing river, the Wear, in my constituency, I have to confess that I am not over-familiar with the committees’ work, but I am sure that the fault is totally mine, rather than theirs.
Having researched the matter, I understand that the committees have an important role in stakeholder engagement on fishing issues. Their members are interested in salmon fisheries, trout fisheries, freshwater fisheries and eel fisheries in all parts of controlled areas. The committees have an important function for those involved and interested in fishing.
The stakeholder role seems to be extremely important for addressing recreation, conservation and navigation issues. I understand that the Environment Agency has overall responsibility for those areas, but we need to hear from the Minister, before the committees are abolished, about how the agency will engage with stakeholders, if it is to perform that task. That is not totally clear, so it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that point.
We again need to ask questions about consultation. Have the committees’ members been consulted about the proposed abolition and do they agree? Was it a written consultation? We are unsure whether there has been any consultation with the committees. The committees do not meet terribly often but, nevertheless, they deal with important subjects when they do meet. What procedures will be in place to ensure that such issues are addressed?
These bodies may not have a high degree of traction with the general public, but that does not mean that they do not carry out essential functions. We need to hear from the Minister about how issues will be addressed in future, and we need to hear about whether the committees have made useful contributions to debates on fishing stocks, for example, and the consequent need to change not only national legislation, but European legislation.
Are the committees helpful locally with the enforcement of fishing standards? If so, and if the committees help local communities, anglers and others fully to comply with the water framework directive, how will such enforcement activity be carried out in the future? It would be helpful to know whether the Government carried out an impact assessment either on the work that the committees did when they were functioning fully, or on the consequences of their abolition. We also need to know where the Government will get
We know that the regional committees have been able to deal effectively with some of the complexities that have arisen for the fishing industry due to devolution. For example, the regional committees have been able to look at the River Tweed, which runs through England and Scotland, in a regional context and to talk to each other about it. If the Minister explained how the Environment Agency or another body will deal with devolution issues, that would be extremely helpful.
Finally, we have questions about cost. It would be helpful to know the estimated costs and savings to the public purse associated with a decision to abolish the committees. We need to know whether there will be a straightforward transfer of functions to the Environment Agency. If the Government go ahead and abolish the committees, will that abolition also cover the committees that existed prior to the Environment Act 1995?
Mr Heath: The hon. Lady says that she has had no encounters with her local committee, but she shows a compendious knowledge of the committees’ work—full marks for research. She was kind enough to say that her amendment was probing.
This is another example of the issue being not the function, but the structure. We recognise that the function is important, but the question is whether the structure is the best way of performing that function. The regional and local fisheries advisory committees make a valuable contribution to the work of the Environment Agency. They provide advice on maintaining, improving and developing fisheries, as well as on recreation, navigation and conservation.
I suggest, on behalf of the Government, that the committees as currently constituted on a regional and statutory basis provide for a degree of inflexibility and inefficiency that is proving unduly restrictive. Rivers do not necessarily follow regions—they stray; they have tributaries; they have river basins. Increasingly, matters concerned with the management of rivers in the Department and on a wider front tend to be concerned more with river basin and catchment areas, rather than artificial political constructs, which do not always meet needs.
The Government believe that a non-statutory approach will allow more flexible community and civil society engagement on both advice and delivery, which will better meet current needs and policy objectives. Such a structure will have the flexibility to evolve as needed without the constraints of a prescriptive statutory remit at the regional level. It will better address local priorities while working with partners and communities to deliver improved local engagement. It will enable civil society to take the lead where appropriate, as distinct from the current focus of simply advising the
In designing the new non-statutory framework, the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be looking for a more integrated approach that will better deliver the requirements of the water framework directive, as well as enabling stakeholders to get a better overall understanding of what is needed to deliver environmental objectives in each catchment, and how they can contribute and provide a more integrated approach between environmental protection, conservation and fisheries.
David Wright: The Minister might think I am being intentionally annoying by asking him questions, but it is my job. I am interested to know the range of people who are involved in these committees. What is their background? Where do they come from? If we are to change the structure, how will we ensure that those skills are transferred across to any new organisation? This is a genuine question because people see fishing as an extremely important part of our national life. They want to know how they can continue to influence the process and make sure that fishing is managed properly.
Mr Heath: First, the hon. Gentleman does not annoy me one bit by asking me questions. It would be pointless me standing in Committee if Members did not ask me questions about what the Government propose, although it would mean that our proceedings would reach a much swifter conclusion. Let me make it clear that he is doing his job and that I am trying to do mine in responding to him.
Like the hon. Member for City of Durham, I have no direct involvement with these committees in my constituency, although I suspect that our rivers tend to run slightly more slowly—if at all—than those in her area. As I understand it, the principal engagement is to provide the angling community with advice about what is happening, although it goes slightly wider than that because there are conservation issues. There are also local environmental issues. As the hon. Member for Telford will be aware, there are competing uses of waterways that are not entirely compatible. There can be perfectly legitimate competing uses of the same river, and that is what the committees try to address.
I will come to the successors in a moment because it is important that we retain the function, if not the structure. The hon. Member for City of Durham asked whether the existing committees had been consulted. They have, of course, and that is very much an aspect of the proposals. The intention is to engage with all stakeholders, and much of that work has already taken place. The river basin panels will be involved in much of this, working along with national sector groups and angling trusts. Indeed, an angling body for England and Wales has been set up to provide national as well as local advice.
There will not be a one-size-fits-all approach because different river catchment areas have different needs and uses. There will be a much more organic approach in future, building on what is appropriate for the local area and involving a process of finding out from those people who are involved. There will be detailed consultation on that. It is hoped that the new structure will build up, rather than be imposed. It is not being suggested that a new rubric should be applied that simply replaces one statutory regional body with a new set of bodies. Instead, the Department will work closely with those involved to ensure that concerns are listened to and that structures are found that are appropriate to each area. So that is what is happening. DEFRA, along with the Environment Agency, is already working with Committee members, key stakeholders and civil society at both a regional and local level to consider how we can best do this. There will obviously be detailed consultation before the proposals for the abolition of the bodies are presented and come before the House.
There was a question about savings and what is proposed. I can be more specific than I have been able to be on previous occasions. I have very detailed costs that I can give the hon. Lady. Based on 2010-11 costs, the total savings will be approximately £225,388. The majority will be £122,947 for the chairs’ salaries. As I told the hon. Member for Telford, there are seven committees. Each committee has a chair who is paid approximately £18,000 per annum for five days’ work per month. Other costs will be the chairs’ national insurance at £10,243, chairs’ and members’ expenses at £25,410, meetings at £7,423, post and printing at an estimated £4,912 and Environment Agency staff at an estimated £54,402. I hope that the Committee feels much better informed about the precise costs of these bodies. I can see some hon. Members who are perhaps facing uncertain political futures in this institution wondering if they missed the boat in offering themselves for appointment to the bodies about which we know an awful lot more than we did.
Let me return to the basic plan, which is to maintain and improve the functionality of the advice that DEFRA and the Environment Agency have on the management of rivers so that they have a more integrated approach, particularly regarding the interests of inshore estuarine and fluvial fisheries. That is why the measures are included in the schedule. Of course—I repeat the point that has been made many times—before there is abolition and replacement of the bodies, all the details will have to be consulted on and presented to the House for Members’ scrutiny before final secondary legislation puts the measure in place. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for City of Durham will feel that she has sufficient information at her fingertips and will withdraw the amendment.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank the Minister for his comments. We now have another reason to oppose the abolition of a lot of these quangos: they could be a depository for MPs who do not manage to secure a seat.
I heard what the Minister had to say, but it would be helpful to have a bit more reassurance from the Government about who in future will arbitrate where there is a conflict of interest on the use of the river. That is something I experience in my constituency from time to
My final point is about savings. I listened carefully to what the Minister said, and I can see that there are, of course, savings at this time from abolishing the regional committees. However, the Minister did not give us the costs of transferring some of the functions to the Environment Agency, so we have some questions. If none of the resources are transferring, is this just an additional set of functions that the Environment Agency will have to undertake within already reduced resources? We are a bit perplexed as to how yet more functions can be added within a reducing budget and whether the agency will be able to undertake them effectively.
However, I am sure that the Government will be able to enlighten us on all the issues at some later stage, and, because of the Minister’s helpful remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘Before abolishing any regional development agency (RDA), the Secretary of State must produce and lay before both Houses of Parliament a report setting out the impact of the removal of RDAs on business development and economic growth in the region concerned and the preparedness of local economic partnerships (LEPs) to take over the functions of RDAs.’.
Mr Hurd: I expect there to be a substantive debate on this group of amendments, because the simple truth is that there is a fundamental disagreement about the policy underlying what is proposed, and I am sure that the debate will reflect that. I will use my remarks to explain what we are trying to do with these amendments, and I will speak to the amendments in my name before turning to the amendment tabled by Opposition Members, which I cannot support.
The amendments in this group relate to the abolition of the regional development agencies and their current position in schedule 1. As the Committee is aware, the reform of the delivery of economic development in England was one of the commitments in the coalition agreement, and the Government have given a public commitment that the eight RDAs will cease operational activities by March 2012, pending abolition, which is subject to the passage of the Bill.
The Government amendments will remove the RDAs from schedule 1 and provide for their abolition on the face of the Bill in a new clause—new clause 1—dealing with RDAs. Moving the abolition of the RDAs to the face of the Bill would have the effect that it would no longer be progressed using the order-making power in clause 1. The new clause dealing with RDAs contains its own limited order-making powers and procedure.
Under our plans, RDAs will not be abolished when the Bill receives Royal Assent, but when the relevant provisions are commenced by a separate order. If there is a requirement to transfer certain RDA activities or powers to successor bodies, the amendment requires that that be achieved by affirmative order unless it does not require amendment to primary legislation. Additionally, the amendment permits the Secretary of State to make a transfer scheme for RDA property, rights and liabilities, and where that is not done by order, it must be laid before Parliament. Government amendments 16 to 18, 20 and 22 make provision regarding the commencement of the new provisions relating to RDA abolition and amend the long title of the Bill, and new schedule 1 deals with consequential repeals to references to RDAs in other Acts.
The truth is that the closure programme is now significantly advanced. It includes substantial work to scale back the expenditure of the RDAs in line with the spending review settlement. That provided funds for legal commitments and closure costs only, representing some 18% of the amounts spent by the RDAs in the four years to March 2011. There are currently about 1,300 staff left in the RDAs, which has been reduced from approximately 3,000 at the start of the process. We expect the majority of RDA activity to have been wound down or transferred under existing legislative vehicles by the end of February 2012. Some RDA activities do not require the powers proposed in the Bill to make transfers to successor bodies. Those are the functions that have been delegated to the RDAs by the Government, where the transfer is being effected under existing legislative powers. Examples for the Committee include the transfer of European Regional Development Fund activities to the Department for Communities and Local Government and the transfer of Rural Development Programme for England activities to DEFRA, which both took place on 1 July; and the transfer of land and property related assets and liabilities to the Homes and Communities Agency, which will transfer on 19 September under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.
The reality is that if the Government proceeded with the proposed abolition of the RDAs through use of the power in clause 1, the closure programme would effectively need to be halted while consultation in line with clause 10 was conducted, regardless of the clear commitment of the coalition to abolish these bodies. I am sure that that would delight the Opposition, but it would frustrate the Government in their implementation of the coalition commitment. It would not be beneficial for the economy or the future of regional economic development and would risk compromising the budgetary savings we need to make.
I reassure the Committee that the Government remain committed to meaningful consultation in line with clause 10 for orders that are made under the main powers of the Bill. However, both I and my colleagues in the Department
The Government amendments in this group are crucial to the transition and closure process for the RDAs, which is already under way, and I hope that the Committee will see fit to accept them. The passage of this Bill is important to enable the wider reforms that we have in place to support local economic development.
Let me turn to the new clause tabled by the hon. Members for City of Durham and for Hemsworth. I understand that some Opposition Members support the retention of the RDAs, but the Government do not believe that the RDAs represent an effective vehicle for promoting growth across the country.
There has been considerable discussion, both here and in another place, about the RDAs, and I am aware that there is strong support in some areas for their retention, particularly in the north of England. It must be noted, however, that support for a regional north-east
We believe that the inherited structures are not the most appropriate for achieving economic growth, and retaining all or any of the RDAs is not, therefore, a viable option. New clause 3 would require, prior to the abolition of any RDA, a report to be laid before Parliament setting out the impact of the removal of RDAs on business development and economic growth in the region concerned and the preparedness of local economic partnerships to take over the functions of RDAs.