Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (7th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative 3:06 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, before I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into a Committee upon the Bill, I should like to beg your Lordships' indulgence by taking a few minutes to update the House on the work that has taken place since the Committee last met to improve this Bill.

During the Second Reading debate, I made it clear to this House that I intended to engage in an open dialogue with noble Lords throughout the Bill's passage. I feel confident in saying that I have to date delivered on that promise. Since the last day in Committee, 11 January-which seems a very long time ago, and I am sure that noble Lords have shared my withdrawal symptoms-I hope the time has not been wasted. Indeed, it has been well used. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right honourable friend Mr Francis Maude, ministerial colleagues in this House and I have participated in a number of meetings with Peers from all sides of the House seeking constructive and proportionate solutions to concerns regarding this Bill. Such discussions are a crucial part of the work of this House, and I have no doubt that they will continue. I pay tribute to the positive spirit in which noble Lords, including those on the opposition Benches, have looked to work with the Government to achieve our shared objectives. As a result of this work, the Government have today laid a number of significant amendments to the Bill. I hope it will be helpful to the House if I briefly describe their effects as they are relevant to the debates that we shall be having over the coming weeks.

First, I am happy to inform the House that the Government continue to engage in constructive discussions with my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern on the safeguards that should apply to orders made under the Bill, particularly in relation to Amendment 175, which has been tabled by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. We intend to reach a solution that will offer further protection for the necessary independent exercise of public functions, including judicial functions, and we will require that orders made using the powers in this Bill are proportionate in their effects. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, are working closely with the Government to inform this approach, and I thank them for the rigorous and helpful analysis that they have brought to bear on this process.

I wish to address the overall structure and purpose of the Bill, with particular reference to Schedule 7. Noble Lords will be well aware that the Government's policy is that all public bodies should be subject to regular review to ensure that their functions are still required and are delivered in the most effective and efficient manner. This is a goal to which the Government remain committed and one which I am sure will continue to receive support from all sides of the House. Schedule 7-and the corresponding power to move bodies between schedules, as described in Clause 11-was designed as a pragmatic mechanism to facilitate this goal by creating a means by which changes to public bodies could be made following future reviews without recourse to further extensive primary legislation.

The Government absolutely recognise that some public functions need to be carried out independently of Ministers. Schedule 7 was never intended to hinder or threaten that independence. However, it has become clear during the passage of this Bill to date that this House is uncomfortable with the nature of Schedule 7. As many noble Lords, including members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Constitution Committee, have made clear, it is a feeling that is strongly held by much of this House that Schedule 7 represents a significant delegation of power to Ministers and has the potential to hinder the independent delivery of public functions.

Noble Lords will, I hope, forgive me for maintaining a more positive interpretation of the Government's intentions. None the less, I have listened with great care to the voice of this House and have taken its concerns to my colleagues in government. Indeed, the Minister for the Cabinet Office has met a number of noble Lords, who have taken the opportunity to put these points to him in person. Consequently, I can confirm to the House that the Government have accepted the arguments that bodies and offices should be listed in the schedules of this Bill only where Parliament has given its consent in primary legislation. On this basis, we intend that Schedule 7 and Clause 11 be removed from the Bill. I am therefore adding my name to existing amendments opposing the Question that the relevant clauses of the Bill stand part.

In this context, I should also inform the House that it will be necessary as a result of the removal of Schedule 7 to introduce a small number of amendments that move bodies currently listed in Schedule 7 to one or more of the remaining schedules. These changes shall ensure that all reforms announced as part of last year's review of public bodies can be implemented. These amendments will be made at a later stage in the Bill's passage, but I hope that the House will be assured by the fact that these moves, and the reforms to which they relate, will be scrutinised in primary legislation.

I will now reassure those of your Lordships' House who have concerns about whether the provisions in the Bill on the transfer of functions could be used in a way that could undermine the independence of charities. I make it absolutely clear that the Government have not considered, nor would they ever consider, using the Bill to transfer functions to charities without their consent or make consequential changes to their constitutions without such consent. We continue to work with charities to ensure that that reassurance is made as explicit as possible. The reform of public bodies will ultimately help to empower rather than undermine the role of charities and the independence on which they rely.

Finally, I refer briefly to the clauses in the Bill that relate to forestry. As noble Lords will be aware, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a Statement in the other place on 17 February, setting out the Government's intention to end the consultation on the future of the public forest estate and to remove the relevant clauses from the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Henley will set out the Government's revised approach on this issue in greater detail later today. However, I can confirm that I have added my name to amendments to remove the relevant clauses and schedule entries to the Bill, including the regional advisory committees established under Section 37(1)(b) of the Forestry Act 1967, which is listed in Schedule 1.

Progress on this Bill to date has not always been smooth. It has certainly been drawn out longer than I had hoped. However, I take comfort in the knowledge that the expert scrutiny of this House has improved and will continue to improve the Bill. Again, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this process. In tabling the significant amendments that I described today and following our existing amendments to introduce both a statutory period on consultation and the option for Parliament to select an enhanced affirmative procedure, the Government have demonstrated their commitment to engage with and respond to your Lordships' House. I hope, following these amendments, that we will be able to make progress on the Bill with a renewed sense of shared purpose and in the constructive spirit that characterises this House at its best. I beg to move.