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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative 4:00 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, perhaps I should start with the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. I hope that he will allow me to write to him, because the question extends somewhat beyond the brief I have on this particular body; but it points to the complexity of the reform of public bodies and why this has not been a particularly easy process.

The proposal today affects two government departments as well as the Cabinet Office, so it is frequently quite complex. However, there is a desire across government to achieve reform of the public body sector which I think is widely shared in this House. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that I am always ready to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and I have been greatly informed about the work of the Railway Heritage Committee as a result of the dialogue that I have had with him. I join in the tributes paid across the House to the work that the noble Lord did during his period as chairman of the Railway Heritage Committee. I thank him for the energetic and positive way in which he has reacted to the Government's changes and for what he has done to bring about what I hope will be a satisfactory outcome.

I hope that the noble Lord will understand when I say that the committee's appearance in Schedule 1 does not reflect on the distinguished service that he and his members have given to the committee over the years. The committee's current powers are to apply a statutory designation to rail-related items of heritage interest.

The noble Lord's amendments would move the committee from Schedule 1 to Schedule 5. They would therefore allow the committee's powers to pass to another body while it retains its status as a public body. I understand the noble Lord's desire for the committee's powers to be retained, for example under the National Museum of Science and Industry, which operates the National Railway Museum-and I am delighted to hear of his involvement in that-but he should be aware that that would best be achieved by the RHC remaining in Schedule 1 and the powers being transferred at the time that the RHC is wound up.

The need to reduce the cost of government is an important consideration, but it is not the only one. The review of public bodies that took place last year began by asking whether a function needed to be carried out at all and, if so, whether it was appropriate for it to be carried out by a public body. Our analysis recognised that the railway industry already had a long and proud record of preserving its heritage, and I pay tribute to the industry itself and to the flourishing voluntary railway heritage sector for that undoubted success. Our proposal to abolish the RHC did not imply that we have no interest in railway heritage or that the good work that has already taken place would not be supported by other means. On the contrary, the Government are very sympathetic to rail heritage, and the spending review settlement for the DCMS will ensure our continuous support for the National Railway Museum. I know that the NRM and its parent body the National Museum of Science and Industry will want to engage actively to support the work of the railway industry and the voluntary railway heritage sector.

In the context of the review of public bodies, the question for the Government is therefore not only whether we can justify the cost of the committee but whether we can justify retaining a statutory power of designation in a field where there is already an impressive voluntary record of preserving the industry's heritage. The noble Lord has presented his arguments in a positive way and they have led to further discussions within government. We see merit in the proposed transfer of the RHC power of designation to the board of the trustees of the Science Museum, the legal entity which stands behind the National Museum of Science and Industry. Positive discussions on the detail are continuing. Noble Lords will know that I am personally committed to supporting further discussions and continuing to engage with the noble Lord on his proposals. In those circumstances, and in view of the fact that his amendment would not in any case be the best means to achieve his desired goal, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment to allow the use of time between now and Report to take these positive, detailed discussions forward, and we will update the House at Report.