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Amendment 11

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 14th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:45 pm, 14th January 2020

My Lords, Clause 15—and Schedule 2, to which it refers—is about setting up a new quango, if I can use that term, created as an independent monitoring agency on citizen’s rights, which is what its title will be. It occurred to me when I was in a hurry that a simple clause stand part debate would give the Government an opportunity to provide more explanation and information on how this new quango will work. Then, when I found myself with a bit of spare time this afternoon, I looked at Schedule 2 in detail and tabled amendments.

Together with the amendments, this clause stand part debate allows the Government to tell us how the IMA will work. I particularly want to probe them on the timetable. How quickly will they set it up? At what stage will the interim chief executive be appointed? At what stage is it expected that the body as a whole will be appointed? If it is to do a useful job it ought to be in place as quickly as possible so that it can monitor the transitional process as it takes place.

As ever, I looked in the Explanatory Notes. There tends to be two different varieties of Explanatory Notes: those that just rewrite the Bill in more understandable words and those that actually explain what is underneath it all. The notes state:

“Paragraph 1 sets out that the IMA is not to be a Crown body.”

Yes, okay. I looked at the Bill, where there is quite a bit more explanation of what that means than in the Explanatory Notes. I will therefore put the notes to one side because they do not tell you anything more than you can get from an intelligent reading of the Bill.

What can the Government say about the timetable? What can they say about the estimated cost? The published impact assessment suggests that the cost of the whole Bill will be about £167.1 million, but it says:

“The bulk of the costs are due to the setup” of the IMA. What is the bulk? Is it £150 million, for example? How much money will we spend on this? I suppose that we can make assessments of the nature of the organisation from the amount of money.

Nevertheless, how many employees do the Government expect to take on? That is important. What will be the location of the IMA and, indeed, its employees? Will some of them work in different parts of the UK? On the main headquarters, we have heard a lot recently about the new Government wanting to decentralise the Civil Service and send some departments to places such as Doncaster, Grimsby and Workington—perhaps even Nelson and Colne. However, we have heard a lot of this in the past; after the 1960s, none of it ever really came to much. Is it expected that the headquarters will be used as part of the Government’s attempt to decentralise things from Westminster, Whitehall and London?

The amendment about the interim chief executive is important. It concerns paragraph 3 of Schedule 2, which suggests that the interim chief executive will be appointed before the IMA is set up; presumably, they will also take part in that set-up. Paragraph 3(1) states:

“The Secretary of State may appoint a person to be the IMA’s chief executive”.

Paragraph 3(2) states:

“A chief executive appointed by the Secretary of State may incur expenditure and do other things in the name and on behalf of the IMA” until the IMA is set up. Paragraph 3(3) states:

“In exercising the power in sub-paragraph (2), a chief executive appointed by the Secretary of State must act in accordance with any directions given by the Secretary of State.”

In the brief discussion about the IMA at Second Reading yesterday noble Lords talked quite a lot about whether the IMA will be genuinely independent of the Government. That is my next major question.

In the first instance, my sub-question, as it were, is this: how can the IMA be independent of the Secretary of State if the interim chief executive is appointed by the Secretary of State and has to act, as paragraph 3(3) says,

“in accordance with any directions given by the Secretary of State”?

This seems important, and it would be interesting to hear what the Government have to say.

I have a small amendment to the mention of “gratuities”. It may well be that all government legislation talks about paying people gratuities as well as their salary and expenses, but I have not noticed it before. I looked in the dictionary, and it said what I thought it meant—things you give to waitresses and taxi drivers—but also payments to people when they leave. It seems to me that employees in a government-related agency ought to have a contract that tells them how much they are paid and what their conditions and expenses are, and that we ought not to be looking at lots of golden goodbyes. Perhaps I am unduly concerned about that, but I would like to know what the Government have to say.

Amendments 54, 55 and 56 are about transparency. It is not completely clear how transparent this organisation will be. The schedule gives examples of where it has to publish its reports and send them to the Secretary of State, et cetera, but it seems not too thorough in applying the standards of transparency and integrity we ought to expect in public bodies, which, as a Member of the House of Lords and a local councillor, I certainly have to abide by.

I turn to Amendment 54. The wording in paragraph 9(6)(c) of Schedule 2 is curious. It says:

“The arrangements must oblige each member … to declare all financial interests … to declare any other personal interest relevant to the exercise of a function, and … to withdraw from the exercise of any function to which an interest of a sort mentioned in paragraph (a) or (b) is relevant”.

This is all what I would expect as a local authority member, but then it says

“unless the IMA is satisfied that the interest will not influence the exercise of the function.”

Either you have a declarable financial interest or you do not. That is how it works in local government, and it is fairly clear whether you have. You do not ask the council: “Can they stay after all? We really think they’re honest people, so it won’t influence the exercise of the function.” That seems wrong. The point is that honesty and integrity have to be seen to be happening, regardless of the honesty and integrity of the individual concerned. That is a fundamental principle, and I think that bit of this schedule is wrong.

Amendments 55 and 56 say that the IMA should publish the minutes of its meetings and committees, so that after the event you know what it is doing and talking about. We have to remember that this body will not take up individual cases. It is not an ombudsman-type body, as I understand it. It will take an overall review of the operations of this Bill, so it is vital to publish the minutes and the annual plan.

Amendment 57 goes rather wider. It is to challenge the Government as to whether this is really just about the operation of the provisions of this Bill or whether the IMA will be able to undertake reviews about questions connected to the European citizens it is overseeing, overlooking and monitoring—even though, strictly, other legislation might be concerned—or perhaps the way they are treated by local authorities or other public authorities. Or will it really be very restrictive and operate only within the terms of this Bill and therefore of the withdrawal agreement?

Amendment 61 is a probing amendment: will the IMA be allowed to charge for any of its services? It is a simple question. It is not very clear whether it is able to do that or whether the Government will want it to.

Finally, Amendment 68 would introduce a stricter level of parliamentary scrutiny, which would fit into the packed timetable that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, was talking about—it will be nice to have a packed timetable in this House for a change, after the last year. I suggest the procedure that was invented in the Public Bodies Act and is now pretty well over as far as the bodies in that Act are concerned. It concerns the Government’s ability to abolish, change or transfer the IMA’s functions to any other body. The Public Bodies Act lays down a longer timetable that gives more time for parliamentary scrutiny. It worked very well indeed under the Public Bodies Act, which was seen through this House expertly by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, quite a long time ago—eight or nine years ago. I remember his famous comment after there was a huge amount of criticism of it when it first came here; it started here. He stood up in the House and said: “It is my job to put this Bill in proper order before it leaves this House”. Indeed, he did that very well. One of the things invented was this procedure for dealing with public bodies; it was all part of the bonfire of the quangos at the time. It worked very well, and the procedure is still there in that Act, although it is not used any more because that Act has done its job. It would be very helpful for it to apply to this body.

Finally, I ask the Government some questions. Why is there a provision to transfer the functions to another body? What kind of body do the Government imagine or think it should be transferred to? In what circumstances might this be thought necessary, and why?