Schedule 2 - Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 27th January 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill. 

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The schedule relates to a number of elements of CABE, including status, membership, tenure and other sundry items. The Minister said that he was responding to a promise made, but taking six years to keep a promise is not exactly a good record of time-keeping.

I understand that the commission currently enjoys charitable status. If that is the case, I ask the Minister whether that charitable status will continue.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is most helpful. I understand that CABE is a non-departmental body, but it will become a departmental body. That will obviously have significance for the independence and impartiality of the advice given.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I assure her that the change will not have that significance. Independence of advice is a requirement that is placed on the body as a departmental public body. As I said, things do not change as a result of the provisions of the Bill, except those things that change explicitly.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am sorry, but to me that change is an explicit one. I want to place that on the record. If the commission remained a non-departmental body, there would be greater clarity that the advice is impartial and independent. I believe that the status of CABE will be weakened if that changes. As it is a departmental body, I seek an assurance that service as a member of the commission is not service in the civil service of the Crown, which is stipulated in paragraph 1(3) and paragraph 4(2) of schedule 2.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I point out to the hon. Lady paragraph 1 of schedule 2, which answers her question.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister might think that it answers my question. I was seeking clarification. The body is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I presume that the Minister will say that nothing has changed except what has changed, but will he confirm that the body will continue to be jointly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? It begs the question—[Interruption.]

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. I ask hon. Members to observe the niceties of the Committee.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

It gives rise to the question of why a Bill from a different Department is sponsoring this part of the Bill.

Tenure is limited to four years and committees may sit. In paragraph 5, the Bill says that

''The Commission may establish one or more committees.''

It is normal to set a specific maximum number of committees that can be set up. The Bill is silent on that.   Clearly, paragraph 6 will have cost implications from the point of view of remuneration. Will the Minister state that remuneration is on the same basis as if it were a straightforward transfer?

Paragraph 10, on the provision of an annual report, states that

''The Commission must send to the Secretary of State a report on the discharge of its functions during each financial year.''

The schedule is silent as to whether that report will be published and, therefore, debatable by Select Committees in either this House or the other place. We are informed by the House of Commons research paper on the Bill that the Bill will not place any duty on the commission to publish an annual report. In our view, that raises issues of accountability. The Minister will be mindful that severe reservations were raised about accountability that were not dissimilar to those raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I would like to return to the point about English Heritage at the appropriate time, but given that the Select Committee was quite critical in that regard, is the Minister minded to publish the annual report and allow it to be debated? The records produced under paragraph 12 will presumably be accessible. How will members of the public or developers with an interest have access to those records?

On the transitional provisions, will the Minister satisfy my interest? I understand that the chairman of the commission had resigned, and I wonder whether there is a chairman and whether the transitional provisions will have implications in the future when a commission chairman resigns. Those are the main points that we would like to raise.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Most of the questions asked by the hon. Lady have been answered already when I said that those things do not change. Our intention was to keep the promise that was made to bring CABE into the auditing scope of the Comptroller and Auditor General and to put that on a statutory basis, and no more. We could debate a lot of theoretical issues for a long time, but the legislation does not change them in any way.

May I make it clear that CABE will remain a non-departmental public body on a statutory basis? Secondly, it is not normal to set a limit on the number of committees that can be established by such a body, not least because that depends on the functions of the body. It may be an organisation that does not need to have committees or sub-committees of any sort. It may be a body with a variety of engagement with expert opinion. My guess is that that is very much part of the warp and weft of CABE's work. CABE looks at the built environment and has done some excellent work on urban parks and such things, and would want to engage the advice of a variety of people and experts.

There will be a duty to publish an annual report. I can only say that the House of Commons Library research paper is wrong about that. I could wax eloquent on what the organisation does and should do in the future, but none of that has any relevance to the limited purposes of the clauses and schedules.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am not sure that I am entirely satisfied. I know that the Minister meant to be helpful. The regulatory impact assessment, on which he has told me not to rely, states that the Secretary of State will have a statutory power to fund the activities conducted by CABE. I understood that to mean that the Secretary of State for DEFRA would be responsible.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:00 pm, 27th January 2005

No. This is a general point. It does not relate to the Bill. The normal pattern of drafting legislation is to refer to ''the Secretary of State'', which means the appropriate Secretary of State. In previous legislation ''the Secretary of State'' might have referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who would deal with issues in England, and the Secretary of State for Wales, who would deal with them in Wales. We cannot use the same phraseology now, as some issues are dealt with by the National Assembly for Wales, but as CABE is an England-only body, we can revert to the simple reference to the Secretary of State.

Should Departments be reorganised, as happens from time to time, the generic reference to the Secretary of State means that it is not necessary to amend primary legislation to ensure that the responsibility transfers between members of the Cabinet. However, the hon. Lady would be wrong to infer that there is an intention to transfer the responsibility from where it currently lies to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is not the case. As I have said, the only changes are those that I spelt out at the start of our proceedings.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is most helpful. It leaves me with one point on the transfer of cost. Paragraph 9 of the schedule refers to accounts. Previously, the accounts were audited by a private auditor at a cost of £15,000 per annum. There will now presumably be a transfer of cost to the public purse, as I understand from the Department's regulatory impact assessment that CABE will be audited by the Comptroller and   Auditor General. I fear that the cost will be more than the modest £15,000. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell me what provision is made in the budget for the accounts to be audited.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, it is not unsatisfactory. It is precisely where the responsibility is placed in the Bill. That is the way in which the Government work. It is for the Secretary of State to make sure that a body for which he or she is responsible has the funds to do what it is there to do. If it must do it under legislation, that makes it all the clearer what the Secretary of State must provide, so there we are.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I would just note, in the spirit of freedom of information, that it is extraordinary that we have just been told that the Secretary of State can do what the Secretary of State wants to do and that the House can be left in the dark.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady seems to be sticking her head into the dark and trying to nuzzle as far down into the subterranean depths as she can. I said that the provision gave the responsibility to the Secretary of State, so of course the Secretary of State must make sure that a body for which he or she is responsible has the appropriate resources. Primary legislation should not set out exactly what audit fees should be allowed for a particular body.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is a very simple question. Will the audit fees be higher or lower under paragraph 9 of the schedule?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is a simple question and it is a simple answer. It is for the Secretary of State to make the appropriate arrangements. These are normal matters of public accountability and audit.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

It seems extraordinary that we now have a Freedom of Information Act and we know that in the past the accounts cost a modest £15,000 per annum. There is every indication that under this provision they will cost substantially more.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is not necessarily the case. CABE pays for audit now, and it will have to pay for audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The cost will depend on the scope of the audit, as is the case with private auditors. I do not understand why the hon. Lady does not understand that and why she is labouring a point that does not seem to me even to exist.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The record will show that I am simply asking whether, under the new schedule, the cost will be higher or lower.  

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am simply trying to explain to the hon. Lady that the Bill's provisions make the costs neither higher nor lower: they simply change payments to an outside auditor to payments to the Comptroller and Auditor General, which I understood from both sides of the Committee was what was wanted. It is a fulfilment of the undertaking given some time ago.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. I am all for probing Ministers in the appropriate way in appropriate circumstances, but I judge that the sterility of this exchange has now reached unacceptable levels. Will the hon. Lady please move on or come to a conclusion?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I shall conclude that unless the Minister can give firm evidence to the contrary, the costs will be higher rather than lower and we shall return to the matter at a later stage.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That seems an expression of personal prejudice rather than an attempt to assist the Committee, and I hope that the schedule can now stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.