Clause 63

Pensions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 5th February 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Directions and guidance

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

I beg to move amendment No. 49, in clause 63, page 29, line 30, at end insert ‘ as soon as is practicable.’.

This is a short amendment, which I can deal with expeditiously. The clause sets out that the Secretary of State will give the authority guidance or directions about the discharge of its functions. We are a bit iffy about the Secretary of State giving it directions, because it seems to be a back-door way of achieving what one of our earlier amendments tried to achieve, which was to ensure that in the Bill, the authority was obliged to follow, or comply with, its principles. We agree that it is right that any direction should be published, so all the amendment asks is that it be published as soon as is practicable.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions

The authority will have operational independence and autonomy to create the infrastructure for personal accounts. It will be responsible for the specification, design, and the award of contracts for the systems and services associated with the scheme. This is a complex task which is critical to the delivery of the policy ambitions of the reform programme. It is vital that the authority’s responsibilities are clear, that it is effective in delivering those responsibilities, and that it manages its business and money properly.

As with any non-departmental public body, accountability to Parliament for the authority’s performance and actions rests with the Secretary of State. Therefore it is right that there are provisions that allow the Secretary of State to give a steer, or indeed take action, if appropriate. The Department for Work and Pensions has a great deal of experience in the stewardship of non-departmental public bodies. Formally, we work within the guidance for Departments issued by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, as well as drawing on our own centre of expertise. Informally, our approach is to maintain an open and constructive dialogue and to foster relationships so that any issues arising can be debated and resolved without recourse to legal process. Therefore, I hope that any formal directions would be unnecessary. However, we would be remiss if we did not cover for all eventualities.

Provisions for the issue of directions to public bodies are common practice. Similar legislation has been made for many other public bodies, including the Olympic Delivery Authority and the Learning and Skills Council. They provide reassurance to Government and Parliament that appropriate measures are in place to ensure that a public body works within its scope, does its job properly and manages itself to the standards expected from a public body.

Directions, by their nature, relate to matters that the Secretary of State considers to be of such importance that the authority should be required to comply with them—a serious failure by the authority to perform any of its functions, for example. I would like to make clear that the Secretary of State cannot issue a direction to the authority that either changes its functions or gives it a new function. The issue of a direction relates to the “how” not the “what”.

Directions will be issued in writing to the authority and the clause imposes a statutory requirement for them to be published. Directions issued to other public bodies are not always required to be published—that we have made that requirement here reflects the importance that we place on transparency in the governance of the authority. It is right that the Secretary of State should inform Parliament of how he has exercised that power. It ensures clear lines of accountability and allows for proper, ongoing scrutiny of the delivery of the reforms.

The amendment seeks to set in legislation the requirement for us to publish any directions made quickly. I assure the hon. Member for Eastbourne that any directions will be published without delay. Indeed, if we have to have recourse to such an intervention, we intend that the directions would be published as soon as they were made, subject to the necessary practical arrangements. I hope that meets the hon. Gentleman’s point and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions

That seems a satisfactory explanation, and on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 63 ordered to stand part of the Bill.