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New Clause 3 - Oversight committee

Mesothelioma Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 12th December 2013.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must establish, by statutory instrument, an Oversight Committee to monitor, review and report to the Secretary of State on the overall arrangements comprising—

(a) the scheme;

(b) scheme administration;

(c) the Technical Committee;

(d) the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office; and

(e) the Electronic Information Gateway.

(2) The Oversight Committee must include representatives of—

(a) asbestos victims support groups;

(b) trade unions; and

(c) active insurers.

(3) The Oversight Committee must be chaired by an independent person.’.—(Kate Green.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

There were some good discussions in the House of Lords about the need for some kind of independent oversight of a scheme that in all probability will be run by the insurance industry itself. As I said earlier, the issue is not simply whether that industry-run scheme—if indeed that is what transpires—is run properly and with propriety, but that it is seen to be so. That is where an independent oversight committee could have a considerable effect.

When the Bill was in the House of Lords, Lord Freud wrote to peers outlining details for an oversight committee in response to a number of debates initiated by my noble friend Lord McKenzie. The new clause I have tabled would put in the Bill a requirement for an independent oversight committee with responsibility for monitoring the activities of the scheme, the tracing database, the technical committee and the portal. The oversight committee proposed by the new clause would monitor and review those elements and report to the Secretary of State on overall arrangements. The committee would include representatives of the asbestos victim support groups, which rightly have seen their work acknowledged very positively in our discussions; trade unions, which have played a significant part over the years in supporting sufferers from this disease in obtaining justice; active insurers, who clearly have a particular interest as they are to a degree bearing the burden of the actions of insurers in the past—

Hon. Members:

Lawyers.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Regrettably, my new clause does not include lawyers or indeed reinsurers. The new clause would require that the committee include representatives of the groups listed, but that list is not intended to be an exhaustive one, if there is a good case—as I am sure there is—for other groups such as lawyers or reinsurers to be represented on the committee. The new clause would also make provision for the committee to be chaired by an independent person.

Lord Freud was very positive about the idea of an oversight committee and expressed his agreement with the idea behind the amendments to that effect that were tabled by Lord McKenzie when the Bill was on Report in the House of Lords. He said:

“The suggestion was made in Committee, and since then we have been exploring available options for some form of oversight. I spent some time looking for an existing mechanism or body already within the auspices of the DWP that I could utilise, but I have not been able to find a suitable vehicle. We are therefore continuing to explore all the options.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 843.]

Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made since that statement in the House of Lords? Obviously, if an existing body can be utilised that would undoubtedly speed up the matter, which would be very welcome. If not, we would like to hear what progress has been made in establishing a new body.

I know that the Minister is reluctant to see measures added to the Bill, but it is important that people have an absolute assurance that there will be an independent oversight committee for the scheme. The best possible way to give them that assurance would be to include reference to such a body in the Bill.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We have gone through nearly two whole sitting days in Committee. Sadly, right at the end of our deliberations, I am going to have to say that I do not see the requirement for new clause 3. The main reason is that we have sought extensive opinions from stakeholders on the proposed oversight body and the representation on that body. We think that representation should be as open and expansive as possible. As a trade unionist, I personally feel that unions should be represented on the body—I am not necessarily saying that all unions should be represented, but some trade union representation is important.

We have done some work on this matter. The proposed body will monitor the performance of the scheme. It will conduct blind case checks—it is very important that there are checks on how things are being done—and will produce reports for the DWP, either for me as the Minister responsible or for Lord Freud if the responsibility goes back to him.

The feedback from stakeholders has been enormously positive. We think that we can put details about the body in the contract that the DWP will issue for the scheme administrator, so it could be fitted within that. That is what we are looking at now. It is not definitive yet, but we think that we will be able to do that. I certainly think that the oversight committee is extremely important, and it will happen; Lord Freud gave that commitment in the other place, and I reiterate that commitment today. I hope that the shadow Minister will take that in good faith. We will do everything that we can to make it as open and independent as possible, so that people from the representative bodies and stakeholders have an opportunity to be heard, and so that the body does the job that it should do of holding the scheme to account and reporting back.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:45 pm, 12th December 2013

I am rather concerned to hear the Minister say that the letting of a contract for an independent body would be encompassed within the letting process for the contract for the scheme administrator. One of the purposes of an independent oversight body would be to monitor and quality-assure the activity of the scheme administrator.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I apologise; I have misled the hon. Lady. I completely got it wrong, and I put my hands up. It will be written into the contract of the scheme administrator that they will have to supply information to the oversight committee. How wrong could I have got it?

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am reassured by that. That is much better news. I hope that this will be supported by an obligation on those who hold such information to provide it to the oversight committee. I am pleased by the strength of the support that both this Minister and the Minister in the House of Lords have given to the notion of an independent oversight body. That will have been noted on the record, and by those who are paying close attention to this debate. I still cannot see any difficulty in including that in the Bill. I know that the Minister is concerned about ping-pong, but I cannot imagine any objections from the other place to such a clause being included in the Bill. However, the assurances are certainly  very strong, and have been repeated by Ministers in both Houses. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

On a point of order, Mr Howarth. Is there a way that I can put on the record my thanks to members of the Committee, who have worked so tirelessly and hard in the past couple of days on a Bill that is very technical? I am sure that colleagues will have found the debates very stimulating and interesting. May I also put on the record that the tone of the debates, and the way that this Committee has dealt with an important and serious Bill, should be commended? Is there any way I could get that on the record?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

That is not a point of order, but it is well made.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Further to that point of order, Mr Howarth. I endorse the remarks of the Minister. It has been a pleasure to serve on this Committee; I think that all right hon. and hon. Members who have done so would agree. We found the Minister open and willing to debate all the issues that the Committee put forward. Perhaps we have been disappointed at his lesser willingness to accept some extremely constructive suggestions from across the Committee. However, I endorse the Minister’s comments, and extend our thanks to all who have helped to service and support our deliberations, including, of course, the parliamentary staff; the Minister’s team, who have been helpful to all of us; and you and Mr Davies.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Further to that point of order, Mr Howarth. I forgot the Bill Committee staff and my civil servants, who have done fantastic work in bringing this Bill before the Committee.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

On a real point of order, Mr Howarth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, we are all enormously grateful for the way in which the Minister has conducted the business, and for regularly saying that he will, on Report, come back to several of the issues raised, not least by some of his hon. and learned Friends.

The Minister has said countless times that he does not want ping-pong. I think I am right in saying that there has been a Government amendment, but it is only a technical one; the subsection that has been removed  from the Bill is the one that is always in a Lords Bill that might incur some kind of charge. I suggest to the Minister, through the Chair, that were he to come forward with an amendment on Report—there are many issues on which it would ease the mind of the whole Committee if amendments were brought forward, on a cross-party basis—we Opposition Members would want to make sure that there was no delay in ping-pong of more than 24 hours, to make sure that the Bill was brought to completion.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not strictly speaking a matter for the Chair, and therefore not a point of order. However, he has made his point, and I am sure that the Minister will take due note of it.

Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

On a real point of order, Mr Howarth. New clauses 4 to 6 have been debated in accordance with the Chair’s selection list. Under the programme order and the Standing Orders of the House, at this moment, there needs to be a formal opportunity for those clauses to be moved—if they are to be moved. One of them stands in my name, and two of them are in the name of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East. Although those new clauses have been debated, they have not yet been moved.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

It is up to the Members concerned to indicate that that is what they want to do. This is a point of order; the hon. and learned Gentleman can pursue those matters if he wishes to.

Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East is unfortunately not here, and I indicate, having raised that point of order, that new clause 4 is not moved.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

In the annals of pointlessness—[Interruption.] On behalf of Mr Davies and myself, although I chaired only this afternoon’s proceedings—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Indeed. I understand that proceedings have been held in good humour and expeditiously, so on behalf of both Chairs, I thank members of the Committee for that.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.