The Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:30 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 7:30 pm, 4th June 2019

I beg to move amendment 8, in schedule 1, page 10, line 11, leave out “appointed from amongst both” and insert “elected from”.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 9, in schedule 1, page 10, line 12, after “and” insert “appointed from”.

Amendment 4, in schedule 1, page 10, line 20, at end insert—

“(4) The number of members of the House Commons and the members of the House of Lords must be equal.

(5) At least one member referred to in sub-paragraph 1(c) must be a HM Treasury Minister.”

Amendment 10, in schedule 1, page 11, line 19, after “appointment” insert “or election”.

Amendment 11, in schedule 1, page 11, line 20, after “appointed” add “or elected”.

Amendment 7, in schedule 1, page 11, line 23, after “Minister of the Crown” insert

“other than a HM Treasury Minister”.

Amendment 12, in schedule 1, page 11, line 27, after “appointment” insert “or election”.

Amendment 13, in schedule 1, page 11, line 29, at end insert—

“4A (1) The Parliamentary members from the House of Commons must be drawn from a range of parties in the House of Commons and must include a representative from a party that is not one of the three largest parties in the House of Commons.

(2) The Parliamentary members from the House of Commons are to be elected by Members of Parliament from their own party, or, in the case of the Parliamentary member who is not from one of the three largest parties, by Members of Parliament who are not from one of the three largest parties.”

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.

I tabled amendments 8 to 13 partly to explore how we could make sure that the membership of the Sponsor Body would reflect the make-up of the House, to note the importance of having elections, and for consequential purposes. We now have elections for Select Committee Chairs, and for Select Committee Back Benchers. That reform has swept through the House, but it was not proposed for the Sponsor Body. The main point is to enshrine balance and the principle of election in the Bill.

I recognise that if there were an election it would be a challenge for smaller parties to get representation. That would be one of the benefits of going through the usual channels. However, there is of course a benefit in elections, because people are held directly accountable by the electorate, whether it is their party group or a wider electorate. I did not have the opportunity to discuss the matter with the usual channels, who, I am sure, have views, and I should be happy to hear the Minister’s views. However, an important principle is involved, about election and being held accountable, and that is the reason for my proposal. The other point is the involvement of a smaller party, and the mechanism for that.

The amendments may not be the perfect solution, but they enable the Committee at least to probe the idea of an election from among the smaller parties for their representative on the Sponsor Body. The reality is that in the time available I did not have the opportunity to gauge wider opinion and it may be that some Members in small parties would not want to devote a lot of time to the Sponsor Body. I recognise that the amendment is exploratory but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the general principle of elections and balance.

We had an interesting discussion in the previous sitting, and there was a lot of talk about UK-wide representation, and getting that reflected in the works. There is a benefit to party-wide representation as the project goes forward, partly to tie in knowledge about what is going on, in each party grouping, so that people are aware. It will give a clear view that this is a cross-party parliamentary matter.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

It is a great delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson.

I, too, support the idea of elections to the Sponsor Body. One of the most positive things that has happened since I became an MP in 2001 is the election of Select Committee Chairs. That means that Members from different political parties have to reach out across the whole House, and I think that that would be a positive measure in the present case.

I understand that there is some anxiety about how we would end up with the precise numbers from the different political parties. The fact that the Liberal Democrats have appointed from the Lords adds a further problem, but I still think that that should not detain us too long. It should be perfectly possible to have an election.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hanson. I shall keep my remarks fairly brief.

I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda that the election of Select Committee Chairmen has made a difference. The slight difference in the case of the Sponsor Body is that there will be members from both Houses. Elections to appointments do not take place in the other place, so under the amendments House of Commons members would be elected, or a procedure would be introduced into the other place that it did not have before.

I recognise the need for members from across the United Kingdom, and representing the parties, on the future Sponsor Body. With appointments made so far to the shadow board through the usual channels, it has of course been for each political party to decide how to come to a nomination. Some parties, including mine, use the votes of Back Benchers to decide how to fill vacant slots on Select Committees, but those are submitted to the House for approval, as of course appointments to the Sponsor Body will be.

I would not support the amendments at this stage, given the fact that they could create a difference between how Lords and Commons members were appointed. They would give the impression of the body being more like a joint Select Committee when it is not; it is a legal body constituted in its own right. It is ultimately up to Parliament to decide how it establishes and appoints to this organisation, which should essentially be about making sure that Members who offer the most to the Committee are appointed, rather than those who might be the most popular among Members.

On party allocations, I recognise what has been put in the amendment around making sure that smaller parties are represented. Of course, if these positions were elected across the whole House, the larger parties would clearly benefit, given their weight of numbers.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I take the view that, whatever the political situation, the constitution should be able to cope with it, respond and adapt.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Indeed. That is very unkind from the right hon. Gentleman, to be fair. I did not necessarily wish to point out that the party that for many years was the first party here no longer holds that position due to significant seat losses in the 2015 general election. However, we think there is a lot to be said for appointing the right people, rather than electing the most popular. I will give way to someone who has many years of experience.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Before he takes any lectures from Liberal Democrat Members about how this system works, it is worth reminding them that on no occasion have any of their Select Committee Chairmen, so far as I can remember, been elected by the whole House. They do deals within their party to only put one candidate forward on the Committees where they have the chairmanship, so the House has therefore not had the opportunity, for those particular Committees, to have the vote that the hon. Member for Rhondda talked about. That is a bit of failure in their system.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my right hon. Friend for sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of how this place works. Although I understand the thrust of the amendments, they would create the unusual position of electing Members in one House and appointing them in another. On ensuring party balance, as I say, the Liberal Democrats have chosen to appoint a peer, rather than a Member of the House of Commons. It is for them to choose the person they feel most appropriate to represent their party; it is not necessarily for the Government or for other Members to do that.

This is not about electing people to a post where they would necessarily function for the whole House. For example, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch acts for the whole House as the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—she is very distinguished in that role—and, as the only one, she therefore has to work for all Members. I agree that that has been a worthwhile and useful innovation in our constitution. It has helped to solidify the independence of Select Committee Chairs and has probably led to people being elected who would not necessarily have got through the usual channels under the old system.

However, I think it is appropriate that we reflect in the House on the fact that such elections would be an innovation and would set a precedent for the House of Lords; they have not had them for these positions before. I suggest that to introduce the amendments would not necessarily be helpful to the spirit of how the Bill has moved forward. I point to the three Members in the room who have been strong members of the shadow Sponsor Body, which shows that we can appoint the right people to this group once it is founded in law.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair tonight, Mr Hanson. I apologise for not seeking with sufficient vigour to catch your eye earlier and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak now.

I will first speak briefly to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, which would bring elections in for the House of Lords. To challenge one aspect of the Minister’s statement—that that is something the Lords is not used to—their lordships are used to the bizarre elections of hereditary peers. I am afraid that, when they happen, they are often a source of bemusement when we see three candidates competing for one post, all from a hereditary position.

With your permission, Mr Hanson, I shall speak briefly to the two amendments in my name. Amendment 4 is about achieving an equal number of representatives from each House, and amendment 7 is about a Treasury Minister playing a role on the Sponsor Body. As the Opposition have said, we fully support the creation of the Sponsor Body. A programme of such immense size and complexity requires clear governance and an effective system of administration. The Sponsor Body must be accountable and representative, including representatives from both Houses, Government and, potentially, experts with a heritage or construction background.

Under the current plans, there is an extra peer on the Sponsor Body, leaving unequal numbers of peers and MPs. We would like to see that rectified. I fully respect the right of the Liberal Democrats to choose who they think is fit, although I have to say that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington answers with aplomb on behalf of the House of Commons Commission. He has demonstrated his ability to serve on committees such as this, and whoever is chosen, they will have a high bar to hit in order to match his contributions.

To rectify the imbalance—we want equal membership from both sides—we support the Joint Committee’s recommendation that a Treasury Minister sit as an ad hoc member of the Sponsor Body, attending when necessary. That brings me to amendment 7. That Committee stated that

“a Treasury Minister should be an additional member of the Sponsor Body.”

It said that that would

“underpin the hierarchy of decision making and…provide clarity to those delivering the project”.

The Government rejected that recommendation, instead insisting that the Estimates Commission consult Her Majesty’s Treasury on the annual estimates for the funding of the R and R programme. The Estimates Commission is instructed to “have regard” to any subsequent advice given by the Treasury.

In my view, a Treasury Minister should be tied in throughout the process by membership of the Sponsor Body. Although we agree that the Treasury should be subordinate to Parliament in shaping restoration and renewal, we believe that the presence of a Treasury Minister within the Sponsor Body would allow for sufficient buy-in by the Government throughout this lengthy process. It would also provide someone from the Government side to drive forward the process. Hon. Members have referred to the role that Tessa Jowell played as a Minister during the London Olympics project. She, too, performed her role with excellence.

The Government would be directly consulted and responsible at every step of the project. That would allow for ongoing and tough scrutiny of the costs of this huge project. Accountability and transparency can only be improved through the inclusion of a member of the Government. Given the magnitude of restoration and renewal, a Treasury member could be instrumental in responding to financial queries about the project and speaking on behalf of the Sponsor Body in Parliament. A culture of transparency and open communication will be critical to the success of the project.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am grateful for the chance to respond to these two amendments. The first deals with the balance between the two Houses. It could be possible to have an additional member, if Parliament wished to do that, and they could be from the House of Commons, if it wished the usual channels to appoint them, but again, this comes down to the point that we have given an opportunity for a party to choose who it believes is the best person from its parliamentary members; we are clear that it could not be an individual who is not a Member of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. And the party in question has opted to pick someone from the House of Lords, which gives a balance of four to three. I do not think that that is necessarily a negative, given that that party clearly has representation in the House of Commons. We have seen one of its very able Members making a number of very useful and constructive contributions here. I do not think that the point should necessarily be specified in statute, given that parliamentary members have to be approved by a resolution of both Houses. If Members of the House of Commons were concerned—for the sake of argument—that a party had decided to appoint more members from the House of Lords, it would be open to Members of the House of Commons to block that, and similarly, if there were an attempt to remove membership from the House of Lords, it could move to ensure that a fair balance was maintained.

That is why I suggest that the amendment would not be appropriate. This is about allowing the body to have the parliamentary members who can contribute the most but who are answerable to Parliament and have to be appointed by Parliament as well. Democratic oversight ultimately is there in the fact that we, as the House of Commons, could decline appointments if we felt that they were not appropriate or the balance was being got wrong.

To move on to the amendment relating to a Treasury Minister, there will clearly need to be close engagement between the Sponsor Body and the Treasury, as there will between the Sponsor Body and the Comptroller and Auditor General on audit function. The Government do not support the idea of a Treasury Minister being part of the Sponsor Body. We believe that would blur the lines of accountability and create wider issues more generally.

We are clear that the role of the Treasury in this project is as an external party looking inwards, defending taxpayers’ interests and engaging with thoughts and advice to Parliament and the House of Commons as it decides on the estimates process. I am certain we will also receive valuable contributions from the Public Accounts Committee, driven by the work of the National Audit Office and its reports, as we saw last year when the motion passed by the House reflected recommendations from the Public Accounts Committee, which had been put forward in an amendment.

Having a Treasury Minister as a member of the Sponsor Body could compromise that position, because the Treasury is supposed to comment on the estimates put forward by the Sponsor Body. The Treasury Minister presenting those thoughts in the Chamber would have to take off a hat as a member of the Sponsor Body and put on a hat as a Treasury Minister to comment on behalf of the Treasury.

It is right that there will have to be some engagement. Given the scale and the political importance of this project, it is almost certain that there will be a Minister identified in the Treasury who will be responsible for liaising with the Sponsor Body. Those arrangements will come when we get more into the detail once the body is established and starting to deliver its programme.

With regard to accountability, it is worth saying again that there will need to be discussion through the usual channels and in the House to decide exactly how it wishes to hold to account members of the Sponsor Body. It has been alluded to that members of the House of Commons Commission do on occasion answer oral questions in the Chamber, although we do not yet know how that process will work in detail. That is not something that we want in primary legislation or a schedule, given that, as the project progresses, we may vary the level of scrutiny. It could be very intense as we approach 2021 when satisfying ourselves on the estimates and what is going forward. I suspect it will continue to be quite intense through the main body of works, but nearing the end of the project there will be a debate about how much engagement there should be as we approach the conclusion of the project.

That is why the Government are not keen to have a Treasury Minister as a member of the Sponsor Body. It would blur accountability and that Minister’s role in the project in both commenting on and being a member of the Sponsor Body.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 7:45 pm, 4th June 2019

I thank the Minister for giving way. I remember that, when we published the Joint Committee report, there was some concern about the ambiguity of the Government’s position regarding restoration and renewal. It seems now that, with the former Leader of the House driving the project forward, the Government’s position has been more supportive. However, can the Minister understand the criticism being levelled at the Government? Not accepting a Treasury Minister on the Sponsor Body might well be seen as the Government once again trying to distance themselves and not being foursquare in support of the project?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It is safe to say that the Government fully support the project and will facilitate the will of the House to take it forward, hence the introduction of the Bill and the role played by the Leader of the House.

If we look at the structure of the Public Accounts Committee, technically a Treasury Minister is a member and gives a speech once a year which is a 10-minute statement of support for the audit process. If that Minister took part in the actual inquiries and the debates of the Public Accounts Committee, I do not think that would enhance its work, and I speak as a former member of that Committee. It could inevitably inject a party political element to its work. The Public Accounts Committee is very strong because it is seen as a resolutely cross-party body.

I do not think the Government’s position shows a lack of commitment. It shows our desire to have the Sponsor Body, the client, working towards instructions Parliament has given it. The Treasury will play a role in engaging, defending the taxpayers’ interests and providing comments, so that it can give a view when the House decides on the estimates process. It would be rather strange to say that Members would think it better for a Treasury Minister to be part of the body that they were commenting on, rather than being enabled on behalf of the Treasury to comment on the Sponsor Body’s work. Again, Members from the governing party will be on the body, and we can see the commitments we have made. The Government see clearly that there is a need to take forward restoration and renewal, and I think that Opposition Front Benchers take exactly the same view. Carrying on patching this place up is not an alternative, because each year the bills are getting bigger and bigger and the taxpayer is having to pay more and more to achieve a worse outcome. No Government would wish to endorse or support that.

I understand the reason for amendment 4, but the Government feel that it would be better were the Treasury to engage with the Sponsor Body through the clear relationship and link set out in the Bill. Treasury Ministers will be open to questions in the House about the Government’s work and commitment throughout the life of the project, rather than having to give a caveat, along the lines of, “Today I am answering as an HM Treasury Minister, but tomorrow I will be answering as a Sponsor Body member.” That would not sound or look right to me; it would create a conflicted role, or a position in which the Treasury Minister was almost an honorary member of the Sponsor Body, rather than taking part in its work in detail.

The Government’s strong preference is for the amendment not to be made. That does not in any way diminish the commitment and the strong links that the Treasury and Parliament will need to have with the Sponsor Body as it takes the project forward.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I will not press my amendment to a vote on this occasion. I hear what the Minister says; the Sponsor Body is an unusual body. In the time that I have had available, we have not yet settled how we will deal with election, but I think I have laid a marker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says, we believe in elections; I get the impression that Conservative Members do, too. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee

I beg to move amendment 5, in schedule 1, page 10, line 25, at end insert—

“(2A) A person who has already gone through a fair and open competition to be appointed chair of the shadow Sponsor Body will be deemed already to have met the requirement in paragraph 2(2) above.”

This amendment would allow the chair of the shadow Sponsor Body to be appointed chair of the Sponsor Body without the need for a new recruitment exercise.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 6, in schedule 1, page 11, line 5, at end insert—

“(3A) A person who has already gone through a fair and open competition to be appointed as an external member of the shadow Sponsor Body will be deemed already to have met the requirement in paragraph 3(2) above.”

This amendment would allow the external members of the shadow Sponsor Body to be appointed external members of the Sponsor Body without the need for a new recruitment exercise.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I do not want to take long over this; I very much welcome the Bill making faster progress than I thought it might while discussions were taking place. It has moved up the Government’s agenda as other things have been taken away, but we do not need to discuss that further.

A glaring omission in the Bill concerns recreating the Sponsor Body. I declare an interest, in that I am a member of the shadow Sponsor Body, but I would not be covered by my amendments, which are aimed at those members who only last year went through a full and open process and were selected to do their jobs. At a stage when the shadow Sponsor Body has only just started carrying out its tasks, I think it would be wrong to put a question mark over those members.

Amendments 5 and 6 simply reflect the fact that last year the chairman and the other members went through a full and open process, and I would like them to be incorporated into the new Sponsor Body for some time. I accept that terms will end naturally and I am aware that there will need to be discussions about how their replacements should be appointed—I fully support that, but it would be wrong for the Bill to put a question mark over those members so quickly.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although it has taken time, those people have built up a lot of experience and knowledge? If we have a cliff edge where we could lose a lot of people, that would be very damaging for the whole project.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for co-sponsoring the amendment and showing the cross-party feeling, and some people have already sat on the shadow sponsor body as a result of the House’s decisions. I think I am suggesting a reasonable way forward, but the Minister may have other ideas, which I am happy to consider.

It is right that we make progress and that we do so in an orderly way. Any appointments must be made in a proper, fair, robust and orderly manner. Things that are happening at the moment with the Bill, which I welcome, mean that we are perhaps progressing at a faster rate than originally imagined.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Briefly, I welcome the remarks of the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales in support of his amendment, and I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside also put his name to it. It is a common-sense amendment that Labour fully supports, and we hope that the Minister will consider it fairly.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

For completeness, all three members of the current shadow sponsor body support the amendment, as do I.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales on finding such consensus. I hope the Minister will add to it.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

When the Bill was drafted, automatic transfer was considered, but there were concerns about whether it could be implemented in practice. There were also thoughts about the possibility of permanent appointments and the clear need to have a performance review in other areas. Having listened to the representations and comments made, I suggest that, rather than accept the amendment today, we should work on an acceptable form of wording for a motion that we will be happy to support on Report. We take on board the principle, but we must ensure that we do not set up a system in which the appointments of all the external members come up for renewal on one day. We must ensure an appropriate transfer.

We have listened to the representations from my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales, the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside, and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts who are on the current shadow board. Having had a recruitment process last year, it would be strange to look for reappointments this year, especially because of the potential impact on continuity. As I have said, the House will take significant decisions, potentially in 2021, about moving the project forward. We must consider whether it would be sensible to do that with a clean slate of external members, or to put people through a reapplication process when they are just bedding in and starting to get into the complex detail of the role. I hope it will be acceptable to the Committee if we take away the principle behind the amendment, which I am happy to support, and work it into a motion that we can support on Report.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Chair, European Statutory Instruments Committee

I am prepared to accept the Minister’s assurances, and will not seek to push the amendment to a vote. There is a practical way forward, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s suggestions for the parliamentary draftsmen. As someone who has sat in his seat on other occasions knowing that the drafting is inappropriate, I now look forward to receiving the new drafting and getting an amendment ready for Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.