Staff etc

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 9th June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

I just want to say a few words about the clause. Again, the Opposition do not oppose it or seek to amend it, but we want to ensure that we get it right. I accept the Minister’s previous comments on clause 4, and I was really pleased that she mentioned the role of the voluntary sector and did so in a way that reflected the complex tapestry of the voluntary sector. The fact that there might be many dozens of organisations— perhaps 80-odd—working in one area is something that I am very familiar with, having worked in the voluntary sector previously.

Duplication is a challenge that I faced when I ran the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, the umbrella body that co-ordinated the work of the voluntary sector. We did a lot of work on duplication and on trying to get third-sector organisations to work together and to share expertise and resources. That is more essential now than it ever has been, but it is not a problem that affects just the voluntary sector. I also had the pleasure of being an adviser in the Cabinet Office for almost two years, in 2006 and 2007. When we did one of our what seemed like annual reviews on waste and duplication in the civil service, we found that two committees in the Department for Education were looking at duplication. Just when someone thinks they have seen it all in one sector, they move to another and look beneath another rock.

However, these are important things to bring into our deliberations on clause 5. Clause 5 essentially gives the Secretary of State the power to appoint staff for the commissioner and to appoint the resources for it, and therefore gives the Secretary of State quite considerable oversight and input into the effectiveness of the personnel, or the commissioner, with regards to their ability to work and to be productive, directly impacting the scale of work that they can undertake.

Clause 5(1) states:

The Secretary of State must provide the Commissioner with—

(a) such staff, and

(b) such accommodation, equipment and other facilities, as the Secretary of State considers necessary for the carrying out of the Commissioner’s functions.”

The key thing here is what

“the Secretary of State considers”,

not what an independent observer or what the commissioner herself considers appropriate for the job. There are two aspects to this: how resources are deemed appropriate in the first place, and whether that is done in conjunction with the commissioner, which I assume it would be in a functional relationship; the Minister is nodding, which is reassuring. However, it is also to do with the appointments themselves, because the Home Office retains the power to oversee and involve itself in some aspect of the recruitment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned the former independent anti-slavery commissioner. He gave stark evidence before the Joint Committee, which it is worth referring back to, because this is what we have to avoid going forward. It certainly shines a light on what is potentially within the scope of the Bill as drafted. On page 77, paragraph 298 of the Joint Committee’s report says:

Kevin Hyland told us he was concerned that the Secretary of State would have too much control of the Commissioner’s budget— referring to the commissioner for domestic abuse—

“the staff employed and the content of the Commissioner’s reports. He pointed particularly to the power wielded by the Secretary of State through control of the Commissioner’s budget, noting that immediately he took up his post, the Home Office had proposed a reduction in the funds that Parliament had been told he would be given.”

Immediately after that commissioner was appointed, the Home Secretary tried to reduce the funds that Parliament had informed him he would have. These powers for the Home Secretary all exist in the Bill as it stands before us.

The bottom half of that same paragraph says

“he described the process of appointment as ‘unbelievable’, adding: ‘Sometimes I would select staff, and seven months later they had not arrived, or when they did arrive they sometimes waited two or three months for pay. In my 30 years in the police, I never, ever saw that happen once.’ He also described his experience of producing reports which, because they had to be approved by the Secretary of State, had to go through a long process of negotiation with and modification by a number of officials, with the final report not fully representing his views.”

We will come back to the latter point in discussions on future clauses. He raises in his testimony something on which we really need assurance from the Minister. The wording of the Bill as it stands is

“as the Secretary of State considers necessary”.

Therefore, the power is with the Secretary of State, the timing is with the Secretary of State and the amount of resource is with the Secretary of State.

We seek further reassurance from the Minister that the lessons described by one of the designate commissioner’s predecessors in another commission role have been learned, because that was a few years ago. If they have, the designate domestic abuse commissioner will not have to wait months—seven months—before her staff take office, she will not have the constant to and fro between numerous Ministers, and she will not be publicly promised one set of resource only to find that, when she gets into the office, it has been cut, changed or altered without any consultation at all. All of those powers and the ability to do those things are contained in the Bill. We will not oppose the clause because we understand why the Home Office and the Home Secretary need and desire those powers, but we request the assurance that they will not be abused in the same way they were demonstrably and clearly in the past.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:15 pm, 9th June 2020

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not accept his premise in relation to the independent anti-slavery commissioner. I am happy to say that I have a good working relationship with the current commissioner—I think it is good, anyway—and I am not aware of concerns as described by Mr Hyland in relation to the current commissioner. I take that relationship very seriously.

On the control of the Home Secretary in the clause, as the hon. Gentleman put it, I point him to subsection (2) which says:

“Before providing any staff, the Secretary of State must…consult the Commissioner, and obtain the Commissioner’s approval as to the persons to be provided as staff.”

In other words, the appointments cannot happen without the commissioner’s approval. The Secretary of State must also consult the commissioner before providing any accommodation, equipment or other facilities.

Let us be clear: the commissioner is an independent office holder. Ministers cannot and will not dictate their work plan, nor determine their recommendations. We expect the commissioner to provide robust and challenging advice and recommendations to national Government as well as local commissioners. However, we need a degree of ministerial oversight, as with all public bodies.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister says that the Home Office does not have the power to direct workflow, but the Home Office does set the framework, and that does dictate the scope and scale of work undertaken. Does she therefore agree that the Home Office has significant input into what work is undertaken?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The draft framework document we published alongside the Bill for colleagues to look at was produced in conjunction with and agreed with the commissioner. Therefore, some of the details we have discussed thus far on this part of the Bill are in the framework document. It is a public document—we are trying to be transparent—and it is made with the agreement of the commissioner, which I think is really important. The reason there has to be a degree of ministerial oversight is so that, for example, we ensure that public money is spent according to Treasury principles. The relationship between the Department and the commissioner will be codified in the framework document as provided for by clause 10.

In terms of the employment of staff, although staff will be employed by the Home Office as civil servants, the Bill, as I say, expressly provides that individual appointments must be approved by the commissioner.

I am pleased to say that the commissioner already has one member of staff as a designate commissioner. Her statutory powers are not yet in force, because we await the passage of the Bill, and the recruitment process will continue as the powers are approved.

It is very much for the commissioner to run her own office. We want a good working relationship with the commissioner. It is in everyone’s interests. That is the basis on which I and, I know, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, conduct our relationships with, for example, the Victims’ Commissioner, in the case of my hon. Friend, and the commissioners for domestic abuse and modern slavery, in my case.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Just to clarify, the arrangement is the same as was described by the previous modern slavery commissioner. The Home Office does not select the individual staff, but internal Home Office recruitment processes might well play a part if it is a matter of secondment, or if there are other processes that need to go through the channels of the Home Office. I am not one of those people who bash the public sector—I think we see excellence in recruitment, human resources and the management of personnel in the public sector—but sometimes things can be slow, and the purpose of an independent commissioner is to bring expertise and entrepreneurialism—the approach from outside—into the heart of Government. Will the Minister assure us that that pace and speed will be matched by Home Office work when it comes to requests by the commissioner?

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Order. Interventions need to be short. I do not want to be too heavy about it, but I will be if I have to.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I assure the hon. Gentleman that appointments to the commissioner’s office—precisely because they are civil servants—will of comply with civil service terms and conditions and recruitment practice. I hope colleagues will view those as being of a very high standard—objective and meritocratic. As to urging the Home Office to move speedily, I take that challenge forward. We will use our best endeavours because we want the commissioner to be as powerful as she can be as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.