WEDNESDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2002
Mr William Cash
In the absence of the Chairman, Mr Marshall was called to the Chair
RT HON MR NICHOLAS BROWN, a Member of the House, Minister of State for Work, Department for Work and Pensions, examined.
(Mr Brown) Yes; let me say, from the outset, Chairman, that I want a good working relationship with the Committee, as does the Department for Work and Pensions. As you know, responsibility for the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive has been newly allocated to the Department. I actually think it is the right home for the Commission, that is my personal view, and so I hope that this is an arrangement that will endure, and it is essential for the future that the work of the Commission and the Executive, including the advisory work it does for the Government on matters of European Union competence, is properly integrated into the Department's work. Now I said I want a good working relationship with the Committee, I do, and the Committee is due an apology; you have not had the hearing that you wanted, and for that, on behalf of the Government, I apologise. The duties were new to me, and when I saw the hearing scheduled I knew at once that I had not been briefed on the negotiations, nor was I the Minister that had heard the advice, it was not clear to me who the Committee wanted to see, whether you wanted to see what I assumed then was my predecessor, who I assumed then had heard the advice, or whether you wanted me to come along; and, frankly, I could do no more than repeat what the Civil Service advised me, because I was not the Minister at the time who conducted the negotiations. So I postponed the meeting so that I could get myself properly briefed on it, and also explore which Minister you wanted to see. I quickly discovered that the negotiations on this were further advanced than I thought, and also that the previous Minister also was not the Minister who heard the advice, and so you would have to go back to the original Minister, who, of course, was no longer a member of the Government, who had set the negotiating brief. I then looked through the issues themselves, and it was pretty clear that what the Committee was seeking to explore was why the British Government's negotiating position was for a higher tolerance level into specific areas, in other words, the Committee was arguing from the point of view of the protection of people working in the industries and not taking the opposite view, which is the burdens on business approach; and I have a lot of sympathy with the approach that the Committee was taking. But I have to repeat to you, I was not the Minister who heard the original advice, and therefore I am not in a position to interrogate it retrospectively. It then became clear to me that the matter was drawing rapidly to a conclusion, and indeed that the United Kingdom position was not commanding a great deal of support amongst other Member States; and there was an opportunity to achieve the outcome that it seemed to me that the Committee was seeking, in other words, a lowering of the threshold, a tightening of the protective position for workers in the industry, that being the point of view that other Member States were advocating. And, in order to bring the matter to a conclusion, a conclusion which it seemed to me that the Committee was seeking, I cleared scrutiny so that this could be settled under the Danish Presidency, a Presidency that is friendly to the United Kingdom. And it seemed to me that that was within the derogations that the Cabinet Office advice allows to Ministers, and I rather hoped that the Committee would be pleased that I had secured something that the Committee wanted and that was not the original negotiating position of the United Kingdom. However, once again, I do apologise to the Committee that you did not have the scrutiny debate. And can I, Chairman, just to conclude the points I want to make - and all of this has been set out in writing to the Committee, you have been kept informed at every stage, and I accept that is not a substitute for a debate and the Committee has the right to demand a debate if it wants one - there are three things that I would like to suggest. The first is, it is clear to me that there was a delay between your writing to the Committee on 13 February, which was when you examined the proposals and asked for the explanation, and our getting back to you, on 23 May. Now that is a three-month gap, it is before I became the Minister, but I am responding on behalf of the whole of Government and not just for my stewardship of these affairs, and we need a mechanism to make sure we are progress-chasing these things, when the Committee asks for something you should get it promptly, and then to put arrangements in hand in my office to make sure that we are progress-chasing the Commission and the Executive. It also seems to me that we need to review the way we, as a Government, handle these European negotiations, which involve drawing on the expertise of the Health and Safety Executive. I think the structure that we have currently is correct, in that the Executive reports to an independent Commission; but when conducting an international negotiation, I think it is necessary to be protective of ministerial input, and I intend to review precisely how that happens. And there is a third point I want to put to the Committee. My initial reluctance to do the debate was because it was going to focus on technical issues, on which I had not been briefed, and do not have, for my own general knowledge, a competence that I could share with the Committee, and I do not suppose many Members here do. Issues like this will occur again. I do not want the unsatisfactory position of either the issues not being addressed, or even of having to come along here and say to you what has been said to me, and then to have yourselves respond probably on the basis of briefings that have been put to you. And I wonder, and perhaps it is something that the Committee would like to consider, rather than decide now, if the Committee would like formal presentations from the professional advisers to Government, in other words, from the Health and Safety Executive officials, directly to the Committee, not in an adversarial setting but just so that you can hear the same advice that is being given to Ministers, without any impact on your right to decide on a debate. Having heard the advice, you might decide you wanted a debate, you might decide you wanted a debate even more, or you might decide there was no need for it. Now if that would help the Committee, actually to hear the advice to Government, then I am happy to explore whether we can offer that, and in future, when issues, which are of a technical nature, come to be debated, perhaps we could all hear the professional advice first.
(Mr Brown) There would not have been very much to debate, as it has turned out; but, in any event, the fact of the matter is, you should have had the debate you are entitled to, but you should have had it before the summer recess. Now I am afraid that is all before my time as a Minister. I can do no more than to apologise to the Committee because you did not have the debate; in my opinion, you should have had it before the summer recess, but it is pretty hopeless, my being just given the duties, to ask me to come along and explain something on which I am not briefed, whose standing I have no knowledge of. And, once I had examined the issue, it seemed to me that the better thing to do, to respond to what the Committee actually wanted, was to bring the matter to a conclusion under the Danish Presidency.
(Mr Brown) In principle, yes, but in these particular circumstances I am absolutely certain that I was right not to. It would have been an odd position to have the United Kingdom isolated just on those very narrow reasons, particularly when, by agreeing, we could get something that the Committee had actually said it wanted. Of course, I agree with the general principle; the truth is, we should have done it earlier and then there would not have been a problem, in other words, the debate should have been had before the summer recess, then there would have been no problem with clearing scrutiny, and actually I think the Committee would have been satisfied with the way in which the negotiations were going as well. As I understood the thrust of the Committee's argument, you were arguing for a lower threshold, a tighter threshold, perfectly properly, in my opinion, for the protection of people working in the industries.
(Mr Brown) The Committee is a substitute for scrutiny by the House. Nobody takes it more seriously than I. I used to be the Government Chief Whip, I understand the process well enough; indeed, I helped set up the Committees after the 1997 election. Now I have already, on behalf of the Government, apologised to the Committee, because you did not get the debate you were entitled to. It is my view that that debate should have taken place before the summer recess. I can do more; except I can say this. The set of circumstances is unique; to have had three Ministers deal with the issue in the space of nine months is - - -
(Mr Brown) I am entirely on your side on all of that. We have written to the Committee, and you have an explanation of the eventual outcome of this, and, indeed, reviewing the file, the Committee has been kept up to date by correspondence; but, I agree with you, that is not satisfactory, if you want the debate you are entitled to the debate. I think, more than that, you are entitled to an informed debate, and what I am offering the Committee is this prospect of exploring whether we can actually get the technical advice that is presented to Ministers presented to yourselves as well, so that before you decide on the debate you are actually as well briefed as a Minister; now that is something I offer for the future. There are two other things I can say for the future as well. This will not happen again, as far as the Department for Work and Pensions is concerned; this is the new home for the Commission and the Executive. As I have said before, I think the arrangements are right, I think they will endure, I intend to review the procedures to make sure that the Committee's requests are dealt with promptly, and certainly within time, and certainly we do not find ourselves in the position we find ourselves in now. Let me say something else though. It was very clear to me that what the Committee was concerned about, as I have said to the Committee before, was the thresholds to which working people were being exposed; of course, the Committee should have been able to debate that, and, once again, I apologise on behalf of Government that the Committee could not. But I did secure the result that it seems to me the Committee wanted. The Committee was arguing that the Government was going for too tolerant a threshold; the eventual outcomes, as the Committee knows, I think I am right in saying that, that all this has been reported to you, are much more to the result the Committee wanted. Now we could have either put in a reserve, a scrutiny reserve, or got the result the Committee wanted, and I thought the better thing to do, in the national interest, was to wrap up the negotiations, to secure the result, or something closer to the result the Committee wanted, and to get this settled under the Danish Presidency. It was the last chance to do so, remember.
(Mr Brown) The alternative would have been to put the reserve in when we had secured the result that was satisfactory to the Committee, in fact, better than the Committee thought was going to happen, and that we did not bring it to a conclusion - - -
(Mr Brown) The Committee had expressed its view, and we did not bring it to a conclusion under the Danish Presidency. Although, of course, I accept the thrust of what you are saying, I do not want to quarrel with you on this question of Committees' scrutiny rights, because I am wholly on your side on that. But I am in a difficult set of circumstances, I had just got the brief, there was a choice between bringing the matter to a conclusion or putting in the reserve, and it was clearly in the broader national interest that we bring the matter to a conclusion, without quarrelling with people who are, after all, some of our closest friends and allies in the European Union.
(Mr Brown) No, it is more than that. I want to make sure that we properly integrate the Health and Safety Commission's and the Health and Safety Executive's work into the more conventional way in which things are done within the Department for Work and Pensions. I think it is a logical place for the Commission to be, I think this will be its permanent home. There will clearly be issues like this that will arise in the future, although not in this way, when dealing with European Union matters, and I want to make absolutely certain that the Committee gets its explanation and its right to scrutiny in a timely way, so that there is no question of things being jammed up against a deadline. If this debate had taken place before the summer, we would not be in this position now; and, in my view, that was when it should have taken place.
(Mr Brown) I certainly think that the changes that have taken place within Government, a combination of events rather than any one event, have led to this outcome. Remember, I got these responsibilities just before the party conference season, a debate was scheduled for the second day the House came back, and, in order to get myself fully briefed for a debate, I asked for it to be postponed. In retrospect, it might have been better if I had not done that. But there is a whole series of decisions that were taken, with perfectly correct intentions, but whose cumulative effect has led to this unfortunate outcome.
(Mr Brown) I am going to end up repeating myself, Chairman. I got these duties late; the original reason for postponing it was so that I could brief myself on the highly technical issues that you wanted to discuss, remember, the original meeting was scheduled for the second day back, and also to clarify which Minister you wanted to cross-examine on the subject. As I say, my original thought was it would be my predecessor that you wanted to ask, but I quickly discovered, after having postponed the debate, I have to say, that he had not heard the negotiating brief either, and it was his predecessor that had set the negotiating brief and, presumably, would be able to explain it to the Committee and say why he made the decisions that he did. It is perfectly right for the Committee to cross-examine this, but, as events then moved on, and often Ministers are faced with things when Parliament has come back, although, of course, Ministers are here before Parliament reassembles, it was clear to me that there was a possibility of bringing this to a conclusion and getting the result the Committee said they wanted, or, to be fair, getting something that is closer to the result the Committee wanted. And, under the Cabinet Office guidance, it is my view, and I accept the Committee may quarrel with it, but it is my view that I had sufficient room for manoeuvre to clear it, and I thought that was the right thing to do, and proper, in the broader national interest.
(Mr Brown) I cannot say this again. I am on your side with regard to scrutiny, it would be odd if I were not, given all the previous tasks that I have carried out in Government, and that is why I am saying to the Committee that there are things that we should do better for the future. To be honest, Chairman, we are going round in circles. I have apologised on behalf of the Government. Let me say again, I think it would have been better if the scrutiny committee had been held either with the Minister who was setting the negotiating brief or at least before the summer recess, so that you would have had the debate in time for what they call the 'end game' in the negotiations in the European Union's forums. But that did not happen, and so I am left with two decisions, neither of which is going to be perfect, but I think I made the better of the two decisions.
(Mr Brown) You (- inaudible - opinion ?) anyway.
(Mr Brown) No, I have not overridden the professional advice of the Civil Service. I acted within - I have explained this to the Committee already - the derogations that are clearly set out in the Cabinet Office guidance, and acted in the broader national interest as well. It is not a question of the advice of public servants having been overridden.
(Mr Brown) That is a two-way thing. I am trying to be candid with the Committee and to explain why I took the decisions that I did. But if you are alleging there is any contempt of Parliament, that is a very, very serious thing to say. And, frankly, I think, Chairman, that if the discussion with the Committee is going to go down that route then the honourable gentleman, if he is making such a charge, had better make it plainly.
(Mr Brown) Well, frankly, that is a debating point.
(Mr Brown) It is a matter for the Committee. If you still want the debate, I am happy to have it. But I wonder if it might not be better, since you have secured the results you want, to sort of perhaps discuss amongst yourselves whether you want to take up my offer of exploring further how we handle issues of this kind in future. And, frankly, I do not see how a Minister - - -
(Mr Brown) Yes, of course, and we can arrange a suitable date for a debate, if that is what the Committee wants; but it would help me and the Department enormously if you said what it was you wanted to debate. And, remember, this is done now.
(Mr Brown) Yes, we can arrange for the debate, I have already conceded that to the Committee. But I do not think it helps to try to play politics with these issues; and the idea that, somehow, you are saying that I have not been candid with the Committee, I just think is very unfair.
(Mr Brown) I am going to be in danger of repeating myself here. If you need the debate, you can have it, but I really do not think there is going to be anything that I am going to be able to add to what has already been said to the Committee.
(Mr Brown) Mr Chairman, we are going round in circles here.
(Mr Brown) I have got no quarrel with yourselves on the issues of principle, and I think, probably, it is best left there.
Mr Marshall: Could I thank you for coming; and also could I thank you for deciding to stay, in view of the problems that we had prior to the start of the meeting. Thanks for coming to the meeting.