Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Schedule 2

Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill.
Column Number: 295

Miss McIntosh: The schedule relates to a number of elements of CABE, including status, membership, tenure and other sundry items. The Minister said that he was responding to a promise made, but taking six years to keep a promise is not exactly a good record of time-keeping.

I understand that the commission currently enjoys charitable status. If that is the case, I ask the Minister whether that charitable status will continue.

Alun Michael: CABE does not have charitable status, so that status cannot continue.

Miss McIntosh: That is most helpful. I understand that CABE is a non-departmental body, but it will become a departmental body. That will obviously have significance for the independence and impartiality of the advice given.

Alun Michael: I assure her that the change will not have that significance. Independence of advice is a requirement that is placed on the body as a departmental public body. As I said, things do not change as a result of the provisions of the Bill, except those things that change explicitly.

Miss McIntosh: I am sorry, but to me that change is an explicit one. I want to place that on the record. If the commission remained a non-departmental body, there would be greater clarity that the advice is impartial and independent. I believe that the status of CABE will be weakened if that changes. As it is a departmental body, I seek an assurance that service as a member of the commission is not service in the civil service of the Crown, which is stipulated in paragraph 1(3) and paragraph 4(2) of schedule 2.

Alun Michael: I point out to the hon. Lady paragraph 1 of schedule 2, which answers her question.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister might think that it answers my question. I was seeking clarification. The body is sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I presume that the Minister will say that nothing has changed except what has changed, but will he confirm that the body will continue to be jointly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? It begs the question—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I ask hon. Members to observe the niceties of the Committee.

Miss McIntosh: It gives rise to the question of why a Bill from a different Department is sponsoring this part of the Bill.

Tenure is limited to four years and committees may sit. In paragraph 5, the Bill says that

    ''The Commission may establish one or more committees.''

It is normal to set a specific maximum number of committees that can be set up. The Bill is silent on that.
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Clearly, paragraph 6 will have cost implications from the point of view of remuneration. Will the Minister state that remuneration is on the same basis as if it were a straightforward transfer?

Paragraph 10, on the provision of an annual report, states that

    ''The Commission must send to the Secretary of State a report on the discharge of its functions during each financial year.''

The schedule is silent as to whether that report will be published and, therefore, debatable by Select Committees in either this House or the other place. We are informed by the House of Commons research paper on the Bill that the Bill will not place any duty on the commission to publish an annual report. In our view, that raises issues of accountability. The Minister will be mindful that severe reservations were raised about accountability that were not dissimilar to those raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I would like to return to the point about English Heritage at the appropriate time, but given that the Select Committee was quite critical in that regard, is the Minister minded to publish the annual report and allow it to be debated? The records produced under paragraph 12 will presumably be accessible. How will members of the public or developers with an interest have access to those records?

On the transitional provisions, will the Minister satisfy my interest? I understand that the chairman of the commission had resigned, and I wonder whether there is a chairman and whether the transitional provisions will have implications in the future when a commission chairman resigns. Those are the main points that we would like to raise.

Alun Michael: Most of the questions asked by the hon. Lady have been answered already when I said that those things do not change. Our intention was to keep the promise that was made to bring CABE into the auditing scope of the Comptroller and Auditor General and to put that on a statutory basis, and no more. We could debate a lot of theoretical issues for a long time, but the legislation does not change them in any way.

May I make it clear that CABE will remain a non-departmental public body on a statutory basis? Secondly, it is not normal to set a limit on the number of committees that can be established by such a body, not least because that depends on the functions of the body. It may be an organisation that does not need to have committees or sub-committees of any sort. It may be a body with a variety of engagement with expert opinion. My guess is that that is very much part of the warp and weft of CABE's work. CABE looks at the built environment and has done some excellent work on urban parks and such things, and would want to engage the advice of a variety of people and experts.

There will be a duty to publish an annual report. I can only say that the House of Commons Library research paper is wrong about that. I could wax eloquent on what the organisation does and should do in the future, but none of that has any relevance to the limited purposes of the clauses and schedules.

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Finally, I was asked why the measure is included in a Bill that is being led by DEFRA? DEFRA is leading on this Bill, but in a number of clauses, policy lead is from the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and, in this case, from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It would have been a waste to place a Minister from that Department on the Committee in order to deal with four clauses that are so limpidly clear, straightforward and difficult to question. I hope that the Committee will be happy to take this modest, sensible step forward to achieve accountability for a body that has proved its worth and earned its statutory recognition.

Miss McIntosh: I am not sure that I am entirely satisfied. I know that the Minister meant to be helpful. The regulatory impact assessment, on which he has told me not to rely, states that the Secretary of State will have a statutory power to fund the activities conducted by CABE. I understood that to mean that the Secretary of State for DEFRA would be responsible.

4 pm

Alun Michael: No. This is a general point. It does not relate to the Bill. The normal pattern of drafting legislation is to refer to ''the Secretary of State'', which means the appropriate Secretary of State. In previous legislation ''the Secretary of State'' might have referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who would deal with issues in England, and the Secretary of State for Wales, who would deal with them in Wales. We cannot use the same phraseology now, as some issues are dealt with by the National Assembly for Wales, but as CABE is an England-only body, we can revert to the simple reference to the Secretary of State.

Should Departments be reorganised, as happens from time to time, the generic reference to the Secretary of State means that it is not necessary to amend primary legislation to ensure that the responsibility transfers between members of the Cabinet. However, the hon. Lady would be wrong to infer that there is an intention to transfer the responsibility from where it currently lies to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is not the case. As I have said, the only changes are those that I spelt out at the start of our proceedings.

Miss McIntosh: That is most helpful. It leaves me with one point on the transfer of cost. Paragraph 9 of the schedule refers to accounts. Previously, the accounts were audited by a private auditor at a cost of £15,000 per annum. There will now presumably be a transfer of cost to the public purse, as I understand from the Department's regulatory impact assessment that CABE will be audited by the Comptroller and
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Auditor General. I fear that the cost will be more than the modest £15,000. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell me what provision is made in the budget for the accounts to be audited.

Alun Michael: I will simply say that that is a matter for the Secretary of State.

Miss McIntosh: That is extremely disappointing and very unsatisfactory.

Alun Michael: No, it is not unsatisfactory. It is precisely where the responsibility is placed in the Bill. That is the way in which the Government work. It is for the Secretary of State to make sure that a body for which he or she is responsible has the funds to do what it is there to do. If it must do it under legislation, that makes it all the clearer what the Secretary of State must provide, so there we are.

Miss McIntosh: I would just note, in the spirit of freedom of information, that it is extraordinary that we have just been told that the Secretary of State can do what the Secretary of State wants to do and that the House can be left in the dark.

Alun Michael: The hon. Lady seems to be sticking her head into the dark and trying to nuzzle as far down into the subterranean depths as she can. I said that the provision gave the responsibility to the Secretary of State, so of course the Secretary of State must make sure that a body for which he or she is responsible has the appropriate resources. Primary legislation should not set out exactly what audit fees should be allowed for a particular body.

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