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Mr. Forth: I hope that my hon. Friend has not entirely left the subject of accreditation yet, because his eye must have fallen, as mine has, on clause 5(5)(b), where there is a rather peculiar provision that if an accredited body does not show any interest in a case, the case can be given to an unaccredited body. Does he agree that that makes the whole concept of accreditation somewhat bizarre, and does he not think that there is absolutely no protection in the Bill against cowboys being given taxpayers' money to represent complainants badly?
Mr. Harper: That is a perceptive point, and when I get to clause 5 I will indeed refer to it.
Mark Tami: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the research question. The Legal Services Commission does have its own independent research arm, which does a lot of work. The key is that it is independent.
Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes the helpful point that an organisation already exists to do the required research.
Clause 3 relates to the funding of the board, on which we have already had a number of questions, the most perceptive of which was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). Certain discrepancies have been revealed. The hon. Member for Bradford, West spoke about some of the alternative organisations that provided representation and assistance and said that their funding was precarious because it was arranged annually and could be withdrawn. But clause 3(1) only refers to annual funding. It states:
"At least three months before the beginning of each relevant financial year, the Board shall prepare and send to the Lord Chancellor an estimate of its funding needs for that financial year."
So that does not give many of those organisations longer-term or more stable funding arrangements than they currently have.
The most concerning part of the clause is subsection (3). It states:
effectively any amount of money that the board so require.
I noticed that the Paymaster General was in the Chamber earlier. No doubt, she would be extremely concerned that the board, the composition of which
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I will mention later, could saylet me propose an outrageous example to make the pointthat it required £1 billion in funding and that the Bill would put on the Lord Chancellor the duty to supply that sum, which would require much of his budget and completely destroy the EOC, the DRC and those other commissions. He would have no power to refuse to supply that funding. Such a commitment is extremely open-ended.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but would not other funding Departments be caused distress? The board would be unique in any spending round because it would have first call on the money. Other Departments would be very concerned about that, given their annual budgets and an array of other issues.
Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, particularly given the board's compositionnone of the people on the board would be democratically accountable. To give them an ability to jump straight to the head of the funding queue and secure resources ahead of many other worthy things seems very worrying.
The Bill would give the Lord Chancellor no option but to provide all the funding that is requested, but the hon. Member for Bradford, West admitted in his opening remarksI hope that I quote him accuratelythat he had no idea of how much money would be involved in setting up the board, in its operations and in paying to support claimants. Given that he has no idea of how much the board would cost, he can therefore have no idea of how much damage it would cause to the rest of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the other commissions that would be raided to pay for it. That is extremely worrying.
Clause 5 says that the board must invite tenders for the provision of accredited advice in each area. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman replied to this point. When a lot of public bodies issue tenders for publicly funded work, they must comply with some complex procedures under European Union legislation about advertising such work, providing a level playing field and ensuring that companies are given a proper opportunity to tender. I should be interested to know whether he has given any thought to how that tendering process would work in practice.
The process envisaged in the Bill could ensure that fewer and fewer organisations tendered for the work. A lot of local community groups are likely to be small. Would they have an adequate opportunity to tender for work, given the complexity of the tendering process? A lot of those smaller organisations would be put out of business, and only a few national organisations would have the opportunity to tender. I do not see the hon. Gentleman rising to his feet, so perhaps he has not considered those issues.
Clause 5(4)(b) talks about making
"arrangements for the payment to the accredited body of such amounts as are reasonably incurred by that accredited body in carrying out those functions".
Nothing in the Bill would set up any process or financial arrangement for the board that would give me confidence that it had processes in place adequately to scrutinise the expenditure of public money and to ensure that it was spent wisely.
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Under clause 5(6)my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) drew attention to thisif the board put out a tender for work to accredited bodies and none of them was interested in taking part, the work could be awarded to other organisations. That subsection talks about making arrangements to do that, but no necessary processes would be put in place. So the tendering process would be open and transparent, but if people did not tender under that process, as would seem likely in many areas, it is not entirely clear what other robust protections would be in place. The danger is that members of the board would award contracts for spending taxpayers' money in a way that was not transparent and did not obviously give good value to the taxpayer.
Clause 6 is on codes of practice. I was interested in the other equality commissions that the hon. Member for Bradford, West talked about and that I touched on in my opening remarks. They are mentioned a number of times in the Bill as having a partnership role with the board. I was struck by clause 6(4), which states:
Mr. Kevan Jones: May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to sub-paragraphs (1) to (6) of paragraph 2 of schedule 1, on the membership of the board? The position is worse than he says, because, under paragraph 2(2), a number of members of the board would be appointed by the commission for equality and human rights. It would be contradictory to have two roles.
Mr. Harper: That is a very good point and one that I had noted and was coming to later.
The board would have to work closely with the equality commissions and it strikes me that if, when it is set up, its funding is arrived at by raiding the budgets of those commissions, the relationship between the board and the commissions will not start off as a particularly happy one. It struck me that, given that they would be forced by the Bill to work closely together, the provision might not work terribly well.
Clause 7 talks about the agency arrangements, and this is where the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) becomes even more important. The clause says that arrangements may be made between the board and the equality commissions for the functions of the board to be carried out either by members of the equality commissions or by members of staff of those commissions. The Bill proposes setting up a board that would be funded by raiding the budgets of the equality commissions, and the board could then turn round and sub-contract the work to the very commissions whose budgets it had just raided to enable it to be created in the first place. That would mean a lot of red tape and complexity and the establishment of new quangos, but not any appreciable change in the delivery on the ground. However, there would be much more cost, which means a lot less funding available for the delivery of representation work.
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Mr. Forth: I know that when my hon. Friend carries out his analysis of schedule 1 he will come to the board and its membership. Does it not appear that the Bill would set up conflict in many different ways? We would have an incestuous relationship between the board and these rather ghastly commissions. Their memberships would overlap, they would appoint one another and they then would argue with each other about funding. This is surely a prescription for resentment and a complete lack of focus and productivity.
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