Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Heald: That is exactly the point, and my hon. Friend is right to use the expression “Henry VIII power”. Historically, the House has been very jealous not to give away Henry VIII powers that change great parts of primary legislation simply by regulation. The
3 Jun 2008 : Column 658
Government have been very careless about that. One remembers the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, which a number of us were involved with. Luckily, we managed to persuade the Government not to introduce something so draconian. The fact is that the Government are well prepared to entertain such powers, which Parliament has traditionally assumed. Let us consider the proposals that we will get next week. I will not go into them in detail, but this is all part of a pattern of removing ancient liberties without enough thought or consideration.

My other point about leadership is that dithering is a decision in itself. Not making a decision is a decision if someone is in government and in a position of leadership. The Government have got form under this Prime Minister for dithering badly. There was the election and Northern Rock, and now we see in the Bill another example of dithering. What does that say to the civil servants, who are expected to work for the Government—that their position is uncertain for a year during the consideration of the Bill and that Ministers are prepared to throw away civil servants’ pensions, pay and rations on a whim? When the Government finally come to their senses and decide that they will keep the civil servants doing the job, they do not even make a definite decision; they say, “Oh well, we’ll have another look at it in three years’ time,” and if they want to take away the Crown status, all the civil servants can just lose their status and all the important aspects of their role can be lost in a Committee upstairs. Thank goodness the affirmative procedure will apply, but it does not say much for the Government that such important decisions should be taken in that way.

I hope that, as my hon. Friend asked, the Minister will now explain—this is my final point—the criteria for the review. Will he set them out now? What is really going on? Will he come clean with the House?

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) said that we started on the Bill a year ago; somehow it seems a lot longer than that, although we had an enjoyable and informative Committee stage, in which we got through a lot. When I saw the Lords amendments, I was slightly disappointed that their lordships had not given me the opportunity to dust down my old arguments about the Scottish minutes of agreement and had not given me one last chance to persuade the Minister how wrong he is on that issue. The Bill misses an opportunity. I still have some of the reservations that I expressed in Committee, sometimes at fair length.

Andrew Selous: We supported you.

Mr. Weir: I did get some support, and I was very grateful for it at the time. I am sorry that this is one of the issues on which the Government have not seen sense. Having said that, I am pleased to see some of the amendments on the amendment paper, and that the combined arguments of the Opposition in Committee carried some weight and had results at later stages; some of the issues that we addressed have been returned to.

On clause 2, I am pleased that the Government have gone a considerable way towards addressing the concerns raised regarding the status of the Child
3 Jun 2008 : Column 659
Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, but I share many of the concerns already expressed on that point, particularly regarding the three-year period. I have considerable experience of dealing with the Child Support Agency, both as a solicitor and latterly as a Member of Parliament. I have always found the staff to be as helpful as they can be but, over the years, they have put up with horrendous problems with the computer system and, frankly, with some incompetent management. That is reflected in many ways, including in the morale of staff in many offices, and in staff turnover. I remember visiting one centre where there was very high staff turnover—I cannot remember the exact figure—because of the pressure that staff were under, both in the job and because of the reaction of the public with whom they had to deal. The public had to deal only with the person on the coal face, and not with the computer system or the management behind the organisation.

I am pleased that the Government have accepted that the staff should remain civil servants. I note what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) says about making changes in a Committee Room upstairs, but he cannot have been subject to the campaign waged by the unions on the position of their members in the CSA. I am sure that debate on such a subject would not slip past unnoticed in a Committee Room upstairs without mass lobbying of the House by members of the unions, who are deeply concerned about the status of their members in the CSA. They perhaps saw the proposal as a bridgehead showing things to come. They, and many other organisations, will be watching closely any changes that are proposed.

Mr. Heald: But does not the hon. Gentleman agree that public service is important, and that the ethos of civil servants, and the way in which they work, particularly when they are in a difficult role, as they are in the case of the Child Support Agency, is important and something for which we should stand up? I do not criticise the unions for what they are doing; I think that they are right.

Mr. Weir: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was not criticising the unions. I was just pointing out that they have been assiduous in protecting the interests of their members in the CSA and, I am sure, in other Government Departments. They will watch like hawks for any attempt to change the status of the commission or of any other Department.

I agree that the provision for a three-year review raises great suspicions that the move is merely an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass for a wee while and to get around the problem. The Minister shakes his head, but if that is not the case, why put in the provision at all? The Government could at any time bring forward legislation to change the status of the commission or any other civil service body. Why provide for a three-year review unless there is a deliberate intention to revisit the issue at the end of the initial period, and perhaps to attempt to make the change in a manner that will not be brought to public notice? I think that such an attempt would fail.

Staff morale has been bad in many parts of the CSA. The proposal will leave staff in a difficult position. It will create continuing uncertainty about the future,
3 Jun 2008 : Column 660
although there might be relief that the original plan is not being implemented. The issue may not be resolved in three years, with an ongoing review further down the line. The CSA was undermined by uncertainty, low staff morale and the failure of the computer system. We need the commission to be grounded, to have proper resources and to make sure that the work is done, without the distraction of the many failings that the CSA had. I accept that the Government have moved considerably to meet the objections to their original proposal, but the continuing uncertainty is regrettable.

4.30 pm

Mr. Plaskitt: I shall try to respond to the points that have been raised in the debate on the first group of amendments.

In respect of HMRC data, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) asked about the commission helping other Government Departments. The commission has a stake in any Department looking after the interests of children, especially where family separation has occurred. It will probably be highly relevant for the commission to exchange information with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which will help with programmes in which the Department is involved, such as Sure Start, children’s centres and so on. Wherever there is a shared interest in services for children, especially for those from a fractured family background, I would expect the commission to co-operate with other bodies.

The hon. Gentleman asked me how many other non-departmental public bodies had Crown status. There are three others—the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. The commission will join them, forming a small group out of 200 NDPBs. The commission is by far the largest of those bodies; the others that I mentioned are considerably smaller.

Andrew Selous: I was under the impression that the Health and Safety Commission had just been wound up into the Health and Safety Executive. That would leave two such bodies out of the total number of NDPBs, which makes the point that I made earlier.

Mr. Plaskitt: It makes the point that I was making as well—that there is a small number of such NDPBs. We are adding the commission to them for reasons that I have set out. It will join a couple of others in that position.

I shall return to the three-year review, but first I shall deal with some of the other points. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) asked whether the position on value added tax was the reason for the decision. It was part of the reason, but by no means the dominant or sole reason. Yes, he was right to point out that it was one of the consequences attendant upon the proposal. The amount of VAT liability that he mentioned was considerably higher than I believe it is. Nevertheless, it was one of the factors that weighed in the balance. The views of the staff of the agency were dominant in that decision.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) tried to tempt me back into the realm of the 12-month rule. I have discovered that the rule is that we must spend
3 Jun 2008 : Column 661
12 months discussing the matter. We have done that for 12 months, and that is enough, so I will not go back into it, interesting and enjoyable though our long debates on the subject were. I hope that he will forgive me, but I think that I would be out of order in any case because the amendment on that has not been selected.

I am afraid that I was disappointed by the contribution from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). [ Interruption. ] He may well be a fine man, but I found that he was trying to hang rather wider political points on to the amendments. He said that going for non-departmental public body status was all about Ministers shirking responsibility. It is not. I urge him to look again at the rules that relate to NDPBs. In the case of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, as in the case of similar bodies, Ministers will still be ultimately responsible for what goes on. The NDPB is set up by statute law. It is ultimately answerable to the relevant Minister in the Department, who in turn is answerable to the House of Commons. The idea that there is a shirking of responsibility is therefore not appropriate at all.

I will rehearse for the hon. Gentleman a couple of the primary reasons that we felt it was right to move to this status. First, the Bill breaks the statutory link that ties the CSA to the benefits system, whereby at the moment any parent with care going on to benefit automatically gets referred to it because of the interaction between the rules on benefit and the rules on child maintenance. The repeal of section 6 of the Child Support Act 1991 breaks that link, which is a fundamental reason why an agency is no longer necessary. Moreover, once established as an NDBP, the commissioners can focus exclusively and entirely on the task that they are set by the Bill—namely, the collection of maintenance money for children. They no longer have to be concerned, as senior officials running an Executive agency have to be concerned, with other objectives of the Department. There are clear structural advantages in placing the commission in this position.

What slightly puzzles me about this debate is that my clear recollection is that in Committee the switch to NDPB status was fully supported by the Conservatives, but I am beginning to detect that there may be some rowing back from that. I am not sure why that is. It seems to be something of a change in position from the one that I understood them to have when we debated this in Committee.

Andrew Selous: I think that the Bill may have begun its course when some of my other hon. Friends were occupying shadow DWP positions. If I may refer the Minister back to columns 3 and 4 of the Public Bill Committee debate of 17 July 2007, he will find that my second and third questions were about why there was a need to change CMEC’s role from being an Executive agency of the DWP. It is an issue that we have raised throughout the Bill’s passage.

Mr. Plaskitt: Absolutely; I do not deny that for a moment. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues certainly raised questions about it, and we had a prolonged discussion, but I do not recall them raising
3 Jun 2008 : Column 662
any objections—which is a different matter—or suggesting that it was an inappropriate decision or the wrong direction to take. Of course he raised questions, as he should, but he did not object to it.

Mr. Heald: I am sorry to have disappointed the Minister earlier. Nevertheless, does he not agree that the effect of the arrangements that he proposed, at least initially, was to distance the new body from Ministers relative to the situation that we have at the moment? There is no doubt that an executive agency is much closer to Ministers, as part of the Department, than what he proposed originally or proposes now. It is a more distant arrangement, as Lord McKenzie said.

Mr. Plaskitt: It is distant, but that does not mean, as the hon. Gentleman previously implied, that Ministers have shirked responsibility. Yes, a greater distance is involved and the commissioners running the NDPB have greater autonomy than senior officials running an agency, but the ultimate link of accountability, which is established by the legislation, is not broken.

Mr. Heald rose—

Mr. Plaskitt: I shall give way once more, and then I want to return to answering the points raised in the debate.

Mr. Heald: The Minister is being generous, and I am happy to make this my last intervention.

If the Minister accepts that the relationship is more distant for Ministers than the one that went before, is he not also saying that Ministers are taking less responsibility? If that is the case—as it must be, logically—is he not distancing himself from failure, as Lord McKenzie said?

Mr. Plaskitt: That is not the way I was taught logic. It does not mean that at all. The relationship can be more distant in terms of the taking of day-to-day operational decisions. There may be a greater distance from Ministers in that they will not have to sign off such decisions, but that does not water down in any sense the ultimate ministerial responsibility for what happens. The commission is given by statute—by Parliament—the core objectives that it has to achieve. Ministers will then set targets to turn those objectives into deliverable realities. Whether that happens or not remains ultimately the responsibility of a Minister who is accountable to Parliament. There is no shirking of responsibility; I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman on that point.

I want to wrap up by returning to the three-year review, which seems to have concerned hon. Members. I shall try to resolve this matter, as well. The three-year review is not a new idea that we came up with in the later stages of the passage of the Bill. The argument that some Members used to underline their concern is that the review will somehow unsettle the staff of the agency. Let me make it clear that I have had meetings with hundreds of the agency’s staff. They know that the process is subject to a review, and they have always been clear about that. They have welcomed our decision to give Crown status, and they have always known that it is a renewable decision. The review has not in any way diminished their welcome of what we have done; they understand the way we are proceeding.
3 Jun 2008 : Column 663

As I said when introducing this group of amendments, in any subsequent review, the issue that will dominate will be the position of the staff. It is sensible to suggest that there might be a review because there might be a wider cross-government review of Crown status, but there are also issues specific to the commission. After three years, the new body will have had time to settle down: staff will be more familiar with the way in which it operates; issues about terms and conditions will have become much clearer; the size of the staffing that the commission wants will be clearer; its business plan will be apparent; and its performance will have settled down. In that sense, some of the issues that have given staff concern with regard to the disappearance of civil staff status may no longer concern them, in the light of three years’ worth of experience of operating in the commission. That is another reason it makes sense to review the process.

The review will not be done furtively or secretively. The provisions are in the Bill, and everyone knows that a review will take place. Any change has to come through affirmative resolutions, as we have already established. We are being completely transparent on the matter, and it is understood why that has to be the case. It has not been a difficulty for the staff as some hon. Members have suggested. I am satisfied—I genuinely want to reassure hon. Members about this—that staff are pleased with the decision we have made, and support it, given all the conditions that I have just outlined. If Members care to check for themselves, they will find confirmation of that view.

I hope that I have responded to the points raised in the debate and that the amendments will be approved.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5 agreed to.

New Clause

Lords amendment: No. 6

4.45 pm

Mr. Plaskitt: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 90 to 92, 97, 101, 105, 118 and 119.

Mr. Plaskitt: This group of amendments relates to the assessment and collection of child maintenance, and the commission’s responsibilities in dealing with concerns raised about the parent with care’s ability to obtain the right level of child maintenance.

Lords amendment No. 6 places a duty on the commission to make investigations into any application from the parent with care for a variation to the maintenance assessment, if it is clear that further evidence would help the commission to decide whether a variation should be made. Currently, few applications for variations from parents with care are successful. Often, that is because the parent with care simply does not have the information necessary to show the agency why the variation should be made.

Next Section Index Home Page