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24 Nov 2008 : Column 585

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman should not be so peevish.

Mr. Shepherd: I have listened to the hon. Gentleman for a long time and watched his technique, and it rolls over this House. However, there is a serious and substantive issue to discuss.

We understand that the commissioner’s office is now fast-tracking some of the cases that it identifies as being of particular significance so that new complaints do not all automatically go to the back of the queue. That is useful development. Nevertheless, the delays are a major concern and a threat to the effective operation of the FOI Act. By the time that the information is disclosed, if that is what the commissioner requires, it may be too late for it to be of use to the requester, who may also have become disillusioned with the Act during the process and reluctant to make further requests. At the same time, some authorities may decide to exploit the long delays, calculating that even a plainly unjustified refusal may go uncorrected for a prolonged period.

The problem is at least partly attributable to the level of funding provided to the commissioner’s office, although efficiency gains may be possible. The whole office has been underfunded, and it has not had the resources honourably intended by the Government. I know that every section of this House cries out for yet more money. We have all heard, even today, about the genuine constraints that exist within expanding, very desirable offices. However, when I look across the west midlands and see what the chief executive of Walsall metropolitan borough council is paid, I think of a very significant public figure, who has been of service to this House and the country, who has met the criteria set by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, and who is fully justified in receiving £140,000. It is a remarkable comment on where this country has arrived at that BBC executives can earn three or four times what the Prime Minister earns. We now have a system whereby the political people who are held accountable by this House and by an electorate at election time are paid significantly less than people who are doing jobs such as chief executive of a local authority or town clerk and who, when I was a boy, earned something immediately comparable with what a Member of Parliament received, or a little more.

I believe that Richard Thomas is a significant public servant. He is retiring at the end of next year, having come into office around 2000. He has had a monumental job to do, and he has accomplished much. I would like him to have been able to accomplish much more, as, I am sure, would many Members of Parliament. However, within the constraints with which we have operated, he has been a fine public servant, and I do not begrudge him the amount of money that the Government have sought through an Order of this House.

9.33 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): I cast no aspersions whatever on the Information Commissioner’s performance or integrity—I am sure that he is an honourable man who does an excellent job. However, given the economic background at the moment, particularly today, I am surprised by the mood of the House. I know that it is very easy to give away public money, but how much money is being given away as result of this decision?

24 Nov 2008 : Column 586

I am particularly concerned about the backdating by one year of this pay award to someone who is retiring in a year’s time. My constituents will say to me, “Is this jobs for the boys?”, and “Are you rewarding your friends?” People will rightly raise those concerns. Over a four-year period, with the one-year backdating, we are talking about £250,000 of additional public money being given for a job that is not, in essence, changing. This public servant may deserve that amount, but many public servants who work diligently in very important jobs would want that sort of pay increase. I wonder how the Government, and particularly the Secretary of State, will respond to teachers, firemen and police officers who are told that they have to live with a low, constrained pay rise next year when their turn comes round. Those people might raise the issue of a 40 per cent. pay rise, backdated one year, for this individual who is already reasonably highly paid compared with many other important public servants.

We must not set a precedent. I do not want to be churlish or upset the mood of the House, but I am concerned about this matter, and the case of other individuals, such as the chairman of the Electoral Commission, whose proposed salary was reduced from £152,000 to £100,000 following the amendment in the names of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and myself last week. The House should consider such matters carefully, and I am not sure that we have.

9.35 pm

Mr. Straw: With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the points made. First, on the level of the salary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) asked why we were debating the salary of one individual. We are doing so because of a statutory provision. When the Freedom of Information Bill was going through the House, the House was anxious, as were the Government, that this individual should be an officer of Parliament, not a creature of the Government. Although there has to be a strong relationship between the Information Commissioner and the so-called sponsoring Department, which is mine, the salary and much else is set by the House. There may be better ways of setting the salary in future. All I say is that if other salaries were set in this way, including those in the BBC, we would not see the most ludicrous salaries paid on the most ludicrous non-justifications. The chief executive of the BBC is paid an astonishing £800,000 on the grounds that it is the market rate—a market that is set entirely by the BBC.

Simon Hughes: I understand why we are dealing with the measure here. Will the Secretary of State arrange for the list of all those whose salaries Parliament sets to be put in the Library as soon as is practical, showing the current post holders and their salaries?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can do that.

For the benefit of the House, it was proposed that the salary of the chair of the Electoral Commission—this has been accepted by Jenny Watson, the candidate who was selected by the Speaker’s Panel—be reduced from the £150,000 advertised by the House to £100,000. That amount is for a three-day week. On a pro rata basis, she would be paid £166,000 for a five-day week, which is
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more than the salary of the Information Commissioner, notwithstanding the fact that we are talking about an executive position that combines the posts of chairman and chief executive, as it is a corporation sole. The Electoral Commission post is that of chairman only.

Bob Spink: The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that there is an amendment to reduce that £100,000 to the level of an MP’s salary.

Mr. Straw: That is a matter for this House, but I was speaking ad referendum, and merely making the point that the salary of £100,000 has the approbation of the all-party Speaker’s Panel; it is a comparable point.

I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said about the importance of public service. A sentiment is shared among the parties that that idea has got slightly out of kilter, and we need to readjust it. It is striking that in the United States, the salaries of public officials are typically lower than they are here, including those of the judiciary. People simply accept that if they are going to be public servants, they will get less. They may be able to make up the difference later on.

A point was made about the nature of the functions. The operation costs £16 million a year for 250 staff. I say with respect to those who raised the matter that that is not comparable to a large executive, administrative operation. It involves quasi-judicial functions, and the amount paid to the Information Commissioner is significantly less than, for example, that paid to a Court of Appeal judge, who has no administrative functions or Department behind him. One expects to have to pay for the high quality, integrity and independence necessary to make judicial decisions.

I was asked about the availability of resources and backlog. We are conscious of the backlogs, the responsibility for which is not by any means to be laid principally at the Information Commissioner’s door. Such backlogs are partly inherent in the process, which Parliament established. Public authorities, including Departments and the House, are tardy with responses to requests from the Information Commissioner. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who has been leading on the matter in the Department with the Information Commissioner, has taken many steps to improve the resources available to the Information Commissioner, including through secondments from the Government to his office.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Apropos the resources that have been given to the Information Commissioner, much of his hidden work is chasing facts about some of the data protection cases that he has to undertake. There is much information that he fails to get. For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland has refused him some information. Should not we ensure that we give him the tools as well as the salary to do the job?

Mr. Straw: The commissioner has made no request for further powers. He has the tools to do the job as well
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as significant enforcement powers. Funding arrangements for data protection are different—it is self-funded from fees, and we propose to change from the £35 flat-rate fee to a tiered fee, which takes account of the size of the data holders.

My original proposal nine years ago was that a significant part of the Information Commissioner’s funding should come from a modest fee for each information request. That was not followed through in 2001-02 and, when the Government suggested it more recently, it was met with a loud raspberry.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said that the Government should be proud of creating the structure. However, does the Secretary of State accept that long delays often obviate the benefit of the whole system? Producing a draft dossier about weapons of mass destruction five years later is not nearly as useful as producing it a year later.

Mr. Straw: That was not principally the Information Commissioner’s responsibility.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) asked about enforcement of the new data-sharing code of practice. It will be a statutory code, subject to scrutiny by Parliament. It will be admissible in legal proceedings and taken into account by the courts and the information tribunal in determining relevant questions such as compliance with data protection principles.

The last point to which I need to respond is the reason for dealing with the matter now, when it dates back to November 2007. The Government are not perfect and I am not perfect. In a more perfect world, the matter would have been tackled earlier, but I am glad that the proposal has the approbation of the three main parties if not that of the whole House.

Question put and agreed to.








24 Nov 2008 : Column 589

Care Farming

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mark Tami.]

9.44 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I chose this subject because of Highfields farm in my constituency near Etwall. I have known Roger and Beryl Hosking, who run Highfields farm, virtually since I became a Member. The farm produces eggs from around 20,000 free-range birds. However, Roger and Beryl also use their farm to care for young people who have struggled with orthodox education or who have found it hard to stay on the rails.

At various times, Roger and Beryl have offered places both to the local education authority—up to 30 young people a week—and to the youth offending service, giving participants a unique setting in which to learn basic work skills, team working, respect for others and, critically, respect for themselves. Some of those who have passed through the farm have returned as workers, and no offenders who have been there have reoffended.

It is a moving experience to visit Highfields. There is a strong faith element to Roger’s commitment to his task and a great deal of love for young people towards whom many people are perhaps not so affectionate. What Roger is doing—running an egg farm, handling delicate objects and teaching youngsters who perhaps do not have the most natural grasp of delicate things to take care, to respect and listen to others and then gradually to build up their self-discipline—is a marvellous thing to see.

Highfields is admirable, but why should it be of interest to the House? Highfields farm is part of a wider movement, although “movement” is probably a bit of an overstatement. For a start, many people do not recognise the term “care farm” and would not say that they were involved in one. However, care farms are extraordinarily diverse and there is no common model. I will touch on some of the implications of that later in my speech.

I want to draw on the research conducted by the university of Essex, funded by Natural England and completed at the start of this year. Around 80 farms in the UK were identified in that study as being run at least in part for social purposes, and 19 of them are city farms, which tend to be fairly small scale. The rest are either independently owned, such as Highfields, or are charities. Care farms vary hugely in scale and type, from smallholdings to quite large ventures, and run across the full range of agricultural activity. As I have mentioned, Highfields is an egg farm, but all varieties of farming activity are to be found in the endeavour.

Most care farms offer basic skills development aimed at a mix of client groups. Around half offer places to troubled young people who might have had problems with the law, another half—these categories overlap, because places are offered to various groups—offer places to those with mental health problems, and more than 80 per cent. cater at one stage or another for those with learning difficulties.

Referrals come from a wide variety of sources, including Connexions, youth offending teams, local education authorities—mainly Derby city council in Roger and
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Beryl’s case—and pupil referral units, to which children who have for various reasons been removed from mainstream education have gone. All those sources have seen a care farm as an appropriate alternative setting.

The university of Essex study was rather good at identifying some of the measurable changes within at least a subset of those using care farms. The main outcomes were greater self-esteem, stronger social skills for younger people and the formation of a work habit, as many of them had not been used to turning up regularly and working through a day. Another outcome was an increased trust of other young people and adults. Analysis of the clients of seven care farms in the Essex study showed dramatic improvements in self-esteem and vigour, because those outdoor activities involve young people taking part in physical activity. There were also reductions in anger, confusion and frustration. The academics who completed the study conceded that they would need a larger base to establish a proper scientific base, but the study and the anecdotal evidence that I have gained from my visits to Highfields persuaded me that such care in a farm setting can offer tremendous gains to particular young people.

The—as yet small—UK experience can be compared with far larger initiatives in continental Europe. There are more than 800 care farms in the Netherlands, 500 in Norway and 350 in Italy. In the Netherlands, the sector has a formal support structure, with a clear integration of farm-based care with other state and voluntary provision. In 2005, care farms in the Netherlands had 10,000 clients. Those visits were driven partly by the provision of personal care budgets that allow clients to choose a farm setting for their care. In Norway, an interdepartmental committee covering the various Ministries involved co-ordinating the work of the wide variety of Government agencies that use care farming.

In comparison, there has been accidental growth of the sector in the UK, which has been driven by the strong individual motivations of particular farm owners. They believe, either for social or religious reasons, as in the case at Highfields, that they owe something to a group of young people, and that a farm setting can deliver a benefit to them better than anywhere else. Although there is a generalised awareness that the use of open spaces is therapeutic both mentally and physically, there has been no link to a formal strategy. Neither has there been any recognition of the value of care farming within a wider agricultural diversification agenda.

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