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The Solicitor-General: Mr. Benton, I do not know whether you are now in a position to decide whether we will have a clause stand part debate. It seems to me that everybody has fed into our debate on the amendments all that they want to say about the general principle. However, I assume that we will not overlook the presence of amendment 110, which will follow separately—thanks for that indication.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and look forward to your wisdom, which has already been helpful, on how to run the Committee sensibly and fluidly and, with a bit of luck, with a touch of fun occasionally. I have been groping for a historical story to tell back, but have failed miserably.
Amendment 2 proposes to replace the list of organisations to which the duty applies with a power to list the public authorities in regulations. I just cannot see the point, really. It is a new duty covering only a limited number of organisations, so it is important that they are listed as early and clearly as possible. We think that we have them more or less right, and it is not a long list because it is intended to apply only to high-level strategic bodies taking key decisions.
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We think that we should make it clear to the public and to everyone else to whom this will apply that we do not intend to add significantly to that list, but of course one cannot future-proof the clause, so it is necessary to have an element of flexibility, which is what we have sought in the drafting. We respectfully suggest that there is not much point in amendment 2, although it has helpfully probed the way our minds have worked on the matter. In a sense, oddly enough, and in contrast with most of the other amendments, the proposed subsection would extend the clause’s scope, so I am pleased to assume that most Members see the value of the duty, because they want to broaden its ambit.
I will now deal with the other amendments in what I think is the most appropriate order. Amendment 107 was tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East, who impressed me with his commitment to ending socio-economic equality and whom I invite to try to persuade his colleagues on the matter, as he offered to be a go-between and speak to us and the currently intransigent Scottish Government. We would welcome his mediation and anything he could do to encourage his colleagues to see what we think is sense.
The hon. Gentleman said that he supports the clause as far as it goes, which I am glad to hear. If the Scottish Government want to go further, that is fine, but the amendment prompts us to ask why they do not also support the clause as far as it goes and make a clear statement that they seriously intend to tackle socio-economic inequality.
I know that the hon. Gentleman did not vote on Second Reading. I do not know whether that indicates that he was confused about the position then, but that would be entirely understandable.
John Mason: To clarify for the Minister, I was in fact at a conference that day and unable to attend the debate.
The Solicitor-General: Well, we missed the hon. Gentleman. I know that the amendment is well-intentioned. It would apply the duty set out in clause 1 to certain inspectorates and regulators that he has pinpointed, including those covering financial services, communities and utilities, which are essential to people’s lives and lack of fair access to which is likely to influence socio-economic outcomes.
The difficulty is the one I put to the hon. Gentleman to reflect on while he advocated his case: extending the duty to the regulators would have no effect on those bodies, which cannot have the duty extended to them as it applies to strategic public authorities, so that is where it would stop. If a body has no duty to abide by clause 1, giving the inspectorate the duty to abide by that clause cannot drive the statutory obligation into the recipient of the inspection. It simply cannot.
Sandra Osborne: The Minister makes a good point in logical terms, but many people would be sympathetic to the intention of the amendment, because we all know that many of our poorer constituents are adversely affected by, for example, fuel prices and pre-payment meters. Has she had discussions with Citizens Advice about that and what does she think made it feel that the amendment was viable?
The Solicitor-General: I assume that it is the line of reasoning the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon put forward, but I think that it is defective in exactly the way I have said: if one puts a duty on someone, an inspectorate can drive it, but if they have no duty, putting the duty on the inspectorate cannot drive that duty through. We have to do it in different ways, which of course we are doing.
Again, I do not know what the Scottish Government are doing about this, but we are trying to get rid of the penalty on pre-payment meters. We have a consistent, strong and immediately applicable plan to replace all pre-payment meters with smart meters so that the penalty will, as soon as is practical, be driven out of our poorest sections. Many things are being done broadly to assist action against fuel poverty, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, East knows, and it is slightly odd that he seeks to drive in that indirect way bodies that cannot be driven in such fashion while saying, “Well, actually, my Government do not think that the clause is worthwhile.”
Mr. Boswell: Is the Minister saying—I think she is, but it would be useful to have confirmation—that if there is a disturbing practice or outcome in private sector delivery, the regulator of that private sector is at least not precluded from making comments to encourage improvements in the practice, even if it is outside the statutory duty, just because the delivery is entirely within the private sector?
The Solicitor-General: That is done, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and there is an agenda, which everyone has talked about, to try to use those powers to minimise socio-economic inequality, among other things that regulators try to do. My point is reasonably clear. It is about statutory duty.
Lynne Featherstone: Will the Minister give way?
The Solicitor-General: Of course, but the hon. Lady’s amendment is slightly different and I will come to it in a moment.
Lynne Featherstone: There is a disconnect or illogicality about saying, as the Minister did to Conservative Members, that something does no harm, so what is the objection? I ask her the same question: what is the harm in giving the duty to a regulator when it can only do good if its advice is to “have regard to”, even if it cannot compel? The clause is not one that compels.
The Solicitor-General: It does no harm to include a provision such as clause 1. Even under the Tory position that it does not go far enough and will not be effective there is no harm in it. We believe that it is quite a strong measure, but from the Tory position there is no harm in it because it is bound to push things in the right direction.
The point is simple, and I have made it three times. If there is no statutory duty, people cannot be compelled to comply with it by putting a statutory duty on inspectorates. The matter is straightforward, and I do not understand why the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is shaking his head. Otherwise, we simply could not reach the electricity suppliers and so on. The argument, with which I am hugely sympathetic because the intention is obviously to drive the agenda, just does not work.
Dr. Harris: I do not understand why the Minister believes that it would not be worth ensuring that regulators of, for example, the utilities—the case in respect of health workers is separate, but even stronger—could pass comment on the performance of the people they regulate, whether or not they have a statutory power to enforce that or whether or not there is a duty on those who are regulated to take note.
It would still be useful, not least for transparency and understanding, that the public authority concerned—inspectorates are public authorities—could judge utilities’ performance in that way. Utilities are not prevented from taking heed of what the inspectorate says, even if there is no statutory duty to do so.
The Solicitor-General: They can, they do and they will carry on doing so. That specific statutory duty cannot be driven by the regulators, but they may make whatever comment they want about how suppliers deliver. The health service is very different, and I will turn to that.
Mr. Harper: Before the Minister does so, I want to pick her up on how she characterises our approach. We are not saying that the provision does not go far enough. It is the wrong approach for solving these significant problems. Other hon. Members have said that they agree with the approach but that it does not go far enough; we believe that it is simply the wrong way to approach some of the issues. I want to clarify that for her.
The Solicitor-General: I was trying to deal with the separate point that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised, and I am sorry if I misrepresented the hon. Gentleman. He is right, and he did not say that the measure does not go far enough. He said that there are better things to do, but we will do this, because we believe that it is a compelling way forward and that it will help immensely in driving socio-economic inequality from our public services.
On the whole, regulators do not take pre-strategic decisions about service planning or commissioning, nor do they expect to do so, but those are the decisions that we want to influence.
Mr. Harper: May I pick the Minister up on that, because I am not sure that it is true? Ofwat, the regulator for the water industry, is not mentioned in the provision, but it certainly takes key decisions because it is responsible for considering the capital programmes suggested by the water companies and weighing up against a range of objectives the implications of those plans for water prices. Those are significant and strategic for the industry. Clearly, the regulator receives guidance from the Government on what it is supposed to achieve, but it makes significant decisions about the price of water.
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The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.
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