Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Crown Agents Bill [H.L.]

5.58 p.m.

Read a third time; an amendment (privilege) made.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. During the earlier stages of the Crown Agents Bill we had a very thorough debate on a number of key issues. Those included the corporate structure of the proposed foundation and operating company, aspects of the financial arrangements for the new business, the use of the Crown Agents' name and the legitimate interests of Crown Agents' staff and pensioners.

In discussing these matters I have been struck by the high degree of good will and support for the Crown Agents evinced by all sides of the House. I speak for all of us in your Lordships' House in commending the Crown Agents on the quality and relevance of their services to development and the transparently honest and impartial way in which they conduct their business. It is those qualities which the Government wish to preserve. I was gratified two days ago to hear from clients of the Crown Agents their conclusion that this was a very good organisation. They said how much they welcomed the foundation which Crown Agents will become. So with that knowledge and with the debates which we have had, I believe it is clear to your Lordships why the Government have proposed this transfer to a newly created independent foundation tailor-made for Crown Agents.

I recognise that it is the desire to be sure that the best possible arrangements will be put in place for Crown Agents that has prompted some noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Judd, to press for greater detail of the Government's plans to be included on the face of the Bill. My noble friends Lady Elles and Lord Oxfuird have also pressed me for assurances both in the Chamber and

4 May 1995 : Column 1522

outside. Others have been moved by recommendations of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee to propose that, before the transfer to the foundation takes place, Parliament might have the opportunity to debate the detailed arrangements.

I can assure the House that I have listened with the greatest care to these arguments. I sought to explain why we do not feel able to accept them. However, your Lordships will know that I am determined that the Government will do their very best for the Crown Agents. I have not sought to give your Lordships easy answers, but I readily acknowledge the complexity and the importance of the legal and financial issues which we are discussing with our professional advisers and the Crown Agents themselves.

In the course of our debates I have given the House repeated assurances about the Government's plans. We have undertaken to keep Members of this House and of another place fully informed of the details of the transfer agreed. That will include making available copies of the memorandum and articles of association of the foundation and the information memorandum for prospective foundation members. I am confident that by these means we can provide your Lordships with a clear picture of the Government's proposals before the transfer takes place.

Perhaps I may say how grateful I am to all noble Lords who have spoken on this Bill, but particularly to the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Rea and Lord Redesdale, and also to my noble and loyal friends Lady Elles and Lord Oxfuird, who have taken the keenest interest in the provisions. All have really sought to improve the Bill by means of probing amendments.

My colleagues and I will indeed bear their concerns very much in mind when deciding on the arrangements which will shape the future of the Crown Agents for many years to come. I am confident that the Crown Agents will have continuing success, which will be all the stronger for the interest and commitment which your Lordships have shown in the Crown Agents, not only during the passage of this Bill, but which they have demonstrated in debate after debate.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey.)

Lord Judd: My Lords, perhaps I may start by making a small procedural observation. As I understand it, the theory is that Bills introduced first into this House are normally the less controversial ones. That must involve a certain amount of subjectivity of judgment. I am not altogether convinced as to how uncontroversial this Bill really was. I am also intrigued to know how that will be seen in history and in the light of experience.

The second point I must make is my appreciation of all those who have helped. I do not believe that they always get the public acknowledgment that they deserve. I put on record my appreciation to our own researchers in the opposition who, with incredibly limited resources, do such an extended and extraordinary job. On this particular occasion they have been valiantly and extensively assisted by Lewis Macdonald.

Perhaps I may also put on record my real appreciation to my noble friend Lord Rea who has brought not only his considerable experience to bear, but who has also brought

4 May 1995 : Column 1523

a lightness of touch and a sense of humour which we should hear more of in our deliberations in this place. Perhaps I may also say how much I have enjoyed working with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I do not know what wider lessons are to be drawn from that, but on occasions it would not have been possible to get a thin sheet of paper between us in our concerns and outlook towards what was at stake in the Bill. That has been a good experience and I say thank you for that.

Of course, our thanks are also due to the Minister. She has been her usual friendly, disarming and courteous self. She has done her best to suggest that she actually believed in this Bill. I do not think that she convinced anybody on this side of the House that that was the case. It would have been an absolute denial of her common sense and pragmatism, but she loyally got on with the job in making the best of a difficult brief.

I suspect that the Minister agrees with us that it is an unnecessary Bill. She has referred to how overjoyed she was recently to talk to clients who were so well satisfied with the outstanding services which the Crown Agents had provided and how pleased they were. I noticed the emphasis she put on the word "foundation" which will be handling affairs in future. I congratulate the Minister on that. It is a rescue operation in which she seems to be very successfully engaged.

We still have not seen the memorandum setting out how the foundation will operate, so to that extent we are still being asked to buy a pig in a poke. There are comparisons with what was preoccupying the House yesterday in the Jobseekers Bill. What is really very worrying in this Bill, as in the Jobseekers Bill, is the whole range of issues on which the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee has concentrated. This Bill says absolutely nothing in its text about how it will implement the intentions which the Minister has repeatedly put before the House. All that is left to delegated legislation, subject to the negative procedure. As was brought out in relation to the Jobseekers Bill yesterday, that disenfranchises this House because of the convention that, by the negative procedure, we cannot make a stand against the introduction of orders. I suggest that it is highly dubious in terms of the other place, because there all records show that it is virtually impossible to get a serious debate by that procedure.

This has been a skeleton Bill and we have been put in the position of being dependent on the Minister to provide what she says she is intent on delivering. In saying that, we recognise the tensions which must exist in the real world. In the past year or so we have seen the tensions between trade and development interests. It is possible for them powerfully to coincide, but it does not always happen. Like the Bill we were considering a moment ago, in this Bill we need reassurances that the Crown Agents will be able to deliver in terms of their primary objective of working within a framework of commitment to development.

I conclude on this note. I would be happier if, even at this eleventh hour, the Minister could give us an unqualified assurance—not just express an intention—that it is the Government's determination that the Crown Agents will, in perpetuity, remain subject to a non-profit-making

4 May 1995 : Column 1524

foundation; that they will be dedicated to developing humanitarian priorities; that the title and all that is inherent in it will be protected; that they will have adequate financial resources for the task; and that the role of the staff and the excellent record of staff relations will be maintained. Such solemn undertakings from the Minister will do a great deal, I believe, to facilitate deliberations in the other place but, of course, it is essential that the memorandum should be available without delay so that we can know what it is that we are facilitating.

As I said on the earlier Bill, we are not considering watertight issues. We are considering issues that are part of the Government's overall strategy towards aid and development. This side of the House is faced with an extraordinary paradox. We respect the Minister and we believe in the Minister's commitment, but we see an aid budget which is falling as a percentage of GNP; we see an aid programme diverted increasingly to eastern Europe at the expense of the developing countries; and we see an aid programme which is subject to unwholesome pressures from those primarily concerned with trade at any price, irrespective of its implications for development.

In that context, I am sure that the Minister will understand why we want to see watertight reassurances that the intentions are not simply good intentions on her part, but something that can be guaranteed whoever may fill her post in the future. However, I thank the Minister for the way in which she has approached our deliberations. I personally always enjoy debating with her in your Lordships' Chamber.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page