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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we are very fortunate to live in a successful country with a highly successful economy. People are envious of that and seek to come here to make their way in the world. The asylum process is used as a means of achieving that; one can understand why, given the circumstances of many people who seek to come to this country. There is a generous package of voluntary assisted return and reintegration, and there is also an enhanced package, which has been on offer for those who claimed asylum on or before 31 December 2005. Many families have sought to make use of that package in securing their safe return.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will accept that the packages are not convenient for people who face persecution in their own countries and do not want to take up the offer. Does he agree that the Government have a responsibility to monitor destitution that arises directly from Section 9? Has he seen the latest Rowntree report on destitution in Leeds?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have not seen that report. We take the welfare of these families very seriously. That is why, as I explained, measures are in place to ensure that families are cared for and looked for if there is a prospect of them falling into destitution, particularly where there are children and young people in that family. We have to accept that there is a rigorous process in place to assess whether someone is a legitimate asylum seeker. It is absolutely right that we seek to secure failed asylum seekers return to their country of origin. We monitor very carefully all countries where that is the right course of action and we produce regular reports.
Whether, in view of the significant reduction in programmes for children in the commercial television sector, they have any proposals to amend Section 264 of the Communications Act 2003 (Ofcom reports on the fulfilment of the public service remit).
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Her Majestys Government have no plans to amend the Communications Act in response to commercial public service broadcasters cutting back investment in new UK childrens programming. However, Ofcom has announced that it is looking at the future of childrens TV programming in the UK in advance of its next scheduled public service broadcasting review. We will consider very carefully any recommendations that Ofcom puts forward.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company. Does he not agree that home-grown childrens TV programmes are crucial to public service broadcasting,
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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, like the BBC, we put an emphasis on healthy competition in the provision of programmes, and there are anxieties about the reduction in investment in childrens programmes in commercial television. Part of that is a reflection of the digital age and the vast increase in programmes available. I emphasise that 82 per cent of children have access to digital programmes, but the noble Baroness has raised an important point; it is why Ofcom, ahead of its scheduled review in 2009-10, will look this year at childrens television.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, is it not almost inevitable that the greater restrictions recently imposed on food manufacturers advertising on television, especially for food with high salt, sugar and fat content, has made less money available for the production of childrens programmes? Behind this Question lie happenings that should be taken into account by the Government and Ofcom. I have to declare an interest as chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government are well aware of the happenings, as my noble friend put it. The restriction of advertisements of unhealthy food for children as part of the public health programme has certainly reduced advertising revenue. For those reasons, Ofcom is looking at childrens television. It is recognised as a problem consequent upon the factor identified by my noble friend, and we await the investigation.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the BBC Trusts decision to suspend Jam, its valuable online programme that supports children and teachers on the UK curriculum and is particularly helpful for children with learning disabilities? Can he remind the BBC of the importance of the education strand of its Reithian principles?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness in her question has already aided me in reminding the BBC of that important matter. The BBC is an important provider of childrens programmes, and in many areas it has greatly extended its provision in the digital ageit has two very successful digital channels. However, decisions such as that referred to by the noble Baroness are for the trust, not the Government.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I welcome the fact that Ofcom is looking into the provision of childrens television, but does the noble Lord accept that children generally watch far too much television, which has associated problems such as obesity and a lack of outside activity?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord may welcome the fact that commercial television is concentrating its childrens programmes at the weekend, thereby freeing children to get involved in more active pursuits during the week. Commercial companies are also reducing the number of hours of childrens programmes. However, it is a question of parental authority and decisions. There is widespread public interest in childrens health, and I think that the message is getting home to parents. In the not-too-distant past, the need for exercise by children may have been neglected, but all sorts of pressure is now being put on parents to ensure that their children undertake exercise much more frequently.
Lord McNally: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, if he were to come to McNally Manor on a Saturday evening, he would find the McNally family and perhaps a few of the children from the neighbourhood all gathered with popcorn and other eatables to watch the next edition of Doctor Who? Is that not a reminder that good childrens television is not just a duty but makes commercial common sense and should that not be drawn to Michael Grades attention, as I know that he has some experience in these matters?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, after yesterday, I wondered how long I would have to wait for an invitation to McNally Manor, and I am grateful that it has occurred so soon. The Doctor Who programme has been watched by as many adults as children and is an example of a hugely successful television programme that was originally children-oriented but captured the imagination of the whole nation. That is the ideal to be strived for and it requires resources and commitment. I doubt that Michael Grade, who is all too well aware of the commercial implications of good television, is unaware that, if he were able to broadcast a programme like Doctor Who, the position of commercial television would improve significantly.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the leave of the House, a Statement will be repeated by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor on restructuring the Home Office. We will take it immediately after the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, there are five such bodies: the Committee on Standards in Pubic Life, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the Civil Service Commission, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. They operate in different ways but have in common their role in advising on and/or regulating the Governments approach to public appointments, as well as, in the case of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, offering advice more widely on conduct in public life.
They are all non-statutory bodies which rely on the Cabinet Office for their resources. The Cabinet Office liaises with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, while the remaining four are supported by its cross-government independent offices unit.
I think it is appropriate to address their status and responsibilities. The Public Administration Committee of the other place has already taken some evidence on their role as part of its inquiry into ethics and standards, but that was some months ago. I think that now is a useful time to engage in debate and draw on the knowledge available in this House. It is a useful opportunity to get some idea of the Governments thinking.
The case for putting these bodies on a statutory basis can be grouped under three headings: independence, accountability and certainty. The case for enshrining the independence of such bodies is clear. It is the same as that used by the Government in the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act. On that occasion, the Government argued that not only was it essential that the highest court was independent, but it had to be seen to be independent. For that reason the Appellate Committee of this House is to be replaced in two years time by a supreme court. The same principle applies but, I would argue, with greater force in the case of these standards-setting bodies. It applies with more force because there is, I would contend, more public scepticism about the independence of these bodies than ever existed in respect of the House of Lords in its judicial capacity.
Leaving bodies to advise Ministers and variously to regulate behaviour, where those bodies are appointed by Ministers and rely on government for their resources, creates grounds for doubt about their detachment from government. Janet Gaymer, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, gave a small but telling instance of the problem in her evidence to the Public Administration Committee. She noted that her office e-mail address used to include the words Cabinet Office. As she said,
In practice, these bodies have worked wellI have no criticism to make of them, rather the reversebut perception is crucial. Enshrining independence in public authoritative form, through statute, strengthens not only the bodies themselves but also Ministers. Problems can arise where Ministers reject the advice of a standards-setting body, but they can also arise, in terms of public perception and hence acceptance, when Ministers accept the advice of such a body. If a body appointed by Ministers provides advice that is seen as overly favourable, or at least not overly critical, of Ministers, there is the danger of its advice being discounted. The cash-for-peerages scandal has arisen because the system worked. Certain nominations were blocked. But what would have happened if a controversial nomination had been cleared by the appointments commission? Whatever the objectivity of the commission, there is the danger that people would say, Ah, it would say that; its members are appointed by the Prime Minister.
It is important that the independence of standards-setting bodies not only exists but is seen to exist. Creating the bodies by statute and enshrining their independence not only delivers independence but arguably is the most effective formal mechanism
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The second ground is that of accountability. The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham, in his evidence to the Public Administration Committee, said that the Prime Minister was accountable to Parliament for the work of the committee. Given the wide remit of the committee, which includes advising on parliamentary as well as ministerial conduct, I am not sure it is appropriate that the committee is accountable solely to the Prime Minister. I understand Sir Alistairs argument on the value of the arrangement, but I also see the problems.
There is a general issue of accountability. Who do the standards-setting bodies report to? In his evidence to the Public Administration Committee, the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, who I am delighted to see in his place, said that the committee advised on individual cases, but if Ministers failed to consult, or if the committees advice was ignored, it published the facts on the website. As my noble and learned friend went on to say:
We then leave it to whatever forces will play upon that set of circumstances, and I think that is right ... These matters are in the end controlled by public opinion in the sense that they decide what is and what is not acceptable.
Transparency is clearly a powerful weapon, but the issue is one of accountability, of reporting to a body that, if necessary, can take action. My noble and learned friend does not wish his committee to have enforcement powersI have no issue with thatbut the question is whether the committee should report to a body that is in a position to actin this instance, Parliament. Janet Gaymer also touched on the issue in her evidence. She said:
I suppose that if you ask me to whom I am accountable I will say that initially it is to the public who is on the receiving end of my work. But as representatives of the public in Parliament clearly there is an element of scrutiny which Parliament must have, which is why we are sitting in front of the Select Committee.
The problem with this line of argument is that there is no structured or systematic means by which the public can hold these bodies to account. Reliance is essentially being placed on the media or on a Select Committee to pick up on a particular case. I see no reason why there should not be a more systematic line of accountability to Parliament. That does not rule out being answerable to others. The Constitution Committee of your Lordships House, when it reported in 2004 on the role of statutory regulators, reached two conclusions that are pertinent to todays debate. The first was that independence and accountability are compatible with one anotherone is not at the expense of the otherand the second was that giving regulators a statutory basis does not prevent them having a wide arc of answerability. Indeed, the committee drew attention to what it referred to as 360 degrees of accountability. I see no reason why the same would not apply to these bodies were they to be established by statute.
The third argument is that of certainty. Giving these bodies a statutory base would deliver certainty in remit and continuity. The need for this is reinforced by recent developments. The failure of the Prime Minister to renew the contract of Sir Alistair Graham as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has attracted public attention; indeed, it was pursued in this House on Tuesday in Question Time. The important point for this debate is not the failure to renew Sir Alistairs contractthe practice has been to serve a single three-year termbut rather the uncertainty that has been created by not having a successor in place. This point was made by Sir Alistair in his letter to the Cabinet Secretary on 13 March. He noted that it would likely take some months for a successor to be identified and appointed following open competition. As he continued:
This will leave the Committee without a permanent Chairman for what is likely to be a considerable period and, during a time of unprecedented public concern about standards of conduct in Government and erosion in trust in the political process more generally. This risks the perception, unfair or otherwise, that this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life.
The other instance I wish to cite derives from the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Here I refer to the evidence given by the chairman of the commission, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, to the Public Administration Committee, in another of its inquiriesthat on propriety and honourspublished in July of last year. In his evidence, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, was unsure of the scope of the commission in dealing with a resignation honours list. Did it have the responsibility to scrutinise such a list? The noble Lord told the committee:
It is embarrassing for me, because frankly, I think they should. I think it does, actually. I think this will fall under our scrutiny but I am rather embarrassed that I cannot give you complete certainty. I will follow it up afterwards and give you complete certainty.
The Prime Ministers vague assurances and the Appointments Commission understanding that it will vet any resignation honours list are unnecessarily equivocal. The Appointments Commission is specifically charged with considering names which have not been subject to the normal assessment and selection processes. This body should be clearly and unequivocally responsible for vetting Prime Ministerial resignation honours lists.
On these groundsindependence, accountability and certaintythere is a prima facie case for putting the five standards-setting bodies on a statutory basis. I am aware that some of those who run these bodies are not necessarily persuaded of the case, but then again they have not set their faces against it. I think the time has come to give the matter serious consideration.
The case for putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing has long been made. The royal commission chaired by my noble friend Lord Wakeham recommended a statutory Appointments Commission. My noble friend Lord Hurd, in his evidence to the Public Administration Committee, argued that the appointments process should be settled by Parliament and overseen by a body it has set up and operated through rules it has determined. The committee concluded that the commission,
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