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I thank the Minister. His necessary clarification is helpful. Those outside who have more expertisewe are often conduits for people with expertisewill have to look at this, but I suspect that we have moved closer than I expected in the Minister's reply. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: The amendments are intended to improve the provisions in the Bill that relate to the commission's annual report to the Secretary of State. The Opposition always ask for reportsand the Minister has heard me ask for them on several occasions before now. This Bill predicates having a report, so I do not feel embarrassed asking about it and suggesting what I believe would be some very real improvements to it. It is important to get these mechanisms right. Strengthening the way in which progress is monitored is essential in ensuring that this new body is truly accountable for its effortsits successes as well as its failures. Both the Secretary of State and Parliament need to know about both of those.
The amendments that we have tabled are an attempt to do precisely that and to make the provisions for reporting more robust and transparent. Amendments Nos. 58 and 65 relate to the timing of the report. Amendment No. 58 tidies up the language to ensure that the report comes at the end of the first complete year of the commissions activities. At the moment, the Bill gives precious little guidance as to when the first report is likely to come.
Amendment No. 65 places a duty on the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament within one month of receiving it. That might be regarded as a slightly eccentric idea but it is necessary to ensure that what takes priority in the presentation of the report is its content and not, perhaps, its political implications. In drafting that amendment I have been generous to the Government; I should have thought that a fortnight would be quite long enough to concentrate their mind before laying it before Parliament. However, as the Bill stands, the Secretary of State could choose any time that he or she liked to present the report to Parliament, waiting until it would not be noticed to report bad newsperhaps on the last day before a parliamentary recess. That has happened. Or he or she may use potentially good news to mask another failure. I hope that that would never be the intention but it is important to remove as far as possible the chance of politicising the commissions report or even appearing to do so. The report must be scrutinised for what it contains, thus placing a duty on the Secretary of State to present it to Parliament promptly, which relieves him of even appearing to choose his timing based on political expediency and goes a long way to ensuring that the report receives the sort of attention that it deserves.
The other amendments in this group refer to the contents of the report. We feel very strongly that the report should flag up the details of complaints that the commission might have received and how they were dealt with. We understand that creating an agency that will be truly effective is a dynamic process. The Minister has talked in the past two days about stages in this operation that have already started. Inevitably,
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This part of the Bill allows the commission to empower any of its employees or other authorities to exercise its duties. Authorising employees of the commission to carry out its functions would certainly be a necessary tool in effective implementation, but it is still important to assess whether these authorised agencies are actually meeting the goals that they were assigned to meet. Essentially this is a point about responsibility. We understand that effective management demands empowering other bodies to execute some duties, but the responsibility must ultimately lie with the commission. Thus we propose that the report should include an assessment of the commissions attempt to meet not only its overall goals but the goals of the bodies that the commission has empowered. Our interest here is in making the report paint the most accurate portrait possible of the progress of the commissions efforts. The more that we understand about its work and impact, the better placed we will be to improve its effect.
Amendments Nos. 67, 73, 74, 75 and 85, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, are allied and consider how secondary legislation will be scrutinised. I shall probably return to that a little later. I beg to move.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: The annual report is an important document. The amendments in this group tabled in my name and that of my noble friend require that nothing in any future annual report will interfere with the flow of the quarterly statistics, which are currently published through the Office for National Statistics. I assume that that is taken for granted, but it would be useful to have it confirmed. The quarterly statistics enable us to look at developing trends in the performance of the agency in a way that an annual report cannot, so they are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. The annual report will provide a chance to look at some of the longer-term things and the quarterly statistics will enable us to look at trends in performance. I hope that that can be confirmed.
Two of the amendments tabled in my name and that of my noble friend require the commission to be a bit more transparent about agency agreements. If the Minister is looking at the commission doing other things in other departments as part of joined-up government, those objectives should be fully reported. If the commission is likely to do bits and pieces of additional activity, they should be in the annual reports so that people know what is going on.
The analysis of outstanding client debt is important. I am still struggling to understand the difference between historic and outstanding client debt. I think that the
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Lord McKenzie of Luton: The amendments in this group provide a helpful opportunity to discuss issues around the annual report and Clause 9. This is a standard clause in the founding legislation of non-departmental public bodies and places a number of specific reporting requirements on the commission. Subject to the passage of the Bill, the commission will come into being later in 2008. It is our intention that the first annual report will cover the period from the commencement of the commission to the end of the financial year and then each complete financial year thereafter. That would bring the reporting cycle into line with that of other NDPBs and, indeed, other corporate bodies. Furthermore, it keeps the annual report in line with the period that will be covered by the annual accounts, which must cover financial years.
Amendment No. 58 requires that these two key reports cover different periods and would run against Treasury guidelines. Perhaps more importantly, it would hinder the ability of stakeholders, particularly Parliament, to scrutinise the commission and monitor the efficiency and effectiveness with which it is performing its functions.
That brings me to Amendment No. 59, which I think is intended to probe the meaning behind Clause 9(3)(c). Noble Lords will be aware that Clause 3 places a statutory requirement on the commission to exercise its functions effectively and efficiently. As such, we have provided through subsection 3(c) of Clause 9 that the commission must report on the steps taken to monitor its performance in that respect. Amendment No. 59 removes that requirement, but I hope to convince noble Lords of its importance. While reporting on objectives and targets, as required by subsection 3(b), is very much about what the commission has achieved, this subsection of the clause requires the commission to report on how it has been working. It requires that the commission details the steps it is taking to monitor how it is exercising its functions, specifically how it is assuring itself that it is doing so in a way that is both effective and efficient; in other words, to prove that it is providing value for money for the taxpayer. In light of that, I believe that this amendment would remove a requirement from the annual report that is important for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the commission.
Amendment No. 60 inserts a requirement to report on the details of any complaints received and how they were dealt with. I fully understand the reasoning behind this amendment. However, in subsection 3(c) the Bill already places a requirement upon the commission to report the steps taken to monitor its performance in ensuring that all its functions are exercised effectively and efficiently. As with all public bodies, customer
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Amendment No. 62 raises the important issue of contracting out and inserts a requirement into the Bill to report on the extent to which organisations operating under contract to the commission are achieving their objectives. It is entirely proper that Parliament should be given the opportunity to scrutinise not only the extent to which the commission has contracted out functions, but also how effectively those functions are being performed. This is already provided for through Clause 9. Subsection (2) makes it clear that the commission must report on all its activities, including any activities contracted out. Subsection (3) then adds specific requirements. For example, subsection 3(b) requires the commission to report on the steps taken to meet its objectives and the progress made. Again, that must include the functions delivered by contractors.
This amendment goes beyond that and requires a specific report on the performance of each individual contractor. We are concerned that such a specific requirement could present difficulties, perhaps impinging on commercial confidentiality. For example, if potential contractors can see how existing contractors have performed, it would put the commission at a disadvantage in future contracting exercises. It is the commissions responsibility to deliver its functions efficiently and effectively regardless of how they are delivered. Clause 9 places comprehensive reporting requirements on the commission that, as I have made clear, will cover functions delivered by contractors and will therefore enable Parliament to hold the commission to account for its responsibilities.
I can understand the noble Lords reasons for tabling Amendment No. 63. It places a specific requirement on the commission to report on the steps taken to recover outstanding debt and to detail its level of success in this area. We consider the collection of existing debt to be an extremely important function and we have provided for increased enforcement powers within the Bill to assist in the collection of debt. However, we consider that this amendment is unnecessary. The existing provisions of Clause 9 require the commission to report on all its activities and also on progress towards its objectives. So not only must the commission report on the effectiveness of debt collection as an activity, it must also report on its objective to secure compliance with parental obligations; in other words it must report on how it is getting all parents to pay all that is owing.
The amendment also places a specific requirement on the commission to report on the measures used to assess progress towards objectives. As I have just mentioned, there is already a requirement to report on the steps taken to meet objectives and targets and the extent to which they have been met. In meeting this reporting requirement, the commission must adopt and explain a measure of performance for each objective. As such, the amendment would only serve to duplicate an existing requirement.
Amendment No. 64 provides the opportunity to explain how the commission will publish its annual report. In accordance with Treasury best practice, the report will be laid in Parliament by the Secretary of State at the same time as the annual accounts. We would then expect the annual report to be made available on both the departmental website and the commissions internet site. As is usual, we would also expect hard copies to be produced and distributed to the commissions stakeholders and made available to the public on request. This is the approach that is currently taken by the Child Support Agency. The amendment would remove the obligation on the commission to publish the report, and I am aware that this is not what the noble Lord intended.
Staying with publication, Amendment No. 65 places a requirement that the annual report should be laid in Parliament by the Secretary of State within one month of receiving it from the commission. Current Treasury guidance would mean that the commissions annual report would need to be laid in Parliament together with the annual accounts. There is currently no timeframe for when the annual report should, as such, be produced. The annual accounts, however, are required through provisions in the Bill to be sent to the Comptroller and Auditor-General for examination by the end of the August following the financial year that the accounts relate to. That is the key reassurance that I think the noble Lord is seeking, that there is a timeframe attached. Under the procedure as set out in the Bill, it is unnecessary to provide a timeframe for the Secretary of State, who has no role in approving the report. Both the annual report and the accounts will be laid as soon as possible following the certification of the annual accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor-General.
Finally, Amendment No. 61 would require the commission to report on the extent to which it has relied on the provision for agency arrangements, effectively bringing it into parallel with the provision for contracting out. Noble Lords may be aware that Sir David Henshaws report placed an emphasis on the contracting out of functions. As such, we felt it appropriate to provide an explicit requirement on the commission to report on the extent to which it has contracted out any services. In contrast to Clause 8(1), the provision in Clause 7(1) enables the commission to enter into arrangements with other public bodies and departments, which enables a variety of joint working across government. Clause 7(1) will allow for the continued arrangements with Northern Ireland. Consequently, we do not see the
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However, just as the CSA currently reports on any arrangements that it has with any relevant authorities; it is likely that the commission would report on any arrangements made under Clause 7(1) when reporting on its activities in the previous financial year. In light of the above, I urge noble Lords to withdraw the amendment. However, in recognition that the inclusion of Clause 7(1) alongside Clause 8(1) would add symmetry to the reporting provisions, I am prepared to take that away to consider it further, and I will possibly come back to this issue at Report stage. I hope that shows noble Lords that we are willing to consider and act on appropriate suggestions and that we are a listening government.
Lord Skelmersdale: I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for proving what I said in my opening sentences on TuesdayI do not have Tuesdays Hansard with meabout the Ministers way of operating. I am extremely pleased that he will take this away and will hopefully bring back an amendment that is drafted better. Oppositions are never allowed to draft things for themselves; the government draftsman is always very insistent. I remember one occasion when a private secretary in the department of social security, as it then was, said, Minister, you must not do that; you will have the draftsman spitting blood. I do not try to pretend that I am any better at drafting than he or she is.
As far as the other amendments are concerned, I will have to study very carefully what the Minister has said. He has produced some technical arguments against this set of amendments. However, I have to say that in all fairness I found one or two of his arguments a little strange. For example, I am sure that potential competitors to whichever organisation is being contracted by the agency will look at the reports and think Ah, here is a commercial opportunity for us, but I am not sure that what I have suggested gives the commission the need in the annual report to go quite that far. I shall look at all these matters again. In the mean time, with quite a lot of hope and expectation, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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