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I do not see why Parliament should not have some say in this. It is very worrying if it is all to be left to the Civil Service process. I understand that you cannot have Parliament deciding on every member of all these bodies, but surely we have a right to say who we think ought to be a member of the commission. I am not talking about the chairman or the deputy chairman but about one of the members. I am not suggesting either that this should be in the Bill, but I hope someone will notice what I am saying. I would like an everyday kind of person on the commission, not only clever academics.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I support the noble Baroness's amendment because it is important not only that the appointment should be independent but that it should be seen to be independent by the public and not only by those of us who know how the machinery works.
Lord Freud: My Lords, the noble Baroness's amendment and mine are very similar. I am glad that we are generally in agreement on this side of the Committee on this point. The question of the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny was raised in another place but I hope that the Minister will give us fuller answers than my honourable colleagues were able to extract during those debates.
There appear to be two different views of the commission running through the discussions on the Bill and, indeed, through the discussions we are now having. The first model, the one most people prefer-it is the preferred model on this side of the Committee-is of a strong independent body with teeth, established to give credible advice, impartial assessment of the success of a strategy and, where needed, appropriate criticism of government policy.
The second model is that of an expert umbrella group, established to collate and analyse data and instigate research in the areas that are lacking. Essentially, the commission under that format would be a valuable resource for the Government to utilise as and when they decided that it was needed. These two bodies are of course very different, and the Government have given us rather mixed signals on which model they intend to establish. These provisions and the statements that the Government have given lead me to think that model two is what they are after, but the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions described the commission's role as facilitating the production of a strategy to enable the Secretary of State to fulfil her duties. This does not sound like a body that will ever cause the Government any trouble. The Government even had to be persuaded to allow the commission the power to commission its own research-a provision that I welcome and which we will discuss later.
Giving the chair of the commission the chance to have his appointment confirmed by Parliament would raise his or her profile to a position in which we could be assured that any advice or criticism that the commission might have to offer would be given the attention that it deserves by the Government. It would also confirm the impartiality of the appointment. Despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, says, accusations of cronyism are finding fertile ground among the public these days, and would be particularly damaging in this case. The commission will run across more than one Parliament, and its advice will be on measures that lend themselves to a rapid assessment of success or failure. Protection from accusations of being unfairly biased for or against the prevailing critical winds will be invaluable.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Lord has talked about cronyism, but the reverse is true. The whole point of the public appointments procedure was precisely to clean up appointments so that there was no cronyism for the Minister's friends. What this is saying is that one, two or three people may be above the appointable line. If you do it any other way, it is who you know, as opposed to people coming into an open system, seeing a job description, applying for it and going through the interview process. I would not disagree with this at all, but there may well be a point at which the job description requirements, including the independence, appropriate skills and backgrounds, comes as part of regulations or comes to this House, as a letter to all people concerned. That is the way to do it, to ensure that the job description includes the possibility of the sort of people with the sort of background that we would like to see. To interfere with the public appointments procedure is to go back 10 or 15 years to cronyism, which would be quite disastrous. Could I suggest to noble Lords opposite that they focus on the issue of job description, rather than the mechanics of appointment, which are well established?
Lord Freud: I should like to thank the noble Baroness for that clarification. The simple point that I would make is that the attitude of the public and the media
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Let me go on to Amendment 21, which is grouped with this one and which was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on the appointment of the deputy chair. Some disagreement among members is in the nature of bodies of this type and I do not think that such disagreement is harmful. In fact, I would welcome evidence of ongoing debate about new ideas. But at some point, the disagreement will have to be resolved and the advice of the commission given. The method of appointment suggested by the noble Baroness would make the minority view more likely to be heard. Having both the chair and the deputy appointed by the Secretary of State could lead to an unnecessary degree of uniformity within the body.
Finally, while we are discussing appointments, I would like to take this opportunity to ask a few practical questions. First, how large do the Government expect the final commission to be? In the Bill there is no upper limit at present. Secondly, we already have the Children's Commissioner whose job it is to promote the interests of children. How does that position and role fit with the role and position of the commission? I would also be interested to know whether the Government have given any thought to who might be a good fit for the position of chairman of the commission and how far the process is along in drawing up the job description and putting out feelers for potential applicants.
Lord Freud: No. Having begun to learn the conventions, I will assume that there has been a formal intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The question is, "How far along in the process of drawing up a job description are the Government?" and perhaps remove my "feelers" from the question. With advice from her, gratefully received, I will leave it at that.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for tabling the amendments. The noble Baroness confessed that she has form on this in relation to Ofqual. We have noted that. If she is praying that outcome in aid of her position, I might also say that if she is stressing precedence there is no precedent to require the chair of an advisory NDPB to be subject to parliamentary approval before appointment.
I can help the noble Lord, Lord Freud, because I understand from his contribution at Second Reading some of his concerns around the issue of progress on establishing the commission. Under an OCPA process, that would normally take approximately six months. The noble Lord will understand that the appointment process could not formally begin until after Royal Assent. I am not sure why it should, but if it helps, it seems pretty unlikely that any appointment could be made before a certain event that will face the country in a few weeks' time.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am pleased to hear that. It would seem to be outwith the process if the noble Lord had done so. I will speak first to Amendments 19 and 20, which concern the appointment of the chair of the Child Poverty Commission. Amendment 21 would provide a power to the commission members, rather than the Secretary of State, to appoint a deputy chair. I am glad that there has been such widespread welcome for the establishment of the Child Poverty Commission. This was made clear on all sides of your Lordships' House at Second Reading. The commission has a key role in identifying barriers to addressing child poverty and advising the Government on the contents of their child poverty strategy.
Amendments 19 and 20, as has been identified, are similar provisions. Amendment 20 requires the Secretary of State to consult the relevant Select Committees before appointing the commission chair. Both amendments would then require the appointment to be subject to parliamentary control before it could be confirmed. I recognise the concerns expressed over the independence of the Child Poverty Commission and, in particular, the transparency of the appointments process for the chair. This was raised at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, and his colleague the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and was discussed in another place. I wholeheartedly agree that there must be an open and transparent recruitment process, and that the appointment must not be politically driven. I also recognise that Parliament has an interest in such an appointment, but I will explain to noble Lords why the amendments are unnecessary.
The appointment of the chair and, indeed, all members of the commission will be made with utmost care and transparency, in accordance with the principles set out in the code of practice for public appointments, published by the office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. My noble friend Lady Hollis has given us the benefit of her experience of that process. The code is underpinned by seven principles derived from the work of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life. They include openness and transparency, appointment on merit, independent scrutiny, ministerial responsibility and proportionality. The entire appointment process will be overseen by an independent person
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I draw noble Lords' attention to paragraph 4 of Schedule 1, which requires the Secretary of State to aim for a commission that has knowledge and experience of child poverty policy, research and work with families. That is quite a broad remit. I hope that will provide some assurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, particularly that latter requirement about people who have worked with families. It is against these criteria that all applicants for this post will be judged. I hope I have demonstrated that the commission members will be appointed on merit, and will not be beholden to Ministers, political parties, stakeholders or special interest groups. I categorically refute what was said at Second Reading about being swayed by the political affiliations of applicants.
There is also an important point to be made concerning accountability for the appointment of the chair. The Secretary of State will be accountable to the House for the strategies to meet the targets set out in the Bill and, ultimately, for whether the targets are met. The Secretary of State needs to be confident that the work of the statutory body advising on the strategy is of high quality in its thoroughness, independence and timeliness. It is appropriate and logical therefore that the Secretary of State appoints members of the body responsible for advising on its content. Allowing Parliament to have the final say-
Lord Freud: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I have just realised that I did not know something that I would be grateful to have the answer to. When he said "the Secretary of State", which particular Secretary of State did he mean?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I understand that it is technically not defined currently in the Bill. To give some assistance, I understand that, in law, all Secretaries of State are the same and interchangeable.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I honestly do not know. I know that it does not fall to me to decide this. There is a serious point here about which Secretary of State will be responsible. If I can add any more information, I will write to the noble Lord.
Finally on this issue, given the general welcome to the commission, I think it important that we avoid using this Bill to reopen a debate on public appointments that has been had elsewhere. Noble Lords will be aware that in June 2008 the Government announced
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Following discussions with House authorities, a list of 60 or so key public sector posts was agreed. As these posts become vacant, pre-appointment hearings are being held on a pilot basis. It would be impractical and disproportionate to subject all public appointments to pre-appointment scrutiny by Select Committees. I think there are some 800 NDPBs. We are not in any way persuaded that the chair of this small and purely advisory body, however important the issue on which it is advising, falls into the category of posts that should be added to the agreed list of those where pre-appointment hearings might be trialled, particularly given the assurances provided by the OCPA process that I have outlined.
Of course, Committees of the House can invite whoever they like to give evidence, and the chair and other members of the commission, once appointed, will be able to give evidence to them about the advice they provide and the extent to which they think Ministers have regard to it.
On this basis I hope I have persuaded the noble Lords not to press Amendments 19 and 20. On Amendment 21, although it is not specified in the Bill, we envisage that the deputy chair would effectively take on the chair's role in their absence. It therefore follows that the Secretary of State should retain the overall power to appoint the deputy chair, given the importance of the position and the confidence the Secretary of State must have in their abilities.
However, I understand the importance of a strong working relationship between the chair and deputy chair. That is why paragraph 1(3) of Schedule 1 requires the Secretary of State to consult the chair before any deputy is appointed. In practice, the Secretary of State is unlikely to appoint someone to whom the chair had strong objections, as this would clearly undermine the effectiveness of the commission. However, I have listened to what noble Lords have said today and acknowledge that we agreed that members of Ofqual, rather than the Secretary of State, should select a deputy chair. Realising the strength of feeling on this issue, I will consider further whether the independence of the commission could be strengthened by permitting it to choose a deputy chair from among its appointed members. I very much take the point that if we were able to do that, it would be positive evidence of our determination that it is independent. Without overstating that point, I may revert to it on Report.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, asked whether the commission will have real teeth. It has a key role in identifying barriers to addressing child poverty and advising the Government on the content of its child poverty strategy. That is a particularly important role. The Bill requires the Government to appoint a commission that understands child poverty issues and is well equipped to provide advice. In the consultation process, stakeholders called for transparency. We responded by including a requirement for the commission's advice to be made public so that it would be possible to scrutinise how
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The noble Lord referred to my colleague Helen Goodman's comments in the other place. She was trying to draw a distinction that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, drew between a body such as Ofqual and one such as the Child Poverty Commission. That is not to say that members of the commission are not fulfilling an important public function-of course they are fulfilling a hugely important function-or that child poverty is not an important public concern. I have referred to the OCPA process and the timeframe that it might involve. We have not formally begun appointing the commission and will not do so until after Royal Assent. If that is some time in March, assuming that we speed up our deliberations, it clearly could not be done before that event, which I know we are all thoroughly looking forward to.
The noble Lord referred to the Children's Commissioner. The role of the Children's Commissioner is distinct from that of members of the Child Poverty Commission. Their focus will be on child poverty and the strategy, while the Children's Commissioner has the much broader role of reflecting on and promoting the views and interests of children.
On that basis, I hope that I can urge noble Lords not to press any of these amendments today. We will look to return on Report to see if we can support the issue about the appointment of the deputy chair.
Lord Freud: I thank the Minister for the points that he has made. He dealt with the rather interesting point that we have a Children's Commissioner and a Child Poverty Commission. Given our interest in not having quite so many quangos-I think he mentioned 800-it might make some kind of sense to put these two together. We might be able to discuss that later.
Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for his reply and all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for outlining the Office of Public Appointments procedure, which I am well aware of. Indeed, I have been in contact with that office myself. It is an excellent procedure, and I must compliment the Government on introducing it; it makes the whole business of public appointments a lot more credible with the general public.
I am suggesting not interfering with or replacing it but putting something on top of it, just for the chairperson: a confirmation hearing by Parliament, in whatever way Parliament decided. It probably would be the
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This is a matter of transparency, public confidence and strengthening the power of Parliament. Over the past two Governments, the Executive has taken a great deal of power to itself, and we would like to see Parliament being able to rear its head and have a little more say in these important matters. Far from "lowering the lines of accountability", in the Minister's phrase, it would raise the level of accountability to have a pre-appointment hearing for the chairman, because Parliament is the most accountable body in the whole country.
However, I am grateful to the Minister for unexpectedly saying that he will consider the possibility of Amendment 20, and I look forward to hearing between now and Report whether he is going to bring forward a government amendment or whether he would like me to do that and add his name to it, which I am grateful that he did to my other amendments. It would add to public confidence that this was an independent organisation if we were at least able to get that. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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