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Public Bodies Bill [HL]

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6th Report Delegated Powers Committee
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Committee (2nd Day)(Continued)

9.22 pm

Amendment 18

Moved by Lord Whitty

18: Schedule 1, page 16, leave out lines 5 to 9

Lord Whitty: Amendment 18 relates to the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. Essentially, this is a probing amendment, but it raises some rather wider issues. I am very grateful to see the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on the Front Bench. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is quite pleased to see him on the Front Bench as well, because clearly, these matters are in the Defra area but, as I said, raise wider issues. Those wider issues are: why are those two committees being abolished when many other similar committees are not being touched; and in what way will they be abolished?

I must apologise to the Committee, because I was not here earlier today to speak to an amendment in my name, but my noble friend Lady Henig moved it ably. She pointed out that the list in Schedule 1 includes apples and pears-this is not a horticultural question but because they are not like with like. The Government propose that some of those bodies in Schedule 1 be abolished; that some of them revert to Ministers; and that some have their powers and functions moved to other bodies, public and private. It is not clear what will happen to the independent advisory capacity of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances. If they are to be abolished, full stop, that raises a serious issue.

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I declare a current interest as a member of the Environment Agency board, which has relations with both those committees, but, more particularly, because I am a former Minister dealing with much of the Minister's current portfolio, and specifically with the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. It was always important to have independent advice. Pesticides have always been a controversial area. If the powers revert to the Minister, the Minister will be seriously-if he will excuse the expression-exposed in this area. It is very important also that advice is independent and is seen to be independent. Of course, the Minister does not have to accept any advisory committee's advice. When I was in the noble Lord's position, there were times when I did not accept the advice of the pesticides committee and indeed referred the issue of bystanders and their vulnerability to pesticide exposure to what I felt was the higher authority of the Royal Society. That is a matter for the Minister to decide.

If we abolish these committees and all assessment reverts to the Minister and his civil servants then you lose that independent advice, or do the Government intend to transfer the responsibilities of these committees elsewhere, to other bodies? For example the Environment Agency and the HSE have some responsibilities in this area. Alternatively, the Minister could, I guess, invent a non-statutory body of experts to advise. That has slightly less of an independent air than these two bodies.

I think it would be somewhat dangerous if Ministers decided they were going to go for a more informal arrangement in relation to the whole array of scientific advisory bodies, which exist right across departments and certainly very substantially in Defra. It is dangerous for Ministers as well. The Committtee on Hazardous Substances advises Ministers on dangerous chemicals in air, water and the soil, and on nanomaterials, which have a significant element of controversy, in relation to policy and science and the effect of some of these substances.

Pesticides are also a crucial area because there is a conflict of interests here. There is conflict between the farmers and the agriculturalists and the horticulturalists on one side and local residents and those pursuing other pursuits, and environmentalists and environmental bodies concerned with air and water quality and food standards, food quality and the effect on biodiversity and so forth.

The Minister has to balance the different interests in this area and it is helpful if he has advice which is independent and statutorily-based as one part of his decision-making process. The Minister also has a significant Civil Service element. The pesticides safety division in Defra is a very effective body. However, it looks at systems and monitoring and what is happening in regulations. Of course regulations in this context are quite often European regulations. Some of the most controversial proposals in the pesticides field are in European regulations that are coming on stream. Some elements of the agricultural industry think they will eliminate pesticides in particular specialist areas, so there is quite a delicate political balance in that respect.

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It is not just farmers who are affected by this. Quite a lot of pesticides are used in parks and gardens, so there is a big public sector element that has to follow the advice. It would be better if the Minister, when making the regulations, was basing them on the advice of a publicly defensible independent body. All of us who are occasional gardeners are affected by this as well. In some ways the most dangerous area is in people's own gardens. While the pesticides advisory committee and the PSD will have a whole list of pesticides you are no longer expected to use, I am pretty confident that at least one of my neighbours has a shed load of pesticides that are probably banned by the Geneva Convention, never mind the pesticide regulations. Enforcing it in these areas is quite an important role, so that the public are informed as well as those who have an interest in horticulture and agriculture.

There is a very good and very specific reason why the pesticides advisory committee should remain independent, should remain statutorily-based and should give protection to the Minister and his colleagues. It is also slightly odd that these two committees are the only advisory committees in the Defra family scheduled for abolition. Yet Defra has, I think, 20-odd committees, including the Food Standards Agency and about another dozen of a similar status to these two committees.

9.30 pm

These two committees are not quite the first two on the list alphabetically, but the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances is the first. I just wonder if, in this less than totally objective assessment of which quangos to get rid of, Defra officials looked at the list and decided that we could quite easily do without two in the first four as compared with the others. But there are other important expert panels and advisory committees on air quality and farm welfare. There is another one on pesticides, the Pesticides Residues Committee, and others on particular diseases. All those are apparently untouched, as are the advisory committees in most other government departments with one or two exceptions-they are not being abolished, modified, transferred or merged.

Going back to my more general point, in a sense, I would have thought that it would be useful if the Government, before this Bill passes much further, were able to give an indication of their overall attitude to statutorily-based advisory committees, particularly scientific ones. Picking off a couple does not seem a very rational approach. It may be that there is some rationality behind it, but I have not yet seen it. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us in a moment. It is important that this House is convinced that those bodies on the list, particularly the list for total abolition, should be there for a reason. We would like to be reassured that the Government are still committed to independent statutorily-based advice across the board. That involves not only the Defra committees and the food standards committees, but all departments.

I hope that the Minister will give us more of an explanation tonight, but I also think that it would help him and his colleagues if we were to receive at some point during these proceedings-obviously, had we

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gone to a Select Committee it would have been much easier to do-an indication of the Government's total approach to independent scientific advice. Is their objection to these committees based on them being statutory and independent or do they think that they genuinely no longer have a positive role?

I shall raise just one other point. The way in which this is listed suggests that the equivalent advisory committee for Northern Ireland is also abolished in the same paragraph. Both agriculture and environment are devolved matters in Northern Ireland. I do not quite understand why they are therefore on the agenda for abolition in the Westminster Parliament when the Northern Ireland Assembly is surely the body which should decide whether that body should continue to exist or otherwise. That is a relatively minor point, but it is important for the farming community of Northern Ireland. I hope that the noble Lord will give us an indication of why we are dealing with that committee here. I beg to move.

Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Whitty. I, too, am a former Minister at Defra, although we did not manage to coincide: I came after my noble friend moved on to other things. The points that he makes in his speech and through his amendments are important. On looking at the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances, I see that the intention is for it to become a committee of experts working directly to the department. At one level, the difference between having it as a non-departmental public body or having it internalised within Defra looks fairly finely balanced, if the same people are providing advice on the same sorts of things to the same Ministers. Indeed, I note from the website that the secretariat to the NDPB is within Defra anyway. On all those levels it might not make much difference. I would be interested in the Minister's response as to how much financial saving might be made in terms of these changes to these two committees so that we can judge whether that is part of the motivation.

In the end when I looked at it and tried to understand why these changes were thought necessary for Defra, like my noble friend I concluded that it must be something to do with the arm's-length nature and the independence of the scientific advice. In that respect, this is a very important principle around whether or not that scientific advice should be independent of any other interests within the department. My experience from a year within Defra is that there are considerable, highly vocal, well organised interests that exercise Ministers and it is helpful at times to be able to have that independence.

By way of illustrating it, I refer to a story not from this country but from India around what happened to the vulture population, which collapsed by about 95 per cent in a very short period. As a result of having very few vultures to feed off the carcasses of cattle that were left out for the vultures because of the cultural issues in India around cattle, there was a population explosion of feral dogs in India-about 5.5 million more than usual-because they had this free food to sup on. And as a result of more feral dogs, more people were getting bitten. It is estimated that

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just under 50,000 more people died of rabies in India because of this explosion in the feral dog population. Meanwhile, others suffered from leopards attacking urban areas because the leopards expanded in population in order to pursue the dogs. In the end people were obviously concerned as to why the vultures had died. It came down to the improper use of chemicals-of diclofenac, the anti-inflammatory drug that was being fed to cattle by farmers, perfectly innocently, but which caused instant renal failure within the vulture population. It is the most extraordinary example of how an ecosystem can work and have an impact on a human population as well as on biodiversity, and indeed it is a fantastic example of the importance of biodiversity to us wherever we are in the world. But it is equally an important example of how agricultural vested interests should be kept separate from analysis of chemicals and pesticides.

I am not suggesting we might have that scenario playing out here, but you never know. I put it to the Minister, in using that example, that independent scientific advice at arm's length is lost at a cost. If he could tell us what the saving is, if that is the motivation, then I am sure we would be very grateful.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, my noble friends have set out very well the argument against the abolition of the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides.

I compare the proposed abolition of the two committees with the recently announced cancellation of the Food Standards Agency. To a non-scientist like me, such abolition can only mean that in future people's diets in schools and elsewhere will be more controlled by the burger manufacturers. Ours is the second most obese country in the world after the United States of America, but that situation looks like it will only get worse rather than better. If the Government's intention in abolishing the committees is to have less government and to allow the industry to take its course, there will clearly be a risk that the manufacturers of these products-nasty or otherwise-could populate any committees that the Minister may create with academics who are funded by their companies. There is a great danger that we could end up in a similar situation to the one that both my noble friends have outlined.

The independence of such committees is absolutely fundamental. I hope that the Minister can give us confidence that their scientific independence will be preserved. As I have said, the precedent of the Food Standards Agency is extremely important. People will probably only get fat and die sooner without the FSA, whereas the abolition of these two committees will probably have a much more urgent effect. However, a similar principle is involved. I look forward to his comments.

Baroness Quin: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Whitty on Amendment 18 and to use this opportunity to probe the Government's intentions regarding these two bodies-or, perhaps more accurately, these three bodies, since the Advisory Committee on Pesticides in Northern Ireland is included.

Like my noble friend, I am glad that the Minister who is to reply is from Defra. Given the large number of bodies being modified or abolished by this Bill that

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are part of Defra's area of responsibility, it is good that the Minister is responding to the debate on these bodies and, I hope, on the other agricultural bodies listed in the Bill. Given the many bodies that are listed in Schedule 1 that the Government are to have the power to abolish, it is absolutely right that each body should be looked at in turn. In many cases, the bodies in question have existed for a long time, so there certainly needs to be proper consultation about their future and how their work, especially when that is evaluated as having been very valuable, can be taken forward.

First, perhaps I may ask a few questions about the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances. The committee not only has a distinguished membership but holds regular meetings and has produced a large number of reports, which I understand have been accessed by many people. The committee has also been very open about its proceedings. I notice that, when Defra first announced the changes to arm's-length bodies on 22 July, the Secretary of State-the queen of the quango cutters-said that she intended that, as a result of the proposed changes, the subjects covered by such bodies would be dealt with more openly. Having looked at the website for the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances, I find it hard to imagine how much more open it could be. Its agendas, minutes and proceedings are made fully available. I understand that it has held a number of public meetings and that it expects-if it is allowed to do so-to hold such meetings in the future. Indeed, I understand that the next public meeting is scheduled for 7 December. Will that be an occasion when the future of the organisation could be aired publicly? Indeed, will the Government be involved in that meeting by giving their view on how a successor organisation might look?

I turn to the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. Given that the committee was set up in 1985 following legislation by the then Conservative Government, it is fair to ask a Conservative Minister why it is no longer felt necessary to have such a committee. As my noble friends have said, there is a great deal of public concern about pesticides, the use of which can give rise to many problems, particularly if they are not properly evaluated and subject to appropriate expertise at every stage. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley mentioned, we need to consider how bodies such as the Advisory Committee on Pesticides overlap with organisations such as the Food Standards Agency. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides is concerned not only with the use of pesticides on food and agricultural products but with the health of creatures and plants. The Government are required to consult the committee in certain circumstances. Could the Minister tell us how useful that process of consultation has been?

9.45 pm

Both my noble friend Lord Whitty and my noble friend Lord Knight spoke of the importance of independent and impartial advice for Ministers. As a former Minister myself, I feel very strongly about that. In the weight of business that one faces within a ministerial department, it is very easy to get overwhelmed even from advice from within the department. Former

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Ministers are very conscious of how important it is to have independent advice and thoughts fed in from outside. Can the Minister say how significant the recommendations of these bodies have been in the past?

Finally, given that the Advisory Committee on Pesticides for Northern Ireland is also included, that allows me to ask how much contact there has been with devolved Administrations on the abolition of these bodies and their replacement with something different-by expert committees, as my noble friend Lord Knight referred to. How do the Government envisage taking these issues forward in Northern Ireland? What discussions has the Minister had with Northern Ireland Ministers about the proposal?

How will the expert committees that will replace those bodies function? I ask not only in terms of openness but whether there will be a general continuity in the work of the existing bodies and in the membership of the organisations. There are a number of such questions on which we seek assurance, so I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I hope I can answer some of the points put by the noble Baroness and her noble friends. I thank her for the point about Defra and the fact that I was going to respond regarding this amendment and a number of others in relation to that department. I appreciate there are quite a number of Defra arm's-length bodies that are being referred to and I hope I can deal with them in due course as they happen. It may take a day or two before we cover them all but I will try to deal with them as and where appropriate.

The noble Baroness also said that some of these bodies have existed for a very long time indeed. I suppose she was appealing to my nature as a hard-line reactionary Conservative who does not want to see anything change at all. I see the noble Lord nodding in agreement-the arch reactionary here speaks. I am not sure that I am. Things do move on and from time to time we have to change them. For that reason I will not be able to support the noble Baroness in saying that everything should continue as it is just because it always has existed in the past.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, talked about vultures and leopards. I saw one of his noble colleagues, on the edge of the Chamber, who found some of these remarks faintly comic. He should not have done; I did not find them comic because the points were serious. For some reason, when you hear remarks about vultures in this House late at night-well, I think all noble Lords know what I mean. I will certainly take on board the points the noble Lord was making.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, spoke about the Food Standards Agency and asked if we are going to populate these bodies with the wrong people. That is certainly not going to be the case and I hope to deal with that when I deal with the substance of the amendments.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for moving these amendments. I appreciate there are four of us who have served in Defra or its former bodies, so we all know what it is like.

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The first point I should make is that the bodies are listed in alphabetical order and we are now dealing with the first of the Defra organisations; there will be others later as we work through Schedule 1, as the noble Lord knows. He also knows perfectly well that theirs is not the only advice that Ministers receive-I was grateful that he stressed this-and that when Ministers receive advice from such bodies they are not bound to accept it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for nodding his head on this point. In the end, Ministers of whatever persuasion have to make a decision. They take advice from all kinds of experts and then make a decision. I believe one of my colleagues, who is not in this House, wrote a book on the subject called Ministers Decide, or something like that, but we all write books of that kind.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to the problems that neighbours might have with the some of the things we use in gardens. At that point one thought, "Gosh, what about North Korea?". However, I take on board what the noble Lord had to say about the problems that different things can cause in different ways.

The amendment seeks to remove the three committees-it relates also to the Northern Ireland committee-from Schedule 1 so that we would not be able to abolish them. I shall set out why we wish to abolish them and explain how we wish their work to continue. I acknowledge that those committees have provided independent, expert and impartial advice to Governments of all political persuasions on hazardous chemicals and pesticides. That advice continues to be of value and I can assure the Committee and all noble Lords that abolition of these three committees in their current form will enable us to put in place better arrangements for the work to continue through expert scientific committees.

This reflects the work that the Cabinet Office has been doing with Sir John Beddington, the government Chief Scientific Adviser and the head of the Government Office for Science, and departments to identify more accountable and effective ways to deliver independent, high-quality scientific advice to government to meet the objectives of the public bodies reform programme and the principles of scientific advice to government.

We also need to recognise that statutory regimes for hazardous chemicals and pesticides are increasingly driven by EU legislation. Those three expert committees will remain independent and be able to put advice direct to Ministers, where appropriate, and will adhere carefully to the government code of practice for scientific and advisory committees.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked what savings would be available as a result of this. I wish to make it clear to the noble Lord that we are not looking particularly for savings; the savings, in fact, will be negligible. We are reorganising how the department commissions and applies scientific evidence and looking at ways to do this more coherently and efficiently. These bodies are being reconstituted as expert scientific committees to the department rather than as statutory NDPBs. That will allow them to provide better advice to us in

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an equally independent way without any particular savings. I hope the noble Lord will accept that.

With that explanation, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment at this stage. Failing that, we will have to look at it again at a later stage.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining some of the background to this. It was intended as a probing amendment and I think that we have probed something out of it. The Minister said in the latter part of his remarks that this was part of a discussion of the best way to deliver scientific advice, in conjunction with the Cabinet Office and the Chief Secretary. My query arose not so much because I want everything to be set in aspic and that no change should take place, but because there should be a rationale for it. After the Minister's remarks I still do not quite understand why these two committees, both of which are particularly sensitive in a political and media way, do not deserve a clearly statutorily-based form of advice, whereas a significant number of the rest of Defra's advisory committees are not on this list, and, if you took it across Whitehall, obviously the picture is wider.

This is why I argued that, in order to have this debate on a rational basis, we need some background from the Minister, or the Minister for Science or from BIS saying what our overall approach to advisory committees is. If it is, in general, that we move away from statutorily-based committees to expert panels, there may be an argument for that. The problem is that we have not heard that argument and that this seems to be differentially applied to bodies within the same department, let alone across Whitehall as a whole. There is a much bigger issue behind this that, at some point, the House is going to have to look at before we can easily give our consent to including some of these bodies on one or other of the schedules to the Bill.

I am glad that the Minister has, in a sense, opened that up, because maybe there is a bigger background that we will come back to at a later stage of the Bill. I am certainly not utterly convinced that the expert panel is much different from a statutory body in terms of the quality of its advice or procedures and, clearly, there is no great cost advantage. I still think that Ministers have, themselves, the protection that, if there is a statutory body giving them advice, at least that part of their advice is clear. Where there are other aspects to it and they take a different decision, that is a separate matter.

Clearly, I have opened up something here and I am glad that I have. For tonight, I will withdraw the amendment, but I think that we will probably be returning to this, or a wider debate.

Amendment 18 withdrawn.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.58 pm.

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