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The question to those of us who oppose the dropping of the wages board is: why is agriculture so different from other areas that it requires a continuing minimum standing wage? The fact is that every other wages board was abolished. The wages councils were abolished in the 1980s and 1990s and the average wage in those sectors dropped significantly. If this is a blatant wage-cutting exercise, we should be told. If, however, it is more that we want to develop a skilled, effective and competitive workforce in agriculture, people must recognise that there are several difficulties in this sector beyond those that have already been referred to.
I shall mention some in particular. My noble friend Lady Prosser referred to the rather close relationship that agricultural workers inevitably have with their farmer employer, particularly on small and medium-sized farms where there are only two or three employees. That is fine while it is good. As soon as it breaks down, however, the power relationship between the employer and the individual farm worker is incredibly imbalanced and the worker is incredibly isolated-literally, in geographical terms-because there are no workmates in the same situation.
The other dimension is that the farmer himself or herself is under severe pressure, to a degree that many other small businesses are not. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made reference to the role of the food chain in pressuring farm costs, particularly in relation to the supermarkets. I am glad that this Government have decided that they will take up with slightly more enthusiasm than the last Government the proposition for an ombudsman who will look at the contractual relationships between the farming industry and other small providers of food and the grocery chain. I very much commend them for that. However, this is moving in the opposite direction. Within a week or two of the legally binding minimum wages disappearing from horticulture and agriculture, the buyer from the supermarkets will say, "You now do not need to pay the wages that you have previously paid. You can lower your costs and your price to us and provide a significantly lower rate". The cost benefit, therefore, of cutting wages does not go to the farmer. The employees will lose their living standards and the profit from the whole process will go up the chain to the big processors and supermarkets. If that is what the Government want, it is not in the interests of the agricultural sector. Indeed, it is a downward spiral in the agricultural sector and something that they have recognised needs to be counted in other respects.
Another nefarious dimension of the labour conditions in the agricultural labour market relates to the seasonal and migrant workers operating in many parts of agriculture but particularly in horticulture and in the larger-scale vegetable sector. I was grateful to hear on Second Reading the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, ask why the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was in this Bill at all. Speaking as the ex-Minister who brought in that piece of legislation, I am glad that she and others have recognised what a successful operation that is beginning to be. However, it is an uphill struggle because, in this sector, the conditions of the workers are open to the widest exploitation. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has to check on a number of things. It clearly has to
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Another area-one that is absolutely essential in triggering the Gangmasters Licensing Authority's interest-is whether the Agricultural Wages Board provisions are being followed. If the legal basis for that disappears entirely, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority's ability to check whether appropriate wages and conditions are being paid by employers-many of whom will push their situation to the limits if they possibly can-is removed and a whole section of agricultural workers will lose one of their most important protections. These are just some reasons why agriculture, particularly the seasonal dimension of agriculture, drives us to think that a legal minimum ought to be retained.
I seriously ask the Government to reconsider this. I am not against the simplification of the wages board. I am not actually against the abolition of the wages committees. However, a basic minimum level of remuneration in agriculture would potentially avoid pretty substantial abuses, which I am sure that all parties in this House wish to avoid. I ask the Government to think again.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in so far as the Agricultural Wages Board has done a good job in the past, when it was badly needed. However, I cannot follow him in the rest of his arguments, except possibly his last statement, when he said that a legal minimum wage must be retained. Well, it will be retained, because there is the national minimum wage as the base floor. That solves the noble Lord's last point.
Besides the national minimum wage, there are the working time directives and regulations that have emanated from and will continue to come out of Europe, as we are increasingly bound in our employment laws by Europe. I firmly argue that the days of the Agricultural Wages Board are otiose. It can all but be done by the farmers with the current legislation in place, which gives the workers the security that they certainly did not have when this came in 1948.
Nobody has really mentioned Amendment 21 on the agricultural wages committees. Nobody has sought to defend those-not even the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. It is worth reminding the Committee of the hard work that these committees do. The only thing left to the agricultural wages committee is to appoint the members of the ADHACs. As we discussed in the last amendment, there are only eight applications for ADHACs, while there are 17 ADHACs. So a lot of people are wasting a huge amount of time and money. Perhaps it is the best thing that we get rid of them soon.
Lord Clark of Windermere: I support the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I do so in the same tone and with the same approach. The real point of these amendments at this stage is to try to ascertain what the Government's real intentions are. What do they have in mind for the agricultural wages in the years ahead? This House has a high reputation because
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That was 50 years ago. I accept that times have moved on. However, as we heard from my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Whitty, there may still be a case for that certainty. My noble friend Lady Prosser made the point very clearly and graphically on the relationship between the small teams-often a farmer and his employee-that work on so many farms. It is difficult because they do work for a team; it is embarrassing and awkward for both sides. That has been the substance that has kept the Agricultural Wages Board going for the 62 years that it has been in existence. There may be a case for that certainty to continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, quite rightly made the point that 154,000 individuals are covered by the Agricultural Wages Board. However, it is much more significant than that, because the Agricultural Wages Board provides the yardstick and benchmark for many other workers in rural areas. While they might not be encompassed by the Agricultural Wages Board, they are influenced, and their wages determined indirectly by it. Again, we are talking about a great many people.
In the spirit of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I must say that one thing that has disappointed me most about the Agricultural Wages Board in committee issues has been the lack of consultation. I was amazed to read a letter from Mr Jim Paice, who I know well and respect a great deal. He is a thoughtful and considerate man. In a letter dated 8 September 2010, which was circulated to the members of the Cumbria, Northumbria and Tyne and Wear AWC, he responds to comments about a lack of consultation. The letter states that,
That is not written in the same spirit in which Ministers have advanced their case in this House. I ask them to think a little more about this. With more consultation we are more likely to get a better result and a better conclusion. I hope that that negativity will disappear. As I say, I am very surprised that Mr Jim Paice wrote such a letter.
I stress the other main point that has been raised-that the Government argue that there is no longer a need for an Agricultural Wages Board as agricultural workers are protected by the national minimum wage. Of course they are; every worker in this country should be protected by the national minimum wage. However, as has been said repeatedly, that applies only to the basic agricultural wage, which currently is one penny an hour greater than the national minimum wage, so the amount is not
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Again, I am worried by the tone of the letter. If I am right in my submission that the agricultural industry is a modern, highly technical industry, we need to encourage and reward skills. However, I submit that if we leave this matter to individual negotiations, bearing in mind the points raised by my noble friend Lady Prosser, there will be an erosion of skills in the agricultural industry.
I will not go on for much longer but I am probing the Minister to try to ascertain how the Government foresee the future for agricultural workers and related workers in forestry and other land-based industries. There may be a case for rationalisation but I seek reassurance that the Government have thought this through.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate on these amendments, to which my name is attached. I will not detain the Committee for long. I declare an interest in that 10 of the happiest years of my life were spent working for Farmers Weekly, during which time I gained a lot of experience of the work of the Agricultural Wages Board. I was provoked to intervene in this debate by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. There is a profound misunderstanding that the national minimum wage can take care of the proper pay rates for agricultural workers. As my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has said, there are six grades of pay. As he pointed out, if it is to be left to those on the five grades above the minimum rate to negotiate with the farmer who employs them, it is not beyond the wit of man to imagine that some farm workers will face pay cuts. This must be the logic of it. The noble Earl shakes his head. If I have this wrong, I will gladly sit down and he can put me right on it, but the minimum wage does what it says on the tin: it sets a minimum wage, but takes no account of the grades above that. As my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has also said, those grades are there for a purpose. They are accepted by the employers, farmers, who recognise that increased productivity and the higher levels of skills that are needed must be rewarded, which means that there must be different grades for different levels of skills.
Most farm workers-they are a dwindling number-work in groups of two, three and four, working closely with their employer, the farmer. It is only when you get
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The last report of the Agricultural Wages Board that I could find in the Library was for 2007-08. It makes the point that the board does not deal just with wages. There have been demands from the workers' side for an all-industry pension scheme. How will that be dealt with now? What are the unions supposed to do now? To whom do they write? Will they write to the president of the National Farmers' Union of England, the president of the National Farmers' Union of Wales and the Farmers' Union of Wales and the NFU in Scotland? Is this the way that they are meant to proceed? Given the row about tithe cottages, who decides the value of the accommodation provided under the contract of employment to employees who live on the farm as part of their job? The national minimum wage will not take care of that. Who will take care of that? Will this be negotiated farm by farm across the length and breadth of England and Wales? This is a ridiculous way to engage in human relations and will cause immense resentment. I do not believe farmers are bad employers but they are not overgenerous with their money. As the last report of the Agricultural Wages Board notes, this is traditionally a low-pay industry, which is why the Agricultural Wages Board was established.
The Agricultural Wages Board does other things. For example, it has a helpline. Why does it need one? In 2002-03, 4,477 farm workers phoned the helpline because they felt they were not being paid the proper rate of pay; that rose in 2007-08 to 5,006. Who is going to deal with those complaints? Now if I say to my employer, the farmer, "Listen, George, I should be on this rate. This is what you should be paying now, it is what we agreed, and I am not getting it". Presumably George is going to turn round and say that the world has changed and we have the national minimum wage now. The Agricultural Wages Board was given the same powers as the national minimum wage authority
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I hope the Government will seriously think again about this proposal. The total budget of the board is £481,000 a year to bring some sense and fairness into this industry. If the Government are committed to doing away with the Agricultural Wages Board, I hope they will try to persuade employers to establish a forum where these matters can be discussed sensibly between all those who work in the industry, employers and workers, to avoid the chaos and unfairness that is bound to happen unless that is done.
Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and as an employer of staff in the West Country-not the county of Dorset, like the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, but next door in the county of Somerset. I had not really intended to get involved in this debate-I thought I would just let it wash on and see what came out-but I think that I should report to your Lordships from the real world of Somerset. If I was to reduce the wages paid on my farm down to the levels set by the Agricultural Wages Board, not the basic wage but the various craftsmen rates, I am fairly certain I would have a strike on my hands.
I rarely pay much attention to the Agricultural Wages Board or what it says. I can see that a guide on an annual percentage rise within the agricultural world is often quite useful. However, I dare say that in the absence of the Agricultural Wages Board there will be other means of arriving at such a benchmark system, and I am sure that the NFU and others will get together and provide us with one, if that is going to be needed.
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: I, too, wish to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the remarks made by several of my colleagues on these Benches. If this board was abolished in this rather casual way, without any suggestion of what should replace it, it would be regarded by writers in the future as a rather cruel joke, in view of the difficulty this area of the workforce has had to obtain normal collective bargaining resources. Now, fortunately, many workers belong to the union, UNITE, but there was a day when workers who wished to form trade unions in this vulnerable sector of the workforce were met by a very different response by their society.
This particular history does not die in the memories of those who are literate regarding trade union organisation. It is very surprising that the Government come forward with no suggestion of anything to replace this-one of the boards or councils set up in the early parts of this century to protect vulnerable sectors of the workforce that did not have the advantage of even the elements of collective bargaining. The existence of a minimum wage to cover the entire workforce is no argument at all. The Agricultural Wages Board can, and does, make very sensitive interventions, as my colleagues on these Benches have illustrated, with the modernisation of agriculture.
I very much hope that in reply the Minister does not resist the amendment-certainly not without any suggestion of what the Government foresee as the structure and protection of this area of the workforce. A raft of structures has been attached to the Agricultural Wages Board, such as the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees, as we have already discussed. I very much hope that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will be supported by this House in the interests not merely of labourers in agriculture but also of employers in the agricultural sector, who, as we have heard, also have an interest in the protection afforded by the Agricultural Wages Board.
Let me declare an interest-for 12 years I had the great privilege of leading the union to which agricultural workers belong and which represented them. I was general secretary at the T&G, and I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, who was my deputy general secretary. Part of our joint and collective responsibility was to pay a special interest to the work of our agricultural membership. We did that because in many instances they had a diffuse working environment, away from the collectiveness of the workplace found in factories, warehouses and even supermarkets. I am sure that the noble Baroness would have made some of the points I might make now, and for that I apologise again.
The noble Baroness and I campaigned, along with the rest of the trade union movement, to have a national minimum wage introduced because it gave certain standards. It also sent a very clear message about how workers should be treated and what sort of economy we want to build in the United Kingdom. If I thought for one minute that the agricultural wages board could have done the job that the national minimum wage is intended to do, we would not have bothered. We are talking about two separate and distinct bodies, with separate and distinct functions. The agricultural wages board is a joint industry body-it represents agricultural workers, sitting face to face with employers, and of course has an element of independence as well. It looks after the interests of young people, it is concerned about safety and it has a duty and responsibility that goes far beyond anything that the Low Pay Commission ever does.
The Low Pay Commission was set up by the Government of the day to deal exclusively with pay-nothing else and nothing more. Therefore, any consideration of abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, in the vain hope that the tasks, duties, responsibilities and obligations that it performs will be transferred to the Low Pay Commission, displays a level of ignorance which is quite threatening and worrying. The two bodies are different and they carry out different functions.
In fact, the Agricultural Wages Board was preceded by a body called the Fair Wage Resolution. Every so often a resolution would be passed to renew the principles of fair wages-nothing else but wages. However, it failed. Accidents were part and parcel of daily experience.
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When my union goes to Brussels and meets agricultural workers, we do not say, "What is the rate of pay in other parts of the European Union?"; we do not say, "What is now being looked at for holidays?"; but we talk about the issues of the industry. The Agricultural Wages Board is an advocate for the international industry; the Low Pay Commission is no such thing. It would not just be a backward step but a tragedy for British agriculture to have no voice which represented both sides of the industry and which could speak with an element of independence, nationally and internationally. Therefore, I genuinely ask the Committee and the Government to think again because they will be sending the wrong signals and putting a lot of people in a lot of danger. They are making a tragic mistake. I hope that they pull back from this.
This has been a very important debate, stimulated by my noble friend's amendment. There has been a remarkable chasm of opinion between those who view the winding up of the Agricultural Wages Board with concern and those who are either indifferent or supportive. The National Farmers' Union apparently has made its position clear. The one interest which has not been expressed in this debate so far from the point of view of an objective economist is: what will be the impact on rural development of a depression in farm workers' wages? That seems to be the natural consequence of the removal of this body, at least at the lower end of the scales.
I recognise that in some prosperous parts of the country, agriculture has to compete for skilled activity from people who could find alternative employment relatively easily in the area. Large parts of the south-west may be a good exemplification of that, but in the more sparsely populated areas there is not a superfluity of employment. There are not many alternative jobs available and it seems to me that a consequence of depression in income of those working on farms, whether at the top of the local scale or near the bottom, is likely to result in a further flight from the land. That has to be of concern. I cannot speak with the authority of a rural or agricultural economist, but I very much hope that the Government, in considering this proposition, have taken those considerations into account. If there is any evidence that can be revealed, I hope they will reveal it this afternoon or at a later stage of the Bill.
It seems to me that we are entering a process with great rapidity and perhaps with too little prior consideration of the consequences. We have all spoken from local experience, from personal experience and from different angles of vision, but those matters need to be drawn together if we are looking at a body which
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We need considerably more evidence about the impact on those parts of the country where income is low and the population is sparse but which play some part in meeting the nation's needs for agricultural production. We do not want to see the land deserted or visited purely for recreational purposes. I hope that we can get some more solid, factual information before the House is asked to reach a conclusion.
The Duke of Montrose: Perhaps I might intervene again. Having listened to the various speeches around the House and particularly to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, giving the story of the very essential and important work that the agricultural wages board has done over the years, we need to consider how things have moved on. One element which is very different now is that all employers and all jobs are subject to the Health and Safety Executive. All accidents must be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, so that deals with one element which perhaps the agricultural wages board used to look into.
The other point, which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, spoke about, is the difficulty in the grading of agricultural workers. One big difference now is that, in the nature of things, agricultural workers acquire certificates and they come with a grading of their own. If someone applies to you for a job, he can produce certificates of his skills and certain elements. In my part of the world, I do not see a danger of reduced wages because there is a shortage of skilled men and they are now, more or less, in a position to name their price.
Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I reinforce the argument made by my noble friend. I drove a tractor some time ago-1943, I think it was. Whether I was underage I will leave the House to decide. I remember that we were very happy if we got 30 hundredweights an acre. We stooped it, then it was put in a stack, and it was then thrashed by a threshing machine that came around at about this time of the year.
Today, you have a computer-controlled combine harvester that does the whole thing on its own. It is about two and a half times the width of the old cutters that we used to have. I will gamble that there are very few farmers that own one of those combines. There are some in Norfolk, in the grain area of the east of England, but in my part of England-in north Yorkshire-none of the farmers owns their own combine harvester. The contractors own it-and they do the potatoes as well. There are no labourers left in north Yorkshire in agriculture. No such person exists any longer. If there is not a skill, then you cannot employ anybody in agriculture in north Yorkshire-I am not sure about north Scotland.
I contend that-never mind the £8-something-you will not get that combine driven by anyone paid anything less than £10 an hour. The statistics that I would like
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Baroness Quin: My Lords, I, too, support strongly the amendment and pay tribute to the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, introduced this debate. It has been an interesting and powerful debate, and noble Lords from around the House have certainly brought their experience to bear on this issue. We even had the personal experience of my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere, who, at an earlier stage in his career, was affected by the decisions of the agricultural wages board.
We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the board, in one form or another, was established a long time ago-in 1924-and has been a tried and tested institution. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, also referred, as I think did the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, to industrial action. Happily there has not been industrial action in the agricultural industry since 1923-significantly, the year immediately before the establishment of the board. However, I support the agricultural wages board not simply because it has been here for a long time. The Minister misquoted me in our last debate when he said that I had said at some point,
I can assure him that I have never said anything remotely like that, and I am very often persuaded of the need for all kinds of change. I hope, after what has been said today, particularly by my noble friends and by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the Government will think again about the decision to abolish the agricultural wages board. I think they should reconsider it very seriously indeed in the light of this discussion.
It is my understanding that the Welsh Assembly Government criticised their notification of this as being totally inadequate; they were given one week to respond. Indeed, in an answer to a Question from the former Defra Secretary of State in the other place, Hilary Benn, again the lack of consultation was clearly evident. Given that the agricultural wages board has been a very long-standing feature of our economic and agricultural landscape, to have no consultation is very serious indeed.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: Would the noble Baroness agree that the debate has been forceful in indicating that consultation would be advisable and helpful, and that perhaps it would be sensible not to reach a conclusion on this matter in this debate, because evidently there is still a great deal of time left to consider the Bill?
Baroness Quin: The noble Lord makes an important point. Obviously, how we proceed is up to the author and introducer of the amendment to decide. None the less, given the number of questions that have been raised in this debate on all sides, and given the fact that there has been a very strong feeling in the Chamber that this is an issue about which there should be proper consultation, I am inclined to support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his comments. I am sure that, in the light of whatever response we get from the Government, we would very much want to return to this in any case, because it is obviously of great concern and interest to many Members in this House and, of course, to many people outside.
The issue of cost has once again been referred to. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his introductory comments, said that the cost of abolishing the board was very limited. In answer to a Parliamentary Question in the other place by Willie Bain, I understand that the Government said that the costs would be "negligible"; indeed that the,
Therefore this has not been brought forward to save a great deal of money, again like some of the measures that we were considering earlier. In many ways it seems to be part of a political agenda-a political decision-which I must say I very much regret. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, himself said that the abolition of the agricultural wages board was part of the Conservative manifesto but was certainly not part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It was not part of the coalition agreement, and for that reason I think that it would be very good if it were not part of government policy here and now. I know, having looked at the Liberal Democrat Voice on the internet, that there is a concern generally about the Bill among Liberal Democrats, but also about some of the specific proposals, including this one.
I know that some farmers have come out very much in favour of abolition of the agricultural wages board, including the NFU in England. It is interesting, however, that the National Farmers' Union in Wales has come out more in support of the retention of the agricultural wages board. Indeed, it and some other farmers have made the very important point that the agricultural wages board actually lifts from individual farmers the burden of negotiation. Quite understandably, this debate has focused on the effects of abolition on agricultural workers, but there is also a negative effect on many farmers who find the operation of the agricultural wages board helpful and valuable in terms of the recruitment and retention of skilled labour. The Government have said in the past, in debates in this House, that they value professionalism in agriculture; yet I fear that, by going down this route, we will undermine agriculture and show it as a low-paid profession where there is not proper protection for workers. We already know that agriculture is a dangerous industry in terms of accidents. We need to tackle that issue, which I think the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose,
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It would be good to hear from the Minister about discussions he has had with individual farmers, and in particular some of the farms in different areas in England which might have a similar farming structure to those in Wales. Many noble Lords have referred to what will happen when the agricultural wages board disappears, if it does, and indeed, how much importance we should attach to the fact that such workers would still be covered by the national minimum wage regulations. It is true that level 1 of the agricultural wages board structure is only 2p an hour more than the national minimum wage but, as my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale and others have pointed out, we have other levels of remuneration in agriculture. I understand that only 20 per cent of workers are on grade 1, so 80 per cent would lose substantial protection with the abolition of the agricultural wages board.
The whole issue of the agricultural wages board goes much further than the national minimum wage, as my noble friend Lord Morris of Handsworth said, as indeed did my noble friend Lord Whitty earlier in the debate. The national minimum wage provisions do not cover entitlements, many of which are currently covered by the Agricultural Wages Order, such as specific rates of pay for overtime, standby duty and night allowance, entitlement to bereavement leave, and birth and adoption grant. The agricultural wages board has responsibility for a large number of issues, on which it makes various rulings. The board also makes specific ruling for apprentices under the age of 19 during their first year of apprenticeship and considers the position of students on work placements of less than a year. It is important for the Government to address all those issues in giving us some assurance in how they see the way forward in this important area of policy. What safeguards will they put in place to guarantee the provisions that fall outside the national minimum wage regulations?
I listened to what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said. It is true that there is a framework of regulations and employment provisions in place, including the national minimum wage, the working time directive and various social measures from Europe to which he referred, but that does not give me great encouragement. At least the Conservative part of the coalition strongly opposed those measures in the past, and I am worried that this decision may be part of a wider pattern and attitude towards wage and employment conditions that we will regret.
So far there has been a deafening silence on what would replace the agricultural wages board, and I very much share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, when he referred to that. The board exists for a good reason. Indeed, my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Morris referred to this. There was a special reason why the agricultural wages board was retained when the other wages councils were abolished. It is very much to do with the fact that the industry involves individuals negotiating with an individual
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My noble friend Lord Whitty mentioned that the horticultural sector was particularly supportive of the abolition of the agricultural wages board and I am aware of some of the reasons, having had contact with representatives of the horticultural industry. Their concern arises very much from the pressure from supermarkets and the weakness they feel in their negotiations with them. I suggest that the best way of approaching that is to bring in the supermarket ombudsman and use the other measures that have been put forward to strengthen the agricultural industry's negotiating position with supermarkets. That would be much better than abolishing the agricultural wages board in the way proposed by the Government. In many ways, given some of the issues that have been raised in the agricultural sector by noble Lords today and from outside, it could be said that there is a case for strengthening or even extending the remit of the agricultural wages board rather than abolishing it.
I also want to ask the Minister about relations with devolved institutions. I understand that the intention is to cover England and Wales. Is the agreement of the Welsh Assembly Government necessary to bring about the abolition of the structure in Wales? Given the concerns expressed by both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh National Farmers' Union, it is an important point that we need to know. In a Written Answer in the other place, the Government said that legislation in the Welsh Assembly would not be necessary, so does that mean that the Government can simply abolish the board without reference to views in Wales on the desirability of its continuation?
The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, mentioned Scotland. I understand that there are no plans to get rid of its agricultural wages board and, indeed, agricultural wages were revised by the board in Scotland just last month. Therefore, there seems to be a commitment to the agricultural wages board in Scotland. It would be good to see England in the lead in some of these issues, rather than falling behind in our support of employees with a good level of wages and a good degree of protection in working conditions.
This House has been repeatedly concerned about the economic well-being of our rural areas. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, not very long ago introduced a debate on the uplands and his concern about living and working conditions there. The report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which I mentioned earlier makes important reading for Ministers as well as Members of this House. Certainly, that report refers to some of the higher costs of living in rural areas and the question of housing, which we dealt with earlier when discussing the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees. The foundation said that single working-age adults needed to earn £2,000 or
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In conclusion, I feel that this decision is a highly regrettable one if the Government decide to go ahead. It is not being done on grounds of cost but for political reasons. It is unjust, it is unfair, it does not make economic sense and it does not serve agriculture well. I hope that the Minister, in replying, will change tack and respond positively to the powerful concerns which have been expressed so well in this debate.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I will start, as is proper, by offering an apology to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for possibly misquoting her, as she alleged earlier in her somewhat lengthy speech. I am not sure whether I did, but I will look at the record and, if I have misquoted her, I will offer my sincere apologies for so doing. If I can quote her again, I noted that she made the point towards the end of her speech that there was possibly a case for strengthening the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I think that the noble Baroness accepts my quotation. I note that as a new commitment by the party opposite from its Front Bench.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, listened to his noble friend's speech with great attention and I was grateful for his admission that the Government of which he was part had considered the abolition of the agricultural wages board. They decided not to for reasons that I cannot speculate on, but the range of speakers who come from the other side might give some indication as to why they changed their mind on the issue. We have examined the issue again and we have decided to go ahead with abolition. I will try to set out just why we wish to do that.
When the wages board and the committees were established in 1948-in fact, they were established earlier than that, but the parent Act is the 1948 one-farm workers had very little protection available to them from exploitation. The close working relationship between workers and employers, where the former were often dependent on the latter for housing, meant that workers were often at a disadvantage in negotiations on wages. In these circumstances, it was sensible to provide an independent statutory forum where farm workers and employers could come together to agree pay and conditions. Since that time, we have seen tremendous changes in wider employment legislation, both nationally and, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, at an EU level, which protects and benefits workers in all sectors of the economy, including farm workers. Those changes include the introduction of legislation on the national minimum wage, which has been referred to. That makes it illegal to pay a worker below the current national minimum wage. There are also the working time regulations referred to by others, which, among other provisions, set a statutory minimum entitlement to a minimum wage.
For these reasons and all the changes that we have seen since 1924 and 1948, the agricultural minimum wage framework set out in that 1948 Act is, we believe, anachronistic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and the noble Lord, Lord Clark, put it, in more or less the same words, life moves on. I accept that life moves on. Life has changed considerably since 1948 and it is no longer necessary to do what the Act does and effectively duplicate and gold-plate wider employment legislation. It adds an unnecessary regulatory burden for businesses in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, many of which are small businesses. It is a particular burden for farm businesses that also operate in sectors outside those covered by the agricultural wages legislation and hence have to cope with dual regimes. Moreover, the agricultural wages legislation effectively prevents the payment of annual salaries and fair piece rates, preventing farm businesses from adopting modern, flexible practices. That can also be disadvantageous to the workers.
I will say a word or two about Amendment 21, which would remove from the Bill the agricultural wages committees. Most of the functions of those committees, as my noble friend Lord Caithness made clear, have lapsed in practice or have been replaced by wider legislation. As my noble friend put it, there are currently 15 committees in England and one in Wales and their only remaining active functions are to appoint members of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees and to report to the Secretary of State on their proceedings, which are now limited to holding an annual general meeting. I do not think that there is any case for retaining them.
It is for these reasons that we consider that the separate employment regime for agricultural workers is no longer appropriate. I am grateful again for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who pointed out that he was not going to get away with paying the lower wages that seemed to be suggested by the party opposite. People just would not accept them. The same could be said for the intervention from my noble friend Lord Eccles when he pointed out that the whole industry has changed too much in terms of the sophistication of the skills that are required for many workers to confine themselves to pay rates of the sort that we are talking about. We believe that by abolishing the agricultural wages board-
Lord Whitty: Apologies if the Minister was moving on to this point, but do the Government have an impact assessment of the effect of the abolition of the legal minimum on wage rates, given that when each of the other wages boards was abolished the rate in that sector fell? Clearly, there are always some who are paid more than the minimum, but have the Government done that calculation? If so, I think that we should know.
Lord Henley: I do not think that it is necessary for that work to have been done. As I said, we believe that with the abolition of the board the industry will be able to operate more flexibly, which would lead to more job creation and better opportunities. What the noble Lord and others have been asking us to do is
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Baroness Quin: If I could follow up on my noble friend's point, I thought that the Government had said that they would routinely carry out impact assessments in coming forward with legislation. I do not understand why they do not seem prepared to do so in this case.
Lord Henley: My Lords, as I made clear, I do not think that it is necessary in this case to carry out an impact assessment. If it was necessary, we would do so. What I am saying is that, after the abolition of the wages board, it is open to the industry to look at its own arrangements. That is why I was grateful for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who said that the NFU could do this, but I do not see why the NFU cannot do it along with Unite and all the other representatives of the industry.
I appreciate that we have now spent an hour and a half discussing these matters. We will no doubt come back to this in due course. My noble friend Lord Maclennan said that there was still much time to discuss these matters. There certainly will be time, because noble Lords opposite wish to make sure that there is. We will discuss these matters further, therefore, but I have not heard anything yet this afternoon that would encourage me to say that there was a case for preserving the agricultural wages board or the agricultural wages committees. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I thank everybody who has taken part in an excellent and sensibly tempered debate with a huge amount of expertise on an important issue. It is curious that we are having this kind of debate on the Public Bodies Bill, which is not, on the face of it, about agricultural wages or, indeed, about many of the other things that we will debate in the course of its consideration in Committee, except that it is about everything. It is a curious Bill about everything and nothing but, if it leads to debates like this, the Committee will be doing the Government a service as well as the country generally.
I was particularly taken by the range of expertise in the debate. I do not want to reply to everybody, because it would take far too long, but I was slightly amused by what the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, said in her excellent contribution. It took me back to the great Liberal Governments of a hundred years ago, who had a great deal to do with the introduction
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The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is one of a large number of speakers with ministerial experience, particularly in this area, who are distinguished Members of the House. He referred to the possible involvement of the Low Pay Unit as part of the solution to this conundrum. I am aware that such discussions are taking place in some areas. Whether they will come to anything, I do not know, but at least there is some time to pursue them and other discussions in the mean time.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, got me wondering about what I would do if I had my time again. I thought that I would perhaps have liked to have had a more outdoors life. If it were a choice of looking after sheep on a Scottish hillside or looking after the cattle of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, there would be no real choice: I would spend my life on the noble Duke's Scottish mountainside and probably enjoy myself more than I have done, although I have enjoyed a great deal, especially being able to stand and make speeches in your Lordships' House.
The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, raised an important question: do the Government have the facts about agricultural wages at the moment? How many agricultural workers are at the moment on the basic levels of pay set out by the agricultural wages board? I have not seen this information, but it must exist somewhere. How many of them are working for more enlightened employers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, or perhaps for employers who are exposed to a market that requires that they pay higher wages, or for a combination of both? We need that information before we can get to the bottom of how much the existing protection is required. Unite, among others, is saying that it has evidence of farmers telling their existing workers that if the protection is removed their wages will go down. I do not know whether this is tittle-tattle or hard evidence, but we need evidence to probe and investigate in the mean time.
Some noble Lords have argued that the legislation is not needed because they know of lots of people who are paid more than the level set out or, indeed, who employ people who are paid more than the level set out. I take that with a slight pinch of salt because you could apply that argument to the national minimum wage. Most people in this country are paid more than the national minimum wage, a lot of people are paid a great deal more than the national minimum wage and some people are paid astronomical sums-millions of pounds a year, according to what we read in the newspapers-but just because a lot of bankers are apparently paid these huge salaries is no argument for saying that the national minimum wage is not necessary or is not a good thing, because it protects a lot of other people who need protection. Again, I think that we need the kind of facts that the noble Viscount suggested that we should have. I hope that the Government will find it possible to dig out those facts, circulate them and write to all noble Lords who have taken part in today's debate.
Having said that and having said what an excellent House of Lords debate this has been, with propositions made, questions asked and debates enjoined, I should add that the other part of the equation that is traditionally necessary in the House of Lords is for the Government to listen to what has been said, think about it and respond to it. I thought that I detected in the Minister some softening and some willingness to continue to take part in the debate. I hope that that is the case. He said that we will discuss these issues again further. I hope that he did not mean that we will have to wait until Report, when we can have a set-piece battle with everybody lining up with their pitchforks or whatever people use nowadays instead of pitchforks. I hope that the discussion will take place in the several weeks that will be available to us before we get to Report.
Let us keep talking and let us have further discussions wherever we can. Let us bring the matter back on Report if we need to, but in the mean time let us hope to find a way through the issues that have been raised today and find some sort of compromise. Let us distinguish between closing down a quango, which the Government are adamant they want to do, perhaps saving quite a bit of the £250,000-plus that it costs to run, and keeping at least some of the functions, which might be carried out by somebody else. Even if that is not possible, let us understand what kind of negotiating system and procedure there might be in future between employers and employees at a national level and what sort of guarantee there might be that that will result in solutions that will stick rather than advice that can be ignored.
There is a great deal to be discussed further. The burden to business is being exaggerated a little, but with reform, modernisation and streamlining of the system it might be possible to reduce quite a few of those burdens without taking away the essential safeguards of the floors that exist to protect a group of people who, as many noble Lords have said, are more vulnerable than many other groups nowadays. The world has changed, so let us change the systems in response to that without taking away what is valuable.
I think that there is a general view around the Committee that we should not divide on this occasion. Indeed, in view of what I have said, it would be totally inappropriate for me to ask for the opinion of the Committee at this stage. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Rosser: My Lords, the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal organises compensation in connection with the nationalisation of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries. It hears appeals on valuations with a right of appeal ultimately to the Supreme
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Viscount Eccles: We seem to concentrate only on whether something saves money, but the public are not interested only in saving money. They believe they are over-governed, that there is too much regulation and too much interference in their lives, and that there are too many bodies carrying out functions which most likely could be carried out better somewhere else. They want to see the system simplified, and I believe that this House should remember, when they are discussing these matters, that it is not only a matter of money; it is also a matter of making life less complicated.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I am pleased to move on to this series of amendments, and I will first turn to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal. This was set up under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 and related to the nationalised industries in aircraft manufacture and shipbuilding. These nationalised industries no longer exist and the tribunal is redundant. Similarly, the purpose of abolishing British Shipbuilders as a corporation is to simplify the administration of the funding and handling of British Shipbuilders' residual liabilities. These liabilities will be transferred directly to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which will provide a long-term solution to managing these liabilities.
The Government are committed to making compensation payments to former employees of British Shipbuilders, and I can give an indicative figure of the level of those compensation payments. They come to about £7 million a year. I hope that helps. The tribunal itself does not cost anything, as there are no standing costs and it does not have any employees. The compensation payments for former employees cover such injuries as mesothelioma, which were the result
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British Shipbuilders Corporation was set up under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977. The corporation has no active trading operations and exists solely to meet its residual liabilities-litigation, insurance claims and other contractual matters- relating to its former employees. British Shipbuilders is effectively a shell company. In light of my assurances, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Rosser: I am not entirely sure whether the Minister was also replying to Amendment 24 as well as Amendment 22. Amendment 22 is about the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal, which is the one that hears appeals over valuation in relation to the nationalisation of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries. As far as I understood it, we were dealing with Amendment 22 separately. It seemed to me-though I am obviously prepared to stand corrected-as though some of the comments that the Minister made related to Amendment 24, which is about British Shipbuilders and any subsidiary of that company. I did raise a number of points-
Lord Taylor of Holbeach I did speak to Amendment 24 because my speaking notes represented a grouping which is not current, and I apologise to the noble Lord. Perhaps he will confine himself to my response in respect of the tribunal, because that is what he was speaking to. I apologise.
Lord Rosser: I was not entirely clear about what the Minister said. He did say that it was moribund, so do I take it that the answer to my question as to how many times it met in each of the past three years is that it has not met at all? Is it the case that, despite the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, no costs are being incurred by this body, because it is moribund and it has not met?
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, this draft order makes a number of modest policy and technical changes to the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007. The 2007 order makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales and was made under the powers in the Government of Wales Acts 1998 and 2006. It also comprehensively reflects changes made to electoral law since the previous order in 2003 and, in particular, by the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
While this draft order only numbers some 10 pages, the 2007 order runs to some 273 pages in total, so I do not intend to speak in any great detail about its contents. I do intend, however, to outline the main changes that will be made to it by the amending order before the House this evening.
Article 3 amends the definitions of Assembly constituency, Assembly electoral region and elector in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with the Government of Wales Act 2006. The relevant provisions in the Government of Wales Act 2006 did not commence until after the 2007 order was made. The definition of elector also reflects changes to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which were made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. This includes references to anonymous voters.
Article 4 makes amendments relating to registration appeals, where decisions on appeals about entries in the register in respect of postal votes are determined before the election. These decisions will now take effect and the register altered. The article also clarifies the relevant provisions under which an appeal can be made and a notice of alteration issued. Article 5 makes an important change to the 2007 order, under which the election agent for a candidate who stands in an Assembly regional election must have an office in that region.
A number of political parties raised concerns about this requirement during the 2007 elections, as a political party might wish to appoint only one election agent to represent all the regional candidates for that party in an Assembly election. The previous provision, which required the election agent to have an office in the region, prevented them from doing so. Following a recommendation by the Electoral Commission, made after the 2007 Assembly election, this requirement is being relaxed so that an agent's office must be located within Wales.
Articles 6 and 7 make minor changes to the 2007 order that reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007. If a legal professional is found guilty of a corrupt practice during an election campaign, an election court must inform bodies capable of exercising regulatory functions over the legal profession. Article 6 expands the definition of these bodies. Article 7 amends the relevant part of the 2007 order which expands the definition of who the Director of Public Prosecutions may send as his representative to attend election courts.
Articles 8 and 9 amend references in Schedules 1 and 3 of the 2007 order respectively which we subsequently found to be incorrect. Article 10 makes perhaps the most substantive change to the 2007 order by changing the design of the constituency and regional ballot
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Noble Lords will know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill before this House provides for the referendum on the alternative vote system for electing Members to the other place to be combined with the elections to the National Assembly on 5 May next year. The provisions within this draft order are not affected by the combination provisions.
The Government and the Welsh Assembly Government are committed to working together to ensure that the polls next May are a success. Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission and chief counting officer for the alternative vote referendum, who will have the lead role in the combined polls, said last month that the commission believed that,
In conclusion, in preparing this order, the Wales Office has worked closely with electoral administrators, including the regional returning officer for Wales, the Electoral Commission, the Welsh Assembly Government and the four major political parties in Wales. I commend the order to the House.
Baroness Gale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this order before us today. Although this is not a milestone on the devolution road which we travelled last week, it is nevertheless an important order, although largely technical in nature. As the Minister has said, it corrects drafting errors in previous legislation and its provisions update the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, bringing the 2010 order in line with changes to electoral law effected under either the Government of Wales Act 2006 or the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
Article 3 updates the definitions in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with those in the Government of Wales Act 2006. It also updates the definition of elector as set out in the current definition in the Representation of the People Act 1983. We agree with this tidying-up amendment. We welcome the change proposed in Article 5 of the 2010 order that amends Article 39(2)(b), which stipulates that the office of an election agent for a regional election should be within that region. This amendment is in keeping with suggestions made by the Electoral Commission to allow election agents for the regional elections to have their office anywhere in Wales and not solely within the region. This practical amendment makes sense: in most cases the campaign for the
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We are content that the amendments in Articles 6 and 7 reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007, which expands the description of bodies regulating the legal profession that must be considered by election courts and describes the duty of the Director of Public Prosecutions. These are reasonable and appropriate amendments and we would support them.
We are content with the changes to Schedule 10 described at Article 10 of the amended order relating to the format of the ballot papers for the Assembly constituency elections and for the regional elections. The changes improve the ballot paper, making them easier to understand, and correct omissions on one of the forms and one of the poll cards used in the elections. They are rational and evidence-based.
I believe that this format for the ballot papers is much easier and clearer for the voters. In the case of regional list ballot papers, electors are asked to vote for a political party rather than for a named political party candidate, unless of course the candidate is an independent. Will the Minister confirm that a full list of candidates will be on display at the polling station?
We agree with the order before us. They are sensible and practical amendments to the elections laws for the Welsh Assembly elections on 5 May next year. Agreeing to them tonight means that they will be in place in time for those elections. I am pleased to say that we support these amendments.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, there are two good reasons why one should welcome this order. The first is that the House is not experiencing any problem as far as seating is concerned. The second is that, for once in the history of Wales, we have a development that seems to be applauded generally and totally by everyone. That is almost unique in a land of such fissiparous divisions as my own land and nation of Wales. The Electoral Commission and all those bodies responsible for these amendments are to be commended on the way in which they have conducted themselves. They have consulted fully and have managed to achieve a rapport among all bodies. All that is involved in the order are amendments that are consequential on legislation that this House and the other place have passed over the past four years.
Having said that, perhaps I may, with the indulgence of the House, take one minute to mention other matters. No one can speak of elections in Wales without being aware of the vulturous presence of legislation that will in a few months affect Wales greatly. I refer specifically to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which will deprive Wales of one-quarter of its constituencies. That is an immense proportion. Reducing the number of constituencies of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by 50 will mean a reduction of one-thirteenth. If my mathematics is anywhere near right, that is about 7.8 per cent of the totality. In Wales, it will be 25 per cent.
Many people may say, "Well, come off it, you have managed to have this advantage for many decades. Has not the time come when you should surrender this advantage?". That exact point was put to the right
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If the House wishes to have a sleepless and nightmarish experience over the next few hours, one need only contemplate the possibilities of what will happen not in May 2011 but in May 2015-assuming that Parliament will by then have passed an Act making the life of Parliament a solid five years, no more and no less. It will mean that the elections to the Welsh Assembly will coincide exactly with the elections to Westminster, and people will be in constituency A of the House of Commons but constituency B of the Welsh Assembly. It is, as I say, a wholly terrifying and nightmarish consideration. But that is not strictly relevant to this issue.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I appreciate the words of both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, both of whom I consider as colleagues and as friends. However, looking at this order, I am not quite as appreciative of it as others who have spoken. There is some concern that the order distances us from local areas and local people. It is true that you can have one agent for the whole of Wales, but it means that the Wales campaign is centralised, not localised-or it can be. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, knows more about this than I do. So you could have a central campaign that does not reflect local interests.
There was a time when I was a young candidate and every ward had its own committee room on election day and every constituency had its central committee room-its swyddfa ganolog. Then there is the region. Yes, you can get on in the region, but remember that Welsh regions, like Scottish regions, are quite massive sometimes; they can stretch for many miles. The agent is far away, even at a regional level, from the local activity. We could possibly accept this, but some may remember when we had not one agent for Wales, but we had subagents covering so many areas of a constituency. To have an office located anywhere in Wales could present difficulties in the organisation of election days and electoral officers. It needs to be very well thought out.
The region-less ballot paper-the new one that has been presented to us-is far less cluttered than previously because, as has been stated, no candidate's name is printed. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested that Scotland has the same kind of ballot paper. Is this the first time in the United Kingdom that we have had a ballot paper with just the party's name but no candidates? Is this a step in the right direction? I can understand why, because many parties-my own included, I am sure-have in the past nominated, say, 12 candidates for each region. Let us say that you have six or seven different parties contesting and most of them give you a dozen candidates. Wow, that ballot paper will be very cluttered. But to go further in a different direction and simply say Conservative, Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Greens, without
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I would ask-and other people are thinking this way-that we do not put 12 names for each party, but that we print the four top names selected by each party on the ballot paper of a regional list. At least we would have a personal involvement. People will have some idea about who they are going to return, not just someone who they have never heard of and whose name is totally strange to them. I speak to the Minister as a very dear friend of mine. I hope it is not too late to amend this order. I suggest we have four names-it might be three, it might be five-so that we keep that personal link with the regional list members as well as with the constituency members.
What you are doing also is that you are increasing the authority of a party and making it far superior to the individual candidate. Is this a danger? I think it is a dangerous step-a very dangerous step. We do not have to take that step-it is not too late-because we can amend it to include the lead names for each party.
I am more than happy with the constituency ballot paper. It is clear and the sort of ballot paper that we are more or less used to. Mind you, there is one great sadness. You are asked to put an X in one of the boxes. I hope the time comes when we do not ask for Xs but for 1, 2,3, and 4 and we have a proportional system.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, in so far as that particular specimen ballot paper is concerned, has the noble Lord noticed that all the names used were Anglo-Saxon ones-there was not a Jones, an Evans, a Morgan or a Williams? It may very well be that this was done, as lawyers would say, ex abundanti cautela-out of an abundance of caution; I must say it struck me as rather strange that there was not a single Welsh name among them.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: I of course defer in this to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan; he not only has one name on the ballot paper, he has two. I am reduced to the very inferior status of a Roberts, but, as a Roberts, I say, yes, I welcome the constituency ballot paper. Then I ask the Minister to look again at the absence of names on the regional ballot paper. I think that we may have to accept the one agent for the whole of Wales, although I still remember the ward committee rooms with great affection.
Lord Jones: The National Assembly for Wales is a real success. It is striking out on its own trajectory. It is barely 10 years old, but it has done so much and has grown in stature. To cut the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales by 25 per cent is something of a folly. No doubt we can return to this matter another time, but it cannot be right.
I acknowledge the erudite introduction by the Minister, and I also thank my noble friend Lady Gale for her observations from the Dispatch Box. If anybody knows about elections in Wales, it is my noble friend, for she has a magnificent record of general election campaigning in Wales. The statistics indicate that hers were always the best results for the Labour Party throughout Britain. My noble friend is very surefooted in the matters delineated in the order. Yes, it is a tidying-up measure and not controversial. I support it. Surely it will be passed.
It is good to see the parity given to both languages in this order. The Government cannot be too careful on matters concerning language in Wales. Language is now at the forefront of consideration in public life in Wales, and I think that it will remain so. I am glad that the order has comprehended that.
I think Sir Humphrey lives; it is a delicious catch-all. Constitutional change always fetches up example after example of such glorious lines as that. What fun the civil servants must have had; how enjoyable the draftsmen must have found it. Sir Humphrey lives and, without a doubt, devolved government presents for all of us here in your Lordships' House a perpetual learning curve.
In the schedule, the mock constituency ballot paper and the mock regional ballot paper are very helpful. There is an interesting coincidence where Sarah Gale is concerned. I am looking again at surnames-there is no relation of course. I very much agree with my noble friend that there are no genuine Welsh names, and I would not be the first in this debate to point that out. It cannot be right. My noble friend was right in his mischievous and humorous way to tell us of that fact.
In the 1997 Parliament in another place, the then Madam Speaker appointed me as the chairman of a new committee, the Political Parties Committee. The committee was to settle upon the description of a political party's name-the words describing the party. It was also to settle upon the logo that that party could adopt. It is interesting now to see the ballot papers proposed. All the political parties in Great Britain, and some that one never knew existed, came forward with their logo and their self-descriptions. I had been on the Intelligence and Security Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, for some 11 years, but I learnt more about the Communist Party of Great Britain from its description of itself than I ever did from being a member of that committee.
Lord German: My Lords, perhaps I may make a short intervention in support of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno on the issue of the regional ballot paper. It will give me the opportunity also to answer one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the coincidence of elections. It is incidental to the order, but I cannot resist the opportunity of answering that point.
There is a long and noble tradition in our electoral system of people being able to vote for people. If I have to look at the wall of a polling station to find out who will be elected if I put my vote against a party's name, it is not quite the same as having the name there on the ballot paper. I understand the point about numbers, but only four people can be elected from the regional lists for any constituency in Wales. If the top four names for each of the parties are given, people will be able to say, "If I am voting for this party, I am voting for these four people in this order". It will be quite clearly laid out on the ballot paper. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to consider this matter and see whether it chimes with political parties and the Electoral Commission for the elections next year.
On the coincidence of elections, we now have four elections in Wales: a European election, a National Assembly election, local council elections and elections for the other place. After the Bill passes, as we assume it will, there will be two five-year terms, for the European elections and the elections to the other place, and two four-year terms, for local authority and National Assembly elections. The National Assembly has previously moved elections for local government so that they do not coincide. The one, obvious way out of this difficulty whereby elections might clash on any number of occasions in the future-just as local elections and National Assembly elections would have clashed in the past-is to make all elections have five-year terms. We have two elections with fixed terms, European and Westminster; it seems that we should do the same for National Assembly and local elections.
These are personal views. I am testing them on this House so that people might consider them as a way out of the confusion created by having two sets of elections occurring at different intervals. Those of your Lordships who are good at mathematics will know that, if you have two fives and two fours, the fives and the fours will eventually clash. If it is logical to have fixed-term Parliaments for Europe and for the other place, it might be logical also for the National Assembly and local councils. If the logic is that fixed terms give you more time to make your programme of government work, that logic can be applied also to the National Assembly and local government.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the order. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, rehearsed his speech for the debate that we will undoubtedly have during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I rather suspect that it will fall to me to answer that part of the Bill. At least I am well prepared by knowing from where the attack will come, and I can expect it also from the noble Lord, Lord Jones.
There will undoubtedly be an opportunity to consider the coincidence of elections when we come to debate the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill-I hear the point made by my noble friend Lord German. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and the House will perhaps
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The two issues of concern to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno related to the location of the agent's office and the names on the ballot paper, which my noble friend Lord German mentioned as well. The relaxation of the rules for agents is only for the regional election. The order states that the office must be "in Wales". It could be in the respective regions, given that they are all in Wales. Only if political parties choose to have one agent for every regional election will it now be possible for an office not to be in every region. That arose during the 2007 election and has been taken forward. No party has objected to the change. I remind my noble friend that this rule applies to the agent's office and not to the candidate's offices. Candidates will still have offices in the respective Assembly constituencies. I hope that that gives some reassurance to my noble friend, who I know will engage in the electoral battles with the same gusto as I have seen from him over many years.
It shows just how much attention I pay that I had thought that names had been on the regional list for the previous Scottish elections; I am told that they were not, that that already is the case in Scotland. Such was my enthusiasm to vote for Scottish Liberal Democrats, I did not pause to notice whether the names were there or not. The names of the candidates will be displayed in the polling stations. My noble friend asked whether it would be possible to amend or reduce the number of names to four. That could happen only with the agreement of all the political parties that would be putting up more than four candidates; and although that agreement has been sought, it has not been forthcoming. It could be done by primary legislation, but clearly there will not be an opportunity for primary legislation between now and the elections.
The Government did give careful thought, and did consult the main political parties in Wales, before deciding which was the appropriate way to go forward. In the regional elections voters cast their votes predominantly on the basis of party affiliation rather than individual candidates, although independents can of course stand; and we believe that the change will help ensure that ballot papers do not become unduly unwieldy if all the names are on them. I am advised that representatives of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Party agreed the proposal, while the Welsh Liberal Democrats did not object. No comments were received from the Welsh Conservative Party, although it was circulated with it. The change is strongly supported by the Electoral Commission and by the representatives of the Association of Electoral Administrators in Wales, including the regional returning officer for Wales.
After every election there is a wash-up by the Electoral Commission. No doubt in May next year, this may be something that the respective political parties may wish to reflect on with the Electoral Commission in the light of that experience.
With regard to the sample names that have been mentioned, I had noted-the noble Lord, Lord Jones, beat me to it-that the candidate on the constituency ballot paper representing the farmers of Wales was Sarah Gale. I am not sure of the Welsh origin, if there is any Welsh origin, of the name which the noble Baroness is no doubt proud-
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Even more damning, I suspect. I rather suspect that the names were put there to be neutral. I only conclude on this point by noting that in the regional ballot paper, where there is one independent named, he goes under the name of Xavier Alfonso. I may be wrong, but it does not sound like the name of a boy from the valleys to me.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said that this was perhaps a unique moment given that all sides were applauding a particular order; and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, commended the order for its evidence base, for being practical and for being sensible. I think there is general agreement. I have no doubt that when the time comes, the respective parties will engage in electoral combat with great passion, but no matter which party we belong to-or none-it is in all our interests that these elections are conducted effectively and efficiently, and I believe that with this order, we put in place the machinery for doing so. I commend the order to the House.
Lord Warner: My Lords, my amendment would add the Audit Commission to Schedule 1. I move it not because I wish to abolish the Audit Commission-quite the reverse-but because I wish to probe the thinking of the Government on why it has been excluded from the Bill while other bodies have been included in Schedule 1.
The utterances of Conservative Ministers in the coalition have been extremely critical of the Audit Commission and there has been a steady trickle of briefing against it from within the CLG so I, in my naivety, had rather assumed that Mr Eric Pickles would have been rather keen to rid himself of this body at the earliest legislative opportunity. Perhaps, let us hope, he has had a damascene conversion against abolition but more probably, as I suspect from my own intelligence, it is proving a bit more difficult than he thought to dismember the Audit Commission. That sort of impetuosity is typical of the way in which much of this Bill has been produced: decide first and think about what the reasons were afterwards.
I should acknowledge that, over the years, my path has crossed several times with the Audit Commission, so I could be said to have an interest to declare. In 1986, the commission produced an excellent report on community care which, to their credit, the Conservative Government acted upon. I was very involved with the reforms that followed that commission report, and again, 10 years later in 1996, when the commission produced a withering critique on the state of the youth justice system under the Conservatives that in its turn led to the establishment of the Youth Justice Board in 1999-an issue that we will debate later under an amendment in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. Then, when I was a Health Minister, the commission helped to sort out some arcane, unworkable NHS accounting rules and provided much technical help on NHS reform, certainly to me. The fact that this commission has been capable for many decades of speaking truth to power has been a continuing feature of its work, but it seems to be a quality that has been little valued by some senior Ministers in the coalition Government. The way that this Bill has been produced rather confirms that.
I will not spend a lot of time today explaining why abolition of the Audit Commission is a thoroughly bad decision and will do much damage to good governance and efficiency in the public sector. There will be plenty of time to do that when, as I suspect, the Government eventually find a way to swing the legislative axe next year. However, I shall mention one issue that affects many public bodies but which, it is clear, has not been adequately thought about before the Government decided to abolish the Audit Commission-how to ensure that all local public bodies have an audit system based on clear principles of independence. We will not go into that tonight but I want to register that point.
There is no doubt that the Audit Commission has curbed the fees of the big accountancy firms for auditing public bodies and that its removal is likely to unleash significant increases in public expenditure thereafter. This is the kind of thing that we would expect to have spelt out in any impact assessment on legislation on the Audit Commission. However, if one looks at this Bill, one actually sees what I can only describe as contempt for Parliament, with the publication of an impact assessment that has no costs and benefits assessment in it about these bodies in Schedule 1. There is nothing there to tell us what the benefits and costs are of doing the things that the Government want done through Schedule 1. That is one reason why many of us are so concerned about the Bill.
Some of us would say that the impact assessment produced for the Bill is a scandal and is contemptuous of Parliament. That is one reason why the Minister is going to find, as we plod our way through Schedule 1, that we continue on body after body to ask for information-the same thing was asked earlier today-about the costs of deleting and abolishing these bodies and what the benefits are. If the Government had done it properly in the Bill's impact assessment, they would be making faster progress. I do not want to carry on too far in that vein, but I remember some of the speeches that Mr Francis Maude made before the election about this; getting rid of quangos was all about saving money. I want to ask why, in an exercise that started off being about saving public money, we do not have any figures about the costs and benefits of getting rid of these bodies.
I now turn to the main reason for this amendment. I am afraid that I have a lot of questions for the Minister and let me assure him that they are not rhetorical. Do the Government still intend to abolish the Audit Commission, or have they had a change of heart? If so, how do they propose to do it, given that the commission is not in Schedule 7, so cannot be brought within the scope of the Bill? If the Government are going to use bespoke primary legislation to deal with changes to the Audit Commission, as seems to be the case, why are they not applying the same approach to some of the bodies in Schedule 1? For example, why is there not specific primary legislation amending the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to make the changes to the Youth Justice Board that they seek? Why are bodies such as the Youth Justice Board being treated differently from the Audit Commission when their functions and membership were all set out in primary legislation after due consideration by Parliament? There is not a scrap of difference between some of the bodies in Schedule 1 and the Audit Commission in that regard.
Can the Minister give the House any coherent explanation of why the Government are picking and choosing between different bodies on the legislative way they make changes to them? If so, what is that explanation? If the Government cannot give those kinds of explanations, why should this House not, as part of its constitutional duty, continue to debate every body in Schedule 1 one by one, to find out what was behind the Government's thinking and how they propose to change functions and to alter and amend the nature of the affected bodies?
I draw attention, without being too vainglorious, to the fact that as a Health Minister I abolished 20 arm's-length bodies. However, if you go back over the records, you will see that we plodded our way through, organisation by organisation, bringing primary legislation to both Houses of Parliament, setting out the arguments as to why it was important to make changes and what were the legislative requirements for making those changes. People had a chance to put their views and we had some tussles in this House and in the other place about some of those changes. The Government are not giving Parliament the opportunity to do that on many of the important bodies which they have decided are for the chop in Schedule 1.
I would like answers to the questions I have posed. I understand that the Minister may not be able to answer them all today, but I would like answers well before Report as to why the Government are picking and choosing how they deal with particular bodies. I do not think that it will be too taxing for the Government to answer my questions. We have heard that the Government carefully scrutinised the 900 or so bodies that have been looked at since May before coming to the conclusions that they have reached. As an old Whitehall hand, I am sure that tucked away in the cupboards and computers of Whitehall are umpteen files-in digital or another form-that set out the careful analysis that has no doubt gone into the decisions reflected in Schedule 1. There will have been detailed cost-benefit analyses of each of these bodies before they were put in Schedule 1. No doubt great care was taken with the accounting officers in those departments to make sure that there would be no minutes of their reservations. I look forward to seeing the Minister's arguments for why they have taken a different approach for the Audit Commission from their approach to many of the bodies in Schedule 1.
I spent some time picking over the disparity between what the Government are doing with the Audit Commission and their approach to the bodies in the Bill. This is because I have grave concerns about giving Secretaries of State-who, historically, may not be all that long in their jobs-powers to sweep away bodies about which they get a bee in their bonnet. All of us who have been Ministers get a bee in our bonnet from time to time about people who may be thwarting us or giving us uncomfortable messages. It does not mean that we reach for the axe or turn the screws on particular bodies to vent our spleen. We are getting nervous messages from many of these bodies about this approach, which makes me think that we need to hold the Government much more to account over the Bill than they might wish.
That is why Schedule 7 is so dangerous. It is a list of 150 bodies over which any number of Secretaries of State can work themselves up into a lather and behave-if I may say so-probably in an extremely British way but, nevertheless, in a way that exerts pressure on the thinking and behaviour of those bodies. We need a more measured approach and we need the Government to come cleaner than they have about the arguments for and against dealing with the bodies in the way they propose in Schedule 1. I beg to move.
Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I have not the good fortune to have been in this House for very long. I have had two sessions here. One, in 1999, was rather short, but I have been here from 2004 until today. I do not know a great deal about the procedure of this House, but that sounded extraordinarily like a Second Reading speech. Perhaps I am mistaken, but that is how it sounded to me.
I will briefly offer a little comfort about impact assessments. This is, admittedly, a framework Bill, and there is a long list of bodies in Schedules 1 to 6. Whenever a Secretary of State wishes to put down an order to abolish, to change funding or to merge, he will have to produce an affirmative instrument. Affirmative
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How will this House look at them? There is a committee called the Merits Committee, on which I was fortunate enough to serve for four years. That committee, as your Lordships know, looks carefully at every instrument. If it thinks that it is right to draw something to the attention of this House, it does so. If it thinks that the policy in the instrument is inconsistent with the Government's declared policy, it says so. Then that affirmative instrument is debated.
It has been said-and we shall come back to this-that there should be some enhanced procedure, allowing Parliament to debate the thing in more detail because, it is said, Parliament does not usually turn down affirmative instruments. Nevertheless, we have that power. I believe, if the noble Lord, Lord Warner, will forgive me, that to reiterate that there is no impact assessment is to misunderstand the way in which the Bill has been put together. If you believe that this Bill should not have been put together as it was and that we should do whatever will be done only by primary legislation, what you are saying is that we will do only half a dozen bodies a year, because that is about all we would ever get the parliamentary time for.
Lord Warner: The noble Viscount may wish to interpret this as a Second Reading speech, but I thought that I was asking a very serious question about why some of these bodies are in Schedule 1 when they are fundamentally not that much different from the Audit Commission, which is not in Schedule 1. I am trying to understand the Government's criteria for including some bodies but not others in this Bill. That is the whole purpose of my speech. I say to him, with the greatest respect, that debating the detail of an order some many months after the passing of this Bill will be too late. Those of us who have experience of chairing and being a member of staff of some of these public bodies would say to him that, once you have signed the death warrant-that is what the Bill is-you have no hope of retaining a great deal of talent in some of these bodies. That melts away. It is a perfectly rational, human response to a death warrant being signed on the organisation that you work for. It is a bit late in the day, when we get to the order, to start having the debate about whether it was a good idea in the first place.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This has been a very interesting short debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Warner for allowing us to debate the Audit Commission and some of the matters that arise from consideration of it as far as the Bill is concerned. My noble friend has a distinguished record as a quango basher. He led the arm's-length body review in the Department of Health, which I succeeded him on. That reinforces the view that we, on this side, are not at all opposed to the principle of looking at each of these organisations where it is quite clear that they ought not to continue or that their functions can be done in another way. We have no problem with that. We do have a problem, however, with the architecture of the Bill. There is the general principle of the Henry VIII
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The second point is this. The noble Viscount is right to suggest that, when affirmative orders come before your Lordships' House, consultation has to take place and impact assessments have to be published. However, we are right, at this stage, to scrutinise those bodies that are under threat in this Bill.
Also, as a distinguished member of the Merits Committee, the noble Viscount may well have observed the correspondence between the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde-the Leader of the House-on the question of the use of the conventions as regards secondary legislation. The Cunningham joint select committee report, which was approved by this House, made it clear that there were circumstances in which it was quite appropriate for the House to seek to defeat secondary legislation. My judgment is that that would apply to this Bill, because the kind of skeletal Bill that the Cunningham committee described is exactly what we are debating today.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, seeks to reinterpret the convention as regards secondary legislation. Essentially, he does not accept that there is a convention that this House can seek to defeat secondary legislation in the circumstances described by the Merits Committee. That increases our nervousness about whether the scrutiny available to the House of Lords will be sufficient to meet the needs of this Bill. We would have had greater comfort if the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who is leading this Bill through with his usual inestimable charm, had clearly indicated that the Government would not proceed with Clause 11 and Schedule 7 and would agree to use the super-affirmative procedure. If he had acknowledged that at an early stage, the passage of this Bill would be an awful lot easier. I suspect that that will be the end point of our debates in your Lordships' House. He will know that there is profound unease about this Bill all round the House. We will continually come back to the point about the architecture.
My noble friend asked important questions about the Audit Commission. First, it is very difficult to know why the Audit Commission is being abolished. Of course, some of its activities may be open to question and questions may be asked about whether it needs the resources that it has, though most of them come from the fees that it levies rather than from central government. My understanding is that the quality of the commission's work is acknowledged in local government and in the health service and that there is generally felt to have been an improvement in the efficiency of local government and of the NHS as a result of the commission's activities.
My second question concerns the cost of the commission's abolition. I should like the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, to hazard a guess at what he thinks the cost of abolition will be. A few weeks ago, we were told by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that the estimate was about £50 million. However, she was not able to be more precise than that. Far from the huge
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It would be good to know what is expected to replace the commission. I have no doubt that private sector firms will be able to take over individual audit work, but I wonder whether the Minister agrees with the ACCA and CIPFA that there may be more conflicts of interest if all this work goes to the private sector. As my noble friend has said, there is a real fear that the independent voice of the Audit Commission, which was able to criticise government, will be lost.
My other concern relates to the work that the Audit Commission has done in relation to comparative performance and national comparators. Over the years, it has produced invaluable reports on National Health Service finance and related issues and comparative performance studies that have enabled the boards of NHS bodies to compare themselves with similar organisations, which I know board members have found invaluable. It is worth noting that its payment-by-results benchmarker was a winner in the excellence in the use of healthcare information management section of last year's E-Health Insider Awards. Therefore, there is every indication that the Audit Commission produces quality work.
There is a further question that we are very puzzled about: why is the Audit Commission not in the list of bodies to be abolished? Our assumption is that the Government consider that it should be abolished by primary legislation. However, it is very difficult to establish the criteria under which some bodies are to be dealt with in this Bill while others are to be dealt with in primary legislation. The same is true of a number of health bodies that we know will be abolished under forthcoming health legislation. Again, I should be grateful to the noble Lord if he could explain a little more about the criteria that determine in which Bill these bodies will be dealt with.
Lord Greaves: Before the Minister replies, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, a question? Earlier in his speech, he waxed lyrically in his normal way about the problem of whether the House of Lords can reasonably reject affirmative orders. As the noble Lord knows, many of us in this part of the House very much agree with him that the ordinary affirmative procedure is not acceptable for this legislation. Indeed, the enhanced super-affirmative procedure being put forward by the Government is still not adequate. Something rather special is needed, given the proposal to close down by ministerial order so many organisations that have been set up by primary legislation. There is a great deal of common ground on this issue around the House.
I wanted to pick up the point that the noble Lord has made several times about the approach that my noble colleague the Leader of the House is taking to
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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that that is right. I remind the noble Lord that the Companionrecalls the vote taken by your Lordships' House some years ago that reaffirms its right to defeat secondary legislation. I am sure that that is the position. However, it is important to note the views of the Leader because it is worrying that he should seek to undermine the consensus that I thought we held about the Cunningham convention.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: We had this debate the other evening. If the noble Lord remembers, I corrected what I said from "convention" to "custom". I think that that more closely fits what happens in this matter. It is for the House to decide how it deals with statutory instruments. It is not a matter of convention; it is purely a matter of custom. If the noble Lord is seeking to develop this argument, which may be connected to this amendment-I understand that it is certainly connected to the purpose of the Bill-I think that it would be important for him to bear that in mind.
Lord Warner: Whether it is a custom or a convention makes very little difference to the people working in these organisations. As far as they are concerned, if Schedule 1 goes through, they are for the chop. That is the end of those organisations. People will make their own dispositions. They are not going to sit around waiting for the customs and conventions-or whatever we want to call them-of this House to decide whether this House will or will not defeat an order many months later. Does the noble Lord accept that there is a problem of handling for many of the organisations in Schedule 1?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Perhaps I may come in first and respond to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, before he responds to my noble friend. In my remarks I made no criticism whatsoever of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. He is quite right that he made the point about custom, but I was referring to the correspondence between the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the Merits Committee, which has been published in, I think, two reports of the Merits Committee.
Finally, having raised concerns about this Bill, we have been informed that we should be comforted by the fact that each order would be an affirmative order. I do not think that that is sufficient, nor do I think that the amendment that the noble Lord has tabled in relation to enhancing that is sufficient.
The problem is that at the moment we do not find the Government willing to hear the voices around this Chamber or to understand that at some point they will
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I thank the noble Lord for that contribution to our discussion on this amendment. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, if not a probing amendment, is a teasing amendment. It is a new parliamentary device to tease the Government into enunciating their philosophy behind the Bill. Noble Lords would agree that some of the speeches have resembled Second Reading speeches and have gone over ground that we have discussed before. So that all noble Lords are aware of this, I reaffirm that I am listening and that I am conveying the mood of the House.
Why I must resist the amendment to include the Audit Commission in Schedule 1, which I have no hesitation in doing, and why I forgive him for not producing an impact assessment on his proposal to include it in the schedule is because the noble Lord knows very well that the time for consultation and impact assessments comes later on in the proceedings. It is not part of this legislation to produce those documents for individual bodies.
Lord Warner: The Government actually produced an impact assessment and that impact assessment is totally silent on the subject of costs and benefits of the proposals, even in any kind of outline form. Is the Minister saying that the Government can bring a Bill to this House seeking to abolish a very large number of bodies and not produce any numbers whatever about the costs and benefits? Is that his position?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Indeed, it is. The process that is built into the Bill allows for impact assessments to be presented at the time of change. The Bill does not propose change; it facilitates change. I tease the noble Lord. He is proposing to include a body in Schedule 1 but, quite rightly, he has not come up with an impact assessment because he is not in any position to provide that; nor would I be in a position to provide that. The time to do that is when the department makes a decision to act under the Bill. I know this is a tease on the noble Lord's part, but it is very important to use the opportunity of this debate to get that message across.
Lord Warner: If the Minister looks back to the period between 2004 and 2007 or 2008, he will see that the previous Government came forward with primary legislation for changes to bodies set up by Parliament with an impact assessment which set out the cost of those changes so that Parliament could see the money implications of changes to legislation that it was being asked to make. In effect, the Minister seems to be asking for a constitutional change: to come to Parliament to take primary legislation to abolish bodies which have been set up by Parliament without giving any idea of what the costs and benefits of that decision are. That is what he seems to be saying.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I am trying to use the opportunity of this debate to reassure the noble Lord about the process that will exist following the passage of the Bill, that no action can be taken without proper consultation and impact assessments. Noble Lords know that. I have said this many times. However, I have listened to what has been said about the need for information. I appreciate that the Committee and the House would like more information on proposed changes, and I take that matter on board.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: I am sorry to delay the noble Lord once more. However, in that information, if we are to take real decisions about whether important bodies such as the Agricultural Wages Board, which we were discussing earlier, are to remain in existence, then the information that the noble Lord is very kindly going to provide us with must include an impact assessment on, for example, the costs. Otherwise, we cannot come to a clear and rational decision.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Indeed, I reassure the noble Baroness that any instrument produced under the Bill to enact any of the powers within it will contain that information. That is the position. This is not primary legislation to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board or the Audit Commission. That is not what the Bill is about; it is intended to empower the executive with the ability to bring forward secondary legislation in order to facilitate change. It is at that stage that the legislation occurs. It is very important to get that message over.
We have produced an impact assessment for the Bill. It talks about changes to particular bodies made under the orders of the Bill, and they will be produced in accordance with its existing rules and guidance on impact assessments at the appropriate time. Perhaps I may continue by addressing the amendment. After all, the noble Lord has proposed that we should include the Audit Commission in Schedule 1, and I wish to tell the Committee why I think that suggestion needs to be resisted and why there may well be a better way of dealing with the policy change which the coalition has announced in order to deal with it.
The Government intend, where appropriate, to use the power in the Public Bodies Bill to make changes to public bodies. However, the changes regarding the Audit Commission require power changes to legislation which is outside the scope of the Public Bodies Bill. Therefore we are setting up an alternative legislative vehicle. I will explain the background to that. On 13 August, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced plans to disband the Audit Commission and refocus audits on helping local people to hold local bodies to account for local spending, as well as on saving the taxpayer some £50 million a year. This figure reinforces the one given by my noble friend Lady Hanham.
The commission's responsibility for overseeing and delivering local audits will stop, its research activities will end and its in-house audit practice will be moved to the private sector. We are considering a range of options for doing this. Councils will be free to appoint
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This is the statutory regime for the audit of local authorities and local health bodies, including foundation trusts and other NHS trusts. For example, the powers in the Public Bodies Bill would not allow the Government to provide these bodies with the powers they need to appoint their own independent external auditors. Likewise this Bill would not enable provision to be made for the arrangements through which the quality of local audit will be maintained. The Government intend to bring forward separate primary legislation, subject to parliamentary time, which deals with the disbanding of the Audit Commission, the transfer of the in-house practice into the private sector and the setting up of the new local audit regime in a comprehensive and integrated way. As such, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Warner: My Lords, I was fascinated to hear that elegant explanation of how the Government will deal with the Audit Commission. If only I felt they would use that same elegant approach to some of the other bodies in Schedule 1, I would go home happy. I shall continue to reflect on what the noble Lord has said, and look forward to having answers to my questions, which I do not feel that I have had. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Fowler: I think that I can bring the Committee into calmer waters by proposing something that the government Front Bench will have no difficulty whatever in accepting. The Marshalled List is littered with amendments to preserve bodies that the Government
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Lord Maxton: I have a lot of sympathy with the amendment but if I were a Clerk in the other place I do not think that this amendment would be in order. The trustees of the BBC and the BBC itself are not established or controlled by an Act of Parliament. Therefore, I do not see how we can have an amendment that would abolish something in an Act of Parliament that in itself was not established by an Act of Parliament. That may be a little legalistic but I wonder whether the noble Lord would like to comment on that.
Lord Fowler: I knew that the noble Lord would say something entirely unhelpful from past experience. I will come precisely and exactly to that point, but let me make the case in principle, with which the noble Lord is honest and experienced enough in these matters to sympathise.
Let me make it clear that this is in no way an attack on the BBC. I am a committed supporter of the BBC, as I think is the noble Lord. It provides the best news coverage both domestically and internationally of any media organisation, probably in the world. I totally support its freedom to report, including the recent "Panorama" on corruption inside FIFA. I note, when abroad, how high the corporation's reputation is. In short, I believe that we would be mad to turn our back on the BBC or see it weakened. But one of the things we should recognise is that the BBC is currently, and has been for some time, under attack from powerful forces who would like to see it changed and weakened. There is no question about that. It is therefore crucial that the BBC has a structure which, apart from anything else, enables it to fight its corner, to put its case and to reply swiftly and with confidence to attacks when they come. My view is that this is simply not achieved by the present divided leadership of the BBC and much of that fault lies with the formation of the BBC Trust.
The BBC Trust is a recent invention. For the vast majority of the time and history of the BBC we did not have a trust and there was no need for such a body. It was set up by the last Government in the aftermath of the dispute with the BBC about its reporting of Iraq. The result has been that there have been not one board but two boards. We have had an executive board that has been headed by the director-general but with non-executive members-something pretty unusual in corporate history-and we have had the BBC Trust, which was kept deliberately separate from the BBC executive, housed in a different body and with the chairman being able to call himself the BBC chairman but only as a courtesy title. That is exactly how it is set out.
The Select Committee which examined the royal charter of the BBC, which I chaired and of which the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, was a member, opposed this change. Basically, in précis, we said that it would be much better to have one organisation-a BBC
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The purpose of the Bill is to eliminate or pare down unnecessary bodies in the public sector. The BBC Trust qualifies on all counts. It adds to cost, causes delay and sometimes confusion in decision-making, and could all be done so much better than it is. Again, I think there is no real conflict on that. But so far that opportunity has not been taken. I do not detect that that is because this Government are any more enthusiastic than the last Government about the trust-any more enthusiastic than Mr Bradshaw. The concern seems to be that action would mean interfering with the royal charter. I come now precisely to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, was putting. Our view as a Select Committee was that the whole governance of the BBC should be put on a statutory basis, but this was resisted by previous Ministers on the grounds that the royal charter cemented everything in for 10 years. That, in précis, was the case that was put to us. In the past few months we have seen the licence fee frozen and the cost of the World Service added to the licence fee, and we very nearly saw the cost of licences for the over-75s added to the licence fee as well. I do not debate the merit of those proposals-I would love to do so, but I do not-but I observe that it has not proved very durable cement as far as the 10-year period is concerned.
The fact is that the royal charter, which sounds so very grand, is fiercely anti-democratic. It gives, and is intended to give, all power to the Executive. The royal charter is a straightforward deal between the Government and the BBC which at no stage comes near Parliament for a decision. We can give our views. The Select Committee gave its views and was thanked profusely. No one took any notice of them, but the Select Committee was profusely thanked for them. I think other Select Committees did the same. I am simply not persuaded that the royal charter should act as a block to change, and even less am I persuaded when I hear that one possible solution is that the trust should now appoint
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Although I guyed it a bit, I am very conscious of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and there may be other solutions. If there are, I am very happy to hear them from the Minister. What I would be unhappy about is not hearing any solution at all and being told that we are going to wait for the next five or six years, because that is a totally unsatisfactory position. I do not think it is satisfactory to go ahead and appoint a new chairman for a body that most people in broadcasting think is unsatisfactory and does not serve its purpose.
I should again emphasise that I am in no way anti-BBC; I think noble Lords may have detected that. On the contrary, I think it is fundamental for the state of the media in this country, but my view is that this divided structure does the BBC no favours whatever. It is in the interests of the BBC that we should have one board and one chairman, and that means abolishing the BBC Trust. No one seriously believes that the trust will survive another charter review in four, five or six years. No one thinks that if we are going to go ahead with a charter review, the BBC Trust will come out of it as a solution because it is virtually certain that it will not. Rather than waiting for five or six years, there is everything to be said for acting now-saving money, certainly, but above all getting clearer lines of responsibility than we have at the moment. I beg to move.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of your Lordships' Select Committee on Communications and pay tribute to the stewardship of the former chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who has just spoken. It was interesting to listen to the initial spat between the noble Lord and another former member of the committee about whether this amendment could be permitted. In truth, the whole of his speech appeared to be about moving the BBC into Schedule 7, not Schedule 1. The attack, as it was, on the current governance arrangements of the BBC was well made and echoed what was in the Select Committee's report a few years ago, but it is really about change, not abolition. However, I will pass on because we are in tickling and teasing mode rather than worrying too much about exactly how these things are coming out at the moment.
Today's debate has been, for those of us who are somewhat new to the arrangements for discussing Bills, a wonderful tour d'horizon of the far reaches of our constitutional arrangements in this country. I did not know enough about agriculture, justice, the Audit Commission or various things to do with shipbuilding. I may even have heard about aircraft-or was it the other way around? I was not quite sure at the end of that discussion whether we had in fact had an answer to the amendment earlier today, but, again, I will pass on. We were only tickling there. Underneath all this, however, does the discussion not raise one or two
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Every Government and every governing operation has to work out how to deliver the services that legislatures create for them. In that, we have to think about subsidiarity-the lowest level to which we can devolve the operations which are to be carried out, and make sure they are done properly. We have to give protection from undue interference from those who have set up the arrangements and freedom to those who are charged with getting on with the duties to undertake reasonable stewardship. I do not hear those principles coming through very much in the debate we have been having, but they are surely underlined in what we are saying.
The amendment to which I am speaking is really, as I said, a teasing amendment-a hypothetical situation perhaps. But the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, brought out very well, and I am sure other speakers who will join us in this debate will also say, that nobody argues against the very special place that the BBC holds in this country. It makes entertainment programmes among so many other things, so it obviously affects every aspect of our culture, and it informs and therefore changes the terms of the political debate. It is absolutely at the heart of what we believe our country is about. It is important that we find some form of super-protection, and I think the noble Lord was saying the same thing, both within the environment in which the BBC operates, but also against Ministers and even against Parliament. One could not imagine, if the BBC were to be abolished, the DCMS accepting responsibility for all the various aspects of our life that the BBC influences. That must not be right.
We could not abolish the BBC, but how do we manage it? That is the question that we have to think about. Clearly, the state has to balance the interest it has in economy, efficiency and effectiveness, and apply that to all its public bodies. I worked in a similar body, the British Film Institute, some time ago; just before I arrived, it had negotiated very hard indeed against the then Government to achieve a royal charter, which was given to the BBC about 50 years after its incorporation in 1933. We celebrated that, because it felt as if we had received the gold standard in terms of freedom from interference from Ministers and those in authority. It was illusory, obviously, because Ministers are very persuasive and good at getting around anything that could possibly smack of concern about these sorts of issues; but it was something that we ritually touched every month or two, just to reassure ourselves that we did exist, that we had that protection and that we should have had it. The BBC is in a similar position. Its charter is renewable, as it was not in the BFI's case, but there was sufficient public interest and discussion in the renewal process to ensure that the BBC would not be affected too badly.
My concern in this amendment-and I am not entirely sure whether I am speaking in favour of it or against it, but I suppose I am tickling it-is that this is really about how one would find in a constitutional
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In another debate at another time, I encouraged the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, to talk a little more about his ideas for a council of state, which might in some way take on the responsibilities of this Chamber. It may be that at some point we should think again about how we account for those senior bodies, such as the BBC, that we must have in our arrangements. I leave that thought with this House.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, given that I waited 40 minutes for a bus last night in the cold, I do not intend to detain the House for long tonight. I do not think that this amendment could be part of this Bill. The BBC is part of the royal charter. To get rid of the trustees, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, you would need to put the BBC on a statutory basis in an Act of Parliament. I accept the tenor of his amendment, and I supported the report when it was published in terms of not wishing to have trustees but having a different type of governance. However, my worry is that, if we get to the point where the BBC is to be established by an Act of Parliament, it would mean passing an Act of Parliament to abolish the present situation-essentially abolishing the present BBC-and then re-establishing it. In those circumstances, given what the noble Lord said about the threat that is coming to the BBC from external forces, we would put the BBC under even greater threat. That would be the whole existence of the BBC in those circumstances.
Having said that, I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Lord has said, not just because the governance of the BBC is wrong in terms of the trustees. This is no criticism of the trustees personally, but they have failed in one of their primary responsibilities-to hold the BBC, somehow independently of the BBC, to account. They have failed to do that job properly in one particular regard. The BBC, after all, is funded entirely out of public funds, and the trustees should say to the BBC that it should be accountable to the public in the same way as is every public body funded by the taxpayer. In particular, as the noble Lord will know, I believe that the whole BBC-every person, both employee and contractor-should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the same way as are all other public employees. Therefore, we should know exactly what some of the people in the BBC earn, and I do not mean the big entertainment stars. I am much more interested in knowing what some journalists earn, as they attack those of us who are public servants in other ways,
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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, I have listened to the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, with some interest. I certainly acknowledge his experience and his interest in the future of the BBC over the years. He described himself as a committed supporter of the BBC and I certainly endorse that. However, by raising this issue in this way, I fear that he will undermine the very cause that he at the same time is seeking to champion. I say that for a number of reasons.
There may well be the need to have a debate over the future of the BBC Trust. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, the previous Secretary of State, Ben Bradshaw, has already described the BBC Trust as not a sustainable model in the long term, a fact which we acknowledge. But this is not the time for such a review. The truth is that over the last few months the BBC has been battered by the challenges to its role. There have been, as has been acknowledged, powerful forces seeking to undermine its role. It was forced in an unseemly timescale to agree a financial package that might have been more robust, more defensible and more justifiable if a longer time had been taken over those negotiations. In its wake, questions have been left over the future funding of organisations like the World Service and S4C which might not have been intended at the outset of those negotiations.
More importantly, that whole period over the last few months has left a question mark in the minds of the great British public over the future of the BBC. It is worth acknowledging in this debate that whatever we think of the BBC and the way that it is run, it is still a much loved institution in this country. The general public would like to see that we are standing up and defending that organisation, because it is still held in very high regard.
There has been a bit of a debate about whether or not this is a teasing amendment. Like others, I do not know enough about the constitution to know whether the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is serious or not. If he is, why create further uncertainty at this time, particularly as the current Secretary of State at the DCMS has said that major changes are not appropriate before the review of the royal charter in 2016? If that is the current state of play of the Government, then why create further uncertainty and further question marks over the BBC's future? Also, this is not the appropriate vehicle for such a debate. If there is to be a review, we need to find an alternative venue and structure for a measured, thoughtful and timely debate that will allow us to look at the future governance in the round. This will enable us to ensure that when we come to a solution about future governance, it is more sustainable than the structure that we have in place at the moment.
My colleague the shadow Secretary of State for the DCMS has asked for an inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will be aware of the power of those sorts of Select Committees. There is a role for these kinds of bodies to give the sort of scrutiny that these issues will allow-to take them away from the cut and thrust of the Chamber and work through something that will be sustainable in the longer term.
There has been a lot of criticism of this Bill already in terms of its framework, style and lack of depth, and therefore the opportunity that it gives for people to put their pet projects on to the list, perhaps without due scrutiny. I was very interested in the comments made by my noble friend Lord Wills that there is a need not only to look at the governance of the BBC but to look at some of the other institutions that we have in the round. Again, I argue that this Bill is not the means by which we should do that. Yes, let us have a debate about the future governance of the BBC. Yes, let us find the right opportunity and the right time to do it. If we can find the right means for that, there might well be more consensus going forward than this amendment, in this form and in this Bill, will allow. I hope that the noble Lord will consider withdrawing it on that basis.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I thank my noble friend, who I hold in high regard, for moving this amendment. However, I have to disappoint him by saying, like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that this is not the time nor the place. Now is not the time, and this Bill is not the place, to debate the proposals that he has presented in this amendment. Perhaps the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, explained that for the Committee.
The BBC Trust is established through the royal charter, the current charter being in place until the end of 2016. The Government have no intention of bringing the charter to an end before its designated end date of 2016. There are certain benefits in granting a 10-year charter and remaining committed to its stated duration. For example, a charter supports the independence of the BBC from government and Parliament, to which the Government are committed in the coalition programme. A 10-year charter provides greater certainty and stability for the BBC in the way that it operates, including its governance arrangements, and gives the BBC an ability to plan for the future while allowing for a fundamental review at expiry. Ending the charter before its due date would undermine these important principles and lose the benefits of granting a 10-year charter. As noble Lords are aware, the Government have agreed with the BBC that the NAO can have full access to the BBC's accounts in order to make it more transparent and accountable to Parliament. The Government do not believe that there is a case for any greater accountability to Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, said in a very thoughtful speech-I was grateful for his contribution-the BBC must be able to hold Parliament and parliamentarians to account. Increasing the BBC's accountability to Parliament would counter the principle of safeguarding its editorial independence.
The future of the trust as a model of governance will be fully assessed at the time of the next charter review. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Fowler will be in a position to advise on that assessment, and I imagine that he will do so robustly. As my noble friend is aware, the chair of the trust is due to leave the post at the end of his current term and a new chair will be appointed from next May. The BBC Trust offers a direct line of accountability to TV licence payers. It holds the executive to account. This separation has a purpose. As I have said, when the next charter expires, all issues relating to the BBC will be discussed.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: As I have said previously in my response, the public said in the consultation that they did not want the BBC to be beholden to Parliament because they felt that its independence and ability to criticise Parliament and government would be impeded.
Furthermore, the BBC is not a statutory body, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, pointed out. This Bill is designed to cater for bodies where changes need legislation in order to be effective. This is not the position in relation to the trust. Therefore, as with all other non-statutory bodies, it is not appropriate to include it in the Bill.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, as the Minister said, it is a disappointing reply. Frankly, I think that we are going backwards, because the previous Secretary of State in the previous Administration made a darn sight more radical assessment of the royal charter than the Minister has. He is now repeating all the things that we were told about four or five years ago. It is exactly the same script as the Department for Culture issued at the time. This stuff about the public having been asked is complete rubbish; I really do think that the department might at least take that out of its script if nothing else. I am sorry to get heated about this, but it is fairly dismal.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. It has been a useful debate. What the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said was extremely interesting. I do not think that the royal charter is a gold standard. It has not worked for the BBC. It is frankly just a deal, as I said, between the Secretary of State on the one side and the chairman of the BBC on the other. We can set up Select Committees to kingdom come, but some of us have to take notice of those Select Committees, and the record of that has not been great. When we come to Select Committees, I would point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that the Select Committee in the House of Lords and the Select Committee in the House of Commons have both said that the BBC should be placed upon a statutory basis. There is no doubt about that. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, raised an interesting and important point about the
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The noble Baroness said that the BBC has been battered. She might consider that one reason it has been battered is that it has no strong chairman, no strong board and no one to respond for it. She asked, "why now? We cannot have a debate now." I would point out that I have had a request for a debate on the Order Paper for the past 12 months. There are not that many opportunities for debates in this House. The
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Of course I will withdraw this amendment, but I warn the House that when both the government and opposition Front Benches agree on a policy, then the Back Benches need to think very carefully indeed. With that in mind I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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