HL Deb 27 April 1983 vol 441 cc940-5

4.7 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place on the review of the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. The Statement is as follows:

"I said to the House in the adjournment debate last week that I would make an announcement to the House on the details of the review as soon as I could. I am glad to say that I can now announce the chairman and terms of reference of the review which the Association and I have agreed is urgently needed.

"The terms of reference will be:

'To review the functioning of the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux and to make recommendations, with a view to ensuring that the Association gives the best possible service and support to local Citizens' Advice Bureaux and that the monies available to the Association are spent in the most effective way'.

"The review will be chaired by Sir Douglas Lovelock KCB. A firm of management consultants will be appointed to assist in its work. A senior partner of the firm chosen will also be a member of the review team. It is proposed that a third member should be appointed and it is hoped to announce a name shortly. The terms of reference and the membership I have announced have been agreed with the National Association.

"My honourable friend has asked the chairman to report to him in the next six months. The review team will of course work closely with the National Association; and the report will be made available to them once he has received it. It is proposed that the report should be published.

"The management consultants assisting the review team will examine the staffing and management structure of the National Association and will be asked to complete their work within the next three months. In accordance with normal procedures we shall be seeking tenders at once for this job on the basis of a short list to be discussed with Sir Douglas Lovelock and the National Association.

"I am very glad to say that complete agreement has been reached with the National Association that the review should be carried forward on this basis and I am sure this will be welcomed by the whole House. In the light of this, and the helpful discussions my honourable friend has had with the National Association's officers, I can confirm that Government funding for NACAB for the whole of the current financial year will be maintained on the normal basis."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I welcome the Statement made by the noble Lord, and particularly the last sentence of that Statement confirming the funding for any CAB for the current year. However, the Statement does not do anything to withdraw the allegations made about inappropriate political activity by the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, and I wonder whether the Government are now prepared to withdraw these allegations.

I should be less than honest if I did not express our concern about the inept handling of the whole question of the CAB grant by the Government. This, my Lords, could have a considerable effect on local authority support for local Citizens' Advice Bureaux. As the noble Lord will know, some local authorities are much more supportive of the work of local Citizens' Advice Bureaux than others, and I hope that in these circumstances the Government will think it wise to bring to the attention of local authorities the value of the work of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the need for local authorities to give them as much support as they can.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement. May I ask the noble Lord whether he has noted that I have on the Order Paper an Unstarred Question on this subject? I wonder whether this Statement would pre-empt that particular Question. Perhaps the noble Lord would care to note that, having heard the Statement, I take the view that it does not pre-empt that Unstarred Question and that I would still wish to pursue that.

The Statement deals in the main, as the noble Lord has made clear, with the proposed review of the working of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I hope the noble Lord will note that we greatly welcome that review, since we are entirely convinced that the review will demonstrate what we already know—namely, that the NACAB is a highly efficient and cost-effective organisation. Perhaps the noble Lord will also note that we are very delighted to learn that the terms of the review are agreed entirely with the association. I am delighted that there is now an end to the uncertainty about the funding of the NACAB, but there is nothing in the Statement that explains for a moment why that uncertainty was caused at all. That is a matter that we will want to pursue on another occasion rather than weary the House with it now.

May I finally ask the noble Lord to use his good offices and his influence to ensure that local government, which funds Citizens' Advice Bureaux locally, does not now follow the melancholy example set by central Government and start dishing out its grant in small six-monthly packages?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we are very grateful for the interest which has been taken in this Statement, and, indeed, in this subject, by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley. As far as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is concerned, the noble Lord raised the allegation of political campaigning and mentioned political activities in connection with the National Association. My Lords, my honourable friend made the position quite clear in the adjournment debate in another place on Friday and he welcomed the National Association's reaffirmation of the political impartiality of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux service. The assurance I have received is that any breach of this principle will be thoroughly investigated.

So far as the handling of this particular matter is concerned and the ineptitude of it or otherwise, I believe that, certainly in your Lordships' House, we have handled this matter with the utmost dignity and, I hope, clarity. I would reiterate my honourable friend's views on the tremendous value of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and indeed the help that they have obtained from the local authority. So far as the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, are concerned, I note his view that the Statement I have made this afternoon does not necessarily pre-empt his Unstarred Question, and we shall look forward to anything he has to raise on a future date. We are very happy that the terms of reference of the review give him some satisfaction.

As regards the uncertainty over the financing of the National Association, or the financing of the bureaux by local authorities, certainly I believe there was no uncertainty in your Lordships' House. There may have been speculation outside your Lordships' House, but certainly the position here was absolutely clear. I am very flattered that the noble Lord believes that my good offices will help in any further inquiries into this particular matter.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

Before the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, sits down, I hope he will appreciate that I was referring to the inept handling of the situation by the Government and not by him.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, we on these Benches, too, welcome the Statement made by the Minister and particularly, of course, the fact that Government funding for NACAB for the whole of the current financial year will be maintained on the normal basis. It is quite vital that we know that and, of course, there should have been no necessity for such a Statement to be made. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, has stated that he intends to leave his Unstarred Question on the Order Paper for debate next week. That will give us an opportunity of discussing many points for which we have not the time now, and which certainly should be made. We should welcome an opportunity to discuss this unhappy affair in more detail on that date next week.

As the terms of reference and the membership have been agreed with the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, may I express the hope that the third member of the review body will be somebody active in the voluntary advice services field? We think that that is important. I myself was not altogether happy that a team of management consultants was to do this job; although I think that does emphasise what many of us feel—namely, that the query on this whole affair might be that of financial management and not the other matters to which reference has been made. However, I would press the Minister to try to ensure that the third member of the committee is somebody from the voluntary services movement. We on these Benches very much regret that this whole episode arose as it did, and we should like to say, in conclusion, that we have much admiration for the work and the efficiency of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and regret that this trouble has descended upon them.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we are very grateful for the forthright, clear and succinct comments of the noble Baroness. As far as the third member of this review body is concerned, I am sorry to say that we can only wait and see. But assure the noble Baroness and your Lordships that the appointment of a third person is being pursued with extreme urgency. The noble Baroness will have noted in the terms of reference that the review of the functioning of the National Association will be one of the objectives, with a view to making recommendations and, above all, to seeing that the monies available to the association are spent in the most effective way. I am sure that the noble Baroness and your Lordships would agree that a firm of management consultants in this particular field would be able to give clear and succinct advice of the type which was given by the noble Baroness to my honourable friend.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, as President of the National Association of Consumers' Advice Bureaux, I must declare an interest before reaffirming the complete agreement between the noble Lord's right honourable friend and the association as to the basis on which the independent review should be carried forward. Is the noble Lord aware of the satisfaction which will be felt among the many full-time and voluntary workers in the service throughout the country at the return of our funding to the normal basis throughout the current financial year? Is the noble Lord aware that the CAB's pleasure at the setting up of the independent review arises in part from the fact that we have been pressing for a review for many months, not only because we feel sure that it will show a need for additional funding but because it will the better enable the bureaux to give the best service to which the Statement refers? Has the noble Lord noted the heartening support for the bureaux from all shades of political opinion, from local government and from citizens who use the service? In particular, the National Association welcomes the reiterated support for the service from the Minister for Consumer Affairs, a support to which the noble Lord referred in one of his replies to questions.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we are grateful for the authoritative voice of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor. I wonder whether he made the same error as I did on the last Statement. Did he mention the National Association of Consumers' Advice Bureaux or did he say "Citizens' Advice Bureaux"? I know that I said "Consumers" on the previous Statement. If I heard him aright—

Lord Elwyn-Jones

He said "consumers' advice".

Lord Lyell

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, if I made a mistake, I was doubtless misled by the noble Lord!

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am always grateful that your Lordships point me in the direction of clarity, even on this occasion. I should like to thank the noble Lord for his robust and forthright comments and support for the entire Citizens' Advice Bureaux movement. We hope that the movement is satisfied. As the noble Lord has said, his organisation has been pressing for an inquiry. I hope that he will feel satisfied that his efforts have been rewarded by the Statement I have made this afternoon. The noble Lord drew attention to the support for the CAB from all sections of the political community. I am sure that he will have noticed, we have noticed and your Lordships have noticed the forthright and robust support from my honourable friend on at least eight occasions, or may be nine occasions, in another place in the last two discussions when my honourable friend dealt with this particular matter. We are very grateful for the forthright support of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, may I ask a brief question? Is the set-up of this committee such that they are making the same mistake as did the Serpell Committee, in so far as the management consultants concerned were members of the committee? I have no objection to the use of management consultants—I think they can be useful and appropriate—but in so far as a member of this three-man committee is going to be one of the consultants it makes him a prisoner of their recommendations. Would it not be wiser if the three members of this committee were completely independent of the management consultants whose report has to be considered, I hope, objectively?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point but I think that he might agree that the terms of reference of this review committee are a little different from those of the Serpell Committee—although much of what he says may have relevance. My honourable friend believes that the review committee that he is suggesting is the correct channel in present circumstances. Above all, the noble Lord will have noticed that the first report is to be presented within three months and the committee hopes to present its full report within six months. Speed is of the essence.

Lord Denham

My Lords, before the short debate resumes, it might be useful if I were to tell your Lordships, according to Standing Orders, that 39 minutes have elapsed already. One hour and 51 minutes are left; so that the debate must now end at 6.15 p.m.