HL Deb 04 May 1995 vol 563 cc1521-8

5.58 p.m.

Read a third time; an amendment (privilege) made.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass. During the earlier stages of the Crown Agents Bill we had a very thorough debate on a number of key issues. Those included the corporate structure of the proposed foundation and operating company, aspects of the financial arrangements for the new business, the use of the Crown Agents' name and the legitimate interests of Crown Agents' staff and pensioners.

In discussing these matters I have been struck by the high degree of good will and support for the Crown Agents evinced by all sides of the House. I speak for all of us in your Lordships' House in commending the Crown Agents on the quality and relevance of their services to development and the transparently honest and impartial way in which they conduct their business. It is those qualities which the Government wish to preserve. I was gratified two days ago to hear from clients of the Crown Agents their conclusion that this was a very good organisation. They said how much they welcomed the foundation which Crown Agents will become. So with that knowledge and with the debates which we have had, I believe it is clear to your Lordships why the Government have - proposed this transfer to a newly created independent foundation tailor-made for Crown Agents.

I recognise that it is the desire to be sure that the best possible arrangements will be put in place for Crown Agents that has prompted some noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Judd, to press for greater detail of the Government's plans to be included on the face of the Bill. My noble friends Lady Elles and Lord Oxfuird have also pressed me for assurances both in the Chamber and outside. Others have been moved by recommendations of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee to propose that, before the transfer to the foundation takes place, Parliament might have the opportunity to debate the detailed arrangements.

I can assure the House that I have listened with the greatest care to these arguments. I sought to explain why we do not feel able to accept them. However, your Lordships will know that I am determined that the Government will do their very best for the Crown Agents. I have not sought to give your Lordships easy answers, but I readily acknowledge the complexity and the importance of the legal and financial issues which we are discussing with our professional advisers and the Crown Agents themselves.

In the course of our debates I have given the House repeated assurances about the Government's plans. We have undertaken to keep Members of this House and of another place fully informed of the details of the transfer agreed. That will include making available copies of the memorandum and articles of association of the foundation and the information memorandum for prospective foundation members. I am confident that by these means we can provide your Lordships with a clear picture of the Government's proposals before the transfer takes place.

Perhaps I may say how grateful I am to all noble Lords who have spoken on this Bill, but particularly to the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Rea and Lord Redesdale, and also to my noble and loyal friends Lady Elles and Lord Oxfuird, who have taken the keenest interest in the provisions. AH have really sought to improve the Bill by means of probing amendments.

My colleagues and I will indeed bear their concerns very much in mind when deciding on the arrangements which will shape the future of the Crown Agents for many years to come. I am confident that the Crown Agents will have continuing success, which will be all the stronger for the interest and commitment which your Lordships have shown in the Crown Agents, not only during the passage of this Bill, but which they have demonstrated in debate after debate.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey.)

Lord Judd

My Lords, perhaps I may start by making a small procedural observation. As I understand it, the theory is that Bills introduced first into this House are normally the less controversial ones. That must involve a certain amount of subjectivity of judgment. I am not altogether convinced as to how uncontroversial this Bill really was. I am also intrigued to know how that will be seen in history and in the light of experience.

The second point I must make is my appreciation of all those who have helped. I do not believe that they always get the public acknowledgment that they deserve. I put on record my appreciation to our own researchers in the opposition who, with incredibly limited resources, do such an extended and extraordinary job. On this particular occasion they have been valiantly and extensively assisted by Lewis Macdonald.

Perhaps I may also put on record my real appreciation to my noble friend Lord Rea who has brought not only his considerable experience to bear, but who has also brought a lightness of touch and a sense of humour which we should hear more of in our deliberations in this place. Perhaps I may also say how much I have enjoyed working with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I do not know what wider lessons are to be drawn from that, but on occasions it would not have been possible to get a thin sheet of paper between us in our concerns and outlook towards what was at stake in the Bill. That has been a good experience and I say thank you for that.

Of course, our thanks are also due to the Minister. She has been her usual friendly, disarming and courteous self. She has done her best to suggest that she actually believed in this Bill. I do not think that she convinced anybody on this side of the House that that was the case. It would have been an absolute denial of her common sense and pragmatism, but she loyally got on with the job in making the best of a difficult brief.

I suspect that the Minister agrees with us that it is an unnecessary Bill. She has referred to how overjoyed she was recently to talk to clients who were so well satisfied with the outstanding services which the Crown Agents had provided and how pleased they were. I noticed the emphasis she put on the word "foundation" which will be handling affairs in future. I congratulate the Minister on that. It is a rescue operation in which she seems to be very successfully engaged.

We still have not seen the memorandum setting out how the foundation will operate, so to that extent we are still being asked to buy a pig in a poke. There are comparisons with what was preoccupying the House yesterday in the Jobseekers Bill. What is really very worrying in this Bill, as in the Jobseekers Bill, is the whole range of issues on which the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee has concentrated. This Bill says absolutely nothing in its text about how it will implement the intentions which the Minister has repeatedly put before the House. All that is left to delegated legislation, subject to the negative procedure. As was brought out in relation to the Jobseekers Bill yesterday, that disenfranchises this House because of the convention that, by the negative procedure, we cannot make a stand against the introduction of orders. I suggest that it is highly dubious in terms of the other place, because there all records show that it is virtually impossible to get a serious debate by that procedure.

This has been a skeleton Bill and we have been put in the position of being dependent on the Minister to provide what she says she is intent on delivering. In saying that, we recognise the tensions which must exist in the real world. In the past year or so we have seen the tensions between trade and development interests. It is possible for them powerfully to coincide, but it does not always happen. Like the Bill we were considering a moment ago, in this Bill we need reassurances that the Crown Agents will be able to deliver in terms of their primary objective of working within a framework of commitment to development.

I conclude on this note. I would be happier if, even at this eleventh hour, the Minister could give us an unqualified assurance—not just express an intention—that it is the Government's determination that the Crown Agents will, in perpetuity, remain subject to a non-profit-making foundation; that they will be dedicated to developing humanitarian priorities; that the title and all that is inherent in it will be protected; that they will have adequate financial resources for the task; and that the role of the staff and the excellent record of staff relations will be maintained. Such solemn undertakings from the Minister will do a great deal, I believe, to facilitate deliberations in the other place but, of course, it is essential that the memorandum should be available without delay so that we can know what it is that we are facilitating.

As I said on the earlier Bill, we are not considering watertight issues. We are considering issues that are part of the Government's overall strategy towards aid and development. This side of the House is faced with an extraordinary paradox. We respect the Minister and we believe in the Minister's commitment, but we see an aid budget which is falling as a percentage of GNP; we see an aid programme diverted increasingly to eastern Europe at the expense of the developing countries; and we see an aid programme which is subject to unwholesome pressures from those primarily concerned with trade at any price, irrespective of its implications for development.

In that context, I am sure that the Minister will understand why we want to see watertight reassurances that the intentions are not simply good intentions on her part, but something that can be guaranteed whoever may fill her post in the future. However, I thank the Minister for the way in which she has approached our deliberations. I personally always enjoy debating with her in your Lordships' Chamber.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, like all noble Lords, I thoroughly support the work of the Crown Agents. However, perhaps the best way that I can describe the Bill is to say that it is a bit like the spectral figure of the headless horseman which haunts the moors above Elsdon in Northumberland. Many people who have seen the spectral figure have been able to describe the horse. They have even been able to describe the body that is on the horse, but they have not been able to describe its head. We are left feeling slightly uneasy about the Bill because certain issues that need to be considered have not been covered.

The Minister has given us as much information as she can, but she has left out such issues as the corporate structure and the question of debt or equity. She has been unable to put flesh and blood into the Bill by putting the word "foundation" on the face of the Bill. Noble Lords on this side of the House believe that the Minister will achieve what she has set out to achieve in the Bill. If things happen in the way in which the Minister has suggested, I believe that we shall have a very valuable institution. However, I hope that some of the issues can be discussed further in another place.

6.15 p.m.

The Viscount of Oxfuird

My Lords, I have nothing but praise for my noble friend the Minister and I am amazed at how accessible she is. It does not matter where she is—Paris, Downing Street, or in her car—she always manages to keep in touch. We are exceedingly lucky.

I have had some thoughts on the Bill and wonder whether we have asked ourselves the following questions, which I should like to put to the Minister: do members of the Treasury travel with my noble friend on some of the terrifying journeys that she undertakes? Do they share the dangers and the uncivilised circumstances that my noble friend has to put up with in her job? Have members of the Treasury ever been seconded to the Crown Agents to see how they work? When they have done all that, perhaps they might understand some of the important observations that have been made in your Lordships' House.

It is only by understanding to the fullest extent the problems of others that it is then possible to instigate the principles of total quality management. Surely the Bill has the objective of prevention, not detection. Until it is viewed in that light, the survival of the new Crown Agents must cause some concern to us all, particularly as regards their constitutional and financial position.

We must again consider the question of charitable status. I am concerned that all the potential good that is determined by the Bill's structure could be of no avail if charitable status were imposed on the Crown Agents. It must not be imposed. The lawyers are divided and the Charity Commissioners are against it. Charitable status must not be imposed.

We must now rely on another place to take up the battle. We must keep on keeping on to ensure that the Crown Agents are not left in a limbo of indecision. As so many have said, the Bill as it stands does not achieve its intentions for the Crown Agents. Indeed, it does not achieve the intentions of my noble friend as it stands at the moment; and it definitely does not appear to achieve the intentions of the majority of your Lordships.

We have but one opportunity left to us and I hope that when the Bill comes back we shall see some changes which I know that everybody will welcome. In the meantime, we can do nothing but wish the Crown Agents, who have become friends over these weeks, God speed.

6.16 p.m.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend the Minister on having carried the Bill this far without altering a comma or full-stop. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, had a rather romantic vision of the Bill. I am afraid that I have a more housewifely image: it is like gruyere cheese, totally wholesome but full of holes. I believe that that description fits the Bill.

I should like to comment on two major points that have been made throughout the passage of the Bill and on which we might be able to conclude with some kind of agreement. I turn first to the foundation. My noble friend has given us considerable information about the foundation and we on this side of the House have no doubt whatsoever that her word will be kept and that what she has said will be implemented. Although to me it is perfectly anomalous that we should have spent so much time discussing the foundation without defining it in statute, I have no doubt that the foundation will be set up exactly as my noble friend told the House.

We have been told that the setting up of the foundation is unique, so I wonder how we can sometimes be told that nobody will want to create a precedent. There is no precedent because, as we have been given to understand, the foundation is a unique creation.

I must say from this side of the House how much we all welcomed the idea of open government. Regrettably, I do not think that this is a good example of open government—after all, a foundation is being created, but we are not allowed to see that stated on the face of the Bill.

With regard to charitable status, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will have received much legal advice on this point. I am sure that she will have wished for that famous one-armed barrister who cannot say, "On the one hand, it is this but, on the other hand, it is that". I am sure that my noble friend will wish that she had been given a satisfactory conclusion. As a modest barrister myself, I understand that there is absolutely no objection to whether the foundation is or is not granted charitable status. It is entirely a political decision. Presumably, the Treasury will decide whether the foundation is to be given charitable status. In my view, how that decision should be taken is not a legal matter.

The Government are seeking to retain some measure of control over the Crown Agents, presumably carrying on a "nanny" policy of passing it to the Charity Commissioners. That is surprising considering that the numerous privatisation measures which the Government have so far undertaken have proved to be a great success.

I should like to draw attention to the words of my noble friend the Minister when she said: Certainly the Government would intend to be a member of the foundation with power, for a limited time, to ensure that no substantial changes could be made in the objectives of the foundation without prior government agreement".—[Official Report. 28/2/95; col. 1442.] The only purpose of granting the Crown Agents charitable status would be to protect the objectives, but that point is already covered for at least the next five years without the necessity of such status.

With the successful record of privatisation over the years I am surprised that the Government have not been able to see that the Crown Agents, who have performed magnificently over the past few years and about whose efficiency and effectiveness no one in the House has any doubt, should not have that measure of control held over their heads when they launch forth as a highly successful commercial and trading operation. I can only say in conclusion that I wish my noble friend well and thank her for her great contribution to the way the Bill has been handled in this House and hope that, when it is dealt with in another place, the comments made during the Bill's passage will be taken on board.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the general welcome they have given the Bill. I do not believe that it is as controversial as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, sought to make out. While I understand that he must oppose, it has been an interesting example of how the Liberal/Labour friendship pact is building up yet again.

Many noble Lords who spoke in today's debate have made kind comments to me. It was not a case of making the best of a difficult brief. I can genuinely tell the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that. This is a good organisation which needs to be freed up, but freed up in such a way that it fulfils the important social and developmental objectives we all share. I must have given assurances about the Government's intentions so many times that the Hansard writers will be looking to see whether a comma or a dot in my assurances has been altered.

Unqualified assurances are never given by any government, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, knows well. I have thought back to some of the things he said many years ago, and I do not remember him ever giving an unqualified assurance. He will understand that I will not guarantee that, in a fast-changing world, the Crown Agents, or any other body, can be left unchanged in perpetuity. That is not the world in which the Crown Agents live, and it is certainly not the world in which people in developing countries live. Everyone has to earn their way. The Crown Agents must do so too. They must trade fairly and profitably. They will be controlled by members of the foundation.

The memorandum and articles of association will be produced as quickly as possible and without delay—whatever that means in the noble Lord's view. I do not intend to hang about with the matter, because this particular horseman is not headless. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was looking for a head, but if the horse is the foundation, I am happy because that horse will have a head and a tail and all that is necessary that goes between the two.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned some of the debates we had previously. I do not want to repeat myself endlessly. Suffice to say that I should put on record that one of the reasons why the aid budget as a percentage of GNP is not increasing is that the GNP itself is going up, even though at the same time the volume of aid is gradually increasing. It may not be by as much as he and I would like, but that is happening.

I turn now to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, my noble friend Lady Elles, and other noble Lords, about the foundation being on the face of the Bill. Anyone who has followed our proceedings knows that we intend the eventual owner of the Crown Agents in the private sector to be an independent foundation. There is no doubt about it. It is unnecessary for the foundation to be on the face of the Bill, as I have said so many times.

Lord Judd

My Lords—

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is only going to ask me a question that he has already asked five times at each stage of the Bill. It would be unprecedented to put the foundation on the face of the Bill, and that is why I have not been seduced into agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Judd.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. She suggests that I was being unreasonable in the number of assurances I sought and for seeking to discover length of operation covered by those assurances. For the sake of the record, will she please repeat that she is giving us an assurance that it will be a foundation?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, yet again, I give an assurance that this foundation will be a company limited by guarantee whose social and developmental objectives will be defined clearly in the memorandum and articles of association which I shall forward to the noble Lord as soon as they are finished. It will not distribute dividends to its members; it will be the sole owner of the operating company whose profits it will use in pursuit of its developmental objectives. I do not believe that I can be clearer than that.

I can understand why my noble friend Lady Elles described the Bill as a Gruyère cheese, but, of course, it is a very special cheese—for a very special organisation and a unique foundation. I hope that in its future life the Crown Agents will be an example to other bodies of how such an organisation can operate with those social and developmental objectives about which we have all talked.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, tried to draw me down the path of a debate which was held in your Lordships' House yesterday. That is another issue upon which we have debated, and I explained, I think in Committee, why the affirmative resolution procedure would be inappropriate. I shall not go through all those debates again.

There are other concerns which my noble friends Lord Oxfuird and Lady Elles expressed again tonight. They relate to charitable status. While charitable status remains an option for a structure which will enable the foundation to fulfil its social and developmental objectives, the Crown Agents must be enabled to operate and trade commercially through the operating company.

I know that for some, charitable status has attractions, including oversight of the trustees by the Charity Commissioners, but I noted that my noble friend Lord Oxfuird said that the Charity Commissioners would be against it. There is, as my noble friend Lady Elles said, a divergence of views among lawyers. She went on to say that this was not a lawyer's but a political decision, and she is right.

There is another aspect though that I would ask my noble friend to consider. It is that prospective members of the foundation will have their own views, and those views should also be taken into account before a final decision on charitable status is made.

We have had good debates about an important organisation which is respected by all and which has gone from strength to strength over recent years. It is important that it is enabled to have the right structure for the years ahead so that it may be further strengthened to help all those aspects of development which are so dear to your Lordships' House. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

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