HL Deb 24 May 2000 vol 613 cc857-62

8.40 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to speak to this order and also the following order together. The subjects for consideration are the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 2000 and the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Functions) Order 2000.

Before going into the details of the orders, it may be helpful to put them into context and give a brief explanation of their purpose. The Scotland Act recognised that in some cases it would be appropriate for the Scottish Ministers to be able to exercise executive powers in areas where primary legislation continues to be a matter for the UK Parliament. This is commonly known as executive devolution. Section 63 of the Scotland Act allows functions in reserved areas to be transferred to the Scottish Ministers, or for the Scottish Ministers to be given a role by introducing requirements for them to be consulted or for their agreement to be obtained to the exercise of functions by UK Ministers.

Noble Lords may recall a previous order, considered in June 1999, called the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 1999—the first executive devolution order. That order ran to 30 pages, transferring a wide range of functions to the Scottish Ministers. The first order now before us adds a number of additional functions to those already executively devolved, where it has been agreed between the UK Government and the Scottish Executive that this is appropriate.

I turn to the content of the Scotland Act (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order. The National Board for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting for Scotland (NBS) is an executive, non-departmental public body. Its function is to maintain and develop standards of professional education in nursing, midwifery and health visiting, through the approval of institutions and courses and through research and development programmes.

The board is part of the UK regulatory framework for the nursing professions, and the regulation of nurses and midwives is a reserved matter under the Scotland Act. Currently, professional self-regulation of nurses is carried out by five bodies: the UK Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting (UKCC) and the four national boards, one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The national board for Scotland is, therefore, an integral part of the UK regulatory system, responsible for ensuring that entrants to the profession in Scotland and the courses of preparation that they undertake meet the UK Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting standards.

However, it brings a distinctive Scottish perspective to this role, promoting developments in nurse education which are in tune with the Scottish higher education system and which meet the needs of the NHS in Scotland. For these reasons, it has always been funded by and accountable to the Health Department in Scotland.

Because of this, the UK Government and the Scottish executive agree that responsibility for the board should rest with the Scottish Ministers. The order therefore transfers to the Scottish Ministers all the ministerial functions under the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act 1997 as they relate to the national board for Scotland.

In addition, article 8 of the order provides for new arrangements for the auditing of the accounts for the national board for Scotland by the Auditor General for Scotland, to be consistent with the arrangements for public sector audit set out in the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000.

The order also includes entries relating to the Disability Rights Commission. This body was set up earlier this year under the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 and replaced the National Disability Council.

The separate order under Section 106 of the Scotland Act creates a new requirement that one of the commissioners should have "special knowledge of Scotland". The first order before us keys into this requirement and provides that this appointment is to be made with the agreement of the Scottish Ministers. Similar requirements were already in place for the National Disability Council.

Article 2 of the first order deals with the Tax Credits Act 1999. Section 15(3) of this Act allows the Secretary of State to accredit organisations which may approve childcare providers for the purposes of eligibility for the childcare element of the working families' tax credit and the disabled persons' tax credit. Such organisations must meet certain criteria. This article will provide that when an organisation is accredited for the purpose of applying a scheme for childcare providers in Scotland, the function will be treated as exercisable in or as regards Scotland.

In addition, the function of making regulations under Section 15 of that Act will now be exercisable by the Secretary of State only with the agreement of the Scottish Ministers. Section 15 provides for these regulations to put in place a scheme which would establish a new category of person whose charges for providing childcare would be taken into account when assessing eligibility for the childcare element of the working families' tax credit and the disabled persons' tax credit. In practice, this scheme will ensure that the childcare provider must be approved by an accredited organisation. This scheme also authorises making grants and loans to these organisations and ensures that the fees that they charge are reasonable.

The subject matter of Part VI of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 deals with speed limits and is largely reserved, although some functions have already been executively devolved. This order further devolves certain functions in relation to temporary speed limits. This will mean that the Scottish Ministers will be able to make an order to impose a maximum speed limit, for periods of up to 18 months, on specified roads.

Article 4 relates to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999. This Act contains provisions relating to employment zones and allows for schemes to be set up in designated areas where special benefit rules can apply. Participants in the schemes are helped back to work by allowing them to anticipate funding for up to six months' worth of spending on training and jobsearch. To this they can add money equivalent to the payments that they would normally receive from the jobseeker's allowance.

Under the Act, the Secretary of State can also provide a wider range of support for activities within the employment zones which help people to get and keep work. This policy of "helping people to help themselves" extends to unemployed people who are seeking to become self-employed.

As a result of this order, the Scottish Ministers will be able to make payments to persons providing suitable facilities for claimants of the jobseeker's allowance to be trained for long-term employment. The Scottish Ministers, concurrently with UK Ministers, will now be able to fund any such eligible activity within an employment zone in Scotland.

Article 6 amends the first executive devolution order. The entry in the original order in respect of rule 4(1) of the Merchant Shipping (Formal Investigations) Rules 1985 was intended to transfer a function from the Secretary of State to the Scottish Ministers. However, other legislation in 1990 had already removed the ministerial function and conferred it on the Lord President of the Court of Session. Unfortunately, this was not identified during the preparation of the order. The entry in the original order is therefore redundant and is being removed.

The other articles in the order are purely technical, either to amend certain terms and references in various enactments or to make transitional and saving provision with the transfer of functions.

On that basis, I hope that your Lordships will feel able to support these two orders. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th May be approved [18th Report from, the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale.)

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome these orders. The process of transferring powers to the Scottish Ministers is clearly ongoing. There are several variations of transfer. Some will be outright, some will be shared with the UK Ministers and some will be merely transfers of responsibility for the administration of a function, whatever it is. The Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Functions) Order is concerned with the appointment of the next and subsequent disability rights commissioners. I am satisfied that the initial appointment was made after consultation with Scottish Ministers, and that this order confirms that such a process will happen again. I am enjoying the expression, appears to the Secretary of Stale to have special knowledge of Scotland". That is all very quaint, and worrying. It smacks of the, "fly low over Africa, I'm writing a book about it" type of knowledge. I would have preferred wording about the commissioner's domicile being in Scotland.

That said, this is a measure of limited extent which ensures that Scottish Ministers can recommend a Scot to the Secretary of State for appointment. It also confirms that there will be Scottish representation on the Disability Rights Commission. Though it will not set the heather on fire, it is an order which is very much in line with the spirit of devolution and with the continuing reform of the Union.

Going on to the transfer order, as the Minister explained, that is somewhat more meaty than the previous one. I note that, unlike the previous one, it has to be approved by both the UK and the Scottish Parliaments and therefore it is a Type A order. Not only does it have greater content, but it also has several different varieties of transfer within it. First, there is a UK function which is exercisable in Scotland by the Secretary of State subject to a requirement for the agreement of Scottish Ministers. The accreditation of childcare agencies for tax credit purposes is appropriately transferred.

Secondly, functions are transferred from the Secretary of State to Scottish Ministers—an outright transfer. The actual functions relate to the temporary speed limit setting and also to those elements of the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act which deal with the National Board for Scotland

Thirdly, there are functions which are to be shared by Scottish and UK Ministers. Here we have the Employment Zones, which are clearly part of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act. The Job-club Plus scheme is very welcome and I note that there are similar measures to devolve it to the National Assembly for Wales.

Fourthly, we have a function to be exercised with the agreement of Scottish Ministers. That looks to me to be the same measure as in the previous order. It involves the appointment of the disability rights commissioner. Is that a case of prolixity on the statute book? Fifthly, we have a modification of the principal order. I am content with the removal of this merchant shipping function on the grounds that it has already been transferred to the Lord President of the Court of Session.

Overall, this order continues a welcome process of devolving power to the Scottish Parliament. It is essential that devolution be generous and that it becomes obvious, as a result, that substantial autonomy within the British Union can be achieved. This Parliament should, wisely, take a back seat while the Scottish Parliament finds its feet. The first primary legislation is now reaching the statute book. Not to do so would play into the hands of those who would either dismantle the British Union or try to revert to the 1707 settlement.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for explaining these orders in such detail.

I wish to raise only one specific point, though I shall be interested to hear her replies to the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. My point concerns the Scotland Act 1998 (Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order. That involves tax credits.

Can the Minister tell me whether tax credits will now be handled in a different way from those in England and Wales? If so, what will be the effect? Also, is it possible that the transfers will impinge on the rights of Parliament to revise taxes or tax credits? I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness's reply.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords who spoke and who, I believe, welcomed the orders. I agree with many of the remarks made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, relating to devolution and its development. He is right that these orders are made up of many different strands of different kinds of devolution. We have always said that in an exercise on the scale of devolution there will be elements which have been overlooked; issues will continue to arise which need to be dealt with, either to do with new circumstances or in the light of experience. Indeed, the noble Earl is quite right: these orders include elements of all of those.

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, asked specifically whether the orders duplicate as to the point he raised. We feel that the answer is definitely no. In accordance with Section 106 the order creates a requirement for a commissioner with special knowledge. The order relating to Section 63 requires Scottish Ministers' agreement to the Secretary of State's selection. So there is a distinction.

The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, asked specifically whether these provisions in relation to the tax credits Act mean that in some way taxation matters are being devolved. He asked whether this would impinge on the Westminster Parliament's rights. The answer is no. There are two elements in the order relating to the working families' and the disabled persons' tax credits under this Act. One is to be found in Article 3 of the order, which, taken with the schedule, confers the powers under Section 15(3) of the Act on Scottish Ministers. That means that they will accredit those organisations who can approve childcare providers, whose charges will be taken into account in calculating the childcare element of the working families' and disabled persons' tax credits. The function of assessing providers of childcare is clearly best carried out by those with expertise in the devolved areas of social work or education.

The other element covered by the order is the making of the regulations under Section 15 of the Tax Credits Act to set up the scheme for designating organisations whose charges can be taken into account in assessing those tax credits and related matters. This regulating power is to remain with the generic Secretary of State. But, as a result of this order, the agreement of Scottish Ministers will be needed.

I hope that noble Lords find those responses acceptable and feel able to support the orders.

On Question, Motion agreed to.