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Archive for March, 2012

Tuesday
Mar 20,2012

My webmaster, the excellent Jon Worth has posted on the row that has developed about Boris Johnson usurping the Mayor of London Twitter account for his political campaign.

And as usual he talks a lot of good sense:

“The issue here essentially boils down to your answer to one question: is there any longer any point in insisting on the separation of party political and governmental (i.e. supposedly impartial) communications?

If your answer is that there is still a need for a separation, then Boris is clearly in breach of the rules. The Twitter account in question was established after the 2008 elections, staff time from officials at the GLA was used to maintain it, and – prior to the username change – the account was prominently displayed on the GLA website, a site maintained by the administration that is supposedly above party politics.”

He even offers a solution:

“It would actually not be hard to separate the party political and administrative comms for someone in Boris’s position. A party political, personal Twitter account could be maintained by the politician and his political staff (even if these are taxpayer funded – i.e. SpAds and equivalents – and you could even make the case for there being more of them), and linked to the politician’s political website. A further administrative account (@LondonGov or something like that in this case) could then be used for the governmental comms. If the political account chooses to RT something from the governmental account, so be it, but the administrative account would not RT the political account. When the politician leaves office, his/her followers stay with him/her, while the governmental followers transfer to the next administration. Everyone would know where they stand. Too much to ask?

As for the Boris Johnson case: the account should be returned to the GLA and should not be used by anyone during the election campaign as resources from the impartial administration have clearly been used in its creation, production of content, and increasing its reach, and the two account solution put in place thereafter (of course applying to @ken4london and not Boris!)”

The episode, of course, has displayed an arrogance and a belief that rules are for other people – which it could be argued has been something that the present Mayor has displayed though out his life.  Of course, it may not be a personality trait that uniquely applies to Boris Johnson, it may be the case for other Old Etonian Tories ….

 

Sunday
Mar 18,2012

According to Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer, David Cameron has vetoed the introduction of a mansion tax so as to try and avert a defeat for Boris Johnson in May’s Mayoral elections in London:

“The Lib Dems are not going to get their mansion tax and probably knew from the start that the Tories were unlikely to be persuadable. George Osborne could see the intellectual case for taxing wealth via property and some Treasury officials were attracted to the simplicity of a tax that would be hard to avoid. The chancellor might have been willing to cut a deal with the Lib Dems, but the prime minister was not. David Cameron feared the reaction of Tory MPs and the Tory core vote, among whom are rather a lot of people living in the size of property that would attract the tax.  …  He also had a rather cruder, short-term electoral consideration that has been surprisingly overlooked in all the debate about the pros and cons of a mansion tax. Many of the homes worth £2 million or more are concentrated in London. There is an election for mayor of the capital coming up very soon. David Cameron did not want to do anything that could be said to jeopardise Boris Johnson’s chances of beating Ken Livingstone. The first thing that a defeated Boris would do would be to try to get back into the Commons, which is the last place that Mr Cameron wants to see his fellow old Etonian. A beaten Boris will be bad enough for the Tories; a martyred Boris able to blame his defeat on the prime minister and the chancellor would be much worse for them. So the mansion tax was blocked.”

 Good to know that personal intra-Party considerations trump everything else.

 

 

Sunday
Mar 18,2012

Nearly three years I posted about the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could permanently disable the electricity grid and most electrical systems.  I followed this up with some parliamentary questions and a further post this time last year that concluded:

“So the good news (heavy irony) is that the Government may have got round to working out what “the reasonable worst case scenario” might be.”

At the risk of coming over all I-told-you-so-ish, we now learn in today’s Observer that:

“Explosions on the sun that blast solar winds towards the Earth have been identified for the first time as one of the biggest threats to the UK’s ability to carry on normal daily life, according to a new official government register of major risks to the country.

A significant event on the sun could leave large swaths of the country without electricity, lead to the immediate grounding of planes, disable communications and even destroy household appliances.

The danger has been prioritised in the Cabinet Office’s National Risk of Civil Emergencies as the sun enters the most active point in its 10-year cycle – its solar max – raising the chances of a damaging burst of radiation, plasma or energetic particles (such as neutrons).

More significantly, the UK is regarded as particularly vulnerable because scientific advances have made the country more dependent on technology than ever before. Ministers have been advised by scientists that the most advanced technology is also the most delicate and that “high levels of energetic particles produced in the atmosphere by solar radiation storms can greatly enhance error rates in ground digital components found in all modern technology”.

The newly published risk register lists severe space weather alongside terrorist attacks, coastal flooding and pandemic influenza as likely sources of “serious damage to human welfare”.

It says: “Severe space weather can cause disruption to a range of technologies and infrastructure, including communications systems, electronic circuits and power grids.”

The register adds: “While storm impacts in the early- to mid-20th century appear relatively benign, dependency on technology vulnerable to space weather has pervaded most aspects of modern life, and therefore the disruptive consequences of a severe solar storm could be significant.”

The threat was placed on the register after a panel of experts, including two scientists from the Meteorological Office, produced a “reasonable worst case scenario” for ministers.”

 Only took a year, so lucky that last week’s solar flare passed off without problems.

 

Friday
Mar 16,2012

Just over a month ago the Government yet again snubbed the Mayor of London over his proposals for a pilot sobriety scheme, whereby the courts could impose on offenders, whose offences were alcohol-related, a requirement that they be compulsorily tested for alcohol daily for a three months period with a positive test meaning arrest and appearance again in court.

But now – either because they have finally listened to the overwhelming force of arguments coming from all corners of the House of Lords or because they want to provide a helpful headline to the Mayor prior to the Mayoral elections in seven weeks time – the Government has performed an 180° u-turn. They have now tabled an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that will enable the courts to impose sobriety orders as part of a suspended or community sentence.

Offenders would have to wear ankle tags that continuously monitor alcohol levels, for up to four months.  The orders would allow alcohol levels to be monitored either by these tags which test sobriety every half hour, or by requiring offenders to attend a police station daily – or at other regular intervals – to be breathalysed.

Of course, the other advantage from the Government’s point of view is that it saves a lengthy debate on a Bill that is already taking much more time to progress through its various stages in the House than expected.  And what is more it avoids the certainty of another defeat for the Government to add to the nine they have already had on the Bill so far in the Lords.

It is really a case of Healey’s Law: when in a hole, stop digging.

Tuesday
Mar 13,2012

Along with peers from all parts of the House of Lords, I have been pursuing concerns about the loophole that the Government was creating in the Protection of Freedoms Bill that would have meant that those volunteering to work with children did not have to be subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks or checked against the lists of those barred from working with children provided their activities were subject to “day to day supervision”.

These issues were debated again in the House of Lords late yesterday afternoon.  In the end, the issues boiled down to whether an organisation with volunteers working with children could have an “enhanced” Criminal Records Bureau check on such volunteers and whether that check would include information as to whether that individual had been barred from working with children.

The legislation as originally envisaged would not automatically have given organisations the right to have enhanced CRB checks on volunteers.  In essence, the Government have now conceded that right.

They resisted, however, the suggestion that the check should reveal whether or not an individual had previously been barred from working with children – even those 20% of those barred do not have a criminal conviction that would show up on a CRB check.

In the end, the Minister offered a compromise: the “enhanced” check would not disclose whether an individual had been barred but the information that had led to a decision to bar an individual would be made available to the police and they would have discretion as to whether to pass it on as part of the enhanced checking process.

Essentially this ought then to mean that any relevant information could be obtained by an organisation about a volunteer, but it seems a very convoluted way round of doing it.  It would surely be much simpler to say whether that individual had or had not been barred.  It also places the onus and the discretion on the police to pass on the information – so any failure to do so will no doubt lead to criticism of the police service concerned.

For those who really want the details the debate is here and here.

Tuesday
Mar 13,2012

An exchange in the House of Lords this afternoon demonstrated that following the election of Police and Crime Commissioners public police accountability is to be done on the cheap.

Baroness Ruth Henig asked how much money was to be made available for Police and Crime Panels (these are the new bodies set up under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act to hold Police and Crime Commissioners to account and which will in effect be the only public forum in which policing decisions can be questioned).  The answer was £53,300 per panel.

When I pointed out that this would be insufficient to employ more than one or two people to support busy local councillors fulfil their scrutiny role, I was told that perhaps I didn’t understand how local authorities work.  This produced loud guffaws – not recorded in Hansard – as colleagues around the House seemed to think that my twenty-six years of experience in elected local and regional government might be rather more extensive than that of the Minister.

The full exchanges were as follows:

 

Police and Crime Panels

Question

2.44 pm

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how much money they will make available to each police and crime panel to cover start-up and first-year running costs.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Henley):My Lords, we are committed to funding police and crime panels to do the job set out for them in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. We will be providing annual funding of £53,300 per panel as well as an additional £920 per panel member per annum for expenses.

Baroness Henig:I thank the Minister very much for his response. One of the few things we all agreed on when the police and social responsibility Bill was before the House was the need for these panels to be strong and to operate as effectively as possible under the new governance arrangements for the policing landscape. Does the Minister not agree that these panels will want to meet regularly, probably at least once every other month; that they will have extensive legal and financial needs; that they will need good financial and legal advice; that they will certainly have extensive training requirements in the first year to enable them to operate effectively and cohesively; and that, therefore, the sums he mentioned are totally inadequate to get these panels operating as we would like in the first year?

Lord Henley:My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness at all. As the Bill went through, we made the function of the panels quite clear: it should be that of a light-touch approach. We then announced how much money would be available for them, which was £38,300 per year each. We have reviewed that figure in the light of various amendments made to the Bill, particularly some that originated this House. The figure, as I have just announced, has been increased to £53,300. We think that that is enough for the panels to do their job. The noble Baroness ought to remember that these panels are not replacing police authorities; their job is to review the actions of police and crime commissioners.

Lord Imbert:In the light of those who have said that they will now put themselves forward as police and crime commissioners, are the Minister and the Government content that they will not bring party politics to bear on policing operational decisions?

Lord Henley:My Lords, I am sure that politics will not come into this, but there will be some people who will stand under party colours. However, that does not mean they will necessarily bring politics into this matter. The noble Lord is going slightly wide of the Question, which is about the panels. The important point is to differentiate the job of the police and crime panels from that of the police and crime commissioner.

Baroness Hamwee:My Lords, even with a light touch, the panels will have to get to grips with a lot of paperwork and information, and undertake a lot of discussion in order to carry out their job of scrutiny properly. If the amount that is to be provided is insufficient, will members be expected to look to their own stretched local authorities for professional and technical back-up?

Lord Henley:My Lords, as I said in answer to the first supplementary question, we have increased by some 40 per cent the amount available to the panels in the light of discussions and thoughts we have had following the passage of the Bill. We believe that it will be sufficient. If individual local authorities wish to spend more, it will be for those authorities to make that decision themselves.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath:My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the police and crime panels are the only check and balance on the potential politicisation of our police forces through elected police commissioners. This is not wide of the Question. Will he respond to reports that Mr Kit Malthouse sought to interfere in the Metropolitan Police’s actions in investigating phone hacking? That is but one example of the risk to this new system, in which the police and crime panels are the only defence but the Government are not going to fund them properly.

Lord Henley:My Lords, I have made it quite clear that we are going to fund the panels properly. I am not going to respond to the specific allegation made by the noble Lord, but if necessary—if I think it appropriate—I will write to him. What I am making clear is that we think we are providing appropriate funding for the panels to do the job that was set out in the police Bill last year. We think that they can do that because their job is to look at what the PCCs are doing.

Lord Harris of Haringey:My Lords, the experience in London is that so far the only information to have emerged from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, which is a surrogate police and crime commissioner, is a series of listed decisions on the website. How on earth is a police and crime panel outside London going to get to grips with the detail underlying that and the issues determined by the police and crime commissioner, with money that is insufficient to employ more than one or two people in support of busy local authority councillors who will have many other roles in addition to that on the panel?

Lord Henley:My Lords, I think that the noble Lord misunderstands—dare I say it?—how local authorities work. Obviously, the funding will be available to provide for some staffing to assist that panel, but within that local authority there will be other officers doing other jobs who will also be able to assist in that role. That does not require the extra funding that he described. However much money the Government offered, no doubt he and others would say that it was inadequate. We made an announcement on how much it would be. Having reviewed it, we have since increased it. We think that it will be sufficient.

Tuesday
Mar 13,2012

In the House of Lords this afternoon, the Labour Leader, Baroness Jan Royall, asked a Private Notice Question of the Department of Health Minister, Earl Howe, about whether the Government would now publish their risk register on the Health and Social Care Bill given that the ruling of the Information Commissioner has now been upheld by the Information Tribunal.

The Government made it clear that they are waiting to see the detailed reasons from the Information Tribunal so that they could decide whether to appeal further.  So the implication is that they will not comply with the ruling before the Bill completes its passage through the House of Lords next Monday.

The exchanges showed seven Labour Peers (Baroness Jan Royall, Lord Charlie Falconer, myself, Lord Dale Campbell-Savours, Lord Bob Hughes, Lord Bruce Grocott, and Lord Maurice Peston) pressing the Government to publish.  There was silence from the Cross-benches, a supportive question from Tory Lord Deben (aka John Gummer) and a nice easy question from LibDem Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames.

Here are the full exchanges:

 

Health and Social Care Bill

Private Notice Question

3.07 pm

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in light of the decision of the information tribunal last week, whether they will publish the risk register associated with the Health and Social Care Bill before that Bill completes its Report stage in this House.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe):My Lords, the tribunal has agreed that the department should not publish its strategic risk register but has upheld the Information Commissioner’s initial decision notice on the transition risk register. However, we await the full judgment, which will contain the detailed reasoning for the decision. This makes it extremely difficult to make a decision on whether the Government wish to appeal this decision. I hope very much that the tribunal will give its full judgment as soon as possible.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, the primary purpose of this House is to scrutinise and improve legislation. I know that the Minister would agree with me on that. In the next 10 days, Parliament has to make critical decisions about the future of the National Health Service. Without the information in the risk register or the transitional risk register, Parliament will be less well informed than it otherwise would be. The information tribunal last week instructed the Government to release the transitional risk register immediately, as I understand it, because the Bill is still under consideration. Why are the Government therefore preventing Parliament from having the best possible information on the NHS so that it can make the best possible decisions about the NHS?

Earl Howe:My Lords, many of the risks associated with the Government’s reform programme, as the noble Baroness knows, have already been extensively aired—not least in the impact assessment, in my statement of 28 November last and, indeed, in the whole passage of this Bill—but I fully recognise the concern that we should respond swiftly to the tribunal’s decision. We are making every effort to update noble Lords on our intention as soon as we possibly can. However, as I have always said, this is not a decision for the department alone and any way forward has to be agreed and signed off across Government. I cannot make a decision without agreeing it with my fellow Ministers in other departments and I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that we have only just received the tribunal’s decision.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton:My Lords, I am dismayed by the Minister’s answer. Surely it must be the case that Parliament would be assisted by seeing the objective assessment of what the risks are to the National Health Service from the Bill becoming law. I understand that he is saying that the Government have already said what many of them are, but if that is the case then what is the harm in disclosing the list of risks that the objective assessment by civil servants gives of the introduction of the Bill? Surely Parliament would be assisted by having as much information as possible. It cannot be the fault of the information tribunal that we are getting no answer at all from the Department of Health.

Earl Howe:My Lords, no Government have routinely made risk registers available. This is a matter of principle. It is not just that the issues associated with the Health and Social Care Bill have been extensively aired—as I said, they have been—but it is a point of principle whether a risk register that is integral to the formulation of policy should be published.

The tribunal agreed with our assertion that the strategic risk register should not be published but disagreed when it came to the transition risk register. Our difficulty is that the case that we made for both documents, which are of a similar structure and have similar content, was based on essentially the same arguments, which makes it extremely difficult to make a decision on whether or not to appeal the decision. I hope, as I say, that the tribunal will give its reasons for the judgment as soon as possible so that we can determine the right way forward.

Lord Harris of Haringey:My Lords, surely this is not about the routine publication of risk registers but about the publication of a risk register for a specific Bill in front of your Lordships’ House and Parliament that is causing extreme concern in the country. Why is it not possible on an exceptional basis? I believe that no less a person than Simon Hughes—if such a thing were possible—has advocated to the Government that the risk register should be put into the public domain so that Parliament can look at the implications properly.

Earl Howe:My Lords, I beg to differ with the noble Lord; this is an issue about routine release. I think I am right in saying that the department has received several dozen requests to release the risk register. If this were to become routine, as some people appear to wish it to become, policy formulation in any department would become virtually impossible.

Lord Deben:Does my noble friend agree that a number of the laws passed by the previous Government were also controversial? Can he point to occasions on which the risk register was released in those circumstances?

Earl Howe:I am grateful to my noble friend because I do not believe that there were any. The Opposition sometimes point to the risk register relating to the third runway at Heathrow, but the key difference with that was that it was to do with policy implementation rather than policy formulation. Once you know what you want to do, there are risks associated with rolling a policy out. It is a very different matter when civil servants wish to have safe space to think the unthinkable and then advise Ministers.

Lord Campbell-Savours:Does the Minister intend to delay the Third Reading of the Bill?

Earl Howe:We have a Motion before us in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. That question will be addressed then.

Lord Hughes of Woodside:My Lords, the Minister said that the details of the risks had been well canvassed in this House. If that is the case then in the absence of proper information, with the best will in the world, the discussions must be based on hearsay. That cannot be the right way to go about discussing business.

Earl Howe:My Lords, I think back to numerous debates that we have had in this House, which of course are recorded in Hansard. Many of the risks that I articulated on 28 November last have been gone through by your Lordships almost ad nauseam.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:What steps have been taken to draw to the attention of the tribunal the urgency of receiving the reasons for this decision, bearing in mind the imminence of Third Reading?

Earl Howe:I have personally seen to it that the tribunal has been made aware of the urgency of releasing its reasons, and it has acknowledged that urgency.

Lord Grocott:Presumably, part of the need for urgency is the Government’s scheduling of the Third Reading of the Bill. I know that we are close to the end of an unprecedentedly long Session of Parliament but it would be an intolerable situation if the information were finally published after the Bill had become an Act and the information were then judged to have been such that many Members who had voted in favour of Third Reading would regret it within weeks. Surely the very least that the Government could do is to postpone the Third Reading debate until the last possible date before the end of the Session.

Earl Howe:My Lords, I am the first to acknowledge the concern among noble Lords to be fully and properly informed about the risks associated with the Health and Social Care Bill. As I say, we have done as much as we can to implement that intent without transgressing what we still see as a point of principle regarding risk registers. My answer to the noble Lord is that I do not believe it is necessary to postpone Third Reading but we clearly have to debate the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. At that point, the House will decide whether it is content to give the Bill further consideration.

Lord Peston:Can we go back to first principles, which the noble Earl raised? I speak as someone who has been an adviser. Is he saying that officials would not give their honest view of the risks that policies might incur if their advice was made public? If you believe in open government—certainly, if you believe as an official that your duty is to advise Ministers as best you can and, therefore, you will outline the risks—is that not altogether a good thing? It is not a principle that the Government ought to espouse, rather than say that they do not want to go down that path?

Earl Howe:My Lords, civil servants may not wish to put in jeopardy a policy that they are working on by using language that could be—indeed, is certain to be—misinterpreted or sensationalised, or that could cause embarrassment if exposed to the public gaze. Without full candour, risk registers across government would become bland and anodyne. Effectively, they would cease to be of practical value. That is the fear that has been expressed across government.

Sunday
Mar 11,2012

My excellent webmaster, Jon Worth, has written a blog post about his experiences earlier today with security on the Eurostar from Brussels.

He describes the pointless inconveniences that were introduced to plug the holes in an already leaky system.  The extra measures in place on his journey were presumably intended to plug the Lille loophole, described in the Telegraph today.  Yet the “solution” provided hardly seems cost-efficient or particularly effective.

The Sunday Telegraph explains the problem as follows:

“The loophole centres on the Schengen agreement signed between a number of European countries, including France and Belgium, which allows people to cross borders without passport checks.

The UK is not in the agreement can therefore check the passports of passengers travelling here.

As a result there are two gates for Eurostar trains in Brussels, one for those going to Lille, which does not have passport checks, and one for the UK, which does.

It means an individual could buy two tickets and then pass through the Lille gate but stay on the train to London without having their passport examined.”

Jon Worth describes the extra checks which took place on his train (no doubt as a result of this morning’s article in the Sunday Telegraph):

“Then today when the train called at Lille for more passengers to alight and board, we were told on the public address system in the train that there would be additional checks in the train between Lille and Calais. These checks were carried out by a team of 7 French rail police carrying guns and batons, but just checking tickets (and not passports). I asked the policeman who checked my ticket why he was doing so. “Parce-que c’est comme ça” (because that’s the way it is) he replied. I pushed him further, saying that of course I had to have a valid ticket, because how otherwise could I have actually got on the train? “C’est contre la fraude” (it’s against fraud) was the best I got out of him before he moved off.”

So that wouldn’t have prevented anyone with evil intent slipping into the UK.

However, today there was an additional check at St Pancras:

“Then upon arrival in St Pancras, not announced to passengers on the train, all passports and all tickets were being checked by UK Borders at the exit. Which – quite frankly – seems to render other checks superfluous. Why bother having a UK Border check in Brussels, and French police check in the train, if you’re then going to check in London too?”

Excellent –  apart from the extra costs of the unnecessary and ineffective security checks beforehand.

But what about the impact on passengers?  As Jon Worth points out:

“due to the small terminal exit and a few hundred people streaming off a train, the checks are not swift in London.”

This means at peak time there will either be terrible delays or – as happened with other border controls – the extra checks will be lifted.

The problem is potentially serious and it is amazing that the Home Office seems so relaxed about it.

Thursday
Mar 8,2012

LibDem discipline in the House of Lords is pretty monolithic – at least as far as the divisions on the Health and Social Care Bill are concerned.

I reported earlier in the week that in Tuesday’s five votes on amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill LibDem peers had voted en masse against every single one.

Today they were at it again.

The first vote was on a Labour proposal which would have removed the arrangements enabling NHS Foundation Trusts to earn up to 49% of their income from private patients.  This was defeated by a majority of 58 with 53 LibDems voting against the amendment.

The second vote was on making HealthWatch England a genuinely independent body.  This was voted down by a majority of 24 with 44 LibDems voting against the amendment.

The third vote was on Government amendments removing statutory status and governance requirements from local HealthWatch organisations.  The Government pushed through their amendments with a majority of 77 with 40 LibDems supporting the Government line.

The fourth vote was on a Labour amendment which would have required clinical commissioning groups to get approval from local Health and Wellbeing Boards to their commissioning plan (i.e. to introduce some democratic accountability).  This was defeated by a majority of 87 with 34 LibDems voting against the amendment.

In none of the four divisions did a single LibDem peer defy their Party whip and vote the other way.

Thursday
Mar 8,2012

Late this afternoon the Government finally got their way in the House of Lords and pushed through a group of fifty amendments that transform their proposals on how local HealthWatch organisations (the structures being created under the Health and Social Care Bill to represent the interests of patients in local communities) should operate.  The amendments, produced without consultation and with little warning, remove the statutory status of local HealthWatch organisations, remove the schedule to the Bill that would have specified their governance and how they should be structured, and pave the way for the privatisation and fragmentation of the functions of local HealthWatch.

The amendments were approved by 168 to 91 – a Government majority of 77 (40 LibDems voted for the Government amendments with none against).

For the really, really, keen here is what I said in opposing the amendments:

“My Lords, this is a complicated group of amendments. There are, I think, 50 government amendments in this group that completely change the direction of this part of the Bill. Of course, we do not have the benefit of a Committee consideration of these changes, which is unfortunate, given the nature of the changes that are envisaged.

In fact, what we are being confronted with is an almost extraordinary volte-face by the Government about how local healthwatch organisations are going to operate and proceed. As it stood, before these amendments, the Bill provided local healthwatch with a very clear structure and very clear governance. It defined membership and it defined their role. As such, the arrangements were better than LINks, better than PPI forums and, in one or two respects, better than community health councils. It was a very clear statement. There remained the problem that local healthwatches were going to be the creatures of local government without the benefit of ring-fenced money and with the potential issues around conflicts of interest concerning social care. I am reminded that on 15 October 2007, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, clearly took the view that it was inappropriate for a local authority to be host to a LINk. Presumably, the same arguments that influenced his thinking then apply on this occasion.

We have been offered guidance on conflicts but, again, it is not clear how this will work, which is something that we could have pursued perhaps in detail in Committee. The amendment refers to having regard to the guidance on conflicts, which I suspect will not necessarily be strong enough for the sorts of conflicts of interest that potentially could arise. We also have the enormous concession, to which I referred earlier, of Amendment 226ZG, which enables HealthWatch England to write a letter if it feels that something has gone wrong.

That is where we were but now the Government, without explanation or consultation, have decided that local healthwatches will no longer be statutory bodies. We are told that that is all in the name of the need for flexibility. The noble Baroness has mentioned repeatedly the briefing which took place yesterday evening, to which, incidentally, I was not invited. Even had I been, I would not have been able to attend because the meeting clashed with the regular meeting of Labour Peers, which one would think that the Government would wish to avoid. At that meeting various papers were tabled which referred to the importance of flexibility but we are not clear as to what that flexibility will deliver.

In moving the amendment the noble Baroness talked about the Government’s proposals in the Bill as creating a series of “unaccountable quangos”. I recall previous briefings which I attended with Ministers and the Bill team when it was explained that there would be guidance about how the membership of local healthwatch was going to be derived and to demonstrate that these were going to be accountable bodies and not unaccountable quangos. Somewhere along the line, in the past few weeks, there has been this amazing change of attitude, which does not seem to follow the benefit of any real explanation or consultation with those who might take an interest in it.

That underpins the amendments spoken to by the noble Baronesses, Lady Cumberlege and Lady Jolly. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, highlighted the difficulty that would arise between members and staff. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, talked about the importance of lay leadership. In terms of the changes, the Government are going to make it more difficult for there to be lay leadership and the role of members versus staff will be blurred still further. Indeed, the staff will be the dominant influence.

This is not a matter on which there has been consultation. I have received a note from the National Association of LINks Members, which states:

“Ministers say that they are ‘not convinced’ that LHW needs to be a stand-alone, statutory body corporate. It is not ministers who will be relying on LHW to get them a fair shake but the old, sick, vulnerable, frightened and marginalised and these, along with the rest of the patients and the public, are the ones who need to be ‘convinced’ that we have a model that will work”.

It says that it is not convinced. It points out that local healthwatch should,

“have a standard ‘platform’ of presence everywhere in England, not merely through logos, straplines and brands”—

which the Government’s amendments will make happen—

“but through a locally elected membership, a single ‘address’ and identifiable staff that it has appointed”.

It says that only:

“Statutory, body corporate status would deliver this”.

It continues:

“Government says it does not want a top-down model but it is making top-down decisions, and these fly in the face of all the evidence of the past three and a half years of LINks, all the advice of all the LINks’ members of the government’s own HealthWatch Advisory Board, of the National Association of LINks Members, all the advice of many, many LINks all over England. ‘Being heard’ has simply vanished from the national scene. The government pontificates on what it does not practise. It legislates but it does not listen”.

It suggests, although I could not possibly automatically agree, that:

“What the Government actually fears is 152 statutory LHWs, with genuine independence, with real clout and public buy-in, a separate identity, and powerful and committed membership”.

If that is the concern, where do we go from here? I am taken with the sage advice your Lordships received from the noble Earl, Lord Howe, when we debated the creation of LINks, the slightly ill-fated proposal by the previous Labour Government. The noble Earl, in his typically courteous but forceful way, said then—given these government amendments, you can simply substitute HealthWatch for LINks:

“We have come to a group of amendments most of which in their different ways relate to the same problem. I use the word ‘problem’ as the most neutral term I can readily think of for what many of us regard as a most serious and regrettable weakness in this part of the Bill; namely, the absence of even the slightest hint of a statutory identity for LINks. There is a complete lack of any descriptive reference to what a LINk might look like and practically no definition of a LINk”.

That was the noble Earl, Lord Howe, talking about the creation of LINks. Yet today he has brought forward amendments—admittedly he has delegated this to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, who is acting as his mouthpiece on this occasion—that will do precisely what he complained that the previous Government did.

Of course he said much more than that. I will not burden the House by repeating all the remarks he made in October 2007, but if we substitute HealthWatch for LINks every time it appears, we will get the flavour. He went on to say:

“As the Bill stands there are no provisions for LINks to have any form of governance arrangements; it is left completely open as to how a LINk would be able to make decisions or authorise people to act on its behalf. This is a major issue because without some form of governance you cannot have accountability. If there are no people authorised to act on its behalf, a LINk cannot be accountable”.—[Official Report, 15/10/07; col. 567.]

He later said:

“The key issues around governance are really three: how decisions are to be made; how activities are to be undertaken; and, who is to do these things? Without those minimum requirements we would be left with a situation where someone who has joined a LINk, but who never attended any meetings or received any training or signed any code of conduct”,—[Official Report, 15/10/07; col. 568.]

could proceed in particular ways. So the lack of statutory identity was something that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, told this House was absolutely critical when we debated the creation of LINks. And he was absolutely right. I remember agreeing with him at the time and feeling that my Government had got it wrong. But this is the point. The Government have now brought forward amendments which undo all his fine words at that time and all his attempts to put this right, and that is because statutory status at the local level was what was going to give HealthWatch a cutting edge, an authority in terms of its relationships with other bodies.

The noble Earl also had a few words to say about the underlying argument that this should be delegated down. He said then, and we could say it to him now, that we were told that the Government did not want to be “prescriptive” and that it would be up to each LINk to set itself up in the way it wanted.

In June 2007, he quoted a telling Greek legend. Indeed, he may remember using this example:

“I think it was Proteus who was able to assume any shape or form that he liked. The reason why he did this was in order to avoid foretelling the future. For us debating this part of the Bill, it is almost impossible to foretell the future because neither the governance arrangements of LINks, nor their structures, nor their powers, nor even the precise scope of their activities, are set out here. In a real sense, as with Proteus, we do not know who or what we are dealing with”.

With these amendments before us today, the Government are substituting something else when we would have known what we were dealing with and where there were precise governance arrangements. But they are taking all that away and moving towards something that the noble Earl also, presciently, described in that debate, saying:

“As I understand it—the Minister may correct me—because LINks are not defined they are not classifiable as statutory bodies. We may know a LINk when we see it—although I am not completely sure about that—by virtue of the things that it does … The Bill refers to activities being ‘carried on’”.

I look at these amendments and, my goodness, Amendment 236C in the name of the noble Earl talks about,

“activities carried on for the benefits of the community in England”.

Incidentally, how a local organisation is supposed to act in the benefits of “the community in England” seems to be a very odd use of words. However, phrases such as “activities carried on” were precisely what he said then was the wrong way of going on.

The noble Earl went on to say in that June 2007 debate:

“In fact, in one way or another, there is quite a lot of carrying on in this part of the Bill. There may be a joke there somewhere but I shall refrain from trying to find it. But that nebulous form of drafting is as far as we get. It will be incumbent on us in Committee”—

we do not have the benefit of being in Committee today—to sort out this unsatisfactory regime. He continued:

“The main problem with the Bill is that because LINks”—

and you could say the same about HealthWatch now—

“have no identity or definition, they can be seen neither as bodies whose independence is guaranteed, nor as bodies which have the power to hold local health and social care commissions to account”.—[Official Report, 20/6/07; cols. 252-3.]

Those were the wise words of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, then, but he is the same noble Earl who is bringing forward amendments that create the same precisely the structure that he said was totally inappropriate then.

Let us look at what the Government are doing and I will be brief. Amendment 231B removes the statutory status. Amendment 231C removes all structure, form and governance from the Bill. Amendment 234A talks about “one set of arrangements”. It implies not just a single arrangement in any local authority area, but a set of arrangements, so it would not necessarily be one contractual arrangement: it would be a set of contractual arrangements. The word “arrangement” is in the plural.

Amendment 235C is the great catchall that tells us it is all going to be all right and that all these bodies are going to be the same in that there will be a licence to use a trademark. I am enormously reassured by that. Amendment 235D provides for subcontractors for the different functions. So what we are envisaging is that a local authority will divide up the functions of HealthWatch organisations and contract each of them to a separate organisation. Does that really make sense? Is that the strong patient voice that we were promised at local level?

In Amendments 238ZM and 238ZN there are specific references to contractors. This is essentially moving from a position where there will be a clear number of local statutory bodies delivering patient representation on behalf of their communities, with members from those communities running those organisations, because that is what the governance arrangements were before. This is essentially privatising that process, albeit by so-called social enterprises. This is privatising consumer representation.

How can contractors be representative? Yes, there is an amendment that says that these contractors will be broadly representative of the local community, but how can an enterprise itself be representative of the local community? I find this concept difficult to understand. Because we are not in Committee, we do not have the opportunity to have it explained to us fully and a chance to probe the Government.

The amendments that we talked about a few minutes ago envisaged that local healthwatch would be able to have local representation on the board of HealthWatch England. How will we have representatives from local healthwatch organisations—the arrangements that will be subcontracted for different functions to social enterprises—how will representatives be produced at the national level for HealthWatch England? Is this going to be board members of a social enterprise, charged with the effective running of that enterprise not the representation of the community? Will it be the staff? That comes back to the point about lay leadership that the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, raised earlier.

Last night, I got an e-mail from an existing LINk member, with whom I have never previously communicated, saying:

“I’m much involved with my local LINk, which it can be argued, has already been ‘taken over’ by its Host in advance of the Privatisation of the Public’s voice when HealthWatch comes about. Lay ‘Volunteers’ have been demoted from being Members to Participants”—

there is the lay leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly—

“and our Management Committee has been redesignated as an ‘Advisory Group’”—

again, lay leadership—

“with few if any powers over anything. Expulsions have been initiated against those who don’t toe the new autocratic line—and the local authority just turns a blind eye despite appeals to the Council Leader, CEO and Portfolio holder. What hopes for a voice for the public/patient when Local Healthwatch is in place?”.

I believe that the Minister received a letter from another member of a local LINk who talks about his dedicated service. He lists at some length all the different bodies that he has sat on representing the public, then says that,

“My most precious resource—the time I have given—has, at a stroke, been set to nought”.

There is no local lay leadership in these arrangements. That is why these amendments are so sad.

We have to ask why the Government are doing this. Is it because some unit in the Cabinet Office has suddenly discovered this bit of the Health and Social Care Bill and said, “Oh, they have missed something out about the opportunity to introduce competition so let us put it in this bit of the Bill”? Or perhaps it is because Government Ministers have suddenly realised that the Bill is rather unpopular. There are some difficulties with it, the public’s perceptions of it are increasingly negative, so having proper patient representation would now be extremely dangerous.”