UK: Public Bodies Bill Completes Public Bill Committee Stage

Last Updated: 17 October 2011
Article by Nick Maltby and Paul Thompson

This is entry No.45, first published on 14 October 2011, of a blog on public bodies reform. Click here to view the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

After 8 sittings, from 8 September to 11 October, consideration of 70 odd amendments, 10 new clauses and one new Schedule, and seven divisions on particular proposals, the Public Bodies Bill has now emerged from its Public Bill Committee in the Commons (see here).

Apologies to the more ardent readers of this blog for the temporary cessation of coverage during the committee proceedings but this blog is back on air now.

Like Gaul, the Bill is now divided into three parts, that division reflecting in particular the specific new provisions now included for particular bodies. The new provisions are for for the abolition of the RDAs, a substitute for section 61 of the Broadcasting Act in relation to the funding of S4C and amendments to the National Heritage Act 1983 in relation to the V&A, the Science Museum and English Heritage.

Additionally, the Registrar of Public Lending Right and the Youth Justice Board will now be found in Schedule 1 (power to abolish), along with the Sports Ground Safety Authority in place of the Football Licensing Committee, the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council and the Civil Justice Council have been omitted from Schedule 2 (power to merge) and the Civil Justice Council has been omitted from Schedules 3, 4 and 5 (powers to modify constitutional arrangements, to modify funding and to modify or transfer functions), Furthermore the Chief Coroners and Medical Advisers, plus the Dover Harbour Board and Her Majesties Stationery Office now feature in Schedule 5 (power to modify or transfer functions).

The changes made are almost entirely Government amendments but the inclusion of the Dover Harbour Board at the instance of local Conservative MP, Charlie Elphicke (supported by Dominic Raab, Cons Esher and Mark Williams, Lib Dem Ceredigon), is not and was opposed by the Government (as being unnecessary) but won on a division 11 to 8. This all relates to the proposed privatisation of Dover which is being pursued by the Dover Harbour Board under the Ports Act 1991 and which is the subject of proposals for the establishment of a community port. At an earlier stage in the Committee proceedings (2nd sitting, column 33), Nick Hurd for the Government did promise to consider further before the Report Stage the possibility about making specifically some general provision in the Bill for transfers to community benefit societies and other co-operative bodies. It may therefore be that more will be done on this subject at Report.

Of those amendments fought and lost, special mention should go to the amendment seeking to remove the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (EHRC) from the powers of the Bill which was defeated by 9-10 (see 6th sitting columns 199 215). The debate on the future of the EHRC has raged throughout the Bill's passage. Nick Hurd for the Government reiterated (see columns 210-211) that the Government announced on 14 October 2010 that it intended to retain the Commission but substantially reform it, to clarify its remit, to stop "non-core activities" and where appropriate make alternative provision by Government or by voluntary or private sector providers and to clarify its relationship with Government and strengthen further its governance and value for money. In a mastery of political understatement, Mr Hurd asserted that "there may be a difference of opinion here - a different starting point - but our whole intention is to make the EHRC a more valued and respected national institution". Critics of the government see it differently and fear in particular for the independence of the EHRC and that its role will be heavily curtailed. A Government consultation was issued last March, receiving over 1,000 responses and Mr Hurd acknowledged that a response will be made to it this autumn, although as he said autumn can be quite a long season in Government. No doubt the Government's appetite for reforming the EHRC has not been lessened by the recent decision in EHRC v Prime Minister & Ors in relation to guidance on what officers should do if they suspect detainees might be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (see here). No Government enjoys being challenged by public bodies, in the courts or elsewhere.

A date has not yet been set for report stage but the Bill now looks set for enactment before Christmas.

Meanwhile the reform of public bodies continues apace outside the Bill. Of particular note is the consultation on the proposed new waterways charity which is intended to replace BWB and which runs for just a six week period, from 12 September to 24 October (see here). Whilst many might have expected to see a draft of the proposed Order accompanying the consultation, given that the transfer is to be effected by order under the Bill once enacted, only its intended subject matter is actually covered in the consultation.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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