Lord Coaker (Lab)
My Lords, good afternoon. When the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, leads a group of amendments, I often end up agreeing with her; it is a bit of a surprise sometimes. Amendment 30, which the noble Baroness has moved, goes to the heart of it, as do all the amendments, because of the lack of clarity about what Clause 8 really means and what is meant by light-touch contracts. It is a really important job of this Committee to try to tease out a little bit more detail.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, probes in her amendment, why are they not more narrowly defined? There is also an argument for asking why they are not more widely defined. I think the noble Baroness—she will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—is seeking to understand the Government’s thinking and how they have arrived at their conclusions. I think that is what all the various amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and so on, are about.
In speaking to these amendments, I too am seeking clarity from the Government on what this clause means. I will start with the most obvious point. I have read the Library briefing, which refers to the Government’s own memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on light-touch contracts, and will quote a couple of things that I think are relevant to all the amendments in this group, including lead Amendment 30 from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes:
“The light touch regime is a facet of the existing rules … and has fewer rules regulating how a procurement is conducted for these contracts. This is reflected in the bill by a series of exceptions of obligations under the procurement regime for the relevant contracts.”
I will be frank: what does that actually mean? Which rules are not applied? There was one set of rules before, under the light-touch regime, which at one point the Government were not going to include in the Bill. That then moved to light-touch contracts, but we are told by the Government that there are fewer rules.
It would be helpful to know what the difference is. What are the fewer rules which the Government have explained to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee? The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made the point that what we are all struggling with is that Clause 8(1) says what “light touch contract” means and then that it will all be done by regulation. In fact, it is a bit like knitting fog to try to understand exactly where we are coming to and what we are doing.
The Government also said in their memorandum to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which, again, is relevant to all these amendments:
“Whilst the scope of what is to be included in the power is known, it is not practicable for the bill to include a long list of detailed CPV codes to indicate which categories of contracts may benefit from the light touch regime. In addition, both CPC and CPV codes may evolve over time, which would … require amendment to the bill. The power will be used to ensure that the scope of what is included with the light touch regime does not extend beyond what is permitted for the UK by reference to the GPA and/or other international trade agreements.”
Again, we are trying to understand what that really means for the light-touch regime which the Government are seeking to bring in as a result of Clause 8 and associated regulations. Some clarity on that would help to answer the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, about why it is not more narrowly defined and why it is defined in the way it is. That would help us to understand the Government’s thinking behind much of the clause.
The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, gets to the heart of what we are discussing: how the Government have arrived at their position. However, in particular, Amendment 34 from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raises a very important point about ensuring that light-touch contracts will involve various other services and bodies and that they are properly considered for such contracts.
Time and again, at the heart of previous groups, this group, and no doubt groups of amendments to come is a general debate on what a Procurement Bill should or should not include and how far the Government should or should not interfere with the operation of the market. What the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, is trying to get at, and what I believe is really important, is some of the ways in which this clause has been put together, so that we understand what exactly a light-touch contract is and the difference between the light-touch regime and the light-touch contracts in this Bill, and the Government’s thinking on what regulations may come forward in due course so that, as a Committee, we can consider whether they have got the balance right and whether this makes sense. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made the point that this clause is wishy-washy—one bit says this and another says that—and the Government’s get-out clause all the time is that it will be sorted out by regulation. This really is not the way forward for primary legislation.