Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch) : I have the honour to present a petition from more than 300 paid-up members of the Highcliffe branch of the Christchurch and East Dorset Conservative Association who wish to express their grave concern about the Railways Bill. This is the tip of the iceberg. My political activists are worried that the Government's plans are ill conceived, will damage Britain's railways and will not increase the essential investment on which the railways depend.
The petition says :
Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House determine, prior to the passage of legislation, the role expected of the railway system : and that a policy of seeking to divert traffic from road to rail, funded by the public or private sector, be determined in such a manner as to retain an integrated railway system.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray etc. To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak) : I wish to present a petition which has been signed by 218,617 people from throughout the United Kingdom, organised by the Churches National Housing Coalition. It states : That the growth and persistence of homelessness and bad housing is a fact, a scandal and a threat to future generations. The human suffering and social division caused make this an issue that each of us must face.
The churches are united in calling for compassion and justice in national housing policies.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House will urge the Government to make housing a higher priority by : making 100,000 affordable homes available each year, using both public and private housing, to meet rural and urban housing need ; improving choice and quality of housing for all tenants ; implementing further measures to tackle homelessness, especially amongst young people ; targeting government resources, such as mortgage interest tax relief, to those in greatest housing need.
To lie upon the Table.
Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill
Order for Third Reading read.
Today, it is my unenviable--perhaps some would say, regrettable--task to present the Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. I carry a great burden, if not an unusual one, because it is, indeed, a rare task. None the less, I feel privileged as a minnow in the shoal of the massed ranks of Tory Members on these green Benches. It is, perhaps, not such a mass as before the 1992 election, but, for Scotland, I am pleased to say that it is an expanded mass. We have almost 20 per cent. more representation than we had prior to the 1992 election. What is unusual or regrettable about the task to which I refer? Indeed, what is the task? If I do not define it, I shall risk your rebuke, Madam Speaker. The task is to amend the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976. The means is the Licensing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill 1992. I emphasise 1992, because the Bill is not based on a sudden impulse. It has been around for a while. It was first introduced in December. Since then, it has experienced a tortuous journey through Committee, where it had a thorough analysis. It was fully endorsed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was, indeed, warmly welcomed.
The Bill was fully debated for a marathon 12 minutes in Committee on 16 February. Until that time, all had gone to plan. Then, in the words of Britain's finest, most revered and most respected poet, Robert Burns, whose birth in Alloway in my constituency some 200 years ago gives cause for a worldwide celebration and ensures a worldwide reputation for my constituency and whose claim to such a position would, I am sure, be endorsed by Opposition Members, "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley."
Something went wrong when the Bill was presented for Third Reading at the end of February. An Opposition Member representing a Welsh constituency was heard to object. I suggest that a slight error may have been made, because it seemed more like a cough. It is a reasonable Bill, it is fully accepted by all and there was no real reason for objection. But Mr. Deputy Speaker thought that he heard an objection and, of course, Deputy Speakers are always right. I have no argument with that. The Bill is necessary to the well-being of the Scottish people and the fortunes of all who live in the land beyond Hadrian's wall.
That brings me back to my opening words--unusual, regrettable and rare. The Bill is necessary because of a mistake that was made by the Government and endorsed by a Committee of the House. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that a mistake by a Conservative Government is a rare event. It is an unusual event, certainly since 1979. I offer no comment on pre-1974.
A mistake was made in the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. The Bill amends the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 and the problem is contained in section 23 of that Act, which requires licensing boards, when granting new liquor licences, to witness a certificate to ensure that the
Column 1345availability of premises to which it refers is valid with respect to planning, building control and hygiene. Applicants must produce a certificate showing that full or outline planning permission has been obtained under section 1 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 and that further planning permission is not required. As from 25 September 1992, section 51 determinations were replaced by section 90A certificates of lawfulness of proposed use of development, which were introduced by section 42 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. Therein lies the problem that we are dealing with today.
The 1991 Act repealed section 51 of the 1972 Act, but it did not consequently amend section 23(2) of the Licensing (Scotland) Act to refer to section 90A certificates.
Mr. Gallie : It sent reverberations shaking through every town hall in Scotland. It sent every licensee who thought that he might wish to change the terms of his licence scurrying to his solicitors to see what dastardly Act had been imposed on them.
The Bill rectifies all those wrongs. Clause 1(1) will amend section 23 of the Licensing (Scotland) Act. Clause 1(2) adds to section 23(2) of the 1976 Act a reference to a certificate under section 90A of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act. It should be noted that the reference to section 51 remains, to ensure that determinations established before 25 September 1992 remain valid. That is very important. Section 90A enables planning authorities to grant certificates of lawful use or development to premises. Clause 2(1) contains the short title and subsection (2) provides that the Bill extends to Scotland only. I thank hon. Members from England and Wales for being present to listen to this essential piece of Scottish legislation.
I said that it is unusual and rare that such amendments are necessary-- certainly in Scottish legislation. That reflects credit on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his energetic, vibrant and meticulous team of Scottish Office Ministers, and there is no one more fitting to represent them today than my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). It also reflects credit on Scottish Office officials, who draft legislation. I pay particular tribute to them.
Mr. Jenkin : I congratulate my hon. Friend on the detail and thoroughness with which he has approached this short but complex measure, but will he comment on the source of the error, how it arose and who might have been responsible for it?
Mr. Gallie : We are dealing with a complex array of measures, with many pages of documents amending legislation, especially the 1991 Act. It would be incongruous to investigate one minor omission among a mass of legislation. We do not need a witch hunt ; we simply need to rectify a wrong, which I seek the blessisng of the House to do today.
I thank the Scottish Office officials for their speedy action in drafting the amendment. I particularly thank
Column 1346Michael Clancey of the Law Society of Scotland, who has been of much assistance in highlighting and assisting with the problems surrounding the Bill. It would be wrong not to thank the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who is not here today, and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) who, like me, has given up a day in her constituency to be here. My constituents in Ayr usually expect my presence on a Friday. I ask all hon. Members in the House today to approve the Bill and to give it their full support. 9.49 am
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) on introducing the Bill, and I congratulate the officials concerned in the Scottish Office and anyone else who played a part in correcting an admitted error. I do not want to prolong discussion of the Bill as our agenda today contains an important Bill that matters a great deal to the people of Scotland--the Carrying of Knives etc. (Scotland) Bill on which, I hope, the hon. Member for Ayr will speak.
The Labour party supports the Bill. We know that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is happy for it to be introduced. It is a welcome change for a Conservative Member to admit an error. That is a rare event. Confession is good for the soul and I hope that the Government will confess their errors more often.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) on his splendid Bill which helps to put right an anomaly and to rectify the matter. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) for her support in the matter. During the past 90 years, there have been only four major pieces of licensing legislation in Scotland. The Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 arose from the recommendations of the report of the departmental committee on Scottish licensing, chaired by Dr. Christopher Clayson. That forms the main corpus of current law on liquor licensing in Scotland. It was amended in 1990, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr said, by the LawReform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act, which introduced the new concept of children's certificates and standardised permitted hours for pub opening during the week and on Sundays.
The current liquor licensing law in Scotland has generally stood the test of time, although, from time to time, proposals are made to improve procedures and we consider them carefully. Problems occasionally arise which, if not remedied by statute, result in lacunas. The Bill aims to remove such a lacuna.
Section 23 of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 requires applicants for the grant of a new liquor licence to produce to the licensing board certificates about the suitability of their premises in relation to planning, building control and food hygiene. The applicant has to submit a certificate from the planning authority to the effect that full or outline planning permission has been obtained or that the planning authority has made a determination under section 51 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 that planning permission is not required.
Column 1347With effect from 25 September 1992, section 51 determinations will be replaced by section 90A certificates of lawfulness of the proposed use or development, introduced by section 42 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. The 1991 Act repealed section 51 of the 1972 Act, but, unfortunately, it did not make any consequential amendment to section 23(2) of the 1976 Act. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr for saying that there is no need for a witch hunt in this connection. Occasionally, even the best officials in Whitehall and Ministers can miss errors. I am glad that my hon. Friend is putting the matter right.
The purpose of the Bill is to amend the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 to take account of the changes introduced by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. The change introduced by that Act concerned what are known as certificates of lawful use or development. That amendment was a single point of detail in a wide-ranging Act. The impact on the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 was inadvertent, so it may be helpful for me to explain some of the underlying issues. In general terms, the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 was intended to improve the efficiency of the planning system and of the compensation code. It did so in a number of ways, not all of which are directly related, and as a follow-up to the commitments in the environment White Paper "This Common Inheritance" and as a result of recommendations in the 1989 Carnwath report, which focused primarily on the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning enforcement system. It had been the subject of detailed investigation and Mr. Carnwath undertook to carry out a review of that work and to draw up appropriate conclusions and recommendations for change.
I do not intend to detail those recommendations, but I shall highlight some of the general conclusions that Mr. Carnwath reached, as they provide the relevant background to the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. Mr. Carnwath concluded that previous enforcement arrangements were unduly technical and complex and that, as a result, there was considerable confusion about what the law required. He also considered that the previous system did not lend itself to dealing quickly with urgent cases of enforcement. Speed is, of course, necessary in these matters. The processes needed to be simplified. Similarly, the previous arrangements were too cumbersome and protracted for dealing with even the more simple breaches of conditions. The system also lacked teeth, in the sense that the courts appeared to be imposing inadequate penalties, a point which my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr has rightly highlighted on many occasions.
The national guidance provided to local authorities was seen as being ambiguous. In consequence, Mr. Carnwath recommended that we provided for better information and co-operation, that we rationalised and simplified our enforcement notice procedures, that we clarified the powers of the Secretary of State on appeal, that we reduced legal delay in the courts, that we better defined the nature of lawful land use and that we modified the stop notice and enforcement procedures. He recommended that we introduced injunctions and interdicts, that we increased penalties, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr would wish, and that we revised our policy guidelines.
The Planning and Compensation Act 1991 sought to implement many of the recommendations. In so doing, our attempts to provide for a determination of lawful land use
Column 1348inadvertently clashed with the need to provide certificates of established use under section 23 of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976. The precise significance and use of the certificates is inevitably a complex and technical matter. In general terms, the 1991 Act sought on this point of detail to define the concept of lawfulness in the context of land use and to introduce a better system for certifying the lawfulness of proposed or existing operations, uses or activities on, over and under land. It did so by providing for the new certificates of lawful use or development. The Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 provided for certificates of established use or section 51 determinations for which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr realises, planning permission was not required.
Both arrangements were repealed by section 42 of the 1991 Act. The intention was to provide a single coherent mechanism for establishing the planning status of land and to provide a statutory document for certifying the lawfulness of such uses. The benefits of such a revision were greater flexibility, convenience and a less ambiguous statutory arrangement for certifying the lawfulness of land use. The new procedure provides a single mechanism for establishing the planning status of land, whether for existing use or for proposed development. It provides for the first time a mechanism for obtaining from the planning authority or from the Secretary of State on appeal a statutory document for certifying the lawfulness for planning purposes of existing operation, development or use.
The system contrasts sharply with the previous system under which lawfulness was determined not by reference to a single certificate, but by reference to a number of different conditions. Those conditions are related to particular definitions of development under the 1972 Act, to the nature of exact grants of planning permission and to the date of development. Anomalies could arise under those arrangements. It was, for example, possible for breaches of planning control to become immune from enforcement action. It was thus possible for ambiguities to arise, such as developments that were unlawful, but were immune from any remedies. That anomaly no longer exists.
If a development or activity is immune from enforcement action, it is now also lawful for planning purposes. In that context, certificates of lawful use or development will not preclude the need to examine the underlying issues, but, once they have been examined and a certificate has been issued, remaining ambiguities will be removed as a statutory and, therefore, unambiguous statement of the lawfulness of the land.
A number of other benefits have been conferred by the new certificates. The Act enables anyone to apply to the planning authority for a decision on whether an activity is lawful for planning purposes. The certificates also provide for a detailed statement of such land uses. Once issued, the certificates preclude the need for further detailed work by the applicants or planning authorities in relation to the granting of planning permission. The certificates equate to the granting of planning permission for the designated activity. Clearly, that will have a beneficial effect and will reduce the work for both the developer and the regulator. I stress that the certificates in no way pre-empt the need for careful consideration of the appropriateness of the specific land uses.
Column 1349My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr has done a substantial service in introducing the Bill to put right the anomaly. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Maryhill and I am glad that the matter can be put behind us and that the Bill will soon be on the statute book. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr. Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.
(3A) The power in subsection (1) above shall not restrict the use of any other statutory provision under which a local authority may provide information to and may undertake activities with local government and other bodies outside the United Kingdom.'.
The Bill had a constructive Committee stage. It was one of those rare parliamentary occasions when much co-operation and light, instead of heat, was exchanged. I do not think that the Report stage should delay us too much. However, I want further assurances from the Minister and the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Broxstowe (Mr. Lester), who is to be congratulated on introducing the Bill and steering it thus far.
Amendment No. 2 ensures that the new power is to be without prejudice to the existing powers. It raises an issue of considerable concern to practitioners in the overseas section of local government and is arguably the most important of the amendments. It would ensure that the creation of the new power--which we all welcome--does not close off the possibility of using other powers of a more general nature which may have been available to local government. Local authorities have had to be inventive in the past in making use of general or discretionary powers when undertaking overseas assistance. They have also been exceedingly inventive in using those powers for domestic arrangements. They have been innovators and have sought to push forward work that has now gained wide official approval, using powers such as section 137--as amended--and section 142, on the powers to give information, of the Local Government Act 1972. The reason for the Bill is that, in the past, the Audit Commission has been concerned that no distinctive power existed. It rapidly became clear that a gap existed in the law, which the Bill seeks to fill.
It would be unfortunate if existing schemes and activities were disrupted by legal advice to local authorities to the effect that such work should, in future, be undertaken solely under the power contained in the Bill. Local authority lawyers and district auditors have occasionally been forced into a restrictive view of the powers of local government to secure against possible legal challenges. Amendment No. 2 provides the answer to those fears by making it clear in the legislation that the new power should not restrict the use by any authority of any other statutory provision, under which information may be provided to local government or other organisations outside the United Kingdom or activities may be undertaken with them.
It is clear that, in most cases, the authorities will undertake the new activities under the powers contained in the Bill. The amendment essentially concerns existing activities that could potentially be needlessly brought within the consent provision. It would be helpful if the
Column 1351Minister would explain what the position will be in relation to projects undertaken under the discretionary powers after the Bill's passage. It would also be of assistance if he could state that he will be willing to discuss both that process and the general issue with the local authority associations involved.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and the way in which he opened the debate. Many of us regard him as being beneficial when he is in light mood, rather than creating heat. Today must be a special day for him as I know of his profound interest in whales. I understand from the newspapers that a number of whales trapped in Scapa Flow have been rescued from their fate worse than death. They have now been released into the open sea. I am sure that we all share the pleasure that the hon. Gentleman must feel and admire him for his campaigning on behalf of whales.
Mr. Tony Banks : I wish to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the rescue of the sperm whales in Scotland. In a world in which so much distressing news assails us in the newspapers, that news has brought a bit of light and pleased everyone involved with the plight of whales. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will return to the subject next Friday when I have an Adjournment debate on the resumption of commercial whaling by Norway.
Mr. Lester : I never seek to anticipate anything--it takes me long enough just to get around each 24 hours. I share the feelings of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West and I thought that it was worth raising the subject of the whales as I know of his interest in them. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has handled the Bill for the Opposition. The issue is not one of dogma, but involves the basis of the Bill. We genuinely seek to reassure local authorities that we have no desire to restrict the powers that they may have. The Bill was introduced as we detected that there was a grey area--some authorities regarded themselves as having the power, some authorities were not sure whether they had that power and many authorities felt that they did not have it. The Bill clarifies the position to show that the authorities have a clear power. Local authorities have been inventive--often, to represent the degree of internationalism within specific local authorities. If people genuinely want to help, they look to see how best they can do so. One reason for drafting the Bill as we have was to give such authorities a clear power. The general authorisation that my hon. Friend the Minister has already undertaken gives the authorities an unfettered power so that no one can breathe over their shoulder other than through the use of the de minimis provision.
Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel) : In Committee I raised some of the anxieties of my local authorities--Arundel district council and West Sussex county council. I am glad to confirm that, in the light of what is perceived as progress on the measure, there is a feeling that those anxieties have been overcome.
Column 1352I applaud my hon. Friend's work in clearing up these matters and tell him that the number of inquiries that the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe has received from local authorities wanting to pursue active schemes under this measure has greatly increased.
Mr. Lester : I am delighted to hear that. I should like to task my hon. Friend with the responsibility, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for spreading news of the Bill and making sure that its consequences are widely appreciated and used.
We have no argument with the local authority associations ; indeed, we wish to reassure them. I am assured by the parliamentary draftsmen that the local authorities do not need this provision--there is no legal requirement for it--but if the authority associations can prove, as we have asked them to, that they need further reassurance on any particular matter I am sure that we would be prepared to discuss it with them.
Baroness Flather has undertaken to steer the Bill through the House of Lords. I am delighted about that ; she is a very able lady. She came to politics from local government and she understands it. I have no doubt that she will as sympathetic to the Bill's intentions in the Lords as we have all tried to be here.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) : We have already discussed some of these concerns in Committee. It would be a great tragedy if the Bill took away powers that local authorities currently enjoy. I hope that my hon. Friend will make it absolutely clear that the power in question is not necessary and that there is no possibility of powers being removed from local authorities.
Mr. Lester : Absolutely. We have a reasonably good audience here today, so perhaps I may describe the power that seems to be causing the difficulty. Under section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, local authorities already have the power to twin with local authorities anywhere in the world. They also have the power to promote the interests of the inhabitants of their areas, which means that they can send delegations from and to major conurbations. But they do not have the power--and they have never had it--to transfer technology or the tremendous range of technical experience that our local authorities have. The know-how funds exist and many European countries are starting to set up a basic local authority fabric. That is the purpose of the know-how funds and it is widely appreciated. We discovered that the technical aspect was not covered by law, which is why this Bill has been widely considered since it started out. The Bill enables local authorities in Great Britain to provide assistance in respect of matters in which they have skill and experience to bodies--not necessarily local authorities, but bodies preparing to become them. We are talking about bodies outside the United Kingdom carrying on or attempting to carry on the activities of local government.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is essential that local authorities should be encouraged to develop good trading links and know -how links with towns abroard, we should also bear it in mind that that would be no excuse for junketing or abusing their powers?
Column 1353misused and, besides, junketing is often no more than a matter of judgment on the part of the editor of the local newspaper. I have made international visits over the years ; all of them have benefited those in the places that we visited and those who took part in the trips. In some of the towns in which I am trying to encourage local authorities to get involved, the accommodation is hardly five star. We are talking about pioneering conditions which many of us would like improved. So I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that what she describes is the last thing we want. I am sure that the same goes for local authorities.
This is not a very controversial area, but it may still need to be clarified. I am assured that it does not need legal clarification, but I am sure that the Minister, who has rather better legal advice than I have, will shortly give us his opinion. Meanwhile, I have no doubt that we can make further amicable progress with the Bill. 10.15 am
Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham) : I do not want to detain the House long discussing a probing amendment which clarifies what is already in the Bill. In as much as it does so, it is welcome. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for what he said about the interpretation given to him by the parliamentary draftsmen of its effects on the Bill.
I am worried about one aspect of the amendment and I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with it. I regret that I was not on the Standing Committee, but I have followed the Bill's progress carefully. I am worried that the amendment might reverse one of the Bill's principal effects, which is to ensure co-ordination of effort in local authority activities when helping overseas bodies to develop, particularly in eastern Europe. Such co -ordination is vital. If local authorities from this country are to assist nascent democracies in eastern Europe, they should do so as part of a United Kingdom entity. We do not want them to find ways around, or innovative interpretations of, existing statutes which already give them powers. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, they have done that successfully in other areas in the past. If they found ways of operating outside the scope of this Bill they might be able to undertake activities that would conflict with the assistance being offered by local authorities working in conjunction with this Bill, with the approval of the Secretary of State. That approval is the key. It ensures that, for instance, Lambeth borough council cannot rush off and set up a local government structure in some town in Hungary, modelling it on Lambeth itself, with all the attendant corruption.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : A number of local authorities in eastern Europe are well ahead in the development of contracting out and in their philosophy of service to the customer--ahead of Lambeth council, that is. I submit that Lambeth council could learn a lot if the technology transfer were in the other direction.
Mr. Carrington : My hon. Friend makes a strong point which suggests that perhaps we should have a Bill to enable Lambeth to take advice from local authorities in Hungary, although that takes us a long way from the subject of the debate.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : The Bill should have a degree of reciprocity, but perhaps for that we would need to seek the leave of the Hungarian Parliament rather than this one. The issues of criteria and monitoring the value of schemes are important because the last thing that we want is duplication by local authorities or by parties on a local authority. It is conceivable that two parties on a local authority would seek to provide schemes and that would not be in anybody's best interests. That is why we need control and monitoring.
Mr. Carrington : My hon. Friend's valid point reinforces my argument. Not many overseas local authorities would think that they had a great deal to learn from Lambeth. The danger is that a sharp-suited salesman, perhaps trained in the old GLC, would rush out to persuade local authorities--
Mr. Tony Banks : I am quite happy to lock on to the debate about such matters, although it will not get us very far. I should be far more suspicious of a sharp-suited man from the PSA in view of the considerable amount of corruption there during the time that the Conservative Government has been responsible for the activities of the PSA. The hon. Gentleman should be cautious about attacking Lambeth borough council because much Government departmental fraud and corruption could bear some critical examination.
Mr. Carrington : I am grateful for your direction, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point is not about sharp suits, but about Lambeth persuading local authorities to take actions that are against their better judgment.
Model local authorities are legion and Wandsworth is an especially good example. It could set up in a neighbouring local authority in Hungary an efficient and cost-effective system that would deliver the required services. Because the two authorities were close there would be tremendous conflict. Therefore, the Secretary of State's involvement is vital to ensure that the good model is used overseas and the bad model is not. The amendment may allow a council such as Lambeth to act in contravention of Government policy and best local government practice. Perhaps the Minister could reassure me about that.
Column 1355apologise to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for missing the early part of his speech, but I had the opportunity to listen to the debate in Committee. I have received assurances that the measure will not restrict the powers of local authorities. Many taxpayers and ratepayers feel that this is not the sort of activity in which local authorities should engage. Councils are under financial restraint and it is a brave councillor who announces that his authority is about to embark on such work. Government blessing for many of the schemes is needed to legitimise them and to demonstrate that they are in the interests not only of local residents, but of the wider community. I hope to speak later in the debate about how the schemes could be extended to help local firms and communities.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) : Does my hon. Friend think that it would be useful to have the ever-vigilant eye of local residents watching what is being done and how money is being spent? Every penny spent abroad to assist developing countries should be spent as carefully as money spent at home.
Mr. Pickles : That is important. Many local people will have experience of the countries that the legislation will affect, but most will not. However, even that experience may not enable them to make value judgments on schemes. Local people should be given judgment criteria and the Bill suggests that that should be provided by the Secretary of State. The Bill does not give the Secretary of State the power to say what must be done, as some local authorities suggest. Councils may engage in certain activities, provided the residents and the councils think that they are good. It is an enabling power, rather than one that forces councillors to follow a specific course.
Mr. Lester : I would not want anyone to get the wrong idea. The Bill will give authorities power to act as agents for the spending of money that is not provided by charge payers. That is one of the key measures in the Bill. Local authorities have a tremendous range of experience, but it would be wrong for charge payers to fund overseas schemes. Money will be provided from the know-how funds, the Overseas Development Administration, and European and United Nations funds, but local authorities are able to provide the best technical assistance. There is a de minimis provision, but it is so small that it would not affect any charge payer's bill.
Local authorities are being granted an important freedom to look at projects before they make a bid for money from the know-how funds. The legislation is not designed to give charge payers or council taxpayers a shock by saying that local authorities will suddenly take on the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Mr. Pickles : Of course, my hon. Friend is correct. I am sure that he readily accepts that, while local authorities will be the agents for funds that will come mainly from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, there will be some cost to local authorities. The Bill is about stopping--