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Column 695should give powers to the Lord Chancellor in a local government Bill to alter the functions of a justice of the peace. Because it is indicative of what we think the Lord Chancellor might be up to, and because the map to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor referred reveals geographic ignorance of our communities, we should not give such powers to the Lord Chancellor without the inclusion of proper statutory consultations in the new clause.
I should like a reassurance from the Minister about the parallel agenda. I should like him to reassure me that my fear about the merger of the benches, which would destroy the very nature of community justice represented by the commission of the justices of the peace, is unfounded.
Mr. Jonathan Evans : I seek just two assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister. As I read the new clause, it is clear that it is dependent upon being in consequence of any of the provisions of the Bill. Therefore, I take it that it is intended that one deals with magistrates courts areas- -jurisdictions, if one likes--precisely in accordance with the changes that we have brought about in terms of the boundaries of local government within Wales. I have no doubt, particularly because we see in subsection (3) that that phrase is again repeated in relation to changes necessary
"in connection with the alteration in any local government area" that that is why the new clause has been brought forward.
"necessary or expedient in consequence of"
the passing of the Bill. It is not therefore not quite the sort of broad power to which the hon. Gentleman was referring.
Mr. Michael rose
Mr. Michael : Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that allowance is made in the Bill for subsequent changes, which could be not just now but at times in the future, and that that in itself could lead to a consequential peg on which to hang changes which of course could be consequential, because it is not we who define "consequential" ?
Mr. Evans : The hon. Gentleman made his own speech. It will be for my hon. Friend the Minister to answer for the Government. I am just seeking assurances from the Government ; I am not here to give assurances to the Opposition. On my previous point, though, I seek the assurance that my interpretation of the new clause is correct. On the face of it, it seems to be directed in that way.
I mentioned in an intervention that I had a meeting with the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department precisely because of some concerns about the indicative map that has been produced in relation to Powys. It was clear that that document was produced merely for indicative purposes and that it is not a template
Column 696of change as far as the Lord Chancellor's Department is concerned. In view of some of the remarks that have been made, it is important to make that point.
One point that I put to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department on that occasion and which officials had not previously heard, but promised to give some attention to, is whether, in the passage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, there should not only be consultation on new magistrates courts boundaries, if there are to be amalgamations, but consideration of the possibility that any amalgamation might be subject to an affirmative resolution within the House. I know that that matter is currently being considered by the Lord Chancellor's Department.
I seek the assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that, by passing this new clause, which I am perfectly happy to do, we will in no sense restrict any change that the Lord Chancellor's Department may subsequently agree in terms of the Police and Magistrates Courts' Bill requiring there to be an affirmative resolution before there could be any amalgamation of magistrates courts areas generally.
Mr. Gwilym Jones : We have had a kind reference to patience. Perhaps that quality is still needed in the debate. I must tell Opposition Members that the powers to change areas and functions have been in clause 54(4) since it was first introduced. As I listened to the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), I tried to make up my mind whether it was a case of much ado about nothing or of the hon. Gentleman being excessively cautious. Knowing the hon. Gentleman as I do, I prefer to think that it is the latter. It is a pleasure to welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the Opposition Front Bench on Welsh affairs. It is good to see him there. We had been wondering whether we would see much more of him in that position in future, but I had better not digress further.
Mr. Michael : I thank the Minister for his welcome. It is because of the mixture of judicial and criminal justice issues and local government issues that, with well-known tolerance, my colleagues in the Welsh team have invited me to contribute to the debate. I am grateful to them for that.
Can the Minister point to the place in the Bill where subsection (4)(b) of the new clause was previously put ? That is the bit that gives the Government power to amend primary legislation by order.
New clause 13 provides my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor with the equivalent powers that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has in clause 54. Subsection (3) of the new clause will provide the Lord Chancellor with the ability to make further orders with respect to commission areas, petty sessions areas and magistrates courts committees in connection with alterations made in local government areas by the Bill. That is necessitated by the fact that, for the moment, as far as possible the status quo is to be preserved. The expanded sections inserted into schedule 2 by amendments Nos. 83 and 84 will ensure that those areas are based on preserved county areas. They are currently based on the county area. However, subsection (3) of the new clause will enable my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, should he consider it expedient in future, to alter those areas to match them with the new principal areas.
Column 697Perhaps I should explain further some of the other amendments. Amendment No. 73 will tie my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor into clause 62 and give him equivalent powers to those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 75 will bring the new clause into force on enactment. Amendments Nos. 105 to 109 are consequential, to take account of new clause 13.
Mr. Jones : That is an important point. The points made by the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and for Cardiff, South and Penarth are essentially all for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. All that these amendments do is to allow him to alter those areas because of changes to local government boundaries made by the Bill.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney asked about functions. There is nothing novel about the amendments. There is the precedent of section 19(2)(d)(i) of the Local Government Act 1992 which provides power to make regulations and to make consequential, supplementary, et cetera provisions as to the functions or areas of "any justice of the peace, stipendiary magistrate, coroner or keeper of the rolls".
We have to be able to change those, as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney said, so that magistrates' boundaries tie in with unitary authority boundaries. The problem arises purely and simply because the areas are defined by reference to counties. If my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor made changes to functions, it would have to be incidental, consequential, et cetera, to the local government changes made by this Bill. It is thus not a completely unfettered power to change functions.
Mr. Jones : They are functions entirely consequential to the changes made in the Local Government (Wales) Bill. I hesitate to give examples of functions, as I am not an expert in that matter, but I imagine that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth will pursue certain expert questions when the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill is considered in Committee.
Mr. Michael : The trouble is that we cannot pursue this legislation during the Committee stage of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. That is why I said that these amendments should have been made to that Bill and not to this Bill. I invite the Minister to respond to my hon. Friend's request by giving us just one simple example of a function that might change. The Minister suggested that I might have some expertise. I cannot think of one function that could or should be changed. One is therefore bound to be suspicious and to ask what the Minister and the Lord Chancellor are up to.
Column 698I trust that that will also be the assurance that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) has sought. I am grateful to him for his intervention.
In answer to the question by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, the equivalent of subsection (4)(b) of the new clause is clause 54(2)(e). Again, there is nothing novel about that. I was glad to hear the earlier intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor, which he repeated in his remarks, about the way in which mid-Wales has been considered in arrangements for that part of Wales. That practical example is the best response to the legitimate concerns expressed by Opposition Members about consultations.
Mr. Rowlands : I am sorry to keep interrupting, but this is the Report stage of the Bill. Has the Minister made it clear to the Lord Chancellor's Department, by the usual means, that the proposed map--and especially the notion of putting Merthyr into the Gwent committee area--is completely in conflict with the whole shape and character of local government changes as proposed in the Bill ?
Mr. Jones : I regard the map as essentially a matter for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. Within the usual consultations, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken, and will take, the opportunity to offer his comments so that the eventual decision is best informed and the right decision is taken.
Mr. Michael : With the leave of the House, I shall reply. A moment ago, the Minister said that clause 54(2)(e) provided the powers which are contained in new clause 13 with regard to the Lord Chancellor. However, clause 54(1), which contains the appropriate designation, refers only to the Secretary of State and clearly refers to consequential requirements for applying, amending, repealing or revoking legislation as a result of the Bill going through--that is, matters relating to local government, which is what the Bill is about. It does not in any sense make the type of provision that is in the new clause with regard to magistrates courts or the functions of the Lord Chancellor's Department.
It is clear that the Minister has been placed in a difficult position, perhaps as a result of taking on board amendments to help the Lord Chancellor's Department. I suggest that he is wrong in what he is saying. He should withdraw the new clause and let the Lord Chancellor get the Under -Secretary of State to propose amendments to the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill so that the matter can be debated properly in Committee and on the Floor of the House on Report, rather than rushing the amendments through in this way. The Minister is wrong in what he says.
Mr. Gwilym Jones : With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am relatively confident that I am not wrong in what I am saying. Neither clause 54(2)(e) nor clause 51(4)(1) is changed by this group of amendments, although running through the amendments is a process of putting the Lord Chancellor in the same position as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I do not feel able to comment on what amendments may be tabled in Committee on the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, but I am sure that the right amendments will be tabled where necessary.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
.--(1) Where an area committee has been established by a council in accordance with an approved decentralisation scheme
(a) the council shall not, except with the agreement of the committee, abolish the committee or alter any arrangements in force with respect to the committee which were made in accordance with the scheme as originally approved or which have subsequently been agreed with the committee ; and
(b) nothing in section 101(4) of the 1972 Act (power of local authority to exercise functions otherwise discharged by committee) shall be taken to authorise the council to exercise any functions which are to be discharged by the committee, except as provided for by the scheme.
(2) Every decentralisation scheme shall include provision, to be given effect to by the standing orders of the council concerned, for the majority required in order for any suspending resolution to be passed to be such majority greater than a simple majority as may be specified by the scheme.
(3) In subsection (2) "suspending resolution", in relation to a decentralisation scheme, means a resolution to suspend any of the arrangements in force with respect to an area committee established in accordance with the scheme.'.-- [Sir Wyn Roberts.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Amendment No. 2, in clause 27, page 20, line 38, leave out from beginning to end of line 3 on page 22.
Government amendments Nos. 54 and 55.
Amendment No. 1, in clause 28, page 22, line 4, leave out from beginning to
end of line 12 on page 23.
Government amendments Nos. 56 to 58.
Amendment No. 25, in page 22, line 34, leave out
sections 102(3) of the 1972 Act (Power to include persons who are not members of the local authority concerned)'
and insert section'.
Amendment No. 26, in page 22, leave out line 42.
Amendment No. 27, in page 23, line 4, at end insert
(f) an area committee may co-opt additional persons to serve as members of the committee, but such persons shall not have the right to vote on any resolution of the committee.'.
Sir Wyn Roberts : The amendments and new clauses represent our response to the views expressed by hon. Members in Committee about the organisation of area committees once they have been established. The deletion of provisions from clause 28 and their replacement by three new clauses, each dealing with a different aspect of the matter, is intended to facilitate reading and understanding.
New clause 14 for the most part reproduces the safeguards for area committees that were built into the clause as it stands. However, it has a new provision which adds a further safeguard in that it disapplies section 101(4) of the Local Government Act 1972--relating to the power of a local authority to exercise functions otherwise discharged by a committee--except as provided for in the scheme. Altogether, we believe that the safeguards will enable committees with the necessary degree of independence to be created and ensure that they can be abolished, their functions changed or their decisions overturned only with their agreement.
Column 700New clause 15 fulfils our commitment to provide for the co-option of additional persons to serve as members of an area committee. We all agree that it will be useful for committees to be able to call on the expertise and experience of people who are not members of the committee by virtue of their having been elected from the area covered by the committee.
The new clause also makes provision for an area committee to arrange for the discharge of any its functions by a local authority other than the authority which made the scheme--if authorised to do so in the decentralisation scheme. That will enable an area committee to discharge a service delegated to it in the same way as a full council might exercise that responsibility. In practice, we expect that power to be used mainly to enable area committees to arrange for community councils to discharge certain of their functions for them.
Mr. Wigley : There are two matters on which I should be grateful for the Minister's response. First, will the co-opted members of an area committee count towards a quorum ? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that the area committee can be a unit in its own right for the purposes of language schemes under the Welsh Language Act 1993 ?
Sir Wyn Roberts : I can certainly confirm the second point. Of course, it will depend on the committee's decision. As for a quorum, I should have thought that it must comprise the voting members of the committee, and the co-opted members would not be taken into account for that purpose.
Mr. Alex Carlile : With regard to the second point raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), will the Minister explain how a body that has no legal status whatever, as was confirmed in Committee, can be a unit for the purposes of Welsh language schemes ? If a body can be a unit for the purposes of Welsh language schemes, why can it not be a unit for the purposes of making contracts and incurring legal liability ?
Sir Wyn Roberts : We went over this ground at considerable length in Committee. When it comes to the question of languages and the provision of a translation service, I should have thought that a committee of a council could take its own decisions in such a matter. That would certainly fall within its purview as a committee because, after all, it is to do with the committee's procedure.
Mr. Rowlands : Pursuing the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), will the Minister tell the House whether any of the amendments and new clauses clarify the legal liability and the legal personalities of the area committees ? The Minister is absolutely right in saying that we went over the matter in Committee. As a result, we found confusion and muddle in the Government's mind and in their attitude towards the whole subject of area committees. Will the area committees be liable for their own actions ?
Sir Wyn Roberts : I am continuing to describe the committees. If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall explain further what the new clauses do. They supplement clause 28 considerably in that we are adding new clauses.
New clause 18 clarifies the position relating to the setting up of sub- committees of area committees and the
Column 701exercise of the responsibilities delegated to them. The clause also provides for co-option of additional persons to sub-committees, to serve as members.
Our proposals in new clauses 15 and 18 for co-option to area committees and their sub-committees fulfil--I believe--the undertakings given to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) in the Standing Committee. In the light of our new clauses, I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendments.
Mr. Ron Davies : With the greatest of respect, the Minister is describing the provisions in new clauses 15 and 18, which we can all read and understand. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) asked very pertinent and precise questions and the Minister said that he would deal with them in a moment. There is nothing in the new clauses
Mr. Davies : It is no good the Minister saying no, because he did. He said--I noted it--that he would have thought that a sub-committee could make a decision. It takes a great stretch of the imagination for the Minister to come to the startling conclusion that a sub-committee can take a decision.
I should be grateful if the Minister could answer the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. Can an area committee take a decision relating to a language scheme or anything else that is contrary the declared policy of the principal council ? That matter is important in defining the relationship between such committees and the principal councils and is at the heart of the new clauses. The Minister should deal with that question rather than going into the realms of waffle.
Sir Wyn Roberts : I thought that I had dealt with all the interventions to the satisfaction of those hon. Members who intervened, but I shall say more about the quorum. It is common sense that the establishment of a quorum in a body that has voting and co-opted members is a matter for the voting members to sort out. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) amplified the question on the language issue raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) by asking about a situation in which there was conflict between a committee and the main authority. Again, those are matters that should properly be covered by the scheme for decentralisation that the authority will submit for our approval.
Mr. Rowlands rose
Mr. Ron Davies rose
Mr. Ron Davies : The matter is of central importance. We debated it at great length in Committee and the Minister undertook to clarify it. He said that such matters could be resolved under the scheme, but who will approve
Column 702the scheme ? The Minister will do so. If he is asking us to accept the new clauses, we ought to have a statement on the central relationship between an area committee and the principal council. Is the Minister going to approve schemes that give area committees powers to take decisions on matters of policy or administration ?
Mr. Davies : Indeed, or money. The list is endless. Will the Minister approve schemes under which decisions can be taken that are contrary to the principles or the policies of the principal council ? That question defines the relationship between committees and principal councils. Under powers given by the Bill, the Minister will approve such schemes, so what is in his mind ? It is no good his saying that he thought that the scheme would cover it. What is he going to do about it ?
Let me deal with the issue of co-optees. We believe that members of an area committee should be fully accountable for their decisions and that generally only councillors elected for that area should have the right to vote. We have had to make an exception, however, in the case of representatives of churches that appoint foundation governors of voluntary schools. Under the Education Act 1993, the Secretary of State can direct that such representatives be appointed to committees dealing with education and that they should have voting rights. If an area committee has education functions--we made it clear in Committee that only minor education functions might be delegated--it is necessary for the voting rights of church representatives to be safeguarded as we have done in the new clauses.
Hon. Members have mentioned funding and other issues. The Government propose that the decentralisation scheme should set out how an area committee's budget would be calculated and specify a minimum proportion of an authority's revenue budget to be delegated to the area committee. The proportion would vary from scheme to scheme, depending on the functions proposed for each area committee. Where the whole of an authority was covered by area committees, the minimum amount to be delegated might total one third of the authority's budget.
The scheme would guarantee the minimum proportion, unless the area committee and the authority agreed that it should move upwards or downwards in the light of experience or changing circumstances. Within the block resources delegated to it, the area committee would set its spending priorities and be able to build up reserves and retain revenue from services for which it was responsible, such as car parking.
On capital finance, applications for supplementary credit approvals--SCAs-- would be co-ordinated by the authority, although area committees could play a role.
Mr. Alex Carlile rose
As I said, applications for supplementary credit approvals would be co- ordinated by the authority, although area committees could play a significant role in preparing
Column 703bids for their areas. Schemes could provide for area committees to have responsibility for SCA-supported projects for functions delegated to them and could receive an agreed allocation of capital resources for those functions--from basic credit approvals and reserves.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary offered in Committee to consider whether area committees should have powers to influence the levels of council tax. We can see that such powers have their attractions and would reinforce the accountability of councillors to their electors. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered the matter carefully, in consultation with colleagues in the Department of the Environment and the Treasury. It has become clear that such powers would involve substantial legal difficulties, which we have been unable to resolve. I am sorry to have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) that, regretfully, we have concluded that we should not amend the Bill on that issue. Mr. Alex Carlile rose
Sir Wyn Roberts : Perhaps, before I return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and touched on by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I had better give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
Mr. Carlile : I do not want the Minister's reference to car parks to pass without asking him to inform the House what would happen, for example, to the reserve built up from the enormous revenue earned from the Welshpool Smithfield car park ? Let us suppose that the area committee put the reserve into a bank deposit account and that there was a fund to spend. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, under the scheme that the Government are providing, the area committee--even if it wanted to enter into a contract to put up a hut for the car park attendant--could not do so because it would have no power to do so ? The contract for the car park attendant's hut, using the area committee's money, would have to be entered into by the unitary authority which might not want the car park attendant to have a hut. Is not that factually and legally correct, and how does the Minister defend it ?
Sir Wyn Roberts : We have said time and again that it is a matter for the area committees, and the authorities must draft schemes for the delegation of functions to the area committees. The schemes and the functions delegated will vary considerably, and it is for the area committees and their respective authorities to decide what kind of scheme is acceptable to them within the parameters that I am laying down at the moment.
I know what the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) is after--he wants us to declare that the area committees are corporate bodies. But we have made it clear that they are similar to other authority committees. Committees that exist under the present county council system, for example, do not have the corporate status that he is after.
We are going over matters which were, I thought, dealt with adequately in Committee. I have already made the point that committees of local authorities take decisions now on matters for which responsibility has been delegated to them. No one worries now about accountability or responsibility on the part of those committees.