Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700-
THURSDAY 11 JULY 2002
MP, MS PAM
700. Can we have a note?
(Mr Raynsford) Yes.
701. The 2000 Act was supposed to restore self-confidence
and enthusiasm to local government. Almost the whole effect of
that was ruined by the fiasco over the regulations coming from
secondary legislation. Are you confident that, as far as this
legislation is concerned, you are not going to have the same effect?
You are going to start off with the enthusiasm that you are giving
greater freedoms to local authorities and spoil it all with regulations?
(Mr Raynsford) It is certainly not our intention to
spoil things with regulations and we want to make sure that regulations
that are necessary under this legislation are properly considered
before they are introduced. Certainly, I will want to see that
there is a good opportunity for the key regulations or at least
an outline of how we intend to make them to be available for committee
scrutiny when the Bill is progressing through parliamentary stages.
I would also want there to be a proper opportunity for consultation
with the relevant bodies.
702. When the Bill is put before the House,
most of the regulations or at least outlines of them are going
to be available?
(Mr Raynsford) The important ones. There are a large
number of very small, detailed regulations and I would not want
to be caught out on a mathematical failure to
703. If you can give us a note so that we can
put in our report that we will have the regulations on these clauses,
I am sure that would be very helpful.
(Mr Raynsford) We will aim to ensure that either the
draft regulations or an outline of how those regulations will
operate, if they have not yet been drafted, will be made available
to the Committee by the time the Bill reaches that stage of detailed
scrutiny in its parliamentary passage.
704. The proposals in clauses 100104
about the charging. Why do we need such detailed regulations about
(Mr Raynsford) The issue here is about extending greater
freedoms to local authorities to levy charges but at the same
time to avoid some of the unfortunate consequences that would
flow if an authority failed to understand that this is not something
that can be applied to existing services which must be provided
free of charge. I am sure you are conscious of the potential scope
for misunderstanding, given the very considerable number of different
charging regimes that might apply in the future. We want to make
sure that local authorities do not use this as an opportunity
to introduce charges for services that ought to remain free of
705. Is it not simple to put that on the face
of the Bill? You have just made a simple statement. Surely we
could have it on the Bill and not end up with complicated regulations?
(Mr Raynsford) It does go slightly further than that.
706. That is the trouble, is it not, with regulations?
The claim is that they are there to deal with a possible scandal.
They deal with the scandal and then they deal with all sorts of
other things which are restrictive and perhaps unfair.
(Mr Raynsford) That will obviously be for you and
others to look at when we produce our proposed regulations but
the one other issue which is very important indeed that needs
to be covered in this respect is the fact that the charges are
designed to cover the costs of delivering the service, rather
than to provide a buckshee income stream to local government.
Trading is an area where we would expect the authority to offer
services and possibly to make a return but in the case of charges
we believe they should simply be designed to cover costs, not
to generate profits.
707. The consultation on council tax discounts
and exemptions on second homes and empty homes finished at the
end of February. Nothing appeared in the draft Bill, although
I think the discounts and exemptions were mentioned in the explanatory
notes. As you have now had three months to analyse the responses
to the consultation, what do you expect will be put into the final
(Mr Raynsford) We have already made clear our aim,
which is to give local authorities a greater freedom to reduce
the discount that currently is available on second homes and long
term empty dwellings. In the consultation, we set out the possibility
either of ensuring that this revenue was available to the relevant
authority, which is obviously particularly attractive to those
in areas with a large proportion of second homes, or the revenue
to be part of the overall revenue of local government as a whole
and to be distributed accordingly throughout the normal local
government system. The former is unusual; the latter would be
more normal, but the former was attractive to those areas that
have a substantial number of second homes and we received strong
evidence in support. There are however practical difficulties
because we only know the proportion of properties that are second
homes as a result of people reporting that. If they no longer
have a financial incentive to do so, the likelihood is they will
not notify the authority that it is a second home. We would be
left inevitably with information that was becoming increasingly
out of date and that would be an unsound basis for decisions about
what proportion of the revenue should go to that individual authority.
That is the technical difficulty that we have been looking at
and that is why we have not been able to give an instant decision.
We are working on it. We are confident we can find the solution
but it will require a little more time before we have that solution
708. What about the recommendations from this
Committee at the conclusion of our empty homes inquiry, which
was that local authorities should perhaps have the discretion
to vary the council tax ward by ward regarding empty homes?
(Mr Raynsford) The policy set out in the consultation
on long term empty properties was to allow the authority to charge
the full council tax on properties that had been empty for an
unreasonably long period of time.
709. Would you be minded to permit it to happen
on a ward by ward basis rather than across the whole local authority
(Mr Raynsford) The danger of the approach that you
are setting out is one that might allow decisions to be taken
on an arbitrary basis that could be challenged if it was seen
that one particular area was being treated in a different way
to another for no good reason. I think we would need to give further
thought to that.
710. There were a number of promises in the
White Paper that have not yet been acted upon, promises like reducing
statutory plans, reducing the red tape, streamlining best value.
Are you aware of whether all of those good suggestions can be
introduced without primary legislation or do some of them need
(Mr Raynsford) No. We are confident that can be done
without primary legislation. I have already indicated in response
to a question from the Chairman that we expect to be able to announce
in the very near future our proposals for reducing the planning
requirements by 50 per cent. We are working on trying to streamline
the best value procedure and we have abolished a substantial number
of consent regimes which local authorities were previously subject
to and there are proposals for more such abolitions which we will
be bringing forward.
711. How many of those have you abolished?
(Mr Raynsford) 52 have been identified for abolotion
712. How many more have you got to go?
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot give you an absolute figure
but we are talking in significant numbers.
713. You do not need legislation for that?
(Mr Raynsford) No. We use the regulatory reform procedure.
714. The target of having them all away by 2004
is going to be met?
(Mr Raynsford) We will continue to work at removing
unnecessary regulations. I would be rash to give an absolute commitment
to have abolished all by 2004.
715. Are you making good progress on rationalising
all the area based initiatives?
(Mr Raynsford) That is very much a concern of my colleagues
who are responsible for regeneration activity.
716. There is a real chance to make thousands
of people very happy. One thing that is not in the Bill and I
am asking whether you would consider putting it in the final Bill
when it appears to go to the House is the idea that has been given
evidence on from the Central Council of Physical Recreation, that
there should be mandatory tax rate relief for the new category
of Inland Revenue registered community amateur sports clubs. It
is an idea that has been around for some time and it was in a
previous local government Green Paper. The Chancellor recognised
the problems that small, voluntary sports clubs face in some tax
proposals he made in the budget to assist them. Is this something
that local government could be asked to do to help as well with
a £20 million bill to central government? Is there a chance
this could now be taken on board and considered for inclusion
in the Bill?
(Mr Raynsford) I would need to consult my colleagues
in the DCMS who would be responsible and would have to meet the
717. Rather than you struggle on, we have been
going now for almost two hours and there are rather more questions
that we have to ask. What I think would be most useful would be
for us to conclude at this point and for you to let us have a
written note on the ones that we have promised and if we get in
to you by early tomorrow one or two further questions in writing
perhaps you could answer those for us. Do you want to say something
helpful from that piece of paper?
(Mr Raynsford) No.
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very
much for your evidence.