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It would defeat the purpose of the reforms set out in the 2002 White Paper if local authorities were not to be given extra freedom and flexibility, even in this small way. Most hon. Members recognise that
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reinvigorating local democracy means that some functions must be shifted to local authorities, so that they can be accountable for their decisions. The hon. Gentleman suggests a flat rate, but I suspect that that would require subsidy from somewhere else. That would defeat the purpose of the provision, and the burden would fall on taxpayers in other areas. Our proposal will encourage greater efficiency in this part of a local authority's work. Delegating the power to determine fees to local authorities may well mean that those fees will be lower than is currently the case nationally. However, the requirements that local authorities can charge only as much as the costs incurred will provide a measure of protection for the public.
Hidden away in this huge list is Government amendment No. 390, which the Minister has just explained. That would allow local authorities to set the fees for searches of the local land charges register. Opposition Members are not satisfied about the addition of this late amendment to the Bill. The Government have set aside little enough time for debate on this important and substantial measure, even without the introduction of this substantive provision on the final day of Committee. The amendment is not connected with the rest of the Bill, even though the Minister did his best to tie it all in.
The Government's control of timetabling has collapsed over recent weeks, so perhaps I should not be surprised that they have lumped together land charge fees with the creation of the new supreme court. That approach, however, seems to be a little bit on the tacky side.
The small amount of time made available for debate of this matter is especially inappropriate, as the provision is not without controversy. The Council of Property Search Organisations is the trade association for the property search industry. It, and other providers of property search information, have contacted various hon. Members to explain the difficulties associated with the proposed change.
The Bill will require each local authority in England and Wales to specify the fees for services relating to local land charges. Such charges are matters of a public nature: they relate to property, and people interested in a property ought to be aware of the associated charges. Matters covered include tree preservation orders, planning obligations, enforcement notices and designation as a conservation area. Details of local land charges can be obtained either through an official search carried out by local authorities in accordance with section 9 of the 1975 Act, or by means of a personal search by an applicant under section 8 of that Act.
The amendment does not apply to personal searches of the register, which the Department for Constitutional Affairs has said will be the subject of a further review. At present, the Lord Chancellor sets the fees for the different types of local land charge searches.
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The standard fees are £6 for an official search, and £11 for a personal search. The Government have made available draft guidance for proposed new charges.
When setting their own fees, local authorities will have to ensure that, taking one financial year with another, those fees do not exceed the cost of providing the services in question. They will also have to take into account guidance from the Lord Chancellor. The draft guidance made available by the Government covers the calculation of costs, and related matters.
The proposals have developed out of the 1997 review "Report of an Efficiency Scrutiny of Central Consent Regimes for Local Authorities" and the 2001 White Paper entitled "Strong Local Leadership, Quality Public Services". That sounds like a good new Labour tag if ever I heard one.
The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) introduced a private Member's Bill on this topic last year, but that was withdrawn when the Government announced their intention to bring forward an amendment such as the one under discussion today. The proposals reflect the fact that the cost of providing local land charge services varies considerably between authorities. That variation arises out of the different ways that local land charges registers are maintained. For example, that information may be held electronically or on paper.
A key argument in favour of such a change would be the desirability of devolution from central Government, removing the need for local government to make applications for fee increases and for new central Government orders to be issued. The hope would be, equally, that requiring local authorities to set fees that reflect their own costs would encourage transparency and efficiency. The result ought to be lower charges for consumers.
The Opposition are not opposed in principle to the idea of allowing local authorities to set their own fees in this context. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) introduced an amendment to that end to the Housing Act 2004. Although that amendment was withdrawn, we still have reservations about the detail and timing of Government amendment No. 390.
If the Government are intent on allowing local authorities to set their own fees, they should go further in requiring local authorities to improve the services that they provide in relation to local land charges. According to CoPSO, some local authorities still take up to eight weeks to produce local land charges searches. If vendors have to provide local search results as part of home information packs from 2007 onwardswe could debate whether they should do so in the first placethat will only add to the importance of ensuring that local authorities can provide an efficient service. Simply allowing local authorities to set fees to cover their costs does not provide an incentive for them to improve services and move swiftly towards the full electronic delivery of property information.
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In accordance with the Government's draft guidance, local authorities cannot operate cross-subsidies to keep council tax down generally, to cover the cost of providing personal searches informationof course, that is specifically excluded from Government amendment No. 390or to cover the costs of holding property information and generally running their local land charges departments. However, that must be seen in the context of some local authorities' very poor track records in providing at-cost services and transparent accounting.
Will local authorities be able to set their fees to subsidise the cost of collecting and storing property information, providing personal search requests or carrying out other council services? Again, how will the Minister encourage poor-service councils to pull up their socks and start delivering value for money?
It is essential that the Government make it clear that the intention behind devolving this power is to reduce costs and increase transparency for the benefit of local land charges customers, not to create a new source of local government revenue on the back of the service that local councils are required to provide by law. Will the Minister please guarantee that there will be a significant reduction in the costs of gaining access to local land charges information as a result of Government amendment No. 390?
I make none those points in relation to local authorities out of a desire to attack local government. On the contrary, I have a great deal of sympathy for the difficulties faced by local authorities under the Government. Let us take local planning departments. Only before Christmas, the Government slipped out their latest stealth tax plans: a huge increase in planning fees charged to the publicup by an average of 39 per cent. from Aprilwhile cutting planning delivery grants to local planning departments, so that they see no real increase in their resources.
Perhaps our biggest criticism relates to the timing of Government amendment No. 390. The Office of Fair Trading is presently conducting a market study of the property search industry that is due to report this summer. It is considering how consumers' needs are met and the structure of the property search market, as well as investigating complaints from property search companies about difficulties in gaining access to property information held by local authorities.
The Government have already accepted the need to wait for the study's findings in relation to personal searches. Yet they are still forcing through Government amendment No. 390 today in relation to official searches, tacked on to a barely related Bill. Bearing it in mind that those proposals have been in circulation for a number of years, my hon. Friends and I suggest that it would be much more sensible to wait the relatively short time until the OFT report is published. That would allow for a single comprehensive review of local property search markets and the role of local authorities.
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