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Mr. Bercow: Could my hon. Friend help the Committee by giving some sort of broad-brush illustration of the extent of the disparity between the highest charges that are imposed and the lowest? While he is about it, given that he has rightly focused on service
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delivery, will he offer us an insight into which are the best performing local authorities in terms of cost-effectiveness and speed of response?

The Temporary Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman goes too far down that road, it would be a very good idea if the Committee were to stay in order and relevant to the amendments under discussion.

Mr. Djanogly: Thank you, Mr. Gale. Let me just respond to my hon. Friend by saying that he makes an important point. At the moment, of course, the charges are the same everywhere, but he refers to what we will have to consider in years to come if we do not get it right now.

To sum up, I have pointed out that many outstanding issues remain, and I look forward to hearing the Government's response to those that I have raised.

Simon Hughes: I shall be brief. I raised this issue in my last intervention on the Minister. First, I start from the presumption that it is reasonable to include such proposals in the Bill because it relates to the devolution of powers that were the Lord Chancellor's, although perhaps it could be argued that they could be included elsewhere. Legislation is often a vehicle to which appropriate things can be attached, as the vehicle goes past, but I understand that the Bill is not entirely inappropriate for such proposals.

Secondly, I start with the presumption that local government should have much more power to raise its income, to spend it and to be much more free from Government interference, direction and control. People would be encouraged to vote if they thought that voting for local councils could make a big difference—and the bigger the difference, the better.

The questions asked by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) have been raised with us generally, and I am sure that they have been raised with the Government. The Minister needs to assure us that the best value for money and the most efficient service to the consumer can be achieved. I appreciate that we will never get different local councils to carry out searches in the same number of days. There should be a maximum number of days, but the council's efficiency will determine how quickly it is done.

If a council is not allowed to charge more than its costs, however, the only variable is the efficiency of that local authority in delivering that service at the cost that is worked out for the service as a whole. The variation cannot be great. We are talking about small sums. The land search charges cost pounds, not tens, twenties, fifties or hundreds of pounds, so we are talking about one of the smaller costs in the search for houses that for so many people goes on for so long. There are none the less real concerns. The more helpful the Minister can be, the better. If he could also refer the debate on this matter to his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who deal with local government so that we can be sure that, from the date of handover, there is some immediate scrutiny to ensure that an overview is taken of how local councils perform in the first few years of their new power, that would be encouraging.
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Mr. Redwood: It would be useful, if the Minister catches your eye again, Mr. Gale—if he could give us some idea of what range of charges we might be in for if the proposal is adopted. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), I have some doubts about the Government doing this now. The Conservative party favours more local autonomy, but it would be useful to know why now. It would certainly be useful to know what the consequences might be.

I presume that the Minister has looked at the figures for the costs around the country, and it would be helpful to the Committee to know what the range is and what the biggest increase might be. We consider this important matter in the context of mortgages just having been regulated very expensively and clumsily; the threat or promise of sellers packs coming in, which may also be expensive and cumbersome for people who are selling their houses; and a big escalation in stamp duty.

The costs of buying a house and moving have got a lot dearer. We a considering a very small element of the cost, but we should worry about any element of it, given the history under the Government of big increases in the costs of buying a home, particularly for those who are trying to buy their first home, against the background of a rising market and increasing tax and regulatory costs. It would be helpful to the Committee if the Minister gave us some guidance on average costs and the range of costs around the country, so that we know what we might be in for.

Mr. Bercow: I share my right hon. Friend's scepticism and uncertainty about the proposal. Does he agree that alarms bell ring when Ministers talk about the importance of allowing charges that would reflect local authorities' costs, given that they include labour costs? That is partly because some local authorities are manifestly more inefficient than others and devote a much larger slice of labour time to the fulfilment of prosaic tasks.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend has made an important and original point about labour costs. Some councils are not efficient at delivering such services, which is why the Committee needs some guidance on current experience, the range of costs and what they may mean in the worst and best locations. It would be helpful to know that before coming to a decision on this proposal and the others in the rag-bag of amendments, changes and clarifications before us.

Mr. Leslie: I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) queried why we are discussing this matter on the schedule. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, we are talking in broad terms about the Lord Chancellor's functions, the shift from his old guise to the new guise, and where the different functions should be vested and transferred to. Local land charge fees may be a small area, but for some time now we have had a desire to move decisions to local level rather than having a central diktat. I thought that the Opposition also wanted to move away from that, but perhaps I am wrong.

Mr. Bercow: I am surprised that the Minister is surprised at the way in which my hon. Friend the
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Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) properly performed his Front-Bench duty. The Minister should not take offence. The policy may be right or it may be wrong, but it is, at least, a source of surprise to some of us that such matters have been included in the Constitutional Reform Bill. We had thought that the Bill covered a variety of matters of slightly greater long-term constitutional significance to the fabric of the United Kingdom than is epitomised by a debate on land charges.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman may be right, and perhaps I should not have used the word "surprised", because I am not shocked and aghast that the Opposition should have raised the matter. Given that we are discussing the functions of the Lord Chancellor and that one of them is to set local land charge fees, I am not astonished that we are discussing the matter today.

The fact that the fees are crudely set centrally means that the Department for Constitutional Affairs can do nothing but approximate what those fees should be. Widely varying methods are used to produce the information requested in exchange for those fees. Localised setting of fees will help, even in a small way, to improve transparency for local government, and it could be a spur to greater efficiency. The hon. Gentleman referred to the labour costs that go into the process of searches and so on and if there is better local accountability, in theory some local residents may query why charges are set at a higher level than in other areas that are more efficient and have lower charges.

2.45 pm

There is also scope for local authorities to be innovative in the way in which they deliver information about land. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked what is involved. We are talking about searches relating to restrictions and obligations on particular pieces of land or, more generally, inquiries about the status of land and whether it is a conservation area, is subject to enforcement notices, and so on.

Local authorities may want to consider providing information through the internet and other electronic means instead of having a paper-based system. That might be a preferable route, and we should consider transferring the centralised fee-setting arrangements to local authorities without allowing them to make a profit from the arrangements. The Lord Chancellor will be able to issue guidance to local authorities to ensure that they are aware of their obligations under other legislation. The idea is not new. Its genesis dates from as long ago as 1997 and might not have been under the present Administration. I caution hon. Members about that in case they favoured the suggestion at that time.

I hope that I have been able to answer some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Huntingdon. There will be no opportunity for cross-subsidisation because there will not be a profit element. The time has come to give that small amount of extra freedom and flexibility to local government. We are discussing the functions of the Lord Chancellor, and now is the time to make the amendment.

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