Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Miss McIntosh: It is a very simple question. Will the audit fees be higher or lower under paragraph 9 of the schedule?

Alun Michael: It is a simple question and it is a simple answer. It is for the Secretary of State to make the appropriate arrangements. These are normal matters of public accountability and audit.

Miss McIntosh: It seems extraordinary that we now have a Freedom of Information Act and we know that in the past the accounts cost a modest £15,000 per annum. There is every indication that under this provision they will cost substantially more.

Alun Michael: That is not necessarily the case. CABE pays for audit now, and it will have to pay for audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The cost will depend on the scope of the audit, as is the case with private auditors. I do not understand why the hon. Lady does not understand that and why she is labouring a point that does not seem to me even to exist.

Miss McIntosh: The record will show that I am simply asking whether, under the new schedule, the cost will be higher or lower.
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Alun Michael: I am simply trying to explain to the hon. Lady that the Bill's provisions make the costs neither higher nor lower: they simply change payments to an outside auditor to payments to the Comptroller and Auditor General, which I understood from both sides of the Committee was what was wanted. It is a fulfilment of the undertaking given some time ago.

The Chairman: Order. I am all for probing Ministers in the appropriate way in appropriate circumstances, but I judge that the sterility of this exchange has now reached unacceptable levels. Will the hon. Lady please move on or come to a conclusion?

Miss McIntosh: I shall conclude that unless the Minister can give firm evidence to the contrary, the costs will be higher rather than lower and we shall return to the matter at a later stage.

Alun Michael: That seems an expression of personal prejudice rather than an attempt to assist the Committee, and I hope that the schedule can now stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 88

General functions of the commission

Mr. Green: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in clause 88, page 68, leave out line 4.

I am almost nervous to continue because of the dancing on pinheads we have just had. Amendment No. 15 seeks clarification from the Minister on what CABE will be charging for—it currently charges for some of its services. As the Minister has said, there will be no change. I assume that it will continue to charge for some of its services, but it might be useful for the Committee to hear which services are charged for.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making clear the probing nature of his amendment. I would have been nervous if it was intended as a serious amendment that might lead to the removal of CABE's authority to make charges in respect of providing facilities, services and advice on architectural or built environment matters. Had the hon. Gentleman pushed it to a vote and put that capacity at risk, it would have been a bad decision.

Mr. Evans: He would not have won.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman should not presume on these matters. CABE is funded primarily to provide advice and services in England, where it will have a duty to discharge its functions and currently provides most of them free of charge. However, it charges for some services; for example, training and publications. That is entirely consistent with the policy
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on the selling of Government services, because it enhances the use and value of public assets and exploits their commercial potential. For departmental public bodies such as CABE, such activity can generate valuable additional resources for their core objectives. The provision that is made here is similar to statutory powers granted to other bodies in this sector, for example, English Heritage.

Looking at the activities that take place at the moment, CABE has successfully sold services to a number of bodies—operating income generated in 2003-04 was over £500,000. In surveys, it scores highly for customer satisfaction, so CABE has the potential to generate useful additional resources for itself and for its purposes. CABE will also be able to operate outside England, but will not be funded with that intention. CABE's help has already been sought by devolved administrations in other parts of the United Kingdom and by foreign countries. Unless it can charge, it will either be unable to undertake some work or will have to take work out of the funding provided clearly for the purpose of giving a service in England.

So I hope that the hon. Member for Ludlow will be encouraged by that explanation and be prepared to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Green: I am pleased with the Minister's explanation and on the basis that it would be nice to get through every amendment in a couple of minutes in this way, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Evans: I seek clarification because I understand from earlier contributions that this commission will be carrying out the same functions as the old commission. I have no problems with that whatever.

Alun Michael: Well spotted.

Mr. Evans: Stroke of genius, really. Clause 88(2) states:

    ''The Commission must discharge its functions in relation to England and may also discharge them in relation to any other place it thinks appropriate.''

I assume that that is similar to the original Act.

Alun Michael: That is precisely the point that I covered a moment ago in response to the hon. Member for Ludlow. In explaining why CABE is able to charge, I said that it had already been asked for help and advice by countries overseas and by the devolved Administrations. It is not funded for those purposes, but it is important that it is allowed to undertake that work so that its expertise can be made more widely available.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for that explanation. When I originally saw the word ''England'', I thought that ''other places'' meant other parts of the United Kingdom. Then I started to think more widely and I
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thought that the term might mean the British overseas territories and other parts of the world. I am extremely grateful for the Minister's explanation.

Miss McIntosh: I was advised by your good self, Mr. Forth, that this would be the appropriate place to debate CABE's general functions. Clause 88 sets out those functions, as well as defining the built environment and intellectual property, but perhaps the Minister can clarify what specific role CABE will have in planning policy and planning proposals, because there is some debate about that.

The Library note—[Interruption.] If I could continue, the thrust of my argument will become clear. CABE's job has been to improve design, and that has included commenting on major developments at the planning stage. However, the Library note says:

    ''Approval by CABE may encourage a planning authority to approve an application although of course an application might be rejected on completely different grounds.''

Alun Michael: I am just wondering whether the hon. Lady was out of the Room when I responded on this point a short time ago. As I made clear, CABE can offer advice on planning, and developers can seek advice in advance of a planning application, but any advice that CABE offers is non-binding. It is up to the authorities to deal with the planning application, and it is up to those making the application to prepare it. CABE is merely available as a source of advice on best practice.

Miss McIntosh: I should like to press the Minister further. He did say that, but if the advice is not binding, that raises the question of what role the commission does fulfil. Subsection (3) states:

    ''The Commission may, for any purpose connected with the discharge of its function . . . provide, or assist in the provision of, public works, services and amenities''

    ''take any other steps it thinks appropriate.''

Will that have any planning implications?

The hon. Member for Stroud referred to the complementary role played by English Heritage, and it was quite vociferous in its evidence to the Select Committee in that regard. It noted that the Committee had commented in one of its reports that

    ''there are concerns that the functions of CABE and EH overlap and that they are not working closely enough together and providing consistent advice on planning applications . . . In some instances CABE and EH are giving conflicting advice. EH tends to favour conservation while CABE prefers a modernist approach.''

It then noted that the Committee had recommended that the position be clarified and that

    ''the relationship between CABE and EH needs to be reinforced in order to rationalise their operations, to minimise duplication and to ensure their advice is consistent.''

Matthew Green: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh: I would be most grateful to hear from the Minister whether clause 88—[Interruption.] I am asked from a sedentary position what that has to do with the Bill. I understand that English Heritage is a statutory body. We are told that there will now be another statutory body, CABE, giving advice, which is not binding, although I think that the advice of
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English Heritage is binding. As those points were submitted, I believe, at the time of the consultation, that raises the question whether they were taken into account in the drafting of clause 88.

4.15 pm

Matthew Green: I shall briefly speak to the clause, as the hon. Lady would not take an intervention. I struggle to see the difficulty with two bodies, coming from different areas, giving different advice. It is advice; it is not binding. When planning applications are submitted, many people give advice. Even MPs might sometimes say, ''Oh, that's a good scheme; the planning committee should vote for it.'' I therefore struggle to see why two different bodies, which were set up to do two different things, should not give separate advice. It would worry me greatly were CABE and English Heritage giving exactly the same advice, because then people would question why two different bodies existed.

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