Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

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Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman has given an excellent reply to the debate on the clause. The evidence of the Select Committee was given before publication of the Bill, and was of course taken into account in deciding what should be in the clauses. It was decided that CABE should be established, on the basis that it has existed as a non-statutory body. I do not see a problem. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is good to have particular expertise. CABE has expertise on the built environment; English Heritage gives advice on England's heritage. At times, the two may run closely together and support each other; at other times, there may be different perspectives. The fact that people do not have to take a piece of advice does not make it any less important. It is right to have advice from important perspectives, such as that provided by CABE. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not understand the hon. Lady's difficulties, and I urge the Committee to agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Miss McIntosh: I have nothing further to add other than to commend the Select Committee report, which flagged up the difficulties. It clearly thinks that there is a problem. I am heartened that the Minister believes that the Committee's criticisms were taken into account. We shall return to the Select Committee and see whether we can develop the arguments further at a later stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 88 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 89

Changes to functions of the Commission

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

Miss McIntosh: I have a simple question for the Minister. In what circumstances does he envisage changes to the commission's functions being necessary? This is the second attempt in the Bill to
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change those functions by statute. I understand that there will be a draft order, which I presume means a statutory instrument. Will that be debatable in the House, so that the contents and the changes to the commission's functions are subject to parliamentary scrutiny?

Alun Michael: An order can confer a further function on the commission only if the new function is connected directly or indirectly to an existing or former function of the commission. In other words, it would not be possible to add functions that had nothing to do with the main thrust of CABE's responsibilities. The point of the clause is to provide flexibility should other functions arise that are complementary to the commission's existing or previous functions.

It is difficult to anticipate exactly what the new functions might be, but let me give an example. The commission's role has changed since its inception. It started off promoting high standards in design and management of buildings and structures, and moved on, as I said earlier, to working on the design and management of parks and public spaces. I have seen some of its publications, which are excellent. They consider the improved use of what have sometimes been quite derelict public spaces, and make constructive suggestions. It would have been a pity if that logical extension of the work of the commission had not been possible. In placing it on a statutory basis, we want that flexibility to continue. I understand that allowing that type of development of the commission's work is the intention behind allowing the flexibility in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 89 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 90 to 92 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 93 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 94

Architecture and the built environment: financial assistance

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

Miss McIntosh: Clause 94(4) relates to financial assistance and the form in which it may be given. I understand that if an order is made under clause 89 to change the functions of the commission, subsection (4) enables the Secretary of State to make an order amending the purposes for which financial assistance may be given accordingly, to ensure that any changes to the commission's functions need not affect the availability of financial assistance. Will he assure me that it is purely a consequential change, which will have no policy implications?

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I seem to recall that there is a definition of a ''built environment'' under clause 88 (10), which states that

    '''the built environment' includes—

    (a) any structure or area built or designed for human use (such as squares, parks and recreation areas);

    (b) any area available for public use which is in the vicinity of such a structure or within or in the vicinity of such an area''.

Clause 94(5) relates to that definition. Is that simply repeated? If the ''built environment'' has already been defined once, I am honestly intrigued as to why that definition would be there again. Will the Minister also say a word about what the ramifications of

    ''in the vicinity of such an area''

under the ''built environment'' would be?

I am sure that the House Builders Federation has been in contact with the Department and the Minister. It has said that if—its expression, not mine—

    ''views of relevant stakeholders could be sought in formulating and presenting to Parliament any proposals of this nature, that would be welcome.''

In particular, on clause 94, its asks that there should be ''greater transparency for stakeholders''—those concerned—such as, it points out, the federation itself. It would support the powers being drawn up in the facilitatory way proposed, since this will allow operational flexibility to respond to needs identified, within the rules of public accountability. Can the Minister confirm whether he is minded to accommodate its request for consultation in formulating and presenting proposals to Parliament? In particular, will there be transparency for bodies such as the federation in this regard?

Alun Michael: First, the hon. Lady is right to suggest that the way that clause 94 is drafted is consequential on clause 89. The same definition for ''built environment'' is given. I daresay it could have been possible to draft it as a cross-reference, so that the same words only appeared once. It makes the definition in relation to financial assistance clear. I suppose it would be theoretically possible to change what the body could do without providing additional finances—it would, perhaps, be raised out of the work overseas. In that case, it would not be necessary to amend both clauses.

I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that, at present, there is clearly coterminosity and no policy issue to be raised. Were there to be policy changes, they and any concerns would relate, I would have thought, to earlier clauses. Clause 94 is simply about the financial assistance and, as I have made clear on a number of occasions, it describes what the function of CABE and the extent of its activities have been prior to being made statutory. There is no change in that regard.

''Vicinity'' is important. CABE, in addition to its work on buildings has also been involved in regeneration of—for instance—seaside towns, beach areas and the sea front. Thus allowing CABE the
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power to work in the vicinity of buildings, as well as in the vicinity of spaces referred to, means that it can continue such work.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 94 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 95 and 96 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 97

Use of fixed penalty receipts:lower tier authorities

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

Matthew Green: I have a couple of brief questions for the Minister. Clause 97(2)(b), says that regulations may include provision

    ''to pay sums in respect of those amounts to another person (including the appropriate person)'',

and the appropriate person would obviously be the Secretary of State or the Welsh Assembly. However, what is the real intention of the paragraph? Is it that the Minister will ensure that a percentage of receipts by lower-tier authorities is carved off and taken back to central Government? That would be my immediate reading of it. The provision is general and talks of paying

    ''those amounts to another person (including the appropriate person)'',

so I wonder who those other persons, aside from the Secretary of State or the Welsh Assembly, are.

The second question relates to subsection (2) (d), which is

    ''to adopt such accounting arrangements in respect of those amounts as may be specified in the regulations.''

My concern there is that, since we would like parish and town councils to be as proactive as possible, high accounting costs—as the Minister will be aware—can disproportionately affect lower-tier authorities, whose budgets are relatively small. It is something they have complained about in the past.

The Minister, in a previous debate, used an example of a group of quite small parishes clubbing together to run something similar. Clearly, if the accounting procedures are over-onerous and over-expensive it would put them off doing that. I seek assurance that those procedures will be as light touch as possible.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those points in a clear manner that addresses the practical issues. When he asks who might be referred to in this clause other than the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, the most obvious alternative would be the district authority. The circumstances that I envisage could be those in which a parish or town council might have the capacity to issue fixed penalty notices, yet not have the capacity to take matters to prosecution. They would not have
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the legal expertise, and so on. In those circumstances, it would perhaps be sensible for an agreement to be reached—if there were a real issue—between one or perhaps several parishes and the district authority. They might agree that the district authority should undertake some of the work and receive the money from fixed penalties as a result of doing that—in other words, a payment for the enforcement from the income received by the parish.

4.30 pm

I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said about accounting arrangements. I underline the fact that the clause does not refer to audit or to specific types of professional fees being required. However, I am sure that he would agree that it is appropriate for there to be arrangements whereby proper accounts—simple but proper accounts—are kept to show how the money is received and how the expenditure is dealt with. We intend that the provisions should be implemented with a light touch—the minimum necessary to provide proper accountability. We do not want to take a heavy-handed approach to the work of parish and town councils.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 97 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 98 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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