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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Draft National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Janet Dean
Ainger, Nick (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales)
Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
Evennett, Mr. David (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Leigh, Mr. Edward (Gainsborough) (Con)
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)
Meacher, Mr. Michael (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Tom Healey, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 22 May 2006

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Draft National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 2006.
I hope that I shall not delay the Committee long: both aspects of the order are non-contentious. The order must be made by Order in Council following approval of the draft order by both Houses of Parliament. Section 22 of the Government of Wales Act 1998 enables a function of a Minister of the Crown to be transferred to the National Assembly for Wales on receipt of that approval. That is why this short and, I hope, non-contentious order is before the Committee.
The Wales Office has worked closely with the relevant Departments—the Department for Communities and Local Government, which was formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Department for Education and Skills—and, of course, the National Assembly. Policy has been agreed by all parties. Two transfers will be effected or facilitated by the House approving the order. The first function included in this omnibus order is the transfer of powers under section 1 of the Education (Fees and Awards) Act 1983. That section enables the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to make regulations that allow certain institutions to charge higher fees for students who cannot demonstrate a connection with the United Kingdom than for those who can. The change will enable the Assembly to make regulations regarding the charging of fees at universities and further education establishments for foreign students in relation to Wales.
The functions under section 2 of the 1983 Act were devolved to the Assembly in 1999 and make similar provision for post-compulsory education awards by local education authorities. The split in responsibilities has made it increasingly complex to draft regulations under the 1983 Act, with some elements made by the Assembly and others by the Secretary of State. Given the devolution of student support policy to the Assembly from the 2006-07 academic year, it is no longer appropriate for the powers to remain with the Secretary of State. The transfer will facilitate the creation of policy and improve accountability for both the Assembly and the DFES.
The Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 came into force in Wales in November 2004. It conferred powers relating to fire and rescue authorities in Wales on the National Assembly for Wales. The transfer of functions order is consistent with that policy of devolution and will enable the National Assembly to act across the range of the regulatory reform order provisions in relation to fire safety in non-domestic premises. I am talking about a power to make regulations about fire precautions; a power to authorise persons as enforcing authority for certain premises; a power to issue guidance to enforcing authorities; a power to determine disputes; and a duty to ensure that guidance is available. The order will give the National Assembly for Wales a level of responsibility comparable to that which will exist in England from 1 October 2006. I urge the Committee to approve the order.
4.35 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I thank the Minister for clarifying the order. He will be glad to know that I agree that this is a relatively uncontroversial transfer of functions to the Assembly, and I shall not place any impediment in the way of the order’s speedy scrutiny. It will enable the Assembly to legislate more effectively on both fire safety and the charging of tuition fees to students without the required connection to the United Kingdom.
The 2005 order reforms all current fire safety law, bringing together more than 100 separate pieces of fire safety legislation which have gradually built up in response to new incidents. As the Minister said, the order concentrates on non-domestic property, andthe bulk of its provisions will come into force on1 October. The emphasis of the reform is on fire prevention. There will be a duty on the person responsible for non-domestic premises to identify, mitigate and/or remove any risk from fire to those within the premises. There will also be a requirement for that person to carry out a fire risk assessment on the property.
The devolution of the responsibilities to the fire and rescue services in 2004 means that it is practical to confer the functions in the order on the Assembly. The 2004 Act, which devolved matters relating to fire and rescue authorities in Wales, came into force in Wales in November 2004. My understanding is that policy on such issues is administered by the fire and rescue services branch of the Assembly’s Department for Social Justice and Regeneration. It will be interesting to know what provisions have been put in place to inform on fire and rescue service policy development, for funding and for offering general public guidance. In addition, I hope that it is appropriate to ask the Minister what preparation the Assembly has made for taking over the new functions.
The transfer of functions under the 2005 order is deemed to be necessary to complement the devolution of other fire and rescue responsibilities to the Assembly. I hope that the transfer of those functions will allow for greater consistency in the responsibility and accountability of the Assembly on matters relating to fire safety.
Let me make one further point on this part of the order. On 8 May, subordinate legislation was brought before the Business Committee of the Assembly with regard to the Fire and Rescue Services (Charging Wales) Order 2006. Those regulations will make it possible to charge for services offered by fire and rescue authorities, including the removal of water from flooding—apt on a day that is so wet—the rescue of people from lift cabins, and the provision of training and giving of advice to persons in relation to premises where a trade, business or other undertaking is carried on. Where do discussions on that transfer stand? I am aware of concerns about the ability to impose charges, particularly on domestic premises, especially when the damage is not self-inflicted. Furthermore, there must be a concern about enabling the fire and rescue service to charge for advice. I should like to hear the Minister’s views on that because surely that could lead to other agencies, which do not have the same level of expertise and experience, getting into the business of offering advice, and providing a cheaper but less qualified service. Ultimately, that is a matter for the Assembly. It is still under discussion, but it would be useful to know the current position of the order in the Assembly.
The transfer of functions under section 1 of the 1983 Act will enable the Assembly to make regulations authorising or requiring certain institutions that provide higher or further education to charge students who do not have the required connection with the United Kingdom fees that are higher than those charged to students who do have such a connection. As the Minister said, policy responsibility for student support has been transferred to the Assembly and it is no longer appropriate, therefore, for the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to retain that power.
It seems entirely sensible to transfer the functions because, currently, some of the regulations made under the 1983 Act are being made by the Assembly and others by the Secretary of State. The transfer should allow for the development of policy to be more efficient, and a consequence should be improved delivery of services. There is nothing contentious about the transfer, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that it will affect only students from overseas without the necessary link to the UK and will not have an impact on the fees charged to all students from outside Wales. It is vital that the Government confirm that the regulations will affect only students from overseas. It would be unacceptable if they affected the fees charged to UK students from outside Wales who wish to study at a Welsh university.
Universities must not allow themselves to become over-reliant on the fees brought in by international students. We must also ensure that students are given fair access to universities across the United Kingdom, and that admissions are decided on merit, rather than on the potential financial bonus that the applicant may bring. I hope that the Minister will confirm that, because it is important to ensure that universities do not rely on international students and that admissions are decided on merit.
Also, will the Minister give explicit assurance that the powers being transferred to the National Assembly can be used in respect of those who have the requisite connection with the United Kingdom as a whole, and not just the requisite connection with Wales? Will he also assure us that the National Assembly has no intention of seeking a change in the law in that regard? Subject to those clarifications—and, hopefully, to some suggestion of time scale from the Minister—we are content with the transfer.
4.42 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The hon. Lady referred to charges for dealing with flood water. The Minister will know that that is a live issue in many parts of Wales; in the Conwy valley, which I have the honour to represent, it is a very big issue indeed.
During the last serious episode of flooding in Llanrwst, a senior officer of the fire service said that it would probably have to charge for the previously routine work of dealing with the aftermath of flooding. Subsequently, that officer withdrew those remarks. Am I right about the purport of the order? Under what circumstances could the fire services normally charge for dealing with flooding incidents? The primary purpose of the fire service, and of any emergency service, is to deal with the complaint, whether it be flood, fire or whatever, and it would be a strange departure if there was a universal right to charge. Can the Minister assist me on that? As I say, it is a live issue in the Conwy valley, and it undoubtedly has far-reaching consequences, as many people in the area are already unable to secure proper household insurance. Perhaps he could say whether there is a distinction between domestic premises and non-domestic premises in that regard. Other than that, I think that the orders are entirely sensible and non-controversial.
4.44 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD):Flooding is obviously not the fault of citizens, on the whole; nor is it not the fault of the citizens of Wales, on the whole, that our climate is changing. As such, the regulations as proposed, together with the circumstantial evidence that the hon. Gentleman shared with the Committee, are worrying. It looks like the state will seek to transfer the cost of handling flooding to the individuals who are the victims of flooding. As such, I underline the hon. Gentleman’s comments in seeking a reassurance from the Minister, for the sake of the record, that should that become a live issue in the months or years ahead, we have a guarantee that the Government have no intention of altering the onus of payment for flood clear-up from the public services to the citizens, in circumstances where, up until now, the public services have footed the bill.
Does the Minister expect the Government to be equally consistent in their treatment of the same issues for other parts of the United Kingdom? That may go slightly beyond the remit of today’s debate. [Interruption.] I hear concerned Back-Bench Labour Members eager to steer us away from that evident contradiction in the Government’s thinking, but it would be helpful if the Minister gave an assurance that the Secretaries of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, who are the same person, are thinking consistently on these matters. I hope that that is in order.
4.47 pm
Nick Ainger: I am grateful for the support that hon. Members have given to the order. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) raised a number of things that I shall try to address. She asked what provisions are in place for policy development funding for the order or for any consequential costs, and also asked about guidance. The funding is already within the Welsh block. I can reassure her that no additional costs relating to the order are being transferred and the funding is in place.
In relation to policy development, the fire and rescue services policies are contained within the fire and rescue services framework document for Wales. I am also aware that within the Department for Social Justice and Regeneration there is an advisory group comprising fire and rescue experts, communities and so on, who can give advice to Department officials.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) also raised the issue of charging for flooding. That does not relate to the order. However, it is under discussion in the Assembly and will be addressed by an Assembly order. I am sure that the points that hon. Members made on the great difficulty that individual businesses and householders in particular areas have securing insurance after a number of flooding incidents will be taken into account in that discussion.
Nick Ainger: No, that is not the case. The fire and rescue services are already carrying out many of the functions. As the hon. Lady said, the order brings together more than 100 pieces of legislation. We do not expect the workload to be significantly different. Therefore, no significant cost increases will result from the order. In fact, the idea is for businesses to carry out fire risk assessments on their own properties, with the support and advice of the fire and rescue services.
Mrs. Gillan: As I understand it, the powers to be transferred to the Assembly include the power to make regulations about fire precautions, under article 24 of the 2005 order, the power to authorise persons as enforcing authorities for certain premises, underarticle 25, the power to issue guidance to enforcing authorities, under article 26, and the power to determine disputes, yet there is to be no additional funding. However, I anticipate that extra work will have to be carried out, so I should like to probe the Minister further on that. If he cannot give me an answer now, I would be perfectly willing to receive a letter from him in due course.
Nick Ainger: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Lady. I am assured that the capital and revenue funding has been set aside in the Assembly’s budget to fund the fire and rescue services and to meet its obligations under the order. I hope that she is reassured by that, but if she is not, perhaps we can talk later or I shall drop her line.
On education, I again assure the hon. Lady that the order is confined to overseas students. There is no way in which it could result in a university trying to fund any shortfall by, perhaps, influencing the fees of other students from the UK. Section 1 of the 1983 Act is quite clear: the provisions apply specifically to overseas students and could not be applied to any other students. To return to the point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made, tuition fees are not covered by the order. With those explanatory comments, I hope that the Committee will approve the order.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 2006.
Committee rose at seven minutes to Five o’clock.

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