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4 Feb 2009 : Column 847

bill presented

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Ed Balls, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Jack Straw, Secretary Alan Johnson, Secretary Hazel Blears, Secretary James Purnell, Secretary John Denham, Secretary Paul Murphy, Jim Knight, Mr. Siôn Simon and Sarah McCarthy-Fry presented a Bill to make provision about apprenticeships, education, training and children’s services; to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996; to establish the Young People’s Learning Agency for England, the office of Chief Executive of Skills Funding, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation and the School Support Staff Negotiating Body and to make provision about those bodies and that office; to make provision about the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority; to make provision about schools and institutions within the further education sector; to make provision about student loans; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow , and to be printed (Bill 55) with explanatory notes (Bill 55-EN).

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Exercise of Reasonable Discretion

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

12.32 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I beg to move,

This Bill is about advancing common sense and fighting bureaucracy. I owe its rather strange long title to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), my friend and supporter of the Bill. There is, of course, a mild irony in the title because it is itself an exercise in bureaucratic speak. It resembles my favourite rule in my college library—rule 6, which is that “No one is to mark or deface any book or other property of the library”, alongside which someone had added, very neatly in ink, “Hear, hear”!

The formal intent of the Bill is to indemnify public servants, central government, local government and other public agencies from legal action if they had taken decisions motivated by common sense, whatever the rules strictly said. I shall come on in a few moments to the underlying thought, but at the outset let me first get three potential criticisms out of the way. The first is that what I propose is so self-evidently sensible that it is already part of our law and practice. It is true that there are common-law precedents—as well as modern practices such as that of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which explicitly uses extra-statutory concessions that go beyond tax law—but however sensible those measures are, they do not establish a general principle or cover every case. A second objection might be that the Bill in some way represents a charter for vexatious litigation and legal challenge, but I would maintain that the legal concept of reasonability is by now well established. My intention is to fight off unnecessary legislation, far from encouraging it.

I imagine that it might suit some opponents of the Bill to paint me as some kind of anarchist, denying the proper function of rules in a modern society. It is, perhaps, rather unlikely that a former inhabitant of the Whips Office would undergo such a deathbed conversion, and I assure the House that I have not—but I think that even the best and most well-honed rule book must be interpreted in the light of the facts, if only because rules often clash with one another.

That brings me to the substance of my case. There probably never was a golden age of balance between sensible rules on the one hand and the wise use of discretion on the other. I generally welcome the growth of judicial review since the second world war as a necessary curb on an over-mighty Executive and arbitrary decision-making processes. Nor is it wrong to ask for greater openness and transparency in our public affairs. However, all that can be taken to extremes, can exceed the bounds of common sense, and can actually harm us.

The House will have noted that there has been a lot of talk about this issue recently, since the idea occurred to me but not, I think, because of that. Indeed, we have legislated, in the Compensation Act 2006, to try to curb the paralysis that threatened, for example, outdoor activities for young people when adult volunteers no
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longer felt able to take part in them because of implications of liability for reasons of health and safety and so forth. I believe, however, that the “mind your back” culture has seeped much more deeply into our national life, affecting and poisoning the whole of it.

I nearly always respect the writings of Libby Purves. She is eminently sensible. Some months ago, she wrote in an article in The Times:

Retreat into the rules is an excellent bureaucratic bomb shelter. Its private sector equivalent would perhaps be the saying—now, I think, somewhat discredited, and certainly out of fashion—that no executive was ever fired for choosing to buy IBM computers. Incidentally, my Bill could be usefully adapted to include private sector employees engaged in the discharge of their duties, although it is not currently so drafted.

Alongside every petty bureaucratic tyrant who relishes frustrating someone by finding a rule with which to do them down is an even worse and wider set of problems. They include the deterrent effect on decent public employees of the fear that any risk they might take could backfire if it were unsuccessful—if something went wrong—and, at the level of, say, a local planning authority, the fear that any decision, however sensible, might set a precedent for some other proposal.

My final and, I think, my greatest bugbear is the collapse and deformation of public service into a hollow shell of process, and training courses undertaken not so much to improve competition or competence as to cover any threat of litigation. While it is always dangerous to comment on particular cases, I wonder, in the context of this week’s events, how many decisions on school closures were made with an eye to the courts rather than in the interests of children and their families. Frankly, fear of liability seems to have more effectively stopped London this week than ever fear of Hitler did.

My Bill is a simple one. It seeks to rebalance matters by providing a public authority or public official with the defence of exercising “reasonable discretion”. It would support those who back their own professional judgment—and also, perhaps, all those who work hard on our behalf without a professional qualification, but who seek to do the best for their customers and to act both sensibly and responsibly.

By establishing the principle of

the Bill would strike a blow for a concept whose time has clearly now come. We need in our public life again to achieve what I would describe as a victory for common sense, and I believe this Bill would advance that.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Tim Boswell, James Brokenshire, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. David Kidney, Bob Russell and Sir George Young present the Bill.

Mr. Tim Boswell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March and to be printed (Bill 56).

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Police Grant Report

12.42 pm

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I beg to move,

In December 2007, the Government announced provisional funding totals for the three-year period 2008-09 to 2010-11. Three-year funding settlements have been widely welcomed by police authorities. They enable authorities to develop medium-term financial strategies and control their spending better. Last year’s multi-year pay deal for the police will also improve their medium-term planning. I confirmed the figures for 2009-10 on 26 November, with indicative figures for 2010-11.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. May I place on record my thanks to him—or his predecessor as police Minister—and the Minister for Local Government for meeting those police authorities that faced the prospect of a cap, and for hearing the arguments we put forward before making their final decision? That process of negotiation was extremely important in dealing with this issue.

Mr. Coaker: I thank my right hon. Friend, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, for his remarks. He will know that my predecessors and I have tried hard to negotiate our way through these various matters.

My written ministerial statement of 21 January confirmed that we are implementing the funding settlement for 2009-10 broadly unchanged from that previously announced. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, in the context of an increasingly tight financial settlement, the funding settlement for 2009-10 remains a good and affordable one for the police service, building on considerable investment by Government and police authorities over a sustained period.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Coaker: I will give way after I have made a little more progress.

Government grant for police services will have increased by more than £3.7 billion between 1997-98 and 2010-11, an increase of 60 per cent. That is a substantial additional resource. Together with the significant extra investment that police authorities have raised locally, grant increases have allowed the police to expand to meet the increasingly complex issues they are called to face. There are more police on the streets than ever before and there has been a 28.5 per cent increase in the police work force since 1997. The service now employs more than 235,000 people, which is an increase of 52,200 extra police officers and police community support officers. The number of staff officers is 140,539, which is an increase of 11.7 per cent. or 14,714 officers on the 1997 figure. Front-line police officers are supported by nearly 16,000 PCSOs and nearly 21,800 additional police staff, who are releasing officers for front-line duties.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We are all grateful to the police and to the Minister for his commitment. London—the Metropolitan police—gets an additional amount because of its national and capital city functions. Can he explain why it will have a below inflation increase and a below national average increase in its grant in the coming year, given the importance of the Met police and the importance of this capital city being seen to be leading the way in dealing with crime?

Mr. Coaker: The Metropolitan Police Service, in common with other police forces across the country, has received a significant increase in its funding over the past few years—indeed, it has received increases in its funding for next year. Negotiations on the funding for some of the counter-terrorism dedicated security posts are continuing and we will make announcements about that in due course. If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the investment not only in the Metropolitan police force, but in police forces across the country, he would see that significant additional investments have been made in each and every one of them.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I regard the Minister as being open to feedback and very proactive in his role. There is concern in the Dyfed-Powys police force about the long-term plans for the rural policing grant; it has been suggested that that could be homogenised into other funding. Although my area is blessed with an excellent police force and a relatively low level of crime, that force seeks reassurance that it will not lose out if the plans for that grant are changed. Will he give some guidance on his plans?

Mr. Coaker: We are trying to be fair to Welsh police forces. The hon. Gentleman will know that Welsh police forces outside the South Wales police force benefit from our giving them an additional approximately £15 million to ensure that they are funded in exactly the same way as police forces in England—I know that is welcomed in Wales. He also talked about the rule 2 grants—the separate pots of money, such as the rural policing grants, that we put together in a single pot—and he will know that we have confirmed that we shall roll those forward for next year and that we have given the indicative levels for years 2010 and 2011. He will know that a review of the police formula is taking place and, doubtless, the comments that he made will be fed into the review to ensure that they are taken account of in any revised police formula for the next comprehensive spending review period.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Coaker: May I just say that, within reason, I will give way to every hon. Member who asks, but I have to take interventions one at a time?

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The Minister responded to the demands of the Metropolitan police force, but he will be aware that it has benefited over the past five years from being able to recruit for free more than 1,000 officers who were trained at the council tax payer’s expense from forces in the counties surrounding London, including Thames Valley. When we will resolve this issue of the £5,000 wage differential between Metropolitan police officers and officers in the south-east in order to stop this unacceptable poaching?

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Mr. Coaker: Along with a number of other hon. Members from across the House, my hon. Friend took part in the debate that specifically addressed Thames Valley police and related to how we try to deal with the south-east allowances. He has been one of the doughtiest campaigners in trying to get this issue resolved. As I told that meeting, I intend to do all that I can to encourage a settlement that prevents this sort of problem from occurring. He will know that it is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board to resolve. The issue is not one of resources, but one of agreement at the Police Negotiating Board so that the differential to which he refers can be examined and changed to try to stop some of the problems occurring.The hon. Gentleman will also know that that is a matter for discussion between the new commissioner and chief constables in neighbouring forces, to see whether they can come to an agreement about how to deal with the issue while they wait for the Police Negotiating Board to achieve a settlement.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): West Yorkshire has benefited considerably from the additional police funding made available by this Government, but while tremendous strides have been made in improving the police funding formula inherited from the Conservatives, a gap remains between what West Yorkshire gets and what it would receive if it were fully funded under the formula. Can my hon. Friend give me a commitment that he will look seriously at how we can bridge that gap?

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about his local force. From a national perspective, we have to try to ensure that the national funding formula is fair to all forces, and we have tried to distribute the pot of money available in a fair and reasonable way. That is why we have included a floor, so that no authority receives less than 2.5 per cent. If the formula were strictly interpreted, some forces would lose out. I know that because my local force in Nottinghamshire loses some money so that we can maintain the floor. However, that is necessary and proportionate from a national perspective.

As I said to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), the review of the funding formula needs to cover such issues. We need to see whether we can come up with a fairer mechanism, notwithstanding the fact that all hon. Members, rightly, fight for the best deal for their local force.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): The Minister will be aware, from meetings that he has had, of the genuine concern of the people of Lincolnshire about the perceived historic underfunding of the Lincolnshire police authority, which has been accepted, as evidenced by the one-off payments that the Home Office has made and the fact that the Government have allowed a 26 per cent. increase in the police precept in the area in the last year. Will the Minister ensure that the needs of rural counties such as Lincolnshire form a significant part of the funding review, so that they get their fair share of resources in the next comprehensive spending review?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about Lincolnshire. He will know that I visited the area recently and met the chief constable and others.
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Those are the issues that we will need to look at in the review of the funding formula, and he is right to point out that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, we need a formula that is fair to both urban and rural areas. We need to find a way of ensuring that the needs of the vast expanses with very few people in them are properly reflected so that they receive the level of police funding that they can reasonably expect. We will look into that, and I am grateful to him for raising the point.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know from his direct personal experience that crime is falling in Nottinghamshire and police resources are at a record level. It is an improving police force, but may I reinforce the point—I know that he is well aware of it—that Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and other east midlands authorities are disadvantaged in relative terms by the funding formula? Can we make progress quickly? The Nottinghamshire police are making progress: they would be helped by changes in the funding formula.

Mr. Coaker: I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for those comments. I know that he and other colleagues in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and across the east midlands have campaigned long and hard for a fairer distribution of resources to forces in the area. It is a fact that the floor means that some forces do not receive the amount that they would if the funding formula were fully implemented. I have to say that of course the opposite is true: some forces would lose significant amounts of money were we to remove the floor. We are searching for a way to ensure that police forces in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and the rest of the east midlands are funded as fairly as possible. I am not sure whether Ministers are supposed to do such things, but as a fellow Nottingham MP I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Nottinghamshire police—and other police forces—on the work that they are doing in reducing crime.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Dorset police authority is a high-performing and efficient force, but it predicts that it will have to lose 43 police officers this year, even with the floor, which is very important to it. The authority is especially concerned about how bars are dealt with in the formula. Dorset has a high concentration of licensed premises, with up to 1,000 places, in just two major towns, with the rest of the county being relatively rural. The formula does not really provide enough funding to police those hotspots adequately, because it is based on an area average that does not work satisfactorily in Dorset’s case.

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