Although the approach to port health authorities is the better part of 25 years or more old, it is well aligned with the Government’s localism agenda. It is permissive and local authorities have considerable discretion to come together, so it is bottom up in that sense, and there is flexibility for such orders to specify what functions

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port health authorities take on. Those functions can vary from place to place. The authorities are pretty fit for purpose for the current localist approach, so we would not necessarily want to change that arrangement.

As well as predominantly receiving funding from formula grant, port health authorities have the power to levy a precept in certain circumstances on the billing authorities in their areas. I understand that from the funds that they receive, they pay a small amount to their representative body. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to the Association of Port Health Authorities, because I am told that it has a good working relationship with the Department of Health. Officials in that Department keep in touch with the association’s officials, and I am told that they very much value that. In due course the Department will make proposals for consultation on updating regulations that relate specifically to international travel and the circumstances of port health. It is willing to discuss that with the representative body.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Minister mentioned Heathrow airport, which is in my constituency. It is possibly the largest passenger port of entry in the country, but a large amount of cargo comes through it as well. I am grateful to him for mentioning that the regulations will be reviewed. I would be grateful if that was linked to a review of staffing levels and the required resources, because the regulations need to take account of the demands on resources, particularly at Heathrow.

Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. Obviously, we need to consider what resources are required when we find out what the regulations require. I shall link that point to the one made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test about regulation 669. I will certainly ensure that my officials talk to officials at the Department of Health, and I will correspond with my opposite number there, so that such things are all considered together. There, too, is the opportunity to consider whether the burden is appropriately addressed in the current circumstances. So it is sensible to look at that in the round, as both hon. Gentlemen suggest.

In terms of the broader aspects of the funding, formula grant has so far been a tried and tested means of financing local authorities. There is also the ability to levy a precept, which will vary slightly according to the composition and responsibility of each port health authority. I know too, as I am sure the hon. Member for Southampton, Test does, that in certain circumstances there is a power for the authority to make a charge to recover the cost of providing a service to a user of the port, so there are some flexibilities.

In a broader context, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to consulting over the summer and taking forward a review of local government resourcing, which will include the operation of the business rates. Port authorities and port operations are often significant contributors to business rates within their areas and are important economic hubs. Of course, the outcome of that review might influence the approach that we adopt to formula grant as a whole. Formula grant started life as part of the business rate that was being recycled, but life has become rather more complicated than that in local government finance. However, the review gives us an opportunity to look holistically at the relationship with the grant. I cannot make promises about what the outcome of the review will be, but I can

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promise the hon. Gentleman that I can, as a result of this debate, take steps to ensure that the impact of any change on port health authorities is taken into account. I accept that many people might not realise their dependency on formula grant, and that this issue could fall between the ship and the quayside—that seems an appropriate analogy—but I would not want that to happen.

I hope that my comments have given the hon. Gentleman some indication that the Government are prepared to engage on this issue. We think that port health authorities fulfil a valuable role, and I pay tribute to their staff. He is right to say that they are on the front line, and they give a pretty cost-effective service.

John McDonnell: It would not be worth living back in Hillingdon if I did not raise this point on behalf of the borough. In the review of wider business rates, it would be invaluable to assess not just the implications of the cost of the control of port health—particularly with regard to passengers, but also in relation to the import of goods—as well as the knock-on effects of having a port within a local authority area. I give as an example the role of health and social services in giving support when passengers who have particular needs arrive at Heathrow airport or another port. In addition, the local authority has to exercise a wider environmental health role for any goods that are brought into an area where a particular issue arises. That needs to be reflected in any future review of grants to local authorities and the use of business rates.

Robert Neill: That is a fair point. I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments, which are on the record, and I will ensure that my officials take that point on board. It is worth remembering that although an element of national activity is undertaken, that does not automatically make it a national service in the strict sense. Some authorities, because of their differing constitutions and the different level of function, will probably be in a different position in terms of the impact of regulations and changes that affect them. A one-size-fits-all approach is therefore probably not appropriate, but there are things we could consider to make sure that all this is put into context.

Lest anyone who has not been following all this should be in any doubt about the variation in port authorities, let me make it clear that the term “ports” is to be read much more widely than some people might appreciate. Southampton is, unsurprisingly, a port authority, and Heathrow, in Hillingdon, is the largest of the port authorities, but Brent—that well-known coastal town—also has a port authority. I understand that is because a good deal of cargo interchange is dealt with there. The same applies to Trafford, which I suppose might have a footage on the Manchester ship canal; your constituency is closer to that area than mine, Mr Deputy Speaker. That serves to demonstrate the variety of operations covered by port authorities, and why there has to be some flexibility in the arrangements. I have done my best to address hon. Members’ concerns and I am very happy to ensure that we take this matter forward, either through correspondence or as is otherwise appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

6.24 pm

House adjourned.