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Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, to put the record straight, when I referred to the fact that he was not yet the Speaker of the House, my remarks were not directed at the noble Viscount, they were directed at the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who sits behind him.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ferrers. The draft order under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 will make two amendments to the Building Act 1984 which should ease some of the administrative constraints under which approved inspectors operate. Both amendments relate to the procedures that approved inspectors have to follow when they, rather than local authority officers, are undertaking building control work.
The first change relates to initial notices. These are forms which tell local authorities that the building work described in the notice is to be controlled by the approved inspector rather than by the local authority.
There is at present no formal procedure by which these notices can be amended if there is a change in either the work or the person who is to carry it out. The absence of a formal procedure for amending these notices can lead to a significant increase in the amount of paperwork that is necessary for a relatively trivial change.
The first amendment introduces a new section into the Building Act and provides for the giving of an "amendment notice". This gives a simple mechanism by which an initial notice may be amended where there is a change in the work to be carried out.
Another new section ensures that the amendment notice, when accompanied by the appropriate plans, can also be treated as the deposit of plans. The form of an initial notice is set out in the Building (Approved Inspectors etc) Regulations 1985. It is proposed that the form of the amendment notice will be similarly prescribed, and appropriate amendments to the regulations will be laid before Parliament if your Lordships accept this draft order.
The second change relates to the giving of final certificates. The amendment removes the requirement for these certificates to be given to the person by whom the work was carried out, whilst retaining the requirement for the final certificate to be given to the local authority.
I notice also that the order does not apply to Scotland nor, indeed, to Northern Ireland. I should be grateful if the noble Lord will explain why it does not apply to Scotland since it appears to be an order for the United Kingdom and not just for England and Wales.
Other than that, this has been the subject of considerable debate in your Lordships' Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will be aware that the local authority associations--the AMA and the ADC--both registered some objections to the order. It was decided by your Lordships' Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee that their objections had been reasonably met by the Government. But it seems to me that to have six pages of new legislation in a deregulation order involves a certain amount of extra regulation. I wonder whether it is in the spirit of the deregulation procedure to have six pages of extra legislation. Having said that, I have no particular objection to the order but I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to the points which I have raised.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, perhaps I may reply first to the first two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. The applicability of this order to England and Wales is in accordance with that of the underlying Act--the Building Act 1984. That applies only in England and Wales.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am sorry to say that I have not addressed myself to that question. Certainly, my colleagues in the Scottish Office have not requested me to do so. So far as I am aware, amendments are required which apply to England and Wales. If there is anything to add to that, I shall write to the noble Lord. However, I am not aware that there is a problem in Scotland which requires to be sorted out.
As regards discussion in another place, the Motion was moved on the Floor of the House on 3rd July and another place chose to follow the procedures that it did. I have no wish to criticise it for that decision. I am well aware that your Lordships' Select Committee on the Scrutiny of Delegated Powers and the Deregulation Committee of another place have considered the matter in some detail. But in the light of the evidence produced jointly by officials from my department and representatives of the local authority associations, they reached the conclusion that the order is acceptable.
I understand the noble Lord's anxiety that we are seeking to deregulate by adding to the volume of legislation. I do not think that we mind which route we follow so long as the end effect is worthwhile, as I believe this order will be, not in any dramatic or enormous way; but it will make a useful improvement to the regulations as they now stand. I commend the order to the House.
Many functions of local government may be carried out only by officers of a local authority. The two orders before your Lordships are intended to give local authorities greater freedom, where they so wish, to use the private sector to provide services which they would normally have to provide themselves.
The Local Authorities (Contracting Out of Tax Billing, Collection and Enforcement Functions) Order is intended to clarify an authority's powers to contract out its billing, collection and enforcement functions on council tax, community charge and national non-domestic rates.
The order will enable local authorities to delegate to a contractor most of their statutory functions and decision-making powers relating to the administration of local taxes--for example, whether a dwelling should be regarded as exempt from council tax or, where payments have not been made, whether to initiate enforcement action against a taxpayer.
Each decision which is taken by a contractor must be based very firmly on the conditions which are set out in statute. There should therefore be no greater risk if a contractor takes those decisions than there is when the decision is made by a local authority officer.
Of course, not all decisions should be in the hands of a contractor. For example, where taxes are unpaid and other enforcement action has proved unsuccessful, an authority can apply for the debtor's commitment to prison. Because of the serious nature of that ultimate penalty, its use should remain exclusively with local authorities. The order therefore does not allow the delegation of these powers to a third party.
Local taxpayers' rights will not be affected by this legislation. They will still have the same rights of appeal, both to the local authority and to the valuation tribunals. And if they are aggrieved at anything which has been done in the council's name, they will still be
In summary, this is a sensible and worthwhile change which is widely supported by local authorities because it achieves the right balance between allowing an authority to use a contractor for its revenue collection services, while reserving the most difficult decisions for the authority.
I turn now to the Local Authorities (Contracting Out of Investment Functions) Order which does four main things. First, and principally, it allows a local authority to delegate decisions on the investment of its cash to a contractor. Pension funds and trust funds are outside the scope of the order, since these are covered by separate legislation. The contractor may be a bank, building society, or another financial institution such as a specialist fund management company. In practice, many local authorities already use such contractors to invest money for them. This order will now clarify their powers to do so, and establish some rules for contractors.
Secondly, the order specifies who can contract out the function of investment; that is, a local authority as defined in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. This includes county and district councils, London borough councils, and county borough councils in Wales, as well as parish councils.
Thirdly, the order sets out the type of investments in which the contractor can invest money. These must be approved investments under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. Essentially, approved investments cover certificates of deposit, bills of exchange and gilts.
The fourth main element relates to safeguards. As I said a moment ago, the order sets out rules for contractors. Chiefly, these are: that contractors must be suitably qualified and experienced; they must abide by proper investing and accounting practices and must comply with the local authority's instructions; the contractor is also required to provide three-monthly reports to the local authority, setting out the action taken on the authority's behalf, and to supply any information requested by the authority; the contractor cannot pass on the decision-making on investments to anyone else. Other parties can only be involved with the direct approval of the authority.
To summarise, this order is a sensible measure which will be helpful to local authorities in clarifying their powers. It also establishes limits, rules and safeguards for those who are investing money on local authorities' behalf. I commend the order to your Lordships.