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Lord Peston: My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, can he clarify one point? I am very sorry; he used the word "finally", which I felt was the right word to use. It is not impossible that the privatisation will take place at some time during the summer, when the House is not sitting. Although he used the words "draft

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contract", I take it that he is saying that it will be this precise contract that will be signed, and were there to be any variation in it, the Government would not go ahead until the House had seen any changes. I take it that our debate has taken place exactly on that understanding. However, it may be useful to state that precisely.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, that is my clear understanding. I am also well aware that the noble Lord is a very reasonable man. If there are matters of wording which could be improved, I am sure that he would not let that stricture apply. If it is a matter of substance, I am sure that the whole House will agree that his caveat is a sensible one.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time.

4.18 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

Lord Eatwell: My Lords, on many occasions in the past at this juncture the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has risen to object to the fact that we do not have the opportunity to debate the Consolidated Fund. His case has been clear. He has argued that the lack of such a debate deprives your Lordships of a chance to consider the scale, structure and content of government expenditure in the round, so to speak--an opportunity which is not provided when discussing specific measures. The usual reply to the noble Lord has been that it is not customary and appropriate to have a debate at this juncture. In this instance, I agree with the Government. However, I should like to make a proposal to ease the frustrations of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and other noble Lords about the inability of the House to hold a broad debate on government expenditure.

Noble Lords will remember that last year, on a Motion by the Labour Group introduced by my noble friend Lord Desai the day after the Budget, noble Lords had an opportunity to discuss the matter. Noble Lords will be aware that nowadays the unified Budget consists of proposals for tax-raising powers and general consideration of government expenditure. The debate introduced by my noble friend proved very popular, even though it took place just a few days following the economic section of the Queen's Speech. Twenty-three noble Lords took part. A number of very interesting and constructive speeches were made from all sides.

My proposal is that the Government should consider whether it would be appropriate for the House annually to debate the Budget as a matter of custom on the day after

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the Budget. Noble Lords would then have the opportunity to have a broad debate on government expenditure and to contribute ideas on government expenditure and taxation, as they did so successfully last year. Such a debate would not be left simply to the whims of the parliamentary timetable and Opposition parties using up their time to provide noble Lords with that opportunity. I put that proposal to the Government for consideration.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I am very much indebted to the noble Lord opposite for involving me in this discussion. I share his views to a considerable extent. The Consolidated Fund Bill is probably the most important--or at least the second most important--measure with which your Lordships' House has to deal. Simply to pass it on the nod without arranging for an alternative opportunity to discuss the whole Budget, or the general level of expenditure and the proposals for expenditure, seems to me to be abandoning one of the duties of this House. I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House that I hope the Government will arrange for that at or about the time of the Budget. I hope that, in the context of the House not having debated the Consolidated Fund Bill, a full-scale economic debate will be arranged but--I say with very great enthusiasm--not on a Friday.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I do not have any difficulty with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. This House would probably find it helpful to have such a debate on the Budget soon after the Budget Statement in the House of Commons. With regard to the general question of debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, will be aware that this matter has been discussed many times by the Procedure Committee. It was unanimously decided by that committee that it would not be appropriate to have a general economic debate on the occasion of the passage of the Consolidated Fund Bill. Therefore, I have no difficulty with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, but I would have very substantial difficulty with regard to the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has somewhat misunderstood the point that I tried to make. No doubt that is my fault and not his. I tried to say that, in view of the importance of the Consolidated Fund Bill--which is beyond dispute--linked with it there ought to be an opportunity for this House to have a general economic debate as of right and it should not depend on whether or not the Procedure Committee had found that convenient.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said that the Procedure Committee had discussed this matter on innumerable occasions. As a Member of the Procedure Committee, I endorse that. I add only that the report of the Procedure Committee on all of those occasions has been wholeheartedly endorsed by the House.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thought that I was going to get away with not having

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to intervene at all, other than by uttering the words to allow the Bill to proceed through your Lordships' House. I believe that my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has almost accepted that we will not discuss the Consolidated Fund Bill and that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, ought to be considered. I remember with some pleasure the debate on the economy introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. If the noble Lord is again lucky and manages to arrange a debate on the day after the Budget, I look forward to standing at this Dispatch Box and defending the Budget, but whether or not we have that debate is more a matter for the usual channels than for me. I shall pass on the comments that have just been made by my noble friends and the noble Lords, Lord Eatwell and Lord Harris of Greenwich, to the Lord Privy Seal and the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps he will have the courtesy of replying to the question posed by his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. His noble friend suggested, quite sensibly, that at this time of year there was a need to debate the general economic situation of the country, bearing in mind that in terms of the parliamentary timetable it is only relatively recently that the unified Budget has been moved from April to November. I hope that the Minister has some sympathetic words for, if not complete acceptance of, the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that there should be a major economic debate at about this time of year.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am always grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, for pulling me up when I do not answer absolutely every question. I thought that I had covered the ground fairly well. I believe that the Commons do not debate this particular Bill. As two noble Lords who are Members of the Procedure Committee have made clear, this ground has been tilled so often that I doubt whether a plough would find a piece of firm soil into which to bite. I am equally certain that your Lordships' House, if not the rest of the world, will be more than delighted to hear the views of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell on the economy. But I believe that that is a quite different issue. I will do as I have said and draw the attention of my noble friends to the exchanges that we have had.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 18th July), Bill read a third time, and passed.

Housing Bill

4.28 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons amendments be now considered.--(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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102Clause 79, page 53, line 36, leave out from ("securing") to end of line 39 and insert ("that the amount of the fees charged is no more than would, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, be chargeable for similar proceedings in the county court.")
The Commons disagreed to the above amendment but propose the following amendments in lieu--
102APage 53, line 35, leave out from first "order" to end of line 39 and insert "subject to this limit, that the fees payable in respect of any one application or reference by the court together with any proceedings before the tribunal arising out of that application or reference shall not exceed £500 or such other amount as may be specified by order of the Secretary of State.".
102BPage 54, line 6, leave out "which, unless the order" and insert--
"( ) No order altering the limit under subsection (3) shall be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
( ) Any other order under this section, unless it".

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 102 to which the Commons have disagreed and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 102A, and 102B in lieu thereof. I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 114, 114A and 114B, and Amendments Nos. 286, 286A and 286B.

The debate we had on leasehold valuation tribunal fees at Third Reading was an immensely valuable one. Many important and telling points were made. We also had before us a wide range of options about what the precise level of fees should be. In the event it was decided that in relation to the procedures for dealing with unreasonable service charges the tribunal should charge a fee no higher than for comparable cases in the county court; that is to say, of the order of £120.

When noble Lords' amendments were considered in another place, government amendments were accepted which provided that the fee for each case in both of these procedures should not exceed £500. We are therefore faced with the choice between the amendments passed in this House at Third Reading or those passed in another place.

The measures in this Bill are designed to help leaseholders challenge the unreasonable actions of a number of unscrupulous landlords. A particular problem that leaseholders face under existing procedures is that when they attempt to challenge unreasonable service charges in the county court they can be faced with protracted and potentially very expensive litigation. That is because, although the county court fees are relatively low, leaseholders can be exposed to the potential risk of paying the costs of both sides if they lose. Even for a case of average complexity, those costs could be as much as £6,000.

That is why we proposed switching the jurisdiction for those cases to the tribunal. The advantages of access to the leasehold valuation tribunal are considerable. The

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tribunals have quicker and less formal procedures than the courts, and there is no need for parties to have full legal representation. The tribunal itself will include a professional surveyor who is qualified to assess the technical arguments which are likely to arise. Also, tribunals cannot award costs to either party so the exposure of the leaseholder to the risk of costs will be much reduced.

In the light of those considerations, and in particular the very considerable advantages for the leaseholder in gaining access to the tribunals, we need to consider what level of fee it is reasonable for an applicant to pay. We believe that a maximum fee of £500 is about the right level. First, in relation to the likely level of costs of providing the service, which is expected to be about £2,000 per day, we expect the average case to last around one day. Secondly, we need to set the fee at a level which will discourage minor disputes, for which this service is not really intended, and also deter applications of a frivolous nature.

Thirdly, we believe that a maximum fee of £500 represents a practicable and affordable amount. The precise fee structure has not yet been worked out and will be subject to wide consultation before this section is commenced. However, I have already indicated that we intend to passport an existing means-testing regime such that, if the applicant qualifies under that regime, the fees will be remitted either in whole or in part.

My noble friend Lord Kinnoull will be familiar with the idea of a £500 limit on the level of fees as he proposed a very similar amendment at Third Reading. The reason I gave then for not accepting his amendment was that it would not be feasible to place a fixed limit of a cash amount on the face of the Bill without an order-making power to adjust that amount in the light of inflation. Our amendments now provide for that, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

In speaking to the amendments in another place my honourable friend the Minister indicated that the purpose of the order-making power was to make adjustments in the usual way from time to time to reflect cost changes. Of course, following the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and if my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor decided to pursue a total revision of fees for courts, then that might provide an additional reason to use this power. Any proposals for such a major change would need to be fully discussed at the time and would, I suspect, require changes to the primary legislation.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, also privately pressed me on how often we might seek to make adjustments using the order-making power. He suggested that a five-year period might be appropriate. Clearly, that would depend on movements in the rate of inflation. But I would tend to agree that on the basis of the current situation the period he suggests does not seem unreasonable. We would certainly not envisage making annual adjustments.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe--who I am delighted to see is present today to celebrate his previous triumphs--also raised a number of concerns on

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which I can offer some comfort. First, the Bill is now full-cost-recovery free. Secondly, I can clarify that the provision provides a fee to be paid for each application, and if the application is a joint one made by a number of tenants in a block of flats, then only one fee subject to the limit of £500 will be required. I can also state that in the procedure dealing with service charge disputes one application can cover all items which make up the total service charge. That service charge could span a number of years and could cover, for example, insurance premiums, repairs to the roof and charges for the maintenance of the garden. Even where all those items are disputed, only one fee, subject to the £500 maximum, will be payable.

I can also offer a further reassurance. My honourable friend the Minister undertook in another place, when considering the Lords amendments to the Bill, that we will seek to construct a scale of charges which offers a degree of certainty to the applicant before the case starts. That means that we will not seek to charge a fee relating to the length of the cases before the tribunal. He also undertook to examine the feasibility of designing a sliding scale of fees relating to the value of the disputed sums involved.

Our proposals are intended to provide leaseholders with a real opportunity for effective justice at an affordable price. I believe that the proposals relating to the fees chargeable by a tribunal to deal both with service charge disputes and the appointment of a manager, and offering a maximum limit of £500 will indeed deliver just that. I commend the Commons amendments to the House.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 102 to which the Commons have disagreed, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 102A and 102B in lieu thereof.--(Lord Lucas.)

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