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10 May 1999 : Column CWH1

Local Government Bill

Monday, 10th May 1999.

The Committee met at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Strabolgi) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Strabolgi): Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all noble Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard.

The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in the Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. The Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division bells are rung and will then resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Best value authorities]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 9, at end insert ("so long as it budgets to spend a sum exceeding £500,000 per year for the year commencing 1st April 2000")

The noble Lord said: In rising to move this amendment I should confess to some hesitation about doing so knowing that this subject was debated fairly thoroughly in the other place, and knowing also that the Government intend, by regulation perhaps, to do something along the lines of my amendment. The Minister, however, will by now understand me sufficiently well to know that I do not like proceeding by regulation when it is possible to proceed on the face of the Bill. That is the reason I have put down the amendment.

The duty of best value imposes some really sophisticated and administrative procedures which will of themselves be quite expensive on best value authorities. With regard to the list of authorities that are to be best value authorities, Clause 1(2) states,

    "In relation to England local authority in subsection (1)(a) means--

    (a) a county council"

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    County councils comprise vast organisations so there is no problem there. District councils, again, generally speaking, comprise big organisations. However, as regards a parish council, we are getting down to the building blocks of democracy. That is even more the case as regards a parish which does not have a separate parish council. At the moment under the Bill those are best value authorities and subject to all the administrative rigours of best value procedure unless under Clause 2 the Secretary of State exercises his power by order to disapply.

My amendment may not be quite adequate to persuade the Minister that he ought to include it on the face of the Bill, because, on thinking about the matter further, I realise that I have not provided for the fact that he might wish at some point in the future to extend his power to disapply. It seems to me that is the only reason one would wish to exercise a power to disapply in this regard. In the light of experience, for instance, it might be revealed that the duty of best value is too expensive and too complex for authorities spending £1 million, or possibly even greater sums than that at some point in the future. Certainly the concept would not apply as regards a new category of authority because I believe that if a new category of best value authority were to be created that would of itself require primary legislation anyway. Therefore the only debating point concerns the question of what is a reasonable sum. If we were in a position to make some provision for adjustment in the future--although no amendment to that effect appears on the Marshalled List--the Minister might well be able to accept the amendment. On that basis, I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: Perhaps I may support the noble Lord, with possibly less hesitation than he showed, as this was a point on which my colleagues in another place tabled amendments during the proceedings on the Bill there. At that time, the Minister told my honourable friend the Member for Taunton that the Government were still having meetings and were discussing the problem with the National Association of Local Councils and others. She said that there would be later opportunities for further amendment. I hope that the Minister can use this opportunity to bring the Committee up to date as to the outcome of those discussions, which would obviously help us to consider whether an amendment might be made at a later stage in this House.

The solution suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, of a minimum sum written onto the face of the Bill with the opportunity for that to be increased seemed to be an appropriate way of dealing with the matter. The noble Lord explained the strains and problems for small authorities. I share the feeling of all noble Lords that it might not be good use of public money for a small local authority to have to go through the procedures provided by the Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): I am grateful for the way in which the amendment has been proposed. However, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, made clear what was likely to be one of my objections to it.

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It is true that the Local Government White Paper published last summer suggested a figure of £500,000 as a possible de minimis level for best value authorities. That is because, as both noble Lords have indicated, a statutory duty applied to every parish council and town council would be onerous. Only a very small number of town and parish councils would be over that £500,000 mark. We are considering whether this is indeed the appropriate level. We have consulted with the National Association of Local Councils and others on the matter, and our general view is that this level would indeed strike the appropriate balance.

As proposed in the White Paper Local Voices, issued by the Welsh Office in July last year, the National Assembly for Wales will, following discussions with local authorities, determine the level at which the duty of best value will not apply to best value authorities in the Welsh context.

The amendment places a figure on the face of the Bill without allowing for it to be amended. There could be a different situation in Wales from in England. It is not normal in legislation to provide a figure which is not alterable in changing circumstances. As the noble Lord's amendment stands, it would remove the capacity to change that de minimis level in the future. Setting the figure by order, as we do at present, would provide us with that flexibility and, taken together with the Government's declared intention in the White Paper and since, would meet the point of removing the burden of best value in total from the smaller authorities. The noble Lord has recognised that, in its present form, that would not be appropriate. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, albeit that it was a somewhat disappointing one, given my instinct that we should put as much as we can on the face of Bills and not leave matters to chance.

Perhaps I may first get rid of one canard in his remarks. He implied that Wales might do something different from England and that, implicitly, that might be a bad thing. I am interpreting, but it is implicit in what has happened both in Wales and in Scotland that differences should arise. That has to be accepted, and therefore any debate as to what might or might not happen in Wales has, it seems to me, no relevance to this specific discussion. I would have preferred a more direct answer to what the Minister has had to say, and I wonder if he could perhaps answer the question as to whether, in the light of the consultations that the Government have had, they are considering the possibility of putting down an amendment. I should like to have some definite conclusion before I decide exactly what I wish to do in the future. But in the meantime I shall obviously consider what the Minister has said.

Lord Whitty: I wish to make it absolutely clear that, in so far as the devolution settlement allows the Welsh Assembly to come to a different conclusion in conjunction with its own local authorities, that is fine by me. The point I was making was that if they were, then providing a single figure on the face of the Bill would

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not be appropriate. In response to the noble Lord's main question, it is his general view that such figures should be on the face of the Bill. It is not, however, the general practice in legislation where it is known that the figure could change simply through the matter of inflation. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, but it is not our intention therefore to come forward with a later amendment.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: The exchange that has taken place has been very helpful because it has illustrated at the very beginning the point that I wish to make with regard to the powers of the Welsh Assembly. By the way the Bill is drafted, from time to time caveats and cautions will be registered about what happens in Wales. It seems to me that the whole structure of the Bill ought to have been considered more carefully.

This is the very first Bill which has been brought forward where the Welsh Assembly's powers are to be taken into account. We have, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, saying, "The differences as to what happens in Wales do not concern me". However, they concern Wales. A very simple and sensible way to do it, as the Government have reserved to Westminster primary legislative powers for Wales, is to have a separate Bill for Wales. As it is, we find what I regard almost as an insult in Clause 28 of the Bill, where at each reference to the Secretary of State there should be substituted a reference to the National Assembly for Wales. There are exclusions and limitations in the Bill. For example, Clauses 15 to 17 and Clause 26 are excluded. Some of the items we are discussing in Clause 1--namely, subsections (1)(d) and (e)--are excluded and other items in that list are not excluded from Wales, such as the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority which obviously have nothing to do with Wales. It is a complete mix-up of the primary legislative powers which concern the Welsh Assembly and those powers which concern English authorities only.

There is even a difference in Clause 1 about which authorities are concerned. And if I can be a little relevant to the subject of the amendment, the local authorities referred to in relation to Wales,

    "a county council, a county borough council or a community council" are clearly organisations for which one would expect to have a budget in excess of £500,000, but that limitation would exclude the parish meetings to which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred.

Right at the very beginning of the detailed consideration of this Bill, this conflict between the considerations that relate to Wales and those which relate to English local government and other authorities emerges. I shall be making this point at a later stage of the Bill.

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