Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 15:

("( ) For the purposes of subsection (4), a person includes another local authority.").

The noble Baroness said: I rise to move Amendment No. 15, which stands in the name of my noble friends Lord Tope and Lady Hamwee. The amendment seeks to link the power in Clause 2(1) to promote and improve the well-being of an area with joint working between local authorities. This link is extremely important.

Amendment No. 15 states:

    "For the purposes of subsection (4), a person includes another local authority".

The Government may ask why we have chosen the words,

    "a person includes another local authority".

We have chosen that wording because the powers in the Bill have been conferred specifically on local authorities but not on partner organisations. We believe that the amendment is necessary because the drafting of this Bill and of the Local Government Act 1999 relates primarily to unitary areas. It is only through local authorities working together--in the case of adjoining local authorities--or working through the tiers of authorities that the concept of best value will be delivered. In some places there are four tiers of authorities. Devon County Council, for example, has to contend with two national parks and, I believe, nine districts and many parish councils.

We must be more rigorous in ensuring that local authorities are enabled to work together and are given every encouragement to do so. If the Government wish best value and community planning to work, they must ensure that where the Bill's wording and

25 Jan 2000 : Column 1455

structures seem to threaten those concepts they will consider those points closely. Has the Minister considered--I am sure that he has--the three or four pages of regulations regarding joint working arrangements? I have read them several times. They are extremely difficult and convoluted. I am sure that when we reach the appropriate part of the Bill the Minister will be able to explain them to me.

The amendment would at least ensure that local authorities regard co-operation and joint working as concepts that the Government recognise and seek to encourage. If accepted, the amendment would underline the basic right of local authorities to co-operate with others in the matter that we are discussing. I beg to move.

Lord Bowness: I have some sympathy with the proposal that local authorities should be able to co-operate with other local authorities. However, I hope that the noble Baroness who has moved the amendment which stands in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, could help me at least, and perhaps also the Committee, as regards the implications of substituting or including in the definition of "person" a local authority in connection with Clause 2(4)(b) and (f). It seems to me that to make a specific provision for one local authority to be able to give financial assistance to another and to,

    "provide staff, goods, services or accommodation"

to another local authority is fraught with difficulty. It is a matter that I believe would distort the already imperfect financial regime and national support for local authorities. I cannot support the amendment as it stands at present. I hope that at the end of the debate we can discuss how co-operation can be achieved between local authorities, as I believe that it can--Clause 2(5) goes some way towards underlining that--without the specific reference to financial support of one authority by another.

Lord Dixon-Smith: Amendment No. 39, which stands in my name, is grouped with Amendment No. 15. It deals with what I can describe only as a parallel situation although it is in fact rather a different situation. It would not have mattered if the amendments had not been grouped together. However, I am quite happy to discuss them as grouped amendments.

Amendment No. 39 relates to Clause 4, which deals with strategies for promoting the well-being of local authorities, the subject under discussion. Subsection (2) states:

    "In preparing any strategy under this section, a local authority--

    (a) may consult or seek the participation of such persons as they consider appropriate".

My amendment seeks to insert the words "or organisations".

The question arises as to whether "persons" are or can be organisations or whether they might be deemed to be singular. I have always taken the view that

25 Jan 2000 : Column 1456

"persons" were persons, referred to on the whole as individuals, and that "organisations" can cover everything from businesses, to pressure groups, to residents' groups, to tenants' groups, and any other group of which we can think.

The insertion of the words "or organisations" will help the Bill quite considerably. It is for that reason that I have tabled Amendment No. 39.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I understand the intention behind Amendment No. 15 and Amendment No. 39, which is grouped with it. However, I hope that I am in a position to reassure both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that the amendments are not necessary to achieve the objectives they have outlined.

The term "person" is a well-established legal shorthand and is defined in the Interpretation Act 1978 to include a body of persons corporate or incorporate. So, of course, local authorities will be able to provide the whole range of assistance envisaged in paragraphs(4)(a) to (e) to other local authorities. The only effect of these amendments would be to cast doubt on the scope of the term "person" throughout the rest of the Bill.

I hope that the noble Baroness is reassured that the clause, as drafted, already meets her objective in this area and that she will therefore withdraw her amendment. I hope also that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will not feel it necessary to move his amendment.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the Minister for her reply. It is very reassuring and I am glad that we now have a clear definition from the Government of the legal meaning of the term "person".

I shall not dwell on the issue at length but I do not believe that the amendment is unnecessary. Although at the best of times local authorities work together unchallenged, perhaps in times of hostile opposition to such co-operation from within their own ranks there might be questions as to whether or not they are giving financial support to each other, or perhaps questions about arrangements whereby staff move between the two authorities. In such cases, it is necessary to have a very clear track of decision-making and accountability to ensure that they are not informal, casual arrangements but that they are properly accounted for by each authority. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 16 not moved.]

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 17:

    Page 2, line 23, at end insert ("and, prior to the exercise of the power outside their own boundaries, they shall consult, and receive agreement from, the authority within whose boundaries the power is to be exercised").

25 Jan 2000 : Column 1457

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 17 concerns a different point. It is a probing amendment which seeks to discover the meaning of Clause 2(5) and what are its limitations.

Clause 2(5) is somewhat unusual. It states:

    "The power under subsection (1) includes power for a local authority to do anything in relation to, or for the benefit of, any person or area situated outside their area if they consider that it is likely to achieve any one or more of the objects in that subsection".

That is providing a very open power for a local authority to undertake particular actions in neighbouring authorities, and even in authorities that are not neighbouring authorities. Presumably--although we shall come later to matters of finance--it will give them power, as is stated in subsection (4), to give financial assistance outside their own area.

My amendment would require a local authority to consult the local authority in whose area it intends to take such extra-territorial action, if I may put it that way. Again, that seems to me to be a matter of simple neighbourliness. I have also said that they should get the agreement of that authority. That is not unreasonable.

Clause 2(5) as drafted appears to contain an extremely open power. I am all for giving local authorities powers and, generally speaking, I would not wish in any way to restrict that. But a power which may be operated in another authority's area--possibly even at the expense of that authority, if only through inadvertency--should be questioned at this stage. I move Amendment No. 17 in order to tempt the Minister to rise to the bait once again and to tell us exactly what are the limitations on the power and how it will work. Unless we are extremely careful, we shall be putting into the Bill at this point a power which might at some time in the future cause considerable dissension between particular authorities. That is something about which we should be very cautious. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: The Bill allows local authorities to pursue actions which would have an effect outside their areas. We obviously would not expect them to do that without consultation and without adopting a sensible and responsible attitude. Local authorities already have powers to act outside their areas--economic development powers, housing powers and, in some cases, education powers--so there are precedents.

We need to make it clear that we expect local authorities to co-operate. On the other hand, we do not want to be over-prescriptive on the face of the Bill. We would not want to be quite as limiting as the noble Lord is tempting us to be. None the less, I am happy to go away and to look at the matter in order to see whether there is a better way in which we can make it absolutely clear that local authorities should act in co-operation. I know that there are anxieties about that and we should like to be as reassuring as we can be. If the noble Lord will accept that reassurance, we can come back to the matter.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page