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Lord Whitty: As we have always indicated, we wish to give local authorities a fairly wide-ranging power in relation to well-being. Nevertheless, we have always indicated that it would not be a power to do absolutely everything and anything. There have to be some safeguards. Those safeguards must include areas which have already been limited by preceding legislation. That is why Clause 3(1) keeps in place those restrictions which have been laid down by Parliament, subject to something else I wish to say in a moment.
Were we to go through all the areas of previous legislation which qualify or restrict the role of local authorities, I suspect that the kind of schedule the noble Baroness is looking for would be somewhat lengthy. Therefore I think we have to rely on this being expressed in general terms. One very obvious provision that her deletion would remove is the restriction on local authorities being able to publish material of a party political nature. Clearly that is not the intention of the power of well-being. Likewise there will be more detailed aspects which exist to restrict local authority activity within existing legislation.
We do recognise the need to remove some of this legislation. That is indeed why we have included the powers in Clauses 5 and 6 for the Secretary of State to do so. We are already engaged in a raft of initiatives to identify suitable candidates for removal from the statute book. We believe that it is only right that any proposals to legislate in this way to remove those restrictions must be scrutinised by Parliament rather than, as the amendment of the noble Baroness would do, simply wipe out all previous legislation and start from day zero.
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 22 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 25. I shall speak also to Amendment No. 24. Amendments Nos. 23 and 25 stand in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. At some point during the proceedings on the Bill I am sure that someone will mix up our names.
Amendment No. 22 deals with Clause 3(2), which provides that the power of well-being does not enable a local authority to raise money, whether by precepts, borrowing or otherwise. We on these Benches have objections in principle and indeed in detail to this subsection. Our objection in principle is the tight grip which central government keeps on local government expenditure, a degree of control which we think is wrong, unnecessary and not appropriate for good government. I recognise that the clause, if less formal language was being used, might say that the power under Clause 2(1) does not of itself enable a local authority to raise money, or something similar. What the subsection says is that it does not actually alter the situation one way or the other. To that extent it is neutral. If I am right in saying that it is neutral, my objection in principle is to raise a concern about what it might add to Clause 3(1). For instance, does it stop a local authority charging at its discretion to cover its costs for activities to promote well-being, or is a local authority perhaps to be in the position of having to operate such activities at a loss?
This point has been made to me by those who are far more expert than I am in the local government world. They point out that discretionary initiatives, particularly those developed in partnership-working, may well depend on recovering costs. Charging is the most effective way to recover costs. One of the examples given is the village shop initiative which rural authorities may seek to pursue--the type of, as it is described, "social handyman service" that councils have wanted to provide to assist elderly people and others in need who would not otherwise be entitled to this type of service.
Are local authorities to be restricted by this provision from generating a surplus? I think that clarity in this matter would be helpful. There is a real anxiety that the subsection will prevent councils from raising partnership contributions to activities and could undo the good that the earlier part of the Bill will undoubtedly do. I beg to move.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I must congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on getting to the Public Bill Office with this amendment before we did. As a result, her name appears, quite properly, to lead on the amendment. Nonetheless, it is an amendment which we too have tabled for precisely similar reasons, although I shall hope to use somewhat different arguments to support the case for removing subsection (2) of Clause 3 from the Bill.
We are back in the position that we were in on the Greater London Authority Bill. That Bill gave the Greater London Authority powers and then the Government immediately prescribed what I described as an "anti-power". Here we are again. The Bill gives local authorities the power to promote well-being--it is not an absolute power of general competence but it goes a long way towards that--and then in the next clause it says, "Well, you have this power but you cannot spend anything on this matter". One might think that that is what the clause means, but that is not what it says. It says that a local authority may not raise money, whether by precept, borrowing or otherwise.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to one or two benefits which local authorities in rural areas might wish to provide, such as community shops. A local authority might well wish to provide community buses under the power. The ones that I know are run by parish councils, which operate under a different remit. With this power I can see local authorities wishing to undertake a number of such actions. We would wish them to undertake such actions.
It occurred to me that in subsection (2) the Government are somewhat cynically seeking to control what will happen. It is an easy presumption to make that if an authority cannot raise money, whether by precept, borrowing or otherwise, and cannot spend anything, it cannot do very much at all. However, on reflection, I came to the conclusion that that is not so, which gives me even more reason to believe that the clause should not be in the Bill.
A cynic might say that with this power the Government are seeking to control what is spent by local authorities, by trickling money down to them through the revenue support grant. That may be what is in the Government's mind. But the revenue support grant is, largely speaking, a general grant. A local authority has the power to do with a large chunk of the revenue support grant what it chooses to do with it. It could very well choose to spend some of the general part of the revenue support grant on exercising the power under Clause 2. If that caused it to have marginally to raise its precept to deal with its normal line of business, that would be perfectly proper. I see nods of agreement coming from one or two noble
During the proceedings on the Greater London Authority Bill we debated this issue almost to the point of exhaustion. The Government were not inclined to give way then and so I am not hopeful that they will give way now. But I think that they should. They have plenty of other powers by which they can constrain local government expenditure if that is required. In the previous Session we passed a Bill specifically to give them that power. We resisted it then and I think that we should resist it again on this occasion. I cannot see that subsection (2) adds anything useful or constructive to the Bill. The worst aspect of it is that it will treat councils and councillors as if they are babes, as if they are irresponsible and as if they are not to be trusted. Worse than that, it treats their electorates with the same contempt. Councillors are responsible to their electorates for their actions. Their electorates can discriminate; they are discriminating; and they know how to take action if local authorities do not behave responsibly.
The worst aspect of subsection (2) is that it destroys the amour propre of local government and local communities. If one wants people to behave responsibly, one must make them responsible. If one wants to make them responsible, one must take Clause 3(2) out of the Bill and let them make their own judgment. I am happy to support the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
Baroness Hanham: Perhaps I may speak to my amendment, Amendment No. 23, which is in the same group. My amendment expands on what has already been proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and on some of what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. Where one has a power of well-being, the power to charge must be a sine qua non of that. My amendment would address as well the problems which have occurred since the House of Lords' decision in 1992 in the case of R v. London Borough Richmond-upon-Thames ex parte McCarthy and Stone--I am sure that all noble Lords will be familiar with it--that it was unlawful for a local authority to charge for planning advice. Although there is a power for local authorities to give planning advice, in relation to which they make take a substantial amount of time and have detailed discussion, they may not charge for that time. That example could be relevant to any aspect of what has been included in Clause 2(1) and the powers of competence and well-being.
The decision in that case has resulted in doubts as to whether local authorities can charge for other matters, such as commercial filming in their streets--something which they may want to do--inspection of works by statutory undertakers and supervision of parking bays; for example, the suspension of parking bays for contractors. My amendment would enable councils to
It is reasonable to give local authorities the opportunity to charge for what they do. Although under statute they are able to charge for some services, they cannot charge for all. I have cited some of those services to the Committee. Although what I have suggested may stretch what is proposed just a trifle, I wonder whether it could be taken into account.
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