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Local Government Bill [H.L.]

8.39 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 5.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 46:

("( ) Before exercising the power under this section the Secretary of State shall consult representatives of local government and such other persons as he considers appropriate.").

The noble Lord said: I note that we are all in a hurry this evening. Amendment No. 46 requires the Secretary of State to consult local government representatives and appropriate people so that the consultation is open and wide.

Clause 5 states that,

    "If the Secretary of State thinks that an enactment ... prevents or obstructs local authorities from exercising their power ... he may by order"--

here we enter once again into the business of ministerial orders--

    "amend, repeal or revoke that enactment".

The amendment simply requires the Secretary of State to consult with representatives of local government. Proper consultation is a two-way stream of information, and that is always helpful. It is very useful if local government is able to make a contribution before the Secretary of State begins exercising his power.

If we have joined-up government, we must recognise the reality that local government is a part of government. Whatever the politics of the situation,

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local government is in many ways the executive arm of government at local level. That has long been the situation. The amendment would strengthen the ability of the Secretary of State in making these regulations.

The amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 54. The Secretary of State is enabled to consult people who "appear to him to be likely" to be able to make a contribution. But such phrases as "appear to him to be likely" would seem to make the question of consultation optional. We do not believe that consultation should be optional: the Secretary of State should be obliged to consult. That being so, we have tabled Amendment No. 54. These proposals are in the interest of good governance.

Whether the Minister is prepared to accept the amendments is a moot point. He may assure me that the Government would, as good governments do, always consult and that they do not need telling, just as good local government does not need telling to consult its neighbours, and so on. But the trouble with legislation is that it invites people like myself to think about motivations and about the reasons behind the wording on the face of the Bill, and to think how the content of the Bill might be improved. We believe that both these amendments would strengthen the Bill and that there is therefore a case for the Minister to answer. I have no doubt that he will attempt to explain away my doubts and concerns, and I shall listen with care to his reply. However, we believe that the two amendments would improve the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: I agree that the Secretary of State should consult such representatives of local authorities and such other persons as appear likely to be affected by any of the actions that he takes under the powers in Clause 5. That is why the Government have already made provision for such consultation to take place as part of the detailed scrutiny procedures set out in Clause 8. Clause 8(1) specifically requires the Secretary of State, before bringing forward an order under either this clause or Clause 6, to consult local authorities, local government bodies and any other persons likely to be affected.

We have already debated in the context of earlier clauses the issues raised by the noble Lord's second amendment. I reiterate that we want to ensure that all relevant bodies are consulted on any proposals that are likely to affect them. Clause 8(1) will indeed ensure that that happens, while for practical purposes maintaining a sensible level of discretion for the Secretary of State.

I would add that Amendment No. 54 would have the effect of reducing the range of bodies that the Secretary of State would be required to consult. It would exclude all bodies other than those clearly affected by the proposals; whereas Clause 8(1) goes further, in that it includes also those bodies that are "likely to be affected". That being the case, I am sure

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the noble Lord will agree that his objective is already covered in the Bill and that he will not press the amendments.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am pleased to hear the Minister's explanation, which I shall study with care. If I need to return to the matter, there are two remaining stages of the Bill when I shall have the opportunity to do so. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 47:

    Page 3, line 15, at end insert--

("( ) If local authorities consider that an enactment (whenever passed or made) prevents or obstructs them from exercising their power under section 2(1) they may apply to the Secretary of State for that enactment to be amended, repealed or revoked.").

The noble Lord said: this amendment is slightly different. It is the amendment I referred to earlier and is the reason why I withdrew a previous amendment.

The Bill appears to assume that the initiative is all on one side. However, local authorities have to deal with the consequences of all government legislation. They may well find that a point of existing legislation causes them some difficulties in relation to the operation of Clause 2(1). The purpose of the amendment is to enable authorities in that particular situation to apply to the Secretary of State in order to have the point that causes them difficulty at any rate considered for amendment or repeal.

This is a worthwhile provision. The Minister may say in his response that that is what he intends shall happen. But if it is what he intends shall happen, there is no reason why it should not be on the face of the Bill. If it is not what he intends shall happen, we may see something different.

Amendment No. 47 raises a point which I hope the Minister will consider seriously. If he does not like the wording, he might consider whether some other wording is suitable or whether he would choose to deal with the matter in the huge compendium of regulations that we are not yet in a position to consider.

Amendment No. 53 follows exactly the same line. It seeks to insert a new sub-paragraph, (c), stating that the Secretary of State may act upon the application of, and justification by, a particular authority. Again, from the point of view of local government such a provision would be worth while. It would also be worth while from the point of view of governance generally. Respect for local authorities would be considerably enhanced if it was felt that they were in a position to take the initiative in this way.

These two amendments raise a very serious issue. It would give me the greatest pleasure if the Minister could at least utter some conciliatory words, even if he was unable to accept the wording of this amendment. The Government are immensely wise but not infinitely

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wise. If they were infinitely wise I should not need to table these amendments. While I recognise the general proposition as to the wisdom of government, the principle behind these two amendments is worth serious consideration by the Government. I hope that in his response the Minister can give some encouragement, even if he does not like the precise way we have attempted to deal with the point. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: I accept at least half of the noble Lord's observations about the wisdom of government. The Government intend that something similar to what the noble Lord indicates in the amendment should happen. In no way do we intend this to be a one-way process. We envisage that there will be initiatives within the framework set by local government itself both individually and collectively. The initiatives which already exist in this form--health action zones, the Local Government Association's commitment to regeneration and so forth--are examples of those cases where effectively local authorities already trigger these arrangements or propose that they join. A broad range of authorities, both urban and rural, will be involved in the process, and it is important that we make provision for such authorities to take the initiative. However, as the noble Lord anticipated, I am not convinced that we need to do so in precisely this way or that this is appropriate for the face of the Bill. Nevertheless, I shall consider what the noble Lord has said.

We envisage a rather different procedure whereby more informal arrangements are put in place so that, once the powers are in place, central and local government representatives can assess possible barriers on a regular basis. We have in mind making this matter a regular agenda item at central/local partnership meetings between senior local government people and Ministers. That will give local government collectively a way of looking at these measures. There is nothing in the legislation to prevent local authorities individually or as a group putting forward proposals that the Secretary of State should regulate or alter barriers under the powers in Clauses 5 and 6; indeed, we actively encourage them to do so.

In those circumstances, since there are a number of practical and slightly more informal ways to trigger this mechanism--we do not want to close any avenue--we see no great advantage in legislating in the way that the noble Lord proposes, although we fully accept the objective that he has spelt out.

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