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Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, it is encouraging to see that powers to deal with the common agricultural policy are transferred to the Welsh Assembly. I was particularly interested in the Sheep and Goats (Removal to Northern Ireland) Regulations. I wondered whether perhaps the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill had somehow
It was to be expected that the Welsh Assembly would have teething problems, but what it is facing at the moment is raging toothache. We argued long and hard that the Welsh Assembly should have powers of primary legislation, clearly defined, so that it can formulate policy and put it into effect. The problems about which I, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in this House, warned of at length have now come to pass.
There is no devolution of discrete functions within government. The legislative muddle which this order illustrates, I am afraid, derives from the fact that the areas of government responsibility remain divided between Westminster and Cardiff. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, pointed out, it is not good enough that these regulations should be placed before the Assembly for a minute or two of consideration before coming to your Lordships' House for further discussion.
The current crisis in the Welsh Assembly, which comes to a head tomorrow, arises out of the refusal of the Labour Government to let go; to give the Assembly its head in policy matters and to give adequate funds to back it. I give credit to Mr Blair and to Mr Brown for negotiating in Berlin £1.2 billion of European money for Objective 1 funding for the Valleys and West Wales, but it arises out of a recognition that incomes in those areas are less than 75 per cent of the European average. It is our poverty that qualifies us for that support, not our political management. The refusal of Westminster to give assurances of matched funding leaves Wales still at the bottom of the pile.
If the Westminster new Labour Government want their Welsh administration to survive tomorrow, they must come up with new money. If they do not, Europe will keep its cash and devolution will to that extent have failed; it will have suffered a severe blow. Unhappily, Mr Michael's political failure in Wales has been to appear to represent Whitehall in Wales instead of Wales in Whitehall. Wales needs a street fighter who, with the goodwill of the whole Welsh Assembly, will fight Wales's corner with the Treasury. Perhaps that point verges a little way from the theme of the order, but we on these Benches have those thoughts because we are so concerned for the success of devolution in Wales.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the order is a technical measure designed only to correct deficiencies in the devolution settlement as it stands. It does not alter the basic principles. It is extremely important that we recognise the enormity of the task undertaken by officials in identifying the complex areas that needed to be identified as part of the transfer.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, raised the issue of the order removing the requirement for the Assembly to act jointly with MAFF in approving trials of genetically modified crops. That is a purely technical change. MAFF has never taken an active role in decisions in Wales, as the noble Lord is aware. I should stress that it does not change the legal position regarding the Assembly's powers. The noble Lord recognised also that the position with regard to water has been clarified.
The noble Lord asked about the position regarding tax credits. The Assembly has no function regarding taxation or benefits. Its only function under the legislation is to approve childcare powers, in respect of which it may then bring down a tax credit. It is an approval of the mechanism rather than anything else. The noble Lord asked about agency agreements. They were debated in the House under Section 41 of the Government of Wales Act 1998.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, rightly commented that changes were having to be made. I am sure that I do not need to remind him of the size of the order. Compiling it involved painstaking effort by almost every Whitehall department for about 18 months. It is regrettable that the first order was found to contain mistakes, but I am sure that he will agree that the number of occasions in your Lordships' House when we debate the issue of to which Secretary of State a piece of legislation refers makes this quite a difficult task.
The noble Lord referred to the Assembly being allowed only a few moments to consider the draft order. That is rightly a matter for the Assembly to determine and one on which it would be improper for me to comment. The noble Lord referred also to the issue of matched funding to ensure that the people of Wales receive funds that were hard fought for. I assure the noble Lord--I am sure he will agree--that European funding is not attracted to a country without that country's government putting forward the best possible case. We shall not let down the people of Wales. We have given an assurance that funding will be available as necessary from the public sector and as appropriate to meet the areas where it is needed. I would say to him--I am sure noble Lords will agree--that one cannot have a comprehensive spending review if then various parts of it, however likely the outcome, are divulged in advance of the total comprehensive spending review. With those assurances, I hope that noble Lords will feel happy to support the order.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may say how grateful we are to her for her reply to this short debate. But will she look rather carefully at what I said about the agency agreements when they substitute for a proper order? There must be cause
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The debate today is about how we apply best value to town and parish councils. Best value is at the cutting edge of this Government's modernising agenda. It bites particularly on local government and will come into force on 1st April this year. It aims to force up standards of service delivery to those of the best.
Section 1 of the Local Government Act 1999 includes all parish councils within the best value regime, but Section 2 gives the Secretary of State order-making powers to exclude best value authorities from all or part of the best value duty. The Government believe that best value should apply in spirit to all parish councils. It is only right that local people and other stakeholders should be reassured as to the quality and cost-effectiveness of the services provided where public money is involved. However, most parish councils have little capacity to take on the full duty of best value.
At the other end of the parish spectrum there are town councils which are responsible for significant expenditure. Local people would expect such councils to be subject to the duty of best value in some way, and the Government agree. Even then, we recognise that their capacity to take on new tasks is also limited. That raises two questions: the first is where to draw the threshold below which all parish councils will be exempt from the statutory duty; the second is how to vary the duty for those councils above the threshold. The first question is a matter for the order which we are considering today. The second is approached in best value guidance for parish councils, a draft of which was issued for consultation last year.
Perhaps I may start with the threshold. Noble Lords will see from paragraph 2 of the order that this is set at £500,000 with respect to budgeted income in each of the three years preceding the year in question. All parish councils with income below that threshold will be exempt from the duty of best value. The reason we have included the three preceding years in the definition of the threshold is to avoid the situation of a parish council being "in" one year and "out" the next because of, for example, short-term project funding. The effect of this threshold is to bring some 80 parish councils out of a total of some 8,000 within the best value regime.
Perhaps I may turn to the varying of the duty of best value for those parish councils within the best value regime. The Government intend to lighten the duty of those councils. We do not propose to apply national performance indicators to them. However, we would expect them to set their own suite of local performance indicators reflecting local priorities.
Parish councils are already close to the people they serve, and we do not see any particular difficulties in parishes managing the new duty to consult. We believe it is right for best value parish councils to review their functions over a five-year cycle. Such reviews are key to making a real difference to service delivery.
We also believe it right that a best value parish council should produce a performance plan and that the plan should be subject to audit. That does not have to be a large document--rather, just a few pages--but sufficient to let local people know about future plans and past performance.
I now turn to costs. The costs of any inspection will be borne by the Audit Commission from funds made available by the DETR. There will be a cost for the audit of the performance plan. But there will be a subsidy for a proportion of the audit costs. In the end, these costs approximate to less than 50p on average on the tax bill for each household.
The Government believe in the importance of parishes. They add value to local democracy, and they have particular strengths in local service delivery. Indeed, this Government have created 60 new parishes since their election.
Some parish councils are well into best value. For example, Dunstable produced its first performance plan last year. Burgess Hill runs a one-stop shop to be envied--a shop which brings in its key partners and which shows best value principles in action. There are also parish councils below the threshold which are taking on elements of the best value regime: for example, Hertford, Bishops Stortford and Yeovil. Such councils want to demonstrate that they are effective performers.
That is what it is all about. Best value is an opportunity for parishes to show what they can do: to become more a part of mainstream local government and to make good partners. I hope that all parishes will begin to see best value in that light.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th January be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)
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