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Lord Whitty: The noble Lord may consider that this is not democratic, but it is normal. This may not be the best argument in the world, but it is the usual way in which we pass Bills in this House, unless we are creating an entirely new offence. This is not an entirely new offence; it is failure to provide information required by the authorities, which has many precedents. Alternatively, it is fraud which is a criminal offence for which there are precedents. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, may find it offensive or inadequate, but it is the normal way that we present Bills to this House, most of which are passed without this degree of scrutiny and objection. That may be wrong, but it is normal.
We shall consider what we can do for later stages, but the overall picture is that we are dealing with this roughly, approximately and proportionately in line with the way in which we deal with matters under other regimes.
Lord Hanningfield: We have had an interesting discussion which went further than the amendments that I originally put down. We wanted the Minister to acknowledge that in the Bill there are some real costs to local authorities, but no provisions appear to have been made. We do not seem to have that acknowledgement. We were told that we have had good settlements, but there are real costs in implementing the Bill, which will come later. Therefore, I hope that the Government will give further thought to the issue. The debate has shown that that is needed. No doubt we shall discuss it further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The amendments have two purposes. The first is to try to elicit from the Minister some explanation of what offence he thinks could be created in the trading of these allowances which would justify the penalty of five years' imprisonment, possibly with a fine. That is a very heavy sentence, which one would expect for major fraud or something of that nature. However, that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about responsible local authorities and individuals within them who, generally speaking, are law-abiding and do their best to serve their community. I find it odd that we push this as far as on conviction, on indictment, up to five years in jail.
That gives rise to a separate issue that has nothing to do with the Bill. Prisons are overcrowded already and here we are creating yet another offence which we are not certain about and which is not specified, because we are back on this wretched business of flying blind as it is all to come in regulations. By creating yet another offence, we are creating even more prisoners to put into a system that cannot carry the ones that it has already. That will probably result in honest people being turned into criminals as a matter of custom and habit. Although they have committed an offence, they will almost certainly not be habitual criminals when they go to prison. There is too much experience that shows that many people who are put in prison and exposed for a long time to a permanent criminal environment become infected with what you might call an incurable disease.
The amendments are directed at two issues. One is to try to explore what there is in here to create an offence of such severity that it would warrant that particular form of punishment. Then there is the subsidiary issue of whether we really want to send people who have done this to prison when we cannot handle the prisoners we already have. That is a serious point that warrants some serious consideration. We shall probably need to return to it, but I look forward to what other Members and the Minister have to say. I beg to move.
Lord Hanningfield: I support these amendments. Whom does the Minister expect to go to prison? In local government circles this five-year prison sentence has made the Bill a bit of a joke. Who will go to prison from the local authority? Is it the leader? Or the chief executive? I suspect that that is not meant at all and it is meant to be someone who is trading criminally in this area. Perhaps the Minister might explain whom he expects to get these penalties, when everyone is trying to make certain we comply and do something about minimising waste and minimising landfill. I repeat, the provision has made the Bill a bit of a joke in a lot of circles. Is this the beginning of a new trend in legislation, under which we will all be sent to prison if we do not comply with the Government's ideas in local government? Perhaps it is a way of sorting out the future of local government.
Lord Whitty: I hasten to assure the noble Lord, the Leader of Essex County Council, that this is not a new relationship with local government. Nor is it really a threat to our prison populations. We are dealing with the regrettable fact that occasionally there is fraud in some aspects of local authority performance. The provision is for people who recklessly and knowingly provide false information in order to rig the market, in effect. That needs some fairly substantial penalties. The offences under these clauses involve that kind of fraud or near fraud. Operating as a broker in the market without a licence or in breach of a licence are the kind of offences we are talking about. We are not talking about inadvertently late or inaccurate information; we are talking about deliberate fraud.
I said earlier that when we came to this group of offences I would have some slight comfort for noble Lords who may be concerned about this, because the Delegated Powers Committee felt that the maximum penalties here were probably too draconian, important though the potential offences were. In further correspondence with the Delegated Powers
I am not sure that this will entirely please my noble friend Lord Stoddart, but the Delegated Powers Committee has said that it would find the delegation to create offences acceptable if the levels for those offences I have just read out are those that would be applied under other equivalent legislation that was effectively a transposition of European directives. The Delegated Powers Committee accepts that that would be an appropriate maximum level of offences for these purposes as well. In that sense I am at least in part accepting the intent of these amendments. I am not deleting imprisonment entirely, but restricting the penalty that could be applied for these offences. In that spirit I hope the noble Lord will not pursue these amendments as such, although we will return to this on Report with the Government's suggestions.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Can I clarify what this means, because it is not entirely clear? Perhaps the Minister would expand on that a little.
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