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Lord Redesdale: I rise to support these eminently sensible amendments, which have severe implications in terms of the costs to local authorities of implementing the Bill. We support the amendments in particular becausethis was raised earlierthe licence will be financed by a cost-recovery system. As I understand it, if the system for imposing the licence is extremely expensive, that will make personal licences
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I am glad that my noble friend drew attention in Amendment No. 126 to Clause 8(2). We have over many years got used to central governments treating local authorities with increasing contempt. Is it really necessary for Ministers or Secretaries of State to spend their time directing local authorities not merely to keep a register but how and where to do so? It really does seem absurd. Not all local authorities are as moronic as central government seem to believe. One of the reasons why people get fed up with and withdraw from local government is because they are not given any responsibility.
I am not making a party point; there was a time when I complained about the way in which some of my noble friends made a habit of filleting local government. Here is another Government telling local authorities how to blow their noses or, if they are to have a dog, to keep it in a kennel. It should not be necessary to give such minute directions as are apparently contemplated to sensible and capable authorities. If I have missed an explanation for this subsection I would be interested to hear it.
Lord Avebury: I hesitate to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, because he knows so much about these matters. However, there is an argument for proposing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has in one of her amendments, that if the registers were kept in a form accessible via the Internet it would be much easier for people to find them. If people have to go to the local authority offices where the register is held, they will have to find out first which office it is and who they will have to ask to obtain the information. If the registers are in a prescribed form on the Internet, everyone will know how to access them and it will not make any difference whether they live in Durham or Bodmin; the way of obtaining information via the Internet will be identical.
So there is something to be said for the noble Baroness's suggestion in Amendment No. 128 that the Secretary of State should, under subsection (6), arrange for the duties to be discharged by having one or more central registers common to all local authorities in terms of method of access even though the information may be collected by individual local authorities in whatever way they choose. The information must be the same so that it can be fitted into the software to enable anyone to have access to it.
Amendment No. 128 is inconsistent with Amendment No. 126 seeking to leave out subsection (2), because prescription will be required if the Secretary of State is to ensure that the data are harmonised and presented in a single medium on the web.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for presenting an argument that substantially accords with that I intended to propose on how prescriptive one needs to be to local authorities. We share the view that a national register would be desirable. It would provide ready access to the information, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, indicated. It would assist in ensuring conformity across the country and it has many obvious advantages.
Our problem is how to get from here to there. We are rightly wary of suggesting that we should prescribe that the Secretary of State creates a national register before the legislation can be implemented, given the difficulties that we know exist with regard to compiling an extensive database of such complexity across the country. We propose working towards the national register by building it up over a period of time. That is why it is right that local authorities should have the primary obligation as the licensing authority to collect the data. However, a minimum of prescription is needed, not to tell local authorities how to blow their noses, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said, but to ensure that they record the information in such a way that we can build up the national register from local achievements.
The prescription is merely to seek a standardisation in the form. Our local authority colleagues share that aspiration. There are trials taking place among a group of local authorities of licensing online, a prototype integrated licensing system under the aegis of the Local Government Association, using funds from the Invest to Save budget. We hope that this work will be a pointer to obtaining the information in a manageableand, cruciallypublicly accessible form so that the register can fulfil the role defined for it.
That is the basis on which we say that to demand a central register at the moment the legislation receives Royal Assent and is implemented is asking too much, but we will work towards that objective against a background where the local authorities will enjoy, as the licensing authority, the responsibility for developing the information in such a form that would guarantee that it can be included in the national register in due course. Therefore I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Lord Skelmersdale: Before the Minister replies, the contiguous point is that since magistrates' courts are already the licensing authority, I presume that they have registers which they could pass across to local authorities, which would speed the process up no end.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful for that helpful suggestion. We are clearly not starting from the year dot with the legislation, but are seeking to develop a new licensing system on the basis of the information already obtained. We have much further to go under the Bill's provisions for more extensive information. I return to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about access to such information; that is why we are seeking for it to develop in such a form.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about costs. We are seeking to ensure that there are not additional costs to local authorities. We have said that the costs involved in operating the licensing system will be met by the fees levied. That will take into account the development of the register. There is no intrinsic reason why a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering properly applied should be more costly than a rudimentary system, which can be costly for local administration because it does not use the information technology available. The point of the central position is to seek to give guidance on how local authorities can most economically and effectively be involved in the development of the information. The issue of costs ought not to be irksome to the local authorities.
We are seeking to avoid a situation where the local authority has to work out almost from first principles every detail of the information that they need to garner. We are seeking to give them clear guidance from the centre on that which is required, consistent with the requirement of the legislation, in order to ease the burden on local authorities so that each one of them is not involved in a fresh exercise. That is why I made reference in my earlier remarks to the fact that activities are taking place already among a group of local authorities to see how the information can be garnered and integrated in order to keep costs to the absolute minimum.
Lord Avebury: There is a point which needs to be clarified. Will the Secretary of State be responsible for the development of the software, the database and the access software, or will there be a consortium of local authorities? If that is so, how is that consortium to come together? For example, it is not a matter which the LGA would normally have undertaken. However,
Lord Davies of Oldham: No. I can respond to the noble Lord by now giving some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that we are not expecting that the Secretary of State will set out a series of stipulations, particularly as regards the most cost-effective measures, and impose that on local authorities, assuming that the Secretary of State was so all-knowing as to be able to carry out that activity. Here is an issue on which it is quite clear that in the first instance local authorities will take responsibility as the licensing authorities. Very intelligently, they are already setting up processes. A group of local authorities is coming together for a pilot study on the way in which they could most effectively develop a system for the collation of this information.
The Secretary of State will inevitably act benignly in support of systems which prove to be effective. The local authorities will take responsibility for this. It will not be the first time that local authorities have taken responsibility for developing systems which are common to a number of them, or even all of them, rather than being dictated to by Whitehall.
I have tried to reassure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State will have a very clear interest in seeking to reassure himself that the information, and the way in which it is garnered, does not create such terrible inconsistencies between local authority approaches to this matter as to completely inhibit the eventual development of the national register to whose value he has already attested.
Amendment No. 124 would require the licensing register to record personal contact details as may be required by the Secretary of State. The Bill, as drafted, contains the power for the Secretary of State to prescribe matters other than those on the face of the Bill, which must be kept on the licensing register. These matters may well include the kind of information suggested by the amendment. I am not hostile to the intent of the amendment, but merely indicate that Amendment No. 124 may not be necessary. I do not believe that there has been a clash of significant principle in the Committee on the register. I hope that I have given assurances that enable noble Lords to withdraw the amendment.
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