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Lord Rooker: Well, the short answer to the last question of the noble Baroness is that they do not. With all due respect, as neither regional chambers nor elected regional assemblies are defined as local authorities under Clause 35 or listed there, the amendment is unnecessary and irrelevant. I shall not debate regional assemblies under the Bill because they are not part of it.

Baroness Hanham: I have not tempted the Minister. I am sad about that, because I thought that we might get some more information. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 35 agreed to.

Clause 36 [Best value grant: parishes]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 97A:

"( ) charter trustees subject to any of those duties."

The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment, as are all our amendments today.

A form of local government which is not apparently covered by either Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 is charter trustees—of whom there are very few, but who are very proud of their status. My amendment seeks to include them in the Bill. The answer may be that none of them has the duties referred to which would attract the grant. I should be grateful for an explanation as to why they are not included. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness has answered her own question. The amendment would add charter trustees to the Bill, and the purpose of Clause 36 is to enable grants to be paid. The amendment is not workable simply because charter trustees are not among the authorities subject to any of the best value duties set up under the Local Government Act 1999. So from our perspective it is entirely illogical—it makes no sense at all—to have a power to pay them.

My understanding is that charter trustees in general are bodies that have continuing responsibility for abolished local authorities. If that is the case, I cannot see much point in their having a best value regime. We should be giving counties such as Berkshire best value duties when Berkshire is there merely for ceremonial purposes.

Baroness Hamwee: That response is very helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 97B:

    Page 16, line 24, leave out subsections (4) and (5).

10 Jun 2003 : Column GC86

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 100A is grouped with this amendment.

I tabled these amendments in order to be consistent with my amendment to Clause 31. If the Minister simply wants to say that the answer is the same in this case, I shall be quite content. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The amendment is not relevant. It would place central government in an odd position. We should be powerless to withhold the payment of grant to any best value parish in certain circumstances, particularly if an authority failed to carry out the best value duties for which the grant is payable. That makes the proposition in the amendment not a very sensible one. It would not be a sensible use of public money. I cannot see that the amendment is at all valuable. I should have thought that it was not worth pressing.

Baroness Hamwee: I am not sure whether there is sufficient answer to the question that I asked. I am not sure whether a proposal can be both irrelevant and not sensible at the same time. It is certainly relevant. In answer to my question whether the reason is the same as under Clause 31, the answer is probably "yes". I shall take it as that, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 97C:

    Page 16, line 33, leave out ", during or after" and insert "or during"

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 100B is grouped with this one.

This is a probing amendment. I seek to change the provision which allows a determination about a grant to be made during or after the end of a financial year to one allowing it to be made only during that financial year. I do so in order to seek an assurance that this is not to allow for the retrospective application of conditions, or rather, retrospective only when the grant itself is retrospective.

Earlier this afternoon we discussed briefly the monitoring of outcomes. I have said that I understand that entirely, but it would be unfortunate if the Secretary were to decide, after having paid over moneys, that conditions ought to have been attached. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This amendment seeks to remove the power for the initial determination that sets up the amounts payable, and any subsequent determination, to be made after the financial year to which the payment relates.

Amendment No. 100B relates to Clause 37 which provides for the grant to be paid to Welsh community councils taking part in the Wales programme of improvement, forming, I understand, part of the Welsh variant of best value. Both amendments would remove from the respective clauses the power for initial determinations and any subsequent determinations to be made after the financial year to which the payment relates.

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It is hoped that the grants would be administered efficiently and promptly. However, circumstances could arise where the amounts payable could not be finalised until the year to which they relate has ended. This may arise, for example, if technical difficulties are encountered when establishing whether a particular parish or community council has a budgeted income that exceeds the required threshold. The amendments would make it impossible for any changes to be made to the amounts payable once the financial year to which they relate has ended, thus making it possible that some parishes or community councils would end up receiving less grant than otherwise they would be entitled to receive.

I see where the noble Baroness is coming from, but the clause provides an element of security to ensure that, because of technical difficulties that might arise during the budgeting process, the situation can be put right when the amounts payable are finalised for the year in which they are payable.

Baroness Hamwee: Can the Minister respond to the specific concern that, a grant having been made, this provision would make it possible for the Secretary of State subsequently to impose conditions? I hope that he will be able to respond by saying that that is not the case. I do not think it is, but I want to be clear about it. Having raised the matter, I should ensure that the answer is put on the record.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can say on the record that that is not the intention behind what we are seeking to achieve in the clause.

Baroness Hamwee: I am not sure whether that answers the technical question as to whether the possibility remains. Is that something that could be considered after our Committee proceedings today, so that we can be quite clear about it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am happy to try further to clarify the point because I can see the suspicions which engendered the amendment. Let me put it like this: it is certainly not our intention that the clause should operate in that way. Yes, we shall think further on the issues which have been raised.

Baroness Hamwee: I am grateful for that response. If we can see this finally done and dusted after our discussions, then I am happy to say that I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 98:

    Page 16, line 35, leave out paragraph (c).

The noble Lord said: We welcome the Government's intention under Clause 36 to reward good performance in parish councils. We support awarding grants to enable councils to meet requirements of best value status, once it has been attained. We might even be prepared to support a power to grant-aid parish councils. I would certainly be interested in the Minister's views on that.

10 Jun 2003 : Column GC88

Our aim in the amendment is simply to remove the Secretary of State's power to revoke or vary a grant to a best value parish council within a single financial year. This will be accompanied by amendments which aim to ensure that any grant paid to a best value parish council or best value community council is transparent and debated before Parliament.

In Essex County Council, we feel it is vital that we support the work of parish councils to deliver quality services to our local communities. Parish councils are highly valued by the people in our county and their work is fundamental in many of the service areas most visible to the public.

This amendment would ensure that parish councils can plan for a full financial year without the threat of an unexpected change in funding from the Government. That is essential if resources are to be managed effectively to deliver quality services.

I accept there may well be a need to modify grants and, in some instances, to withdraw them. Nevertheless, as the Bill stands, there is no safeguard for ensuring that grants are not promised and then withdrawn at short notice or without transparency.

The Government are trying to support parish councils as a fundamental tier of local democracy, and attempting to fulfil their promise to allow local authorities of all kinds increased freedom to manage their resources more effectively. A reliable income stream is therefore fundamental to achieving this aim, particularly for small authorities like parish and community councils.

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