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The Earl of Caithness: I understand what the Minister is saying, but one of the consequences of my amendment would be to allow appeals on matters other than points of law. I know how highly restrictive the process is at present. A great advantage of going to the Lands Tribunal is that, not only is it a cheaper procedure, but it is possible to raise other issues. Broadening that remit would be a consequence of accepting my amendment.

Lord Rooker: My briefing relates to the amendment before us. If there are other issues that do not relate to a point of law, then if the noble Earl would care to drop

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me a note about them, I would be happy to write to him in response. That would be preferable to going through the process of tabling amendments. However, I am afraid that I cannot expand on what I have said.

The Earl of Caithness: I am grateful to the Minister. I shall certainly take up his offer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 81 to 83 agreed to.

Clause 84 [Major precepting authorities: combined fire authorities]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 177:

    Page 44, line 8, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: Clause 83 adds combined fire authorities to the list of major precepting authorities in Section 39(1) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. The constituent authorities that make up a combined fire authority currently contribute to its expenses in proportion to their council tax base. Under the proposed arrangements, a combined fire authority could issue a precept for each financial year to the billing authorities in its area.

The purpose of this amendment is to seek clarification from the Minister as to why CFAs should be treated differently in England and Wales. We would prefer to see equitable powers maintained for England and Wales, along with the equitable treatment of CFAs.

Can the Minister explain why the National Assembly for Wales should be accorded the power to amend primary legislation by adding CFAs in Wales to the list of precepting authorities in Wales? I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: Clause 84 deals with the means by which fire authorities draw their revenue funding. At present, combined fire authorities in both England and Wales are funded by contributions from their constituent local authorities. Under the proposals in Clause 84(1), combined fire authorities in England will become major precepting authorities, which means that they will issue a precept under the financial billing authorities in their area, under Section 40 of the 1992 Act.

The Welsh Assembly consulted on whether the combined fire authorities in Wales should become major precepting authorities in its policy statement entitled Freedom and Responsibility in Local Government, published in March 2002. The view which emerged from the consultation was that the present arrangements in Wales are working satisfactorily, reflecting the differences in local government, which is all-unitary in Wales, and the revenue funding distribution. Therefore, no change should be made.

The enabling power set out in Clause 84(2) would allow the National Assembly for Wales to make an order to add Welsh fire authorities to the list of major precepting bodies, should circumstances change. Clause 84(3) provides that any such order would be

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subject to prior consultation by the National Assembly with representatives of local government interests in Wales.

I hope that the noble Lord is reassured that the provisions of the Bill are in keeping with local views, after consultation in Wales. Given that, we see no reason to vary the outcome of a decision reached in Wales itself.

Lord Hanningfield: I accept the Minister's explanation of the position and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 84 agreed to.

Clauses 85 to 87 agreed.

Clause 88 [Housing strategies and statements]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 178:

    Page 45, line 30, at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (5),"

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 178 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 179. The amendments refer to Part 7 of the Bill dealing with housing finance. I am sure that noble Lords are aware that, at the moment, while local housing strategies are currently prepared by local housing authorities, there is no statutory provision specifically requiring local housing authorities to have such strategies. Clause 87 introduces just such a statutory provision.

I am not sure whether this brings welcome clarity and uniformity or whether it is an overly bureaucratic, overly regulatory, controlling and centralising scheme. Can local housing authorities not be trusted to devise their own housing strategies as they have always done?

Amendments Nos. 178 and 179 do not challenge the fundamentals of this new housing strategy provision. What they do is to require the Government to pay for the cost of devising the strategy. The Minister replied to the same amendment moved in another place by saying that such an amendment,

    "might have been appropriate if we were imposing a new burden on local authorities".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 11/02/03; col. 492.]

He went on to point out that local authorities already have to provide housing strategies and housing revenue account business plans, but that the clause merely made them a statutory requirement.

I have a few problems with the approach of the Minister in another place. This clause may mean that a local housing authority has to reassess its approach to housing strategy. Implementing a statutory strategy as set out in the Bill might well end up imposing a larger burden on local authorities and requiring an overhaul of the current system of dealing with housing. This would mean extra financial burdens in administrative costs.

Our amendments suggest that it would be appropriate for the Government to provide a grant to fund any costs incurred by the changes in housing strategy which these clauses in the Bill introduce. On

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what basis do the Government believe that the proposed new system will be cost neutral? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Amendment No. 179 would require the Secretary of State, or in Wales the National Assembly, to pay a grant to each local housing authority required to have a housing strategy equivalent to the cost of preparing that strategy.

The amendment might have been appropriate if we were imposing a new burden on local authorities. However, housing strategies and housing revenue account business plans are already produced by authorities, although of course they are non-statutory. In Wales, authorities are already being asked by the National Assembly to produce local authority housing stock business plans. The move to place them on a statutory basis simply reflects the importance that the Government attach to them, and the general agreement that robust strategies and business plans are essential to the effective delivery of local authorities' housing responsibilities. Moreover, they have a key role to play in informing and engaging partners and other stakeholders in that process.

Far from placing additional burdens on local authorities, the legislation will give them the flexibility to meet those and other existing statutory duties to produce housing-related plans. Local authorities will be free to rationalise the current plan requirements by addressing them within a single document rather than a series of multiple documents.

With an understanding of how the clause is intended to work and the benefits that it will bring in terms of flexibility, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for that reply. I have a nasty feeling, born of long and bitter experience, that anything that is required by local government eventually becomes extremely expensive. First, guidelines are issued on how something is to be introduced, then guidelines provide for who is to be consulted, how many pages long the report must be and so forth. I am bound to say that I think that this will be far more costly than the strategies and business plans that have had to be produced up to now.

I understand that the Minister does not agree with me. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 178A:

    Page 45, line 36, at end insert—

"( ) The matters specified under subsection (1) shall include home energy reports under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 (c. 10)."

The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment aimed at obtaining assurances from the Minister about the priority that should be given to certain duties of councils to report a variety of strategies to central government. This amendment

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refers to the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995, which applies only to housing authorities. However, I also have concerns about homelessness strategies.

The Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill make it clear that, in future, the local housing strategy document will form the overarching framework within which an authority should consider and formulate other policies on more specific housing issues. The Bill also gives local housing authorities the freedom to include within the local housing strategy some or all of the other material that would otherwise be set out in separate documents. Does that include matters which are duties under the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995? I presume that that includes homelessness strategies, the idea being that a council should produce a single document if it is appropriate to the local circumstances.

Some reassurances on homelessness strategies were given in the debate in another place, but people are concerned that some of the important issues may be subsumed. One area in which I have a particular personal interest is that surrounding the Home Energy Conservation Act. The amount of information under the provisions of that Act which has been obtained from local housing authorities has not been a happy tale. Many authorities have still not reported and we still await information for 2001–02, let alone last year.

I understand that in the summer of 2001 further guidance was going to be produced for authorities to ensure that they fulfilled their duties under the Act. However, I understand that while an advisory committee aided by external experts reported to Defra at the end of 2001, nothing much has transpired. I wonder, therefore, whether the Government have it in mind that this should provide a vehicle to ensure that authorities produce their reports and strategies under the Home Energy Conservation Act. Furthermore, I seek a reassurance from the Minister that the provision will not prevent the Government from pursuing important issues such as energy conservation and homelessness, simply because an overarching strategy will be put in place.

The other question I wish to put to the Minister is this: because this concerns reporting to central government, how does it fit in with the new housing regime, under which duties will be given to the regional assemblies, other regional bodies and, it is hoped, elected regional assemblies? Although the information is to be directed to central information, much of it will be relevant to those regional bodies which will administer the finance on housing matters and make suggestions as regards how it is to be spent. It seems to me that this information could be valuable to those bodies. What mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that information that is sent to central government is then distributed to the interested regional bodies?

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of my queries which arise from what is in reality a probing amendment. I beg to move.

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