Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 19:

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, on an earlier amendment, the Minister accused me of trying to be prescriptive and said that the Government were not prescriptive. In Clause 19, the Government are being prescriptive—perhaps over-prescriptive. It gives the Secretary of State additional powers to demand information from local authorities. My amendment would strengthen the principle that any information demanded by the national authority should be only what could be obtained reasonably and at reasonable cost.

The amendments also make it clear that the reasonableness principle should apply equally where more than one authority has been issued with a direction. Clause 19(3) would allow the Secretary of State to require all authorities to provide some information at short notice, and there would be administrative and financial costs. There must be good reason for demanding that information, and it is not stated or clear as the clause is written. I hope that the Minister will think my amendment entirely reasonable, because this time it is the Government who are being over-prescriptive. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, when we were dealing with Amendment No. 12, I said that we had deliberately not been prescriptive about the way in which a local authority should carry out its network management duty. I did not say that the Government would not be prescriptive; I did not use the word in its absolute terms. Hansard will confirm that I used "prescriptive" and then heavily qualified it to local authority and management duty.
 
29 Jun 2004 : Column 165
 

The clause provides the ability to gain supplementary information without having to use the more formal intervention notice process. During the Bill's progress through Parliament, the Government have made it clear that we will not be looking to use the clause as the main way of gathering monitoring and evaluation information from local authorities. We will look to embed that process so far as possible within existing processes, such as the local transport plans. I am more than happy to repeat those assurances.

With that in mind, I will aim to demonstrate to the noble Viscount that his amendment is not necessary. Proposed new subsection (3B) requires a statement accompanying any request. That addresses issues of good governance, but those are not for the Bill. I cannot think of a circumstance where any request for information would not be accompanied by an explanation of why. If he would like reassurance that that would be the case, I am happy to give it.

The question of cost gets to the heart of the test of reasonableness. Either the request is reasonable or it is not. If an authority feels that the test has not been met, I would expect it to draw it to the attention of the appropriate national authority. No additional statement would be needed to ensure that that happened. The Bill in its entirety is subject to a regulatory impact assessment, as is only right and proper. However, that becomes disproportionate when extended to the exercising of individual provisions such as this.

Proposed new subsection (3A) looks to link the test of reasonableness to the specified period for a response and reflect the fact that a direction could be given to more than one authority. Clause 19(1) introduces the concept of a specified period for a response, and Clause 19(2) states that the information must be that which would be in an authority's possession, or that it could be reasonably expected to acquire. It is implicit that it would be for the appropriate national authority to request information that an authority could be expected to acquire within the specified period.

The addition of "authorities" is also unnecessary as that is implicit through the drafting of Clause 19(3), which allows the order to be given to more than one authority. I hope that the noble Viscount finds my explanation satisfactory and feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the Minister has gone some way to reassure me. I shall have to study his response with care and consider whether it is satisfactory. However, I am grateful certainly for the spirit behind his response. The devil is always in the detail, and we will have to look carefully at that. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 20 not moved.]

Clause 20 [Intervention notices]:

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 21:


 
29 Jun 2004 : Column 166
 

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 21, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 22 to 31. Those amendments would leave out Clauses 20 to 30. On this group, the Government and I have a difference of principle. It is not a difference about how the Bill will work or its technical details, but a major difference. The clauses give the Secretary of State the power to intervene in local government in a way that no Secretary of State can intervene in any other area. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who has much more experience of local government than I, may develop that point.

The Secretary of State will have the power to appoint a person or persons—it could be rather a lot of people—to be traffic directors. They will be appointed because the department and the Secretary of State consider that a local authority is not doing its job in traffic management. However, as we heard in Committee, we will not know the basis on which the decision is arrived at. There will be no criteria, so we will not know why the Secretary of State will decide that one local authority is managing and that another is not.

Some local authorities have agreements with others on traffic management. If one is intervened on, does that mean that the other takes over? We also heard in Grand Committee that there was no estimation of the cost, how many people might be involved, how long the appointment would last, under what criteria they would operate, or when the Secretary of State would consider that a traffic director had succeeded. The powers are the most interventionist that central government have ever produced in the area.

The power is extraordinary; I do not know how the Minister's department got away with it. I do not understand how it ever got it past the Deputy Prime Minister's department, which believes in local democracy, referendums and regional assemblies. If a local authority is failing that badly, the local electorate will throw it out. It will be obvious; the Secretary of State will not need to intervene, because the electors will. That is local democracy. The clauses are undemocratic. They take away power solely on the Secretary of State's judgment and give it to him. So far as I can see, he does not have to prove why an authority is failing. The Minister might say that an authority could take the Secretary of State to judicial review, but we all know the cost of that and the time that it takes; by that stage it would be far too late.

I looked very carefully to see whether we could table any amendments to the clauses that would make them more palatable. We could have tabled a raft of amendments, but they would not have made the clauses any better. The principle is wrong. It is undemocratic and interventionist, and will not produce better traffic management. The only thing that we can do is to take out this part of the Bill. It does not work. I do not know who dreamt it up, but I find it staggering that the party that the Minister represents could come forward with it. It seems against every principle that his party has ever enunciated when it comes to dealing with local government.
 
29 Jun 2004 : Column 167
 

I hope that noble Lords will support me because I have been unconvinced so far by the Minister's responses to all the amendments we have tabled to this part of the Bill. I shall listen with care, as I always do, to what the noble Lord, Lord Davies, says but he will have to produce a much better argument than he managed to produce last time. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I wish to offer the support of these Benches for this group of amendments. I shall be brief, not because they are not important, but because, as the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said, they are matters of principle. No amount of fiddling around with the detail of the Bill will get around that. Two fundamental points of principle are at stake. The first is whether it is right for any government to pass legislation that allows intervention into the work of local authorities in circumstances that are unspecified on the face of the Bill. That would be fundamentally wrong.

The second point of principle is that of intervention. Not only will we not know fully when the Bill is passed under which circumstances a traffic manager will be imposed on a local authority, but such a person will be accountable to no one in the local community. They will be able to effect policies that will affect the lives of many people living in an area. Those people will not know who that person was, they will not have voted for that person and the wishes of the democratically elected local authority will be over-ridden. That will be a step too far for almost anyone.

The proposals are also impractical. I need to declare two interests. I am a local councillor and chair of the Local Government Association's transport executive. I am also a member of the board of the Audit Commission which has a raft of inspection and regulatory powers over local authorities. It would be almost inconceivable to imagine a local authority that could undergo Audit Commission tests and not have any major failings picked up at that stage. This group of clauses is unnecessary and, sadly, seems to have been inserted as a knee-jerk reaction to Daily Mail-type stories about local authorities that do not know how to manage the traffic.

It would be a shame if we were to move to that type of centrist intervention in the work of local authorities just to satisfy ill-informed, vocal minorities made up of only a few people.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page