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House of Lords

Tuesday, 20 December 2005.

The House met at eleven of the clock: the CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.

Planning Regulations

Baroness Scott of Needham Market asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, like all government departments, is committed to carrying out a full public consultation on proposed new policies and regulations, as outlined in the code of practice on consultation published by the Cabinet Office. The code was revised in 2004 and at present there are no plans to amend it.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Is he aware of a recent consultation carried out by the ODPM on antennae, in which overwhelming support was received for one option which the Government later said was not technically feasible? Can he explain why the Government went out to consultation and put forward an option that was not feasible in the first place? Does he not agree that that is the sort of cavalier attitude to consultation that brings the whole process into disrepute?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a fair point about consultation, but there are mitigating circumstances, which I shall endeavour to explain to your Lordships' House. I hope to get a warm and reasonable response in the circumstances, it being close to Christmas.

The no-change option—option 1—received 96 responses in support, which was 29 per cent of the total, while the limited change option—option 2—received 88 responses in support, which was 27 per cent. So we are talking about a 2 per cent difference. The department took the reasonable view that, under the circumstances, as it simply could not do option 1, it was not unreasonable to move to option 2. In formulating the final policy, it took reasonable account of the significant proportion of respondents who did not want change at all.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us feel still that there is room for a lot of improvement in planning consultations in the sense that they take far too long? Many planning
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decisions take 12 months before we know exactly where we are going after we submit an application. Could those applications not be sped up?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister takes this subject extremely seriously. For that reason, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 was amended to improve consultation. Local authorities now have to make a statement of "community involvement" in the local development framework. We take the issue very seriously. Having been the leader of a council, I certainly understand the frustrations that local residents have experienced with the planning process. The Deputy Prime Minister is well seized of that issue too.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, the time that planning applications take has just been referred to. Will the Minister comment on the desperate shortage of planners in local authorities? Local authorities cannot recruit them; it is very difficult indeed. The problem was compounded by the press reports a fortnight or so ago, before the Chancellor's pre-Budget speech, that there might be further planning legislation. Can the Minister confirm or deny that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it would not be right for me to speculate about future legislative programmes. On the noble Lord's first point, there have historically been shortages of planning officers. With his background in local government, perhaps the noble Lord would agree, however, that the planning process has improved and speeded up in the past three years. The period between applications being submitted and their consideration is shorter. That is an impressive feature of how local government has improved.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, does that apply to wind turbine applications? The delay in putting up wind turbines is a constant problem, which must affect the Government's programme on the environment. There is also a delay in putting up broadband masts in the hill and upland areas of the countryside. If those areas are to develop, they require access to broadband.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this is one of those areas where it is probably fairest to say that there is a balance to be struck. Clearly, many residents object to wind turbines and masts being erected in areas of outstanding natural beauty and attractive landscapes. Equally, we need to develop sustainable energy policies and give life to them. On balance, we probably get it about right, but I can understand some of the frustrations that people experience.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the draft guidance on the housing needs assessments for Gypsies and Travellers has been out for consultation for many months, and that the process of
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determining the needs of Gypsies and Travellers, and thus the implementation of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, is being held up?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am aware that a detailed consultation is being conducted. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the way in which he pursues this issue. I think that, like me, he would like to see progress made on it, but it is a policy area where we have to tread very delicately around the various issues, because it is quite complex.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, while declaring my interest as a landlord, I warmly welcome the news from the Minister of the acceleration in the planning process in the light of my experience of meeting homeless families who are living in temporary accommodation. We are all worried about the 100,000 families or more now in such accommodation. I warmly welcome his news on that basis.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am always grateful to receive warm welcomes. It is a very pleasant experience in your Lordships' House.

Benefit Payments: Fraud and Error

11.11 am

Viscount Ullswater asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government welcome the National Audit Office report. We are making progress in the fight against benefit fraud, but we are not complacent. There is more to be done to continue to drive fraud and error out of the system.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but is it not a fact, as this report makes clear, that the gradual introduction of new benefits and the constant flow of changes have created a tangle of fiendish complexity? When will the Chancellor learn that benefits should be easy to understand, apply for and administer so that this scandalous amount of money lost through fraud and error can be properly allocated to those who are in genuine need?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the aim should always be to reduce complexity, and that is the Government's aim, but there is always a balance between responding to the needs of individual clients and customers and administrative simplicity. Of course we are committed to reducing complexity. We have reduced the number of forms, and we are reducing the number of information leaflets for our
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customers. The introduction of contact centres means that many clients can actually process forms over the phone, helped by members of staff from my department. Progress is being made, but there is still some way to go.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that this report is in some senses disappointing? It points out that complexity can indeed ensure and facilitate serious fraud, but on the other hand it says that simplicity may not be possible or desirable. As far as I can see—and perhaps he can reassure us—the only recommendation is that complexity on a regular basis should be studied. I assume the department is doing that.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we always keep these matters under review, and will continue to do so. To be fair, although it is not for me to defend the National Audit Office, it seems to me that it has come to a pretty reasonable view. As I have already stated: yes, we want to reduce complexity, but doing so means you then have hard and fast rules that many clients will consider to be unfair. Over the years the rules are changed to make them more sensitive. As you do that, however, they become more complex, and there are then issues for staff in administering those schemes. This matter will continue to be addressed. We will do what we can to reduce complexity, but we also have to ensure that the benefit rules are fair as well.

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