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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but it has just occurred to me that one of the issues for the ministerial steering group is working alongside organisations that are trying to work with their members in order to make sure that they are not settling claims when they should be taking a stand. I wonder whether, through the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I could suggest to the Historic Houses Association that it gets in contact with us because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is sitting on my ministerial group, and it would be very interested, as would I, in looking at the issues that the Historic Houses Association has in order to see whether there is any way in which we can support it.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: Yes, of course, and I shall suggest to Nick Way, Director General of the Historic Houses Association that he gets in touch with the Minister. It echoes the plea of my noble friend Lord Lucas: that there must be a way of guiding judges and giving them an indication which would make their decisions more certain. At least there would be a generally accepted background to their decisions.

On drink and drugs, the amendment would send a clear signal from the Committee and the House. I am concerned about the position on the run-up to Christmas. I read in the newspaper that one-third of motorists admit to drink driving and that one in six is likely to drive over the limit this Christmas. Having
 
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played a part in ministerial campaigns, I welcome the way in which the Government are seeking to get the message across. However, motoring groups say that the figures show that government anti-drink/drive campaigns are not working, particularly when two-thirds of motorists say that they are fine to drive even though they are over the legal limit. A total of 590 people died last year in drink-related accidents, the highest number since 1992. It is therefore a rising problem.

We have had an interesting and helpful debate and I hope that the Minister will reflect on several points raised. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hunt of Wirral moved Amendment No. 19:


"PUBLIC AUTHORITIES
(1) The following principles apply in determining whether a public or other authority has taken appropriate steps to meet the standard of care—
(a) the functions required to be exercised by the authority are limited by the financial and other resources that are reasonably available to the authority for the purpose of exercising those functions,
(b) the general allocation of those resources by the authority is not open to challenge,
(c) the functions required to be exercised by the authority are to be determined by reference to the broad range of its activities (and not merely by reference to the claim in negligence being considered by the court),
(d) the authority may rely on evidence of its compliance with the general procedures and applicable standards for the exercise of its functions as evidence of the proper exercise of its functions in the claim being considered by the court.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), this section extends to any liability of the authority for breach of statutory duty.
(3) This section shall not apply to claims by an employee against an employer arising out of the course of his employment.
(4) For the purpose of this section, "public or other authority" includes—
(a) the Crown,
(b) Government departments,
(c) NHS bodies,
(d) local councils,
(e) any public or local authority constituted by or under an Act, or
(f) any person having public official functions or acting in a public official capacity (whether or not employed as a public official), but only in relation to the exercise of the person's public official functions."

The noble Lord said: This, too, is modelled on a New South Wales provision, allowing the courts to take into account the financial and resource constraints on public authorities when considering whether steps should be taken. The particular reason for introducing this amendment is to highlight for the Committee the background of public authorities being forced to spend substantial amounts on fighting claims—money that would be far better spent on improving front-line facilities and services. They are
 
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much more desirable activities, if I may say so. I hope that Hansard will record that there was laughter from the Minister then.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: It is a great phrase.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: There is no provision in the Bill which addresses that point. Ministers are rightly encouraging public bodies, as the Minister just said, to contest frivolous claims rather than settling them in a search for the quiet life. But even that policy, in the short-term at least, inevitably has significant costs attached.

In an earlier debate, I mentioned the Better Regulation Task Force report published in May last year, Better Routes to Redress. It included on page 6 the following point:

That observation reminds us of the need for the amendment.

Amendment No. 19 sets out:

The first point is that they are limited by the financial and other resources that are reasonably available. There are a number of other provisions.

In subsection (2) of the amendment, I have sought to extend the provisions to breach of statutory duty, which is essential in the context of public authorities.

Subsection (3) makes it clear that:

In effect, that excludes the application of this section to employer's liability claims. This is very much the view of the insurers of public authorities and of the authorities themselves. They have neither wanted to be, nor have they ever been, seen as second-class places of employment. That issue goes wider than simply public authorities, but we consider it best raised in this context. The proposed clause is deliberately not restricted to injury claims and would cover the range of unusual claims brought against public authorities for facilities and services offered at the public expense.

Referring back to Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council and to the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, he made it clear that he did not regard financial cost as a significant item in the balancing exercise which the court has to undertake. At the time he was not aware of the Minister's seesaw, rather he was referring to a similar situation. He continued by saying:


 
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I hope that the Minister will understand the reason for bringing forward this amendment. It gives us an opportunity briefly to reflect on the very substantial costs involved in frivolous and vexatious claims. I do not believe that the Bill as drafted will enable such claims to be repudiated more easily. We have to find a way to ensure that the burden on local authorities in particular and public authorities in general can be lifted. This amendment is one way of producing a situation which I believe is sorely needed at a time when public expenditure constraints dictate to local authorities the difficulty of maintaining a balance. I beg to move.

The Earl of Erroll: I am not in favour of singling out public authorities for special treatment. This would also apply to private bodies such as schools and to the Historic Houses Association, which represents the owners of historic houses that are open to the public. I do not have one, so it does not concern me. However, the general point is valid. The private purse is no more unlimited than the public purse. If anything, the public purse can often levy higher taxes to make up the shortfall. A private organisation cannot do that, it just goes bankrupt. I do not see why this provision should be limited to public authorities. It should apply to all. Everyone has to make a financial judgment on what is possible in all circumstances, so this is a good general point to make for anyone running something that is open to the public.


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