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The noble Baroness said: This amendment brings us to the words or direction. We have just discussed the limitation on the Secretary of States power to make directions, which finishes in January. It seems strange that there should be any need for direction at all from the Secretary of State. The process is being done by sending invitations out for voluntary applications by local authorities, if they wish, to come back with unitary proposals. Either the invitation is accepted or it is not. The Minister may say that there are tidying-up bits round the edges that might need directionfor example, if there are recalcitrant and difficult local authorities that do not like the tidying-up bit. However, if that requires direction, we have fallen away from local authorities themselves wanting to put forward proposals. We would like those directions to be removed and we want to ensure that the invitation date is limited as well, so that we can be really clear that this is a limited exercise that will not be undertaken again without the proper legislation. I beg to move.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: We support the spirit of the amendment. While there is a strong case for unitary councils in many areas, the drive
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Viscount Eccles: The use of the power to direct raises constitutional as well as practical issues. It has always been understood that directions would be issued only where bodies had failed in their duty in such a way that there was no other way out. Directions have been seen as instruments of last resort, in cases of failure. They have also been used to secure administrative arrangements, such as ensuring that accounts are written in accordance with Treasury rules. They have been increasingly usedsometimes not very successfullyfor issuing policy directions, which again have tended to be general rather than particular. Is there a relevant precedent for the use of the power to direct as it is included in this Bill?
Baroness Andrews: I hope I can reassure noble Lords that the power to direct is not as sinister as they have made it sound. It is necessary because Amendments Nos. 9, 14, 17 to 21, 23 and 55 to 57 are all about the same thing: they remove the Secretary of States power to direct any principal authority to make a proposal under Clause 2, the proposal for unitary reform of local government.
We are certain that the power of directions contained in the Bill is necessary simply to ensure that we are able to bring the present round of restructuring to an orderly conclusion. We need the power so that we can deal with the eventuality which might arise in the immediate follow-up to the current round of restructuring where some residual areas may need to have unitary local government in order for one of the unitary proposals currently on the table to work. It is necessary to see that as a possibilityit may never arisebut in our initial invitation we covered the eventuality. We made clear that assessing the proposal against the criteria must include consideration of the residual area. Our assessment might be that the original unitary proposal meets all five criteria and should be implemented, but only if the residual area were also to be made unitary. For example, we might accept the original proposal but combine that with a direction to the council for the residual area to put forward its own unitary proposal. I want to stress that in practice the need for the power of direction may never arise. We are absolutely clear; we intend that it is available only to complete the current round of restructuring. There is now a third limitation on the Secretary of States power to issue such a direction: it can be given only where the Secretary of State believes that it would be in the interests of effective and convenient local government.
We are clear that the direction-making power that we have is appropriate, proportionate and specifically tailored for the purposes for which it might be
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Baroness Hanham: The Minister is saying that if a local authority decides to seek unitary authority for a county or district council and it cannot make the situation work without involving a district, a county or a few wards, the Minister will direct that it will be brought together under a new unitary authority, presumably jammed in to the proposals that the council puts forward. It seems to me that that is a recipe for disharmony. Most of Clauses 2 and 3 are a recipe for disharmony and if the Minister has received the letters we have hadand I am sure that he hashe will understand how much agitation and angst there is over these proposals by some people who do not want them and find themselves scooped up within in them.
The Minister said that if there are areas left over, untidy ends is what I think it is called, the direction will be made that those have to be put right. If that work cannot be done voluntarily and amicably, no amount of direction by the Secretary of State is ever going to make that work. Therefore, I remain of the view that direction should not be part of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: I can be brief with Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 because we have covered the ground to some extent. These amendments were a way of probing the Governments intention on whether the unitary process is limited to the councils that are currently under consideration or whether there will be future developments. It seemed to us that if we were talking only about those councils, it was rather difficult to see why the Bill contains the provision that the Secretary of State may invite or direct when the Secretary of State has already done so. We were just trying to understand where we stood with retrospection. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: I always enjoy may/shall debates and it has come early in the Bill. Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 13I think the noble Baroness was referring to themremove the Secretary of States ability in future to specify the type of proposal invited to place greater emphasis on the choice that local authorities have and the type of proposal. We are at one with the noble Baroness in recognising that choice is important and because we are committed to a devolutionary approach, except in exceptional circumstances, we would not expect to seek to restrict an invitation in any way.
If I can address the specific point: the clause enables us to deal in future with something that might arise, and it is entirely pragmatic and right that we should do so. I have stated several times already this
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Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I was just considering the relationship of these clauses with later clauses, such as Clause 8 which refers to the power of the Boundary Commission. I will consider what the noble Baroness has said and perhaps come back at the next stage if I feel that there is a potential conflict between the powers of the Boundary Commission and the powers kept by the Secretary of State. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
This amendment brings back the principle raised in February in a worthy amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, at Third Reading in this House. At that time, the Government accepted another amendment tabled by the noble Lord which extended the deadline by which bus operators can appeal to the Secretary of State against reimbursement arrangements set by local authorities, in relation to the national concession under the Transport Act 2000. The deadline is currently 28 days after the date on which the reimbursement arrangements take effect. The amendment extended it to 56 days in England. I was able to respond favourably to that amendment on the grounds that provision of extra time should offer scope for the full gathering of high-quality data. This could mean that any appeals which operators feel compelled to make are more firmly grounded in empirical evidence. It should also help to reduce some of the uncertainty that local authorities might otherwise face from more speculative appeals.
As many appeals are brought jointly under the Transport Act 2000 and the Transport Act 1985, the Governments amendment in the other place, which we are considering today, proposed changes in respect of appeals requiring operators to participate in concessionary schemes under the Transport Act 1985. Under the current arrangements regarding local authority travel concession schemes under the 1985 Act, an authority running a local scheme can serve an operator with a participation notice which requires the recipient to participate in the scheme. The operator can appeal to the Secretary of State against the participation notice, and the deadline for the appeal is currently 28 days from the date of the notice.
As noble Lords can see, the Commons amendment would largely mirror, in relation to the Transport Act 1985, the changes already made to the Transport Act 2000 by virtue of Clause 3(4) to (6) of the Bill. It would do so by extending the deadline for appeals against participation notices served by English local
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The last part of the amendment makes a connected change. At the moment, an operator intending to appeal against a participation notice must give the authority notice of his intention to do so either before the operator appeals or, if the participation notice requires it, before the end of a period specified in the notice. Regulations currently provide that this period cannot exceed seven days. This current provision allowing a local authority to specify that operators must give the authority notice of their intention to appeal within seven days, measured from the date of the participation notice, undermines the purpose of extending the appeals period and negates the benefits of giving operators more time to gather data, for example, before appealing.
The amendment would tackle that by providing in effect that the local authority could specify that the operator must give seven days notice, or such other period as may be specified in regulations, before lodging an appeal. In other words, operators would be entitled to give notice of an appeal at any time before they lodged the appeal, except that if a local authority specified that it would like seven days notice, or such other time as may be specified in regulations, then at least this notice would have to be given. The amendment would apply only to schemes made by English local authorities.
My colleague in the other place, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Gillian Merron, wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, copied to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, on 23 May, when the Governments amendment was tabled in her name, explaining the Governments intent. In his reply, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, welcomed the move and said that he would support it when it returned to this House for consideration. I hope that other noble Lords will agree with the noble Lord in that respect. I am always happy when we are able to reach a productive, cross-party consensus on the best way forward. The Bill makes an important improvement in the provision of concessionary travel for older and disabled people in England. It will make a real difference to some 11 million people, and consequently Iand I am sure the whole House, but particularly those of us who engaged in proceedings on the Billlook forward to its enactment.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comments and I thank Gillian Merron for moving the amendment in the House of Commons. It is a better amendment than that which I had drafted here. I thank everyone for their courtesy and co-operation.
During the Bills passage I repeatedly referred to the problem of local authorities actually spending the money made available under this legislation, and I believe that there will be more money. The Government have shown reluctance to direct local authorities in this respect through agreement to ring-fencing, preferring instead to allow local discretion in the use of these funds. Perhaps the Government could, however, publish a list showing the amount of block grant allocated to each authority for the purpose of meeting the cost of concessions, so that local electorswho I gather under the new Prime Minister are gradually to be given more oversight of what is happeningare aware of the use made of such funds and whether they are being used, topped up or, on the other hand, withheld from the purposes for which they were intended.
I wish to refer briefly to another subject which should be covered in the forthcoming local transport legislationthe question of tackling congestion, which is far and away the most important problem confronting the bus industry. Congestion increases costs and leads to increasing customer dissatisfaction. Local authorities are highway authorities and are charged under the Traffic Management Act with managing the highway, and they have been given increased powers so to do. Many local authorities are not sufficiently active in this field, preferring instead the often loud representations from small shopkeepers and recalcitrant motorists who, if possible, would like to drive in the shop doorway to save them walking any distance whatever. I am sorry to sayas the noble Lord, Lord Snape, mentioned when we last dealt with this matterthat some Liberal Democrat councillors are among those who are reluctant to agree to effective highway management measures to ensure that buses have priority.
I have written to the previous Secretary of State saying that where bus services become unreliable because of congestion, the traffic commissioners, exercising enhanced powers, should be able to summon the Cabinet member who is politically responsible for this state of affairs to give a publicly available account of the actions he proposes to take to remedy the situation. With that, I am most grateful to the Minister. I am sure that we have improved the Bill a little.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I do not intend to say much except to thank the Minister and the Government. As he said, this is an example where we can work on a cross-party basis to agree legislation with amendments that seem to satisfy us all. The Bills provisions will certainly be welcomed by many. I therefore compliment the Government on one solid and satisfactory piece of legislation. I have nothing further to say, except that I am pleased that the Bill will receive Royal Assent and be implemented next year.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. I am more grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, because he expressed his
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Let me assure him that we are working hard on the formula basis for distribution, which we expect to settle over the course of this summer and will bear in mind his points about the advantages of greater openness. He will also know about the complexity of this concessions funding, which has been discussed in previous debates on the Bill.
As for tackling concession and the role of buses in that, the Government are at one with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshawand indeed the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfieldin recognising that the bus has an important role to play in this countrys public transport provision. In those areas where the bus has been given considerable priority, there have been obvious advantages to the community.
We hope that others will recognise those advantages, particularly against the background of the purpose of this measure, which is significantly to increase bus usage. I hope the noble Lord will recognise that I cannot give too many categoric assurances on those points. However, I could not agree more categorically with his amendment or with the narrowness of his original proposal.
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