Standing Committee A
Tuesday 24 June 1997
[Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before I call the Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong) to move the sittings motion, I should inform the Committee that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders).
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I beg to move,
That if proceedings on the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Thursday 26th June at half-past Four o'clock.
I welcome you to the Committee, Mrs. Dunwoody. This is the first Standing Committee of a Labour Government for nigh on 19 years and for my hon. Friends and I it is an important and historic occasion. Like you, Mrs. Dunwoody, I may stumble over names because there are so many new faces, especially on the Government Benches, but it is good to see them and to welcome them to the Committee. Some hon. Members on the Conservative Benches are also new, except of course the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Christchurch ( Mr. Chope), who, after an absence, now represents a new constituency.
We are delighted that you are in the Chair, Mrs. Dunwoody. You were in the Chair for consideration of the final piece of local government legislation of the previous Parliament, so it is fitting that you should be here for the first Standing Committee of the new Parliament to be taken in Committee rather than on the Floor of the House, which is also considering local government legislation. We would be amiss if we did not note that you, too, have a majority that I am sure you did not anticipate, but which some of us from the north have been used to. I welcome you to the club and I am sure that it gave you much satisfaction to return with such a majority.
On the sittings motion, we want to ensure that we consider the Bill with proper attention and as speedily as possible. It is an important Bill for the Government and we believe that it is possible properly to consider it within the terms of the motion.
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, leave out from `That' to end and insert
``during proceedings on the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill the Committee do meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.''
It is a great pleasure to be here with such an experienced parliamentarian in the Chair, Mrs. Dunwoody, and we welcome you. You will have to bear with me and my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), and perhaps other hon. Members, because we have no experience of Standing Committees and it has been a steep learning curve to find out how to amend legislation.
The amendment is important because the Bill is complex but its purpose is simple--we want to ensure that sufficient time is allocated for all the clauses to be debated in full and the mechanics of the Bill to be given due consideration. Considerable time should be spent on several issues both from the point of view of the House of Commons and from that of local authorities and councillors who, while broadly welcoming the Bill, are uncertain about the mechanics and the implications for their constituents and whether the promises of the Bill will be delivered when it is on the statute book. We will question a number of aspects, not for the sake of opposing or questioning, but to clarify the position and to ease the Bill's passage into law.
The assessment of housing needs is one matter that requires a great deal more attention concerning the real needs of the community and how moneys can be used. We are not critical, but question the split between two thirds for housing need and one third for capital receipts. We are uncertain of some of the Bill's implications for capital-receipt rich local authorities as opposed to capital-receipt poor local authorities. We will question whether the use of capital receipts is, in fact, the right way to meet housing need, or the best, most efficient way.
We want to be clear in our own minds, and to help others to understand the time scale on which money will be available, about the restrictions on how those moneys can be spent, the definition of housing purposes and how broad that definition is. How restrictive will the rules be to tie the spending of money to plans related to job creation and--in the term used in the consultation paper to local authorities--``social exclusion''? We think those rules necessary, but in need of more clear definition, and a debate will draw out the Government's precise intentions on those aspects.
That, broadly, is why we think there is a need for a little more time to consider the Bill. We want it to pass without unnecessary delay, but more care and attention could be afforded if more time were available to discuss certain items.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The Opposition do not have strong views about the length of time available for consideration of the Bill but are interested in the quality of debate. I hope that the Minister and her Front-Bench team will help us to make quick progress and respond to our questions. We do not take the view that that cannot be achieved in two sittings.
We hope that the Minister will agree that the Report and Third Reading on the Floor of the House will come after the Budget. The allocation of resources under the Bill will be announced in the Budget by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it will assist all of us on Third Reading if we know that allocation.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I welcome you, Mrs. Dunwoody, to the Chair of a Committee that is considering such an important measure.
I should like to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay on why the amendment should be accepted. The Committee should be allowed additional time so that we can thoroughly debate a number of issues that were raised on Second Reading.
I am especially concerned to ensure that we have time to discuss in detail the extent and scope of the Government's proposals to allow the use of 15 per cent. of capital receipts--the resources that are unlocked through the process. How will those receipts be used? How broad will the scope be in terms of non-housing use? On Second Reading, my hon. Friend raised the question of whether those resources could be applied to capacity building for tenants' associations. In that debate the Government stressed the importance of regeneration extending beyond bricks and mortar. I hope for clarification on that aspect.
I also hope that in this sitting--and, perhaps, in a slightly longer sitting--we may be allowed time to explore how clause 2 will operate. Its operation must be transparent and accountable to the House so that hon. Members know exactly how Ministers exercise their discretion in applying the Bill's provisions.
As a result of the amendment, I hope that there will be time to explore the Government's thinking on the release of new receipts. That matter is not dealt with in the Bill and, on Second Reading, the Government suggested that they were not yet prepared to consider releasing new receipts. Will the procedures governing the 75 per cent. of set aside ever be relaxed for new receipts? My local authority is particularly anxious that progress be made on that matter.
I also hope that we will be allowed time to test the Government's willingness to adopt a more open and transparent approach to the question of reviewing and judging local authorities' housing strategies. As a result, the Government could embark on a process of learning, co-operation and partnership building. Sharing the criteria which are designed to assist those strategies would help local authorities and would be useful for all involved.
On Second Reading I raised the question of accessibility for disabled people. I should like to establish Ministers' intentions on that matter. Will the Government introduce means to ensure the inclusion of accessibility standards in the renovation of old properties and the construction of new? To spend £5 billion of public money--or whatever the final figure may be--without achieving that end would be a great shame and pose a great disadvantage to many disabled people.
Ms Armstrong: We do not want to accept the amendment because it would extend the Committee stage of the Bill beyond this week. We are determined that the Bill's passage be as speedy as possible, and to allow time for proper debate. If we are unable to pass the Bill speedily we will have no chance of achieving our intention of getting money to local authorities this year.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam raised many interesting points which were addressed in the consultation document, copies of which have been sent to the local authorities. Hon. Members have been able to examine that document since Thursday. Local authorities are now able to discuss how they would like to proceed within the framework that the consultation paper establishes. In that paper we stated that we want to start issuing credit approvals for the housing account of set-aside capital receipts in 1997-98. Decisions about authorities' allocations must be made as early as possible so that councils have the time to make good use of those credit approvals. According to our timetable, those decisions will be made in October, but delay in Committee will prevent them from being taken then. If we finish on Thursday evening we can still have a proper debate and make due progress.
In response to the hon. Member for Christchurch, my understanding is that if we do not finish on Thursday evening the Bill will not be reported next week. The sittings motion will ensure that Report and Third Reading take place after next week's Budget.