Draft Greater London Authority (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Order 2001

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Fireworks is an issue of great concern to my constituents, and I wonder whether the order will assist them in that regard. Will it allow the GLA to approve or pass a byelaw controlling the use, timing of use and decibel level of fireworks?

Dr. Whitehead: No. As I understand it, the Mayor's only byelaw power relates to Trafalgar square and Parliament square gardens. It would not be possible, therefore, for the Mayor to pass a byelaw affecting the entire GLA area. However, if the order is accepted I think that it would be possible to for the Mayor to include in his air quality strategy directions that take into account the effect on air quality of a range of matters, which might include fireworks.

Mr. Pickles: Surely that is wrong—the emissions and noise from fireworks would not be of a sufficiently lengthy duration to be covered by the various EU directives on pollutants and air quality.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is right inasmuch as in this country fireworks are generally let off on or around 5 November—although in my neighbourhood it often seems that firework night continues year round. The ability of the Mayor of London or Secretary of State to introduce directions that relate to the fact that fireworks have been let off does not exist. The Mayor should have a clear regard for air quality in general, and the effect that fireworks may have on it should, by process of extrapolation, be taken into consideration, but it would not be possible to take action against those who let off fireworks on 5 November. As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, that is a short period and does not concern the continuing issue of air quality throughout the year.

We need to consider our ability to control firework emissions. That is a matter for nuisance laws and the ability of individual boroughs to apply them. They must ensure that where noise or emissions are causing a public nuisance, such laws are used. That is the direction we need to follow in respect of fireworks, rather than the loose ability to consider firework emissions under air quality regulations.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): My point may not be a relevant consideration in respect of the ambient air quality of which the Minister speaks, but it is a fact that fireworks let off in this country pose the threat of producing dioxins, which are very persistent and dangerous chemicals. The burden of dioxins released from fireworks on New Year's Eve alone is greater than that produced by all the fires that dealt with the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for that interesting, and somewhat terrifying, information. One has a sinking feeling in one's stomach about the great efforts made during the rest of the year—if one is a good, green person—to put rubbish into a composter, and to collect bottles, jars, plastics and newspapers, when one wakes up on 6 November and all that good work seems to have been undone by the pall of smoke hanging everywhere.

The letting off of fireworks in this country tends to be concentrated in particular periods. Because that is the case, the impact of bonfire night and other occasions when fireworks are let off is taken into account when setting air quality standards and limit values—everything is averaged out over the year. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on the substances that fireworks put in the atmosphere and the fact that we should continue to be concerned about the issue, but that is not a point for the Committee to consider now.

I hope that I have explained the order clearly. Collectively, we have a substantial amount of new and hitherto unrevealed information about the inner workings of the Committee of the Regions and air quality in Greater London. In my view, the provisions of the instrument are compatible with the convention rights defined in section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Hon. Members will note that this is a straightforward order designed to put right minor errors, omissions or unforeseen consequences of the Act. The order will deliver the original policy intention of the GLA Act. It is not a mechanism for giving the Mayor or the Assembly new powers. On that basis, I hope that the Committee will agree to the order.

10.34 am

Mr. Pickles: Thank you, Mr. Beard. I join the Minister in offering you good wishes on what has been a gentle canter through a statutory instrument.

With regard to the Council of the Regions, I was reminded of Disraeli's view on the Schleswig-Holstein question. He said that there were only three people who entirely understood it: the first was Prince Albert, the second was dead and the third was mad. The mechanisms by which the Council of the Regions is elected fit neatly into the Schleswig-Holstein question.

The Minister said, in what I regard as the ultimate euphemism, that the order is part of the ``snagging process'' following the 1999 Act. In fact, it is the consequence of introducing overblown legislation that Parliament had insufficient time to scrutinise. Such obvious mistakes should have been taken care of in the 1999 Act. I have little doubt that over the coming weeks and months we shall find ourselves involved in other snagging statutory instruments.

Paragraph 5 of the order could be dubbed the Lord Toby Harris paragraph. No doubt it has been included to ensure that Lord Harris is able to continue to do his undoubtedly valuable work on the Council of the Regions. The Minister said that the number of people on the Council of the Regions is like the number of people in heaven. I am no theologian, but my understanding is that there is space for everyone in heaven. The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that there are 144,000 places in heaven, but I hope that there are slightly more than that so that, when the time comes, we can all be reunited in a better place.

The Council of the Regions, however, is slightly different from that because it has a finite number of places. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) pointed out that we naturally favour people who have been elected on a ward basis. If the Mayor and other members of the Assembly are elected on a list system then, by the nature of things, they will push the whole process round. That matter is not entirely within the Minister's hands because it is something with which the Local Government Association is ultimately charged. However, the net result of the order will be fewer councillors on the Council of the Regions, which is undesirable because they should be there.

Turning to the issue of air quality, the Minister said that there was a mistake in the 1999 Act. He stated that everyone intended the Mayor to have these powers and that the Secretary of State can give directions to the Mayor, but that those directions cannot go on to the boroughs, which is clearly undesirable. In my intervention, I made an important point about adjoining boroughs. London controls the air quality of south-east England. Southampton—where the Minister's constituency is located—Manchester and Birmingham are other large conurbations that control the air quality immediately around them. The Secretary of State has overall responsibility to ensure that schemes exist to monitor air quality around those conurbations.

The Minister has been very fair and reasonable but, with the greatest respect, he was unable to lay a clear path showing how that co-ordination will take place with authorities in south-east England. A new feature is that one local authority is essentially monitoring and imposing standards on other local authorities without the Secretary of State acting as fair arbiter, except in the most remote and reserved cases, and we have doubts about that.

We are moving closer to bonfire night, on 5 November, when I intend to have a small sparkler, and the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) was correct in saying that the effect of foot and mouth disease on air quality was the equivalent of bonfire night. However, the substantive point is that the effect of bonfire night is spread across the country and the effect of foot and mouth was more specific to air quality. The schemes that will be most effective are those such as that operating in the London borough of Westminster, which has its own standards for low emissions.

It is traditional in our proceedings to provide some excitement as to whether we shall oppose the order, but I cannot maintain the tension much longer. We shall not vote against the order, but we expect the Minister to give considerable thought to our comments and to return with some specific views on co-ordination between the Mayor and the Secretary of State in so far as it affects air quality in the south-east of England.

10.42 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I join in the welcome that has been given to you, Mr. Beard. It is pleasing to see you in another Committee.

Only three veterans of the Standing Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Act 1999 are here today: myself, the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). I am sure that they agree that that was a hell of a Committee. Reference has been made to heaven, but those of us who served on that Committee felt that we were engaged in trench warfare.

I agree with many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, but he was incorrect in saying that the 1999 Act was not given proper scrutiny. Not only was it the longest piece of legislation since the Government of India Act 1935, but it had more amendments tabled to it than any other piece of legislation.

The right hon. and hon. Members who served on that Standing Committee gave the Bill significant scrutiny. The fact that snags remained was because the Bill was so long and complex. Conservative Members criticised it at the time because its complexity followed from the fact that it was not devolving power in what we deemed to be an appropriate way. I described the Bill as setting up government for London and abolishing it in the same piece of legislation. The words ``Secretary of State'' abound throughout that legislation, and the Secretary of State retained huge powers to override the Greater London Authority. That was our major objection, and the Bill was longer and more complex because it had been designed in that way. I am therefore not surprised that there are snags, and the veterans of that Standing Committee will agree that we will probably have to return to deal with yet more snags, not just in a year or two but further down the line. In many ways I hope that we will amend that Act because I hope that over time we will give a lot more power to the GLA and increase the limited devolution that it introduced.

As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, the order is essentially non-contentious. The Minister explained in great detail and at great length the thinking behind the measures. Perhaps we should have had a word with him beforehand because those of us who had looked at it did not see a problem. I am sure that the Minister's comments for the record will be helpful for those who look at our proceedings.

I have one or two detailed points to make. I should like to join the debate on whether the co-ordination of air quality strategies can be arrived at in a sensible manner. As I understand the original legislation, if the Mayor's strategy is inconsistent with the Government's national strategy, the Government can veto inconsistent features. Therefore, the Government can co-ordinate between London and the regions around London. That seems a sensible approach and, as I remember from our many long deliberations in Committee, it accords with the explanation given at the time.

I am particularly intrigued by paragraph 7 of the order, which enables the Mayor to enforce the byelaws that the authority makes. Perhaps it should be called the pigeon paragraph. I wonder whether it results from the Mayor's failure to get his way with those who sell pigeon food to tourists in Trafalgar square. I understood that he had done a fairly good job in killing that trade, and I had some sympathy with him as I am not a great pigeon lover. As I have had more letters from constituents about pigeons in Kingston than I would have liked, I can understand why the Mayor wanted to crack down on that nuisance. Will the Minister confirm that that was the reason behind the request from the GLA? Did the GLA lawyers feel that they would be unable to take to court any pigeon-food seller who wished to stand in defiance of the Mayor's wishes?

My final point is one of clarification. I should like to be reassured about the legalese in paragraph 3. It states that byelaws

    ``shall not have effect until they are confirmed by the confirming authority.''

Who is the confirming authority?

10.48 am

 
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Prepared 25 October 2001