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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am grateful for everything the Minister said. However, I am intrigued by one statement. If 70 per cent. of the total claims since this scheme started have been successful, how can it be that only 300 out of 900 claims were successful in either 1994-95 or 1995-96? That is only one-third.
There may be an explanation for that discrepancy. One explanation may be that the criteria on which the claims are judged successful have been tightened. Another may be that more claims, if not of a frivolous or some other nature, are being made which cannot be entertained. I am curious as to why, though 900 claims were made in that year, more of those claims were unsuccessful than the average since this scheme started. Perhaps the Minister can help.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the Opposition Chief Whip is very alert this evening. He wonders why there is that difference; I wondered too because the difference is considerable. The answer is that many of the claims are still being assessed. One cannot ever give a clear-cut answer because we are dealing with individual people and individual claims. Sometimes they take a long time to process. I understand that a number of them are still pending. Also, 110 claims related to miners who were referred to the British Coal scheme. That may be part of the cause for the drop in successful claims. I commend the order to your Lordships.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, your Lordships may wonder why two such crucially diverse activities--giving assistance to local authorities overseas and of having public paths in the United Kingdom--should be combined into one order. If your Lordships are so puzzled, you are in good company: so was I. The answer is quite simple.
Section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations granting local authorities discretionary charging powers in relation to defined functions or activities where there is no existing power or duty to charge.
The draft order does two things. First, it introduces a new charging power for local authorities where they provide assistance to local authorities and similar bodies overseas. Secondly, it removes the restriction on the level of costs which can be recovered under another charging power; that is, the power to charge for a public path order.
The articles in the order which relate to overseas assistance enable local authorities in Great Britain, if they wish, to impose a charge for providing advice or assistance to local authorities which are overseas. At the time when the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Act 1993 was passed, doubt was expressed as to whether authorities could impose charges. This order fulfils our commitment to clarify the position.
My department is now in the process of consulting the local authority associations on the minor consequential amendments which are necessary both to the guidance and to the general authorisation which enables local authorities to provide advice and assistance under the 1993 Act.
The proposed amended general authorisation will mean that, as well as being able to provide assistance within its existing financial limits, an authority will also be able to provide extra assistance if it is reimbursed for so doing. We expect that that additional power will be generally welcomed by local authorities, and that it will enable them further to help the work which they are doing with their counterparts abroad.
Local authorities may make orders under the Highways Act 1980 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to create, divert or close public footpaths or bridleways. Those are known as public path orders. They may arise from proposals originating from the authorities themselves or, more commonly, from applications made to authorities by residents, path users, farmers, landowners or developers.
In 1993, we introduced new regulations which enabled local authorities to recover the costs which they incur in meeting the requests from applicants for public path orders. When those regulations were being prepared, several authorities made the point to us that the £400 maximum charge for administrative costs, which we set out in the regulations in 1993, fell well short of the costs which they in fact were obliged to incur in making public path orders.
There were, though, at that time no data on actual costs. In order, therefore, to encourage authorities to reduce costs and to improve efficiency, we introduced the £400 limit. But we also undertook to review the regulations within two years. That review has now been completed. It found that, in almost all cases, the maximum charge does not cover the administrative costs of local authorities.
Our conclusion was that the best way forward was that we should not stipulate a maximum price which should be charged, but that we should require authorities to specify the likely charges in advance of the work being carried out. Article 3(3) of the order therefore amends the 1993 regulations to remove the £400 maximum which authorities may at present charge for the administrative costs which they incur in making public path orders.
We have consulted local authorities, their associations and other interested organisations on both the amending regulations and a draft circular to accompany the regulations. The circular, which will be published when the new regulations come into force, will say that authorities should draw up scales of charges, which will indicate the likely cost for unopposed orders--and those will be the majority--as well as the maximum cost which could be charged, which will be based on the scale of charges. It will also make clear that authorities will not be able to recover the costs of defending opposed orders.
These draft regulations are in line with the Government's philosophy that a person who benefits from a service which is provided by a local authority should pay for that service, rather than it be subsidised by the taxpayer. I commend the regulations to the House, and I beg to move.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am grateful for the care the Minister has taken in explaining both parts of what he rightly described as a disparate order. I am intrigued and genuinely want to understand the regulations in regard to local authorities.
Am I to understand that at the moment British local authorities who are providing assistance to overseas local authorities are not permitted to make a charge? I imagine that the advice, assistance or consultation can range over the whole of the local authority services. Therefore the first thing I want to establish--I am sure the Minister will be helpful--is that this is a response from British local authorities to requests from their counterparts in Europe and in other parts of the world to give assistance by way of advice and so forth. If that is the case, it is sad in my view that everything has a price. I know that the Minister will say that someone has to pay. The local authority is sustained not just by the taxpayer, but by the ratepayer or the community charge payer, and the local community. But I believe that we are going down a very unhappy road if every cost that is incurred is automatically levied on those who wish for assistance. My experience of local government is now 30 years' ago. One never knows when one will want assistance from somebody else.
Has the Minister any financial statistics relating to this matter? The amount of the charge is to be at the discretion of the charging authority. In setting charges it has to have regard to the costs of providing advice or assistance. I am sure that at the ministry or perhaps in the Minister's folder there will be something to help us
As regards the paths order, I understand the nature of administrative charges. But very often frivolous applications will be inhibited if it is known that a cost will be incurred. The Minister told us that the ceiling of £400 has proved to be inadequate, and therefore we have no objection to this measure. Can he tell us, statistically speaking, how many path orders were made last year or the year before? The Minister told us that this change is motivated by the evidence that £400 is too little. Can he tell the House how many representations were made and from whom, and how many times applications have been made from bodies and individuals for the path orders? Apart from that, the measure is sensible and prudent government and we approve of it.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the Opposition Chief Whip is concerned about local authorities helping people overseas. He wonders why that is so. It has come about mostly since the Berlin Wall came down and the huge changes which have taken place in eastern Europe. Many of the people had lived under communist rule there and they had to change. They did not know how to do so. Local authorities have gone to other countries, not at their own instigation, but at the request of other countries. They have generally tried to help people by saying to them, "Is there any way we can help?".
I do not know whether this is an accurate example or not, but there may be a local authority in, say, Bulgaria, which does not know how to deal with the problem of waste. It may say to a local authority--very often these requests come about as a result of contacts which have been made--"Can you come and tell us how this is done in England because you seem to have the matter well in hand?". Thus, we have been in a position to help these people.
When the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Act 1993 was originally put through, the question arose as to whether it was possible to charge. We have altered the provision so that local authorities may charge. In order to re-emphasise what I have just said, I repeat that the articles in this order enable local authorities in Great Britain, if they so wish, to impose a charge for providing advice or assistance. The noble Lord is quite right in bemoaning the fact that everything has a price to it. But, like it or not, the fact is that everything does have a price to it nowadays. Many people may say, "Why are so many of our local authority officials going abroad helping other people when we are paying for it and they are not doing anything for us?" So there is a balance to be struck when a local authority says that it is prepared to send someone abroad for a week or so and makes a charge. There may be occasions where the local authority may wish to make a larger charge. This provision enables it to do so.
At the moment the United Kingdom authorities are prevented from charging. They can provide free assistance up to a financial limit. But with the new regulations local authorities will be able to offer additional advice should the overseas authorities wish to pay for it. I cannot give the noble Lord the figures for which he asked because I do not have them.
The noble Lord also asked about local authorities levying fees and charges. Where a service is provided which benefits everyone in a local area, it is right that the cost of that service should be met out of local taxes. But where a service is provided to a group which is outside the area, which is the case as regards the provision of advice to bodies overseas, or which relates to only a small group in the area, then it is right that those people should pay to receive that service. After all, the local authorities are there to serve the local people first.
The noble Lord also asked about the £400 limit and how many indications had come to us that that figure was inadequate. It was independent research undertaken by the local authorities which demonstrated that in most cases £400 was not sufficient in the normal course of events because the usual cost to local authorities was about £1,000. The fact is that the sum of £400 was considered and, as a result of research, it was found to be inadequate. Local authorities were losing out and we thought it right that where people made a request to a local authority then the local authority should have the right to charge.
No figures are held centrally on annual numbers of public path orders; they are a local responsibility. If the noble Lord asked me to guess, which I do not like doing, one might say that the figure is in the region of 2,000 but that figure is plus or minus quite a considerable margin.
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