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Baroness Hamwee: Of course, I accept that sustainable development does not respect boundaries, but it occurs to me that not developing may sometimes be in the economic interests of an area. However, I shall not pursue that for the moment. What puzzles me is that the Minister said that it is not open to an RDA to determine that the matters covered by Clause 4(1)(e) are not relevant. If it is not open to the agency to determine that the achievement of sustainable development in the UK is not relevant, why does the Bill talk about it where it is relevant? I shall read carefully in Hansard what the Minister said. I accept that the precision of the drafting has already received a great deal of attention. I am not yet convinced, but I hope to be so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 17 to 20A not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Powers]:

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 21:

Page 2, line 29, leave out subsection (1).

The noble Baroness said: I should like to move Amendment No. 21 and speak at the same time to Amendment No 22. Both amendments seek to amend Clause 5. Amendment No. 21 seeks to delete subsection (1); Amendment No. 22 seeks to delete subsection (3). The reasons for the deletions of those two subsections are very similar: subsection (1) is far too wide and subsection (3) is too vague and does not say what the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State told the Committee of the other place was its intention. The reason for this wooliness is not difficult to see. The Government launched into what we consider to be an ill-conceived Bill as the thin end of the wedge for its intended break up of England into separate regions as part of an overall strategy which we see carried out almost daily to marginalise Parliament.

The Bill was produced following a White Paper and a consultation exercise. Although the Government received some 1,500 replies, we believe that many were carefully weeded out so that they could claim--we do not really agree with this either--that they had overall support. We have all kinds of vague provisions, the effect of which is that we are asked to rely upon ministerial statements on what the Government believe to be their interpretation.

Let me be more specific. I deal first with subsection (1). The subsection provides:

Even with the modulation about the provisions of the remainder of Part I, those are extremely wide-ranging powers especially as the remaining clauses in Part I are

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largely of an administrative nature and deal with financial arrangements, information, reports and accountability, vesting and acquisition of land and miscellaneous and supplementary matters. Why cannot the Bill provide, perhaps in a separate schedule, a specific list of the powers that the RDAs are intended to have? Every limited company must produce and file a list of its objects, although I agree that usually they cover every conceivable contingency. Surely, the Government must have some idea what they want these quangos to do, or what they emphatically do not want them to do. There is absolutely no reason why the same schedule or the clause incorporating it in the Act should not contain the same modification as is already in the subsection; namely,

    "or for purposes incidental thereto".
Every limited company includes in its objects a similar provision. As far as I can see there would even be no objection to the Secretary of State taking power to modify those provisions by statutory instrument so long as it was subject to a positive resolution of both Houses.

We cannot give individual RDAs the power to go running off on madcap schemes of their own with virtually no power of parliamentary scrutiny until long after the event. Under Clauses 17 and 18 accountability consists of reports to the Secretary of State and a public meeting after the annual report is published. The right of regional chambers to information is dependent upon the Secretary of State ordering the RDA to supply it, presumably on a case-by-case basis.

I spoke a little earlier about the Government's reliance on their own interpretation of what some of the provisions of the Bill are supposed to mean. Let me be specific about subsection (1). I remind the Committee that subsection (1) provides that,

    "a regional development agency may do anything which it considers expedient for its purposes".
When the Committee in the other place debated Clause 6, not Clause 5(1), the Minister said:

    "Clause 5(1) already provides that RDAs can only act in accordance with their purposes".--[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee E, 5/2/98; col. 179.]
Where is the word "only" in the text of the Bill? It is not just an exercise in semantics. Clause 5(2) provides that,

    "A regional development agency may only",
do (a), (b) and (c). Those noble Lords who are members of the legal profession will know that countless hours have been spent arguing the interpretation of various Acts where the question has been why a particular word is used in one clause but not in another. If subsection (1) is intended to be restricted by the word "only" why does it not say so? Why does not the subsection provide that an RDA may do anything that it reasonably considers to be expedient for its purposes? I believe that I can answer that based on my experience of batting my head against a brick wall when dealing with the Minimum Wage Bill. Every time I sought to introduce a modification to a clause it was shot down on the grounds that the Government could always be relied upon to act reasonably. Even someone a lot less cynical than me about governments in general all over the world would find that hard to swallow without a great deal of derision.

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"Flexibility" is another mantra of the present Government for refusing to tie themselves down to specific provisions instead of the carte blanche provisions that they constantly demand in various Bills and specifically in subsection (1). This subsection is sloppily drafted. It is too wide. It is clear from what was said in the other place that the Minister responsible for it is not absolutely sure what it means. It is not my responsibility to do the Government's job and to prepare a list of the specific powers that these nine quangos should have. We accept that so long as these quangos are to come into existence they need various powers but they must be properly defined. I suggest that the Secretary of State takes this subsection back to the drawing board and tells the House what he has in mind.

I turn now to Amendment No. 22 which is to delete subsection (3), which provides:

    "A regional development agency may only provide housing by acquiring existing housing accommodation and making it available on a temporary basis for purposes incidental to its purposes".
This short sentence with two different purposes within four words of each other is ambiguous, and the Government's explanation of its objects is utterly contradictory. The Notes on Clauses are unhelpful because they merely repeat the wording of the clause. In Committee in the other place the Government were questioned about the meaning of this clause. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions said:

    "The purpose of Clause 5(3) is to ensure that RDAs can only facilitate the development and regeneration of housing, such as by site assembly, or acquire existing housing to accommodate, for example, their own relocated staff on a temporary basis".--[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee E, col. 174.]
Where does the subsection refer to site assembly? It refers only to existing housing accommodation, not to potential redevelopment.

If the clause is supposed to mean what the Minister said, why does the clause not use those very precise and specific words? They are only three more words than are in the Bill now. My honourable friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon intervened to question the word "provide". He wanted to know why the word "own" was not used. The Minister said that it was to make it clear that RDAs were not to be able to become large-scale developers, to undertake housing developments as if they were local authorities or to become large-scale landlords.

So far so good, but once again why cannot this be spelled out clearly and emphatically so that there can be no possible doubt and no RDA with empire-building ambitions is tempted to try it on and enter into unauthorised transactions which it will be vastly expensive to cancel? Why or how would an RDA have the temerity to try to move into the large-scale housing market? The reason is that the purposes of an RDA are specifically referred to in this subsection and those purposes set out in Clause 4 of the Bill would on any fair interpretation include the provision of housing to,

    "further the economic development of the area, to promote employment and to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development".

7 Oct 1998 : Column 503

Why did Clause 4(1) not include after paragraph (e)

    "but shall not be entitled to carry out the activities of housing developers or long-term residential landlords"?
Will the Government in addition to answering these questions undertake to rectify this ambiguity at a later stage of the Bill?

I have a further question which was not raised in the other place. What does "temporary" mean? How long is a "temporary basis"? Income tax was supposed to be a temporary tax. Noble Lords will recall the prefabricated houses--"prefabs" they were called--erected after the war to help with the vast housing shortage. They were supposed to be replaced within 10 years at the outside but many were still in use after a quarter of a century.

Properly drafted, the word "temporary" should have been confined to one, two or three years--or whatever the Government intend it to mean. The Government's stock answer of "flexibility" is even more inappropriate in this case. RDAs are to enjoy considerable autonomy subject only to a reporting system. Is there to be an inspector or supervisor appointed to each RDA to oversee this aspect of its activities and to see that they do not step over this undefined boundary?

I regret to say that this clause is very badly drafted. I do not blame the parliamentary draftsmen, whose skill I admire and respect, but they can only work within the drafting brief that they are given. In this case, as with some other legislation introduced by the Government, the policy here is to be as vague and unspecific as possible. That is what the Government are saying when they claim that the Bill allows them flexibility.

I stand in awe of the Government's mastery of the fine print, which would do credit to the author of a holiday brochure, but in this case it simply will not do. I should like the Minister to come back to noble Lords with some clear and unambiguous pledges about the operation of this part of the Bill or a promise to do some serious redrafting.

It is often said that the purpose of this Chamber is to tell the Government to think again. This, I believe, is such a case, but I stress it should be done without in any way modifying or detracting from the principles that they wish to establish. When I was at school one of the teachers had the habit of writing across essays--never, I hasten to stress, on mine--"Do it again, this time with a little more care and attention". That is my advice to the Government on these two subsections. I beg to move.

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