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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I do not wish to detain the Committee. However, it seems odd to give an authority permission to consult. Surely authorities do not need permission to consult. They should be put under a duty to consult. In replying to the amendment, the Minister voiced unexceptionable sentiments. I agree with almost every word he said. I would have thought that almost the whole tenor of his argument would have led to an acceptance of this sensible and modest amendment, which is not even lengthy; it is short and inserts one single word: "shall" consult instead of "may" consult. It is perfectly sensible.
I hope that the Minister will not think that we, on this side of the Committee, are being obstinate. I hope that he will concede that there may be a point here. Merely to permit an authority to consult is meaningless. I do not understand its value. The Minister said that consultation is a major part of the process. So why not make it obligatory? I fail to understand that. I do not know how many times the noble Lord used the word "guidance", but he must understand--he is a modest and reasonable man--that government guidance is not always what the Opposition look for or are content with.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My noble friend Lord Peyton kindly argued in support of what I too felt was a perfectly reasonable proposition. Paradoxically, the Minister agreed with us. But he said that he would not do anything about it; he would deal with it in other ways. The Minister says that "may" means "must", that authorities will have to consult, and that there is no need to put it on the face of the Bill. I find that difficult to understand.
My noble friend Lord Peyton also raised the question of the status of guidance. We have already debated in the course of this Bill the status of statutory guidance, particularly guidance which others are obliged to take note of. The fact is that statutory guidance is about 10 steps away from regulation. At least regulation receives the merest margin of parliamentary supervision; statutory guidance receives none.
A constitutional issue arises here. I am disappointed by the Minister's response. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for his support in an amendment which runs parallel to mine, and to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. There is wide agreement as to the principles of these amendments. The Minister says that he agrees with the principles but does not intend to do anything. I shall study with care exactly how he managed to justify that paradox. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: This group of amendments seeks to make compulsory the setting up of an inquiry before a charging scheme is introduced, with a parallel series of amendments in relation to workplace parking. More importantly, in some ways, they seek to appoint an independent person as the chairman of such an inquiry.
In a sense, these amendments follow on naturally from the previous group so I need not take up too much time on them. Once again, the wording of the Bill is "may", and I have no doubt that the Minister will say it means "must". So although those affected by the clause "must", the Bill will say "may". I find that extremely odd.
Again, it is important for the question of acceptance that there should be an inquiry in relation to those schemes. So "may" should be "must" and undoubtedly will be when the Minister concludes his remarks. Even more importantly, another amendment in this group seeks to ensure that the person appointed to chair the inquiry is independent. Unfortunately, if that were not the case, the integrity of the inquiry would be called into question and that would not be in anybody's interest. I beg to move.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: Amendments Nos. 214 and 254 are included in this group. In both cases the amendments substitute a requirement on appropriate national authorities to give directions to local authorities to re-examine, vary or revoke a scheme rather than themselves carrying out an inquiry.
Although I do not always take seriously this quibbling about words, nevertheless when the Minister says "may" means "must" it gives greater weight to my remarks. Apparently, the provision now means that the appropriate national authority "must" cause an inquiry to be held in relation to a charging scheme; and that must be nonsense. After all, the way in which these schemes are set up is extremely detailed in terms of their prescription. Regulations for both kinds of levy to cover exemptions and enforcements are enabled by the Bill; the content of each scheme is described in some detail on the face of the Bill; and the
Altogether it is a pretty prescriptive control for a locally determined scheme. My question therefore is: why might the appropriate national authority feel that it should step in and hold an inquiry at a time when a scheme is being brought into effect? Why cannot the local authority simply be instructed to think again about its scheme?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Within this group it will be generally recognised that the authors of Amendments Nos. 211, 212, 251 and 252 on the one hand and 214 and 254 on the other cannot both be right; they both argue strongly in opposite directions.
There is no question here that "may" equals "shall". It is intended that the requirement to hold a public inquiry should be only in appropriate cases. Holding a public inquiry before a charging or licensing scheme is introduced may well be appropriate. It may also be appropriate to hold an inquiry if there is a significant variation to a scheme. It may even be appropriate to hold an inquiry into the revocation of a scheme. But it cannot be sensible to make public inquiries compulsory in all circumstances for all schemes and for any change to each and every scheme, which is what the Conservative amendments seek.
In addition, the amendments would remove the ability of charging and licensing authorities to fine tune schemes--in other words, to make minor changes--or to revoke schemes quickly. So although I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, tabled his amendments, they would not be helpful or beneficial.
However, I would not want the Committee to feel that we do not attach considerable importance to proper and effective scrutiny of the details of individual schemes. We have just debated our commitment to full and effective consultation. That is why we have parallel provisions in the Bill dealing with inquiries. Clause 169(2)(a) gives charging authorities the power to hold an inquiry when they deem it necessary, and we will issue guidance on that matter. Clause 169(4)(a) provides the appropriate national authority with the power to direct a charging authority to hold a public inquiry if it feels that this is appropriate. There are identical provisions in Chapter II dealing with the workplace parking levy.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will be pleased to hear that we are in agreement about Amendments Nos. 213 and 253. But while we agree with what he is seeking to achieve, I advise the noble Lord not to smile too soon. We do not believe that it is necessary to write such a provision on the face of the Bill because the consequence of any inquiry that failed to meet this criterion would be vulnerable to a successful challenge in the courts. Nevertheless, I reiterate our belief and intention that inquiries should be run by suitably qualified people who are independent.
I turn now to Amendments Nos. 214 and 254 tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. I agree with the noble Baroness that we do not want to see unnecessary delays in the introduction of schemes. But the power to require an inquiry to be held into the establishment or variation of a scheme is an important reserve power that may be needed if local consultations have not been adequate to safeguard the interests of the local community. The power proposed by the amendments to require the re-examination of specific aspects of a charging scheme is already available to the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales through the process of scheme approval.
If we made the amendments, they would also have the unintended effect of giving the appropriate national authority the power to prevent a local authority revoking its charging scheme. As drafted, the power to direct that an inquiry should be held applies only to the introduction and variation of a scheme, not to its revocation. I hope the noble Baroness will agree that authorities should not be tied into schemes without the option to revoke them immediately if they wish to do so. We should not want to see a national authority preventing a local authority terminating a scheme by continuously questioning the revocation order. On that basis, I hope that Members of the Committee, coming at us from both sides, will feel that it is unnecessary to press these amendments.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I thank the Minister for his reply, but I should like gently to point out that I am not under any obligation whatever to agree with my colleagues who sit further along on the Conservative Benches. Indeed, we speak for ourselves and not for anyone else.
I have learnt something today; namely, that the word "may" means "shall" in Clause 169(2), but that "may" means "may" in Clause 169(4). So we have at least got further down the road as regards the drafting of Bills. I shall not chop logic any more with the Minister because he is probably rather better at it than I am. I await with interest to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, says about his amendments.
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