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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I have nothing to say other than to ask one question. I believe that this is an

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enormously welcome move. Again, it will take some of the bureaucracy out of the system. However, can the Minister say whether the level of grants that can be given by local authorities will remain the same as they are at present under statute, or can a local authority now have discretion as to how much it gives under any circumstances, or is it still bound by the original rules?

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, from these Benches, we also welcome the order. Again, it gives freedom to local authorities to act without the all-powerful hand of the Secretary of State in an area which is very important, particularly now that the Government have placed great emphasis on local housing strategies. This issue is obviously an important part of that.

Again, the Government have made changes in accordance with the relevant committee recommendations in both Houses. Personally, I believe that this is a far better way of assisting people to enter home ownership than the right-to-buy system, because it means that the property they are renting remains as a social housing unit for renting. I am particularly in favour of that.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful that the order has been welcomed. With regard to whether the level of grants will remain the same, new arrangements will provide authorities with the power to decide the level of grants to be offered. Therefore, there is an element of flexibility in that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Town and Country Planning (Electronic Communications) (England) Order 2003

8.3 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order was laid before the House on 6th March and was approved in another place on 20th March. It will facilitate electronic handling of parts of the town and country planning system. It does so by amending existing legislation to remove obstacles to the effective use of electronic communications. Because it is an amending instrument, the order may not be an easy document to read. It may be helpful to noble Lords if I summarise the background and purpose of the order.

Central and local government have adopted the target of making all services available electronically by December 2005. For planning services, that target will require the electronic delivery of a fully functioning development control service. In order to achieve the target, we must seek to ensure that we remove any legal and regulatory barriers to electronic working. Section 8 of the Electronics Communications Act 2000, under which this order has been made, gives us powers to amend existing legislation to remove any such barriers in our legislation which may prevent the use of electronic communication and storage in place of paper.

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The order chiefly amends the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended. It is the principal Act governing the planning system, together with parts of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, two schedules to the Environment Act 1995 and some of the secondary legislation made under the planning Acts. The intention of all the amendments made by the order is to ensure that the relevant legislation can be construed explicitly and consistently as permitting the use of electronic communication.

The amendments provide for the electronic submission, receipt and handling of: planning applications, including outline planning applications and reserved matters applications; applications for listed building and conservation area consent; applications to mineral planning authorities; applications for determination of whether prior approval is required; applications for certificates of lawful use of development; planning appeals; listed building and conservation area consent appeals; and, finally, enforcement notice appeals, including listed buildings and conservation area enforcement appeals.

The order is only in respect of part of the planning system and we have in hand the preparation of a further order to deal with advertisement consents and appeals. Further Section 8 orders may be needed, but future primary and secondary legislation is being prepared so that it is compatible with electronic working.

As I have mentioned, the order facilitates the electronic handling of parts of the planning system and so does no more than create an opportunity for those who wish to use an electronic rather than a paper-based planning system. The existing paper-based system will continue to operate for as long as those engaging in the planning system wish to use it.

But the potential benefits of engaging in the planning process electronically are considerable. They include, for example: faster—almost instantaneous—transmission between parties; reduced postage, packing, photocopying and printing; reduced storage space for papers and files; closer linkages between participants in the planning system; better access to guidance, support and tools to support the planning process; and, in particular, more open access to the planning system for all parties.

The order has been welcomed by key stakeholders in the planning system, including the Royal Town Planning Institution, the Council on Tribunals and the Local Government Association. In particular, the Council on Tribunals considered that giving people the opportunity to communicate electronically while continuing the operation of a paper-based system for as long people wanted it was absolutely right. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting)

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a town planning committee. If people want to work through an electronic system, that is

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great. Is there any danger that the order may be used for consultation purposes? I believe that one needs to write on paper to those being consulted rather than rely on electronic methods, as one may miss someone. Apart from that I have no objections. I hope that people have a merry time with this.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the use of modern technology. We welcome the fact that electronic communication will not be compulsory, which could lead to people being excluded. We should also take account of the fact that electronic transmission does not always work. In my part of the world the electricity system does not always work. As the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who is in his seat, knows, I have raised this matter several times with him.

I also hope that the Minister can reassure me that the Government will monitor the progress of the scheme and evaluate how it works. I picked up from somewhere the fact that although this is to happen, the advertising of it has not been great; people do not know about it. How will people receive information on the system so that they can use it and what steps will the Government take to evaluate how it is progressing? Apart from that we support the order.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, my only regret is that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is not in his place. As someone who consistently chides the Government about how slow they are to introduce electronic communication and as someone who was heavily involved with a system for libraries in a previous incarnation, I totally support what the noble Lord says. Of course, this system will not be compulsory. As I have said before, both systems—hard copy and electronic—can be used for as long as necessary. My private view is that once someone starts to use electronic methods of communicating it is difficult to go back to a hard copy.

I have been asked how we shall evaluate the scheme. Nothing in the order deals with evaluating, but we shall note the concerns of noble Lords and we shall see how matters progress. In other areas where electronic communication has been introduced, it has been an almost entirely positive development. A fascinating point is that electronic communication is a generation thing. My generation is accustomed to the printed word and writing letters but the younger generation use e-mails and enjoy communicating electronically. I hope that that has answered the few questions I was asked.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Paternity and Adoption Leave (Adoption from Overseas) Regulations 2003

8.12 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 24th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to this set of regulations I shall also speak to the Employment Rights Act 1996 (Application of Section 80B to Adoptions from Overseas) Regulations 2003. Towards the end of last year, the House debated regulations introducing a package of measures that give more support and choice for parents in the workplace. As part of that package the Government are introducing new leave and pay rights for employees adopting children in Great Britain. I am sure we can all agree that this is an excellent thing as it will mean that from 6th April 2003 adopting parents will have leave and pay entitlements comparable to the maternity provisions. For the first time, those parents, who perform such a valuable function in our society, will have a statutory right to time off work to establish a relationship with their new child.

The regulations we have before us today ensure that the right to adoption leave also applies to those who have adopted a child from overseas, a process sometimes known as inter-country adoption. We are not debating the pay aspects today as these are dealt with by separate regulations laid before Parliament by the negative resolution procedure. These regulations define an adoption from overseas as,

    "the adoption of a child who enters Great Britain from outside the United Kingdom in connection with or for the purposes of adoption which does not involve the placement of the child for adoption under the law of any part of the United Kingdom".

The Government believe that it is only right that children who are adopted from overseas following the proper procedures and brought to live in this country permanently with their adoptive parents are given the same chance as any other child to develop a lasting and close relationship with their parents. In some cases these children will not be newly-born babies and one could argue that the period needed for them to integrate into their new home need not be as long. We should bear in mind the difficulties that these children will often have encountered in their lives and that, while the task for adoptive parents is different from that which birth parents face, it is in some ways harder, and easily requires as much time and patience. We therefore undertook to give the same rights to parents adopting from overseas as those adopting within Great Britain during the passage of the Employment Bill.

Those rights are 12 months' adoption leave for one adoptive parent, six months' leave paid at the standard rate of 100 per week followed by six months' unpaid leave. The other parent will be eligible for one or two weeks' paternity leave, again paid at the standard rate of 100 per week. So the entitlements are the same as those for domestic adoptions. The need for separate regulation for overseas adoptions arises because the processes involved in overseas adoptions differ markedly from those for domestic adoptions and are complex in themselves.

The main difference is that the key concepts of a child being "placed" with the adopter and of the adopter being "matched" with a child, which appear in the domestic regulations as elements of the conditions

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of entitlement and as points at which the employee is required to give notice to the employer, do not occur in this country in the case of overseas adoptions.

Of course it is important that we get the notification mechanism right, so that employers have a fair idea of when their employee will take leave in order to plan for the future. Getting the notification requirements right has been a difficult matter as overseas adoption is usually a long-drawn out process, which is often subject to uncertainty. The Government realised that after they talked to interested parties—the Department of Health and the Inland Revenue—about the processes involved. However, it was clear that certain key points in the process could be used.

Adopters will receive an official notification, in most cases from the Secretary of State for Health, that they have been assessed as suitable to adopt. The regulations use that point and the date on which the child enters Great Britain as elements in the conditions of entitlement and as points at which employees must notify their employer of their intention to take leave if they have sufficient length of service.

It can often take more than a year for a child to enter the country following a favourable assessment of the potential adopters. For that reason we allow for the possibility that an employee may move jobs, perhaps in circumstances beyond his or her control. We do not think that it would be fair to exclude employees from the rights where that happens, and we do not think that it would be to the advantage of employers to do so. So employees wishing to take adoption or paternity leave also have the option of notifying their employer of their intention to take leave once they have the necessary 26 weeks' qualifying service with their new employer, even if they received the certificate of notification some time before.

In all cases employees must have worked for their employer for 26 weeks to qualify for the rights, and must give their employer a minimum of 28 days' notice of when they intend that leave to start. The regulations will operate within the context of adoption law, which sets out the procedures for adoption from overseas. Under that legislation, adopters must follow clearly defined rules to be assessed and approved to adopt and to gain entry clearance for their new child.

I want to stress that most employers will not be affected by these measures. At present there are in the region of 300 adoptions of children from overseas a year. The numbers are not likely to increase and not everyone will take advantage of the new rights. Although these rights will affect only a small number of people and their employers, I believe they represent an important addition to the new rights for working parents as they make sure that people do not miss out on the opportunity to balance life and work just because they decided to adopt a child from overseas rather than in Great Britain. I therefore commend the draft regulations to the House. I beg to move.

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Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 24th February be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Sainsbury of Turville.)

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