Standing Committee E
Tuesday 11 December 2001
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move,
That, during proceedings on the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill, the Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at Five Minutes to Ten o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock.
The sittings motion is relatively short and self-explanatory, and should allow ample time for us to discuss the fairly short and limited provisions in the Bill. This is my first Standing Committee as a Minister, and I apologise in advance for any slight slips that may occur under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths. I am glad that the Committee consists of long-standing and distinguished Members, too, who will no doubt be extremely well informed and articulate at all times.
The Bill is small, and I do not propose to detain the Committee further. I hope that the motion will be approved.
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): All that I wish to add is that we look forward to what I believe will be an interesting series of deliberations in Committee. As it is the hon. Gentleman's first Committee as a Minister, we promise to try to be gentle, but I am sure that he will not need us to be. I am sure that he will handle the matter with his customary skill and eloquence.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I, too, am a bit rusty, having not served on a Committee for about three or four years, and I hope that the Committee will bear with me, too. We do not intend to hold up the Committee for a great deal of time this morning and merely want to probe the Minister on several issues. I look forward to doing that shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. Although it may not be necessary—indeed, I am sure that all of you hope that it will not be—adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee. I also remind Members that the Committee will not sit this afternoon. If proceedings are not concluded this morning, the Committee will meet again on Thursday morning.
Civil defence: grants
Mr. Oaten: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, leave out lines 17 to 20.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 6, leave out from 'paid' to the end of line 10 and insert
'annually in the financial year to which it applies'.
Mr. Oaten: This is an opportunity to explore why a change has been introduced to what would seem to be a most sensible way of allocating grants. The system suggested in the Bill would set aside the standard formula for allocating money for different authorities. Why is that different approach being taken? It is hard to understand why a standard formula cannot be worked out to take account of different sizes of authority and authorities' different demands. Once fixed and in place, the point of such formulas is to take account of differences that emerge. It is not clear why the Government want to change the system and allow the Minister to take differing views and change the formula. It is unclear why such decisions will be taken, what criteria the Government would use to make different allocations, when that would happen, whether the Minister wants to be able to do that annually or at short notice, who would be informed and how transparent the process will be. That raises some concerns—I do not for a moment suggest that the Minister would be involved in this—that Ministers might come under pressure as a result of special pleading from particular authorities, or, perhaps, favoured authorities that have done particularly well, or a chat in a corridor. I do not believe that that is a transparent way in which to set a grant system.
The Minister might respond by saying that it is necessary to be able to react to events and that it is difficult to plan some of these things a year in advance, as circumstances might change. The events of 11 September illustrate that. Perhaps that is why the Government want flexibility: they want to be able to make adjustments if special circumstances arise in, for example, Birmingham, Manchester or Oldham that suddenly require something to be done that does not conform to the formula.
However, I understand that that flexibility already exists: additional payments can be made for certain projects or emergencies. Therefore, a standard formula could be established, and if special circumstances arose, additional resources could be invested.
As a consequence, I am unclear about why this is needed. I hope that the Minister will give a little more information about it. Why is it necessary? How would the change be allocated? Would Parliament have an opportunity to scrutinise the matter? It would be wrong if the Minister could decide, without anyone else having the right to express an opinion or make a judgment, that, for instance, the formula needed to be changed in the middle of the financial year, so that more resources could be allocated to Birmingham or Manchester.
Mr. Collins: As you, Mr. Griffiths, will have noticed, my name appears on the amendment together with that of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). Perhaps the Government Whip is a little sensitive about yesterday's developments—[Interruption.] He has indicated, by a sedentary intervention, that he is not totally content.
As the hon. Member for Winchester has said, one of the amendment's purposes is to establish what the Government think about the subject under discussion. Although the Minister is likely to refer us to standard procedures relating to the allocation of grants to local authorities under other legislation, several points require clarification.
The lines that the amendment would delete contain a reference to the designated Minister. Although such a reference is standard practice in legislation, will the Minister clarify which of his colleagues at the Cabinet Office he would expect to be the designated Minister for those purposes—would it be him or someone else? The situation has changed: responsibilities were transferred earlier in 2001 from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office, and local authorities would like to know which Minister they should be lobbying with regard to those purposes and whether a particular portfolio within the Cabinet Office would normally be expected to have responsibility for the allocation of grants.
Will the Minister also share his thoughts about the general view that he would expect the Government to take across the board—or, specifically, Cabinet Office Ministers to take with regard to this particular instance? What criteria would they use to assess whether it they should use different formulae or criteria when making determinations for different authorities? Is it simply the case, as the hon. Member for Winchester said, that the Minister wishes to have the flexibility to take account of unexpected circumstances, or does he wish, in general, to have the power to distinguish between, for example, urban and rural authorities—or to make special provisions for authorities with major concentrations of population that might be subject to particular forms of civil contingency planning, or for authorities with a coastline or a large amount of territory that is affected by flood plains or rivers? What criteria might the Government wish to use to draw distinctions between local authorities?
The Minister will be aware that there is always enormous tension—some might go so far as to say resentment—among local authorities when distinctions are made. It will always be the case that no two local authorities will be treated in a way that leaves both of them happy. However, it is important to have clarification on the reasons why local authorities that regard themselves as similar are treated differently by the Government for these purposes.
Finally, should the amendment fall and subsection (3) remain unaltered, does the Minister expect Government decisions under this heading to be subject to the normal processes of judicial review? If a local authority felt that a ministerial decision was unreasonable, even allowing for the flexibility granted under the Bill, could it still ask the court for a view on whether the Government had acted unreasonably or on the basis of demonstrably faulty information? It would reassure me if the Minister were to say that the normal procedures would remain in place. In certain circumstances, local authorities may wish to avail themselves of that important backstop.
I hope that the Minister will be able, perhaps with advice, to answer some of those questions. If he cannot answer them now, perhaps he will do so in correspondence.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate. The Minister will recall that I expressed particular concern on Second Reading about the issues covered by amendment No. 1, because Worcestershire county council and I regard subsection (3) as probably the most offensive part of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who speaks for the official Opposition, was mild-mannered and courteous in making his objections. I am tempted to be rather more robust in order to reflect the concerns of my county council.
The Minister will recall that I paraphrased the explanatory notes on Second Reading. That paraphrase goes to the heart of the amendment, which I strongly support, because it would leave out those quite extraordinary powers. Will the Minister reassure Worcestershire county council and me that the arbitrary powers granted by Bill have a well-founded precedence? I was interested to note that, on winding up on Second Reading, the Minister said that the provisions replicated provisions elsewhere in local government formulae and funding arrangements. If that is so, my objection is more difficult to sustain. However, my county council feels that those provisions will clearly and arbitrarily allow different criteria to be used for different parts of the country.
Of particular concern to the county council is proposed subsection (3)(b), which states:
''may vary a determination by a further determination.''
In other words, a grant can be held back and not paid for an indefinite number of years. The Minister could arbitrarily decide to reduce a previously announced grant to zero, leaving the county with no money at all. That may be an extreme case, but it seems remarkable that we should grant the Minister such arbitrary powers. I urge him to consider whether he needs them and whether, on reflection, he could accept amendment No. 1.