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Lord Dixon-Smith: The noble Lord, Lord Tope, makes a plausible case for moving the budgetary process of the Greater London Authority forward to an earlier date, but, as we found earlier this afternoon, the problem lies in the detail. A move from 1st February, the date in the Bill, to 1st November would move the Greater London Authority's budget decisions back to before the end of a normal parliamentary Session, and certainly, as
I think I am right in saying that the noble Lord has experience only of budgets within London. If he had had county experience, as I have had, he would know that one becomes used to the pressures that arise on a precepting authority, as the county council is and as the Greater London Authority will be, and then the precept effect on the boroughs and their equivalent, the district councils, in county areas. That is the reality of this particular amendment.
Nevertheless, we all wish to see the budgetary process going ahead at an earlier stage, if achievable. So while I cannot support the detail of the amendment, I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. The principle is correct, even though the detail may be in error.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: As the noble Lord said, Amendment No. 213C would require the mayor to present the draft consolidated budget to the assembly by 1st November rather than by 1st February as provided in the Bill. But, as he acknowledged, the amendment would also bring forward the deadline for approving the budget, so the timetable for the budget process would not be extended.
Although I can see that November may have been chosen to coincide with the provisional local government finance settlement, it is difficult to believe that the noble Lord is arguing that the GLA's budget should be fixed before its grant allocation is finalised. That would make no sense at all. As he recognised, the provisional settlement is announced in December rather than November, leaving the mayor and assembly to work without even provisional grant figures.
In response to his comment about the timing and December being too late, I should say that this year we announced overall provisions for local authorities for the next three years, which should help local authorities to plan their expenditure.
Although the mayor and assembly would be required to complete their respective roles in setting the budget before the end of November, the deadline for setting the budget requirement and issuing a precept to billing authorities would remain unchanged--the last day of February.
I cannot agree that the deadline for either the draft or the actual budget should be brought forward. The GLA, like local authorities, must be able to take account of the local government finance settlement in setting its budget. The mayor is required to consult the assembly before finalising his draft budget and we expect that much of the work will take place long in advance of the steps required in Schedule 5. In fact, I should be surprised were the mayor and assembly not to reach a
Baroness Hamwee: I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, ended his series of "buts" with an acknowledgement that the various elements of the cycle may deserve some examination. Whether our proposed dates are right or wrong, I am sorry that the noble Baroness did not acknowledge that it is worth pausing to consider whether what is proposed here is a practical or, one may argue, the best proposal.
I say that in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said about the pressures under which the counties are accustomed to work. Of course, a few years ago, the London boroughs were accustomed to having to reflect the GLC's demands and there are still precepts with regard to the police and so on. Just because that awkward situation exists in the counties and districts outside London, should those difficulties necessarily be replicated in London? We believe not.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Conservatives have argued forcefully that the position of the boroughs--and I paraphrase--should be paramount. This amendment does not seek to suggest that one set of bodies should take precedence over another. But we acknowledge that one of those sets of bodies--that is, the boroughs--is in a position which needs to be recognised, both with regard to the work which must be undertaken at borough level during the heat and hard work of setting the budgets towards the end of the calendar year when the settlement is announced and in what is a fairly frantic period over Christmas and the early part of each new calendar year.
We are very much aware that any borough which wishes to do that job properly cannot do so, sitting in its own town hall, without having a dialogue with the residents. The establishment of the GLA will create the need for an extra element of that dialogue. We are keen to make sure that it is an effective dialogue.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I am sorry that the noble Baroness feels that I did not respond to the point that was raised. I referred to the fact that we should fully expect a great deal of work to take place in advance of those steps being taken. We are talking about the framework of the Bill as opposed to the establishment of good practice, which will quite clearly allow for earlier discussions.
However, I return to the point regarding the announcement of the RSG settlement. To require the GLA to establish its programme within the law at a much earlier stage may put it at a disadvantage and, I argue, may quite inadvertently create those problems for the boroughs which the noble Baroness fears and which we all seek to avoid. Quite dramatic changes may need to be made in the circumstances. Therefore, the boroughs may be working on a false assumption.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I speak from recollection, and I shall write to the noble Baroness and correct it if I am wrong, but I believe that the final approval of the settlement takes place in February. The figures announced at the end of November or in December are for consultation. To be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, his amendment does not propose to change the date of the RSG, although I recognise that we are trampling on yet one more of the dreams of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The noble Baroness need not write to me. I just wanted to be sure that the settlement could be announced when Parliament was in Recess, if that became necessary. It sounds as though that is possible, if it is only for consultation. I am sorry if I am confusing matters. I just want to be sure that there is no impossible implication for government in this amendment. It sounds as though there is not. I do wish the noble Baroness to write to me about that.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. The final settlement, which is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, is not until February. The noble Baroness asked me about November.
Lord Tope: I can only say that the Minister has been too long out of local government. She is right to say that the RSG announcement made at the end of November or early December these days is an announcement for consultation purposes, at least in theory. I imagine, therefore, that it could be made when Parliament is not in Session, although I would not propose that it should be.
The consultation period then lasts through December until either late December or early January. At that point Ministers presumably make up their minds and most authorities find that their final settlement has changed from the original suggestion by £2,000 or £3,000 on a budget of several hundred million pounds. That is the process.
The noble Baroness is also correct in that I do not propose in these amendments to change the date of the announcement of the RSG settlement. It is probably outside the scope of the Bill to do so. Were it within the scope of the Bill, I would certainly propose that we should change the date of the settlement; that is, to have the announcement in late November/early December to be able to carry out proper and effective consultation with voluntary groups, local residents, local businesses, and so on, over the Christmas period. That is something we have attempted every year for the past seven or eight years. Even giving due warning of such meetings, there
Of course, I accept that the mayor cannot propose, and the GLA cannot decide, the budget for the year without knowing what the RSG settlement will be. However, the date of the RSG settlement announcement is not laid down by some immutable law of nature; it is laid down by the Treasury. If an amendment in the Bill was to have the effect of moving in the direction in which I wish, I would propose it even more fervently than I do now.
The dates suggested here--November rather than February--are negotiable. I would not go to the wall if the Minister said, "We cannot accept November but we might accept December or an earlier date than February". I expect that we would be both pleased and surprised. The purpose of the amendment and the theme I was trying to explore is the need to give more time for effective public consultation in the budget preparation. I accept the comments of the noble Baroness that there will be many private and public discussions long before February in the course of budget preparation. Once a deadline is put in an Act of Parliament, that tends to be the deadline, and most of us inevitably work to deadlines. I fear that we shall be stuck with a deadline which, in my view, even with the RSG settlement remaining as it is in terms of timetable, gives a period of time which is much too short and tight for effective work on a budget.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the fact that I have only London experience and have not enjoyed the delights of county and district government. That is correct, but perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that I served for 12 years on a London borough council when we had the Greater London Council, which also levied a precept upon us. That was at times both exciting and interesting. I believe that process is similar. Therefore, I do have some experience of this and I can assure him that not having a precept levied upon one by a county council, or in this case the Greater London Authority, does not make it any less stressful at budget time. It makes it hard, perhaps, to find someone else to blame, but usually the Government serve for that.
I believe that I have raised the issue. I suspect that we shall return to it, perhaps with a little more of the detail for which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is looking. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.