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Lord Bridges: I should like to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, because I, too, feel that the words "they consider" go much too far. If the Bill goes on to the statute book in its present form, it will introduce new and undesirable conflict between local and central government. Using the terminology in Clause 2, it would be possible, for example, for a local authority to overrule and ignore a policy planning guidance on an important matter issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Surely that would be undesirable? A local authority should have reasonable freedom to operate within the framework set down by central government. As drafted, this clause will lead to chaos.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I support the amendment and all that has been said in support of it by my noble friend Lord Peyton. The phrase "they consider" confers an absolute delegation and subjective dispensation of discretionary power. It is wholly unacceptable, in particular when taken in conjunction with the concept of promotion, upon which I shall speak in a subsequent amendment. I support the amendment and hope that it shall be taken seriously.
Baroness Hamwee: Before I turn to Amendment No. 1, I should like to add my voice to the critical comments that have been made on the number of government amendments to the Bill. At the time of the debate on Second Reading we were aware that whole swathes of amendments would be coming from the Minister. I then asked the Minister to ensure that we were given a period of 14 days from when we knew exactly which Bill the Government wished to promote until the start of the Committee stage. That has not proved possible, although I thank the Minister for the efforts made by himself and those in his office so that, at any rate, the Front Benches were made aware of the changes a little over a week ago. However, I stress that only the Front Benches were so informed and even then only with the aid of fax machines.
I acknowledge that, following my request for the revised Bill, the Minister's office has made sterling efforts to produce a version of the Bill incorporating all the proposed changes. However, I am sorry to say that the Minister's office was forced to use old-fashioned physical cut-and-paste methods rather than modern technology. I had already mentioned to a number of interested outside organisations that the Minister had agreed to produce a revised version. Those organisations were pleased because their lives would have been made easier and they had expected to be able to see that version through electronic means. I am sure noble Lords will agree that such outside bodies often provide invaluable assistance with their comments on how proposed legislation may affect their areas. I am sad that in this case the Government were unable to make use of modern technology and I hope that they will ensure that a version will shortly be made available using the appropriate technology.
I should like to make a few comments on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil. My noble friend Lord Tope recently discovered that "Wednesbury" is a place as well as a principle. For that reason I assume--and I hope that the Minister can confirm this--that that principle will apply here. In other words, one must read into this provision the term "reasonably". The matters which form the subject of the clause are points of judgment. We on these Benches would always prefer a local authority to be able to be the judge--within reasonable constraints--of what is proper and appropriate and what will achieve the objectives provided for in legislation. Local authorities are not being offered a blank sheet here. However, we would prefer to see local government being able to take a reasonable view of local circumstances without too much imposition from central government.
As in other legislation, many provisions in the Bill provide for the Secretary of State to issue directions and generally refer to what the Secretary of State "considers appropriate". If every decision was made so prescriptive that it had to be passed to a court for consideration, progress would become very difficult.
A consequence of the very limited scope within which English and Welsh authorities have operated to date has been that, on occasion, they have proceeded with excessive caution and, as a consequence, have incurred excessive legal costs when trying to validate the question of whether they have legal powers. In some cases, such as major property deals, the costs of such validation have been quite astronomical. We should bear in mind that the amendment before us would take us straight back into that quagmire. That is not in the general interest of local authorities. In my opinion, it might be of interest to certain lawyers, but by no means all. For that reason, I believe that the form of words used in the Bill is well tried and tested--it is similar to that already used in Section 137 of the 1989 Act.
The provision marks an important new beginning for the relationship between central and local government. Does the Minister recognise that we should stand firm with the Bill as presently drafted and try to move forward towards a more positive relationship than perhaps has been the case in the past?
Lord Dixon-Smith: I hope that the Committee will grant me a few moments' indulgence to follow the remarks of my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is an interesting--if somewhat salutary--thought that the Greater London Authority Bill, which comprised 300-odd pages, only attracted around 850 government amendments, and even then only after a great deal of work. On this Bill, the ratio of amendment to page of legislation is considerably worse. I feel sorry for the Minister, although I do not sympathise with him, if one may make that distinction.
The fact is that the Bill, as the noble Lord would like to see it amended, is an extremely useful document. It enables me to make yet another comparison, which is that the Bill will go from 51 pages to 64, an increase of the order of 20 per cent, as a result of the Government's amendments alone. That is not the end of our problems. I am well aware that it is a diversion, but there is also a document, 160 pages of it--The Local Government Bill Consultative Drafts of Proposed Guidance and Regulations on New Constitutions for Councils (Part II and Clauses 66, 67). So not only are we dealing with a major Bill which is to be changed in a dramatic way; much of the detail, the body and the substance of what is going to affect local councils is in another document which is not before us. That is highly regrettable.
We can only deal with the situation we are in. As I said, I feel sorry for the Minister, but I do not sympathise with him. I add my protest to those already made. This is not a proper or an appropriate way to legislate. Still less is it a proper or appropriate way to treat local councils which are democratically elected. I should add here, I suppose in parenthesis, "as we are not", but, of course, the other place will plead democratic superiority as it does over us. However, local councils are democratic. They have a right to their own opinions and they should have a right to organise their own affairs. The Bill seeks to impose a form of organisation on their administration. However, as I said at Second Reading, if my memory is correct, it is outwith the convention on freedom for European local authorities.
That is as may be. As I say, we have to live with it. I make one point in support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I suspect that that there are not many local authorities that could not have produced the Bill, as revised, straight off their own computers. Here we are with the Government unable to do that and yet seeking to force change down their throats. I do not think that that is satisfactory.
When one comes to the amendment itself, the difference between what the Government want and what my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil would like might appear to be marginal. But if the amendment were accepted, Clause 2(1) would read:
Thought is a wonderful thing. I have all kinds of random thoughts. But the idea that local authorities might act on the basis of random thoughts--I am sure they would not because I believe they are extremely responsible organisations with very good members--which they considered appropriate to this action seems to me wholly inappropriate. If nothing else, it is unnecessary wording. As someone who prefers to see plain English--we have some fairly obscure stuff coming towards us later on--I would prefer to see this little consideration considered inappropriate. I support my noble friend.
Lord Mishcon: Many of us who have served in local government have had cause to regret what has happened to local government over recent years. We have seen a falling off in the capabilities--let us be frank--of members of council and of officers. That is due, I suggest, almost entirely to the fact that powers and discretion have been removed from local authorities until we have reached the stage where, frankly, men and women of ability do not even apply to become members of local authorities.
I was delighted to see the wording that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and others have criticised. Otherwise one asks oneself who is to judge whether these things are likely to benefit the area for which the local authority stands. Who is to judge? Is it the Minister? Is it a court of law? Who is to say whether, in the face of a challenge, what has been done by the local authority is right or wrong? The clause says that the local authority will consider what is likely to be for
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