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Local Government Bill

Volume 129: debated on Wednesday 9 March 1988

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New Clause

Additional Ppowers For Auditors Of Local Authorities Etc

Lords amendment: No. 13, after clause 29, insert new clause—

". —(1) After section 25 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 there shall he inserted the sections set out in Schedule [Sections to be inserted in Part III of Local Government Finance Act 1982] to this Act.
(2) In section 16 of that Act (auditor's right to obtain documents and information) for the words "for the purposes of the audit", in each place where they occur, there shall be substituted "for the purposes of his functions under this Act".
(3) This section and that Schedule shall come into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.
(4) This section and that Schedule shall extend to England and Wales only."

Read a Second time.

11.15 pm

I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in line 10, leave out 'two months' and insert 'one year'.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment 27, amendment (b) to Lords amendment 27, and Lords amendment 35.

I sincerely apologise to the House for returning to the subject of local government, which is the purpose of the Bill, and delaying the House by seeking to debate, for the first time in the House of Commons, the new powers of the local authority auditors in relation to the new clause and schedule that was slipped into the Bill in the other place—[Interruption.]

Order. Would hon. Members whose interest in our proceedings is diminishing please leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?

I am well aware that local authority issues are pretty gripping to hon. Members, as is suggested by the interest in the Bill itself. Nevertheless, we want to go through some of the remaining Lords amendments simply because in the past the House has never had the opportunity to get from the Government the reasons for the new powers being given to the local authority auditors.

The changes involved in the part of the Bill relating to the local authority auditors are important structural changes to local government. There is no question about that. In fact, the argument that was deployed as a result of the Widdicombe report said that those changes should be made as part and parcel of a major change. We register our protest at the Government dealing piecemeal with this matter. On the one hand, the powers for the auditors are put in the Local Government Bill as Lords amendments, when powers which are similar to those of the local authority chief finance officers—again something with which the Widdicombe report dealt at length—are being put in the Local Government Finance Bill, which is known to all and sundry as the "poll tax" Bill, and which is still upstairs in Committee. Therefore, in two different Bills two substantial changes to the structure of local government are being dealt with.

I allude to amendment (a) briefly. I do not want to go over all the issues that were raised in the Lords or through all the parts of the clause because I do not think that the House would be with me if I did. Basically, the purpose of amendment (a) is to put off the coming into force of the provisions that give new powers to the local authority auditors. We are seeking to put them off for one year instead of two months. The amendment provides an opportunity to criticise the Government for using the Local Government Bill as the legislative vehicle.

I wish to put on the record two simple and short points. First, there has been minimal parliamentary scrutiny of the new auditors' powers under the Bill. We must register that point. It is OK for Governments to find things that are technically wrong with a Bill at the last minute and to make changes in the Lords. That is fine and we accept that because it is part of the process of having two Chambers of parliament. However, the debate that has just taken five hours, took five hours only because that clause was slipped in at the end of the Committee stage. In fact, it was slipped in on the very last afternoon of the Committee stage when we had an agreement with the Government, which we were going to honour, about a finish date. It was not as though we could get any extra half days or an extra few hours. We make no complaint about that. However, that is why the promotion of homosexuality took up so much time on Report and so much time today.

Hon. Members have demonstrated that they believe that the issue of homosexuality is more important than the substance of the Bill—competitive tendering, contract compliance. That is the will of the House. It is no good any hon. Member complaining about the fact that I intend to spend only a few minutes on this amendment. I believe that those hon. Members who spent so much time debating clause 28 should also be made to vote on all the other amendments down for discussion. However that is not how this place works. I believe that what took place tonight was an abuse and should be stopped.

There was nothing to prevent the Government from including the auditors' powers in the Local Government Finance Bill. We would not have complained about that. By the time the Government inserted the clause relating to the new powers for auditors in the Local Government Bill in the other place the poll tax Bill had already had its Second Reading in this place. Hon. Members will remember that the whole thing was done before Christmas. It would have been possible to add new clauses to the poll tax Bill. After all, upstairs the Government have promoted almost 500 amendments to that Bill and 16 new clauses. There is much more to come. Today we had a statement that further clauses, schedules and amendments on important issues will be introduced to the poll tax Bill even after the guillotine motion.

The new powers of the auditors will go hand in hand with the new powers of local authority chief finance officers. Those new powers resulted from the Widdicombe report and they could have been included in the poll tax Bill. In that way those powers would have been subject to parliamentary scrutiny. As it is, those powers will not receive such scrutiny and I make no apology for that. The House cannot do its job properly until those hon. Members who are interested in local government, either for party political reasons or as a result of service in local government, have the opportunity to scrutinise those matters properly. Indeed, there has been no opportunity for hon. Members to consider the implementation of the Widdicombe proposals.

I accept that, since the Minister's appointment in July, the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and myself have been locked in Committee almost every day of the parliamentary week. We know what the Minister has been doing, but that means that he has not had the opportunity to sit back and take a long-term view of his responsibilities and what is in the pipeline as a result of reports upon which the Government may wish to legislate, with or without the support of the Opposition — we do not oppose everything.

The Minister should learn a lesson from this parliamentary fiasco. He should decide that the rest of the Widdicombe report should be put to the House of Commons as a coherent package. In that way the House would be able to consider those legislative proposals and give the package proper scrutiny. If the Minister takes that lesson on board I will not have spent the past five minutes in vain.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) that the relationship between auditors and local authorities and the new powers of auditors are extremely important.

It is wholly unsatisfactory that we should be dealing with this matter on the basis of amendments that were moved by Ministers at a later stage when the Bill was in another place. That denied us the opportunity of dealing with such matters at an earlier stage when we were considering the Bill.

I should declare an interest as parliamentary adviser to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. Although the provision applies only to England and Wales, the Scottish institute has an interest in audit functions generally; that is why I declare my interest.

It is nonsense to be giving additional powers in this Bill to auditors to act when they believe that a local authority may be about to behave illegally when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr pointed out, similar provisions in relation to chief financial officers are being dealt with in the Local Government Finance Bill. It is even greater nonsense given that the Minister in charge of this Bill in the Lords said on Report that the Lords intended to move amendments to the Local Government Finance Bill relating to chief financial officers and that there may then be consequential amendments to this Bill in the House of Lords.

We are dealing with essentially the same question here. Whatever view one takes of the merit of giving the powers, they relate to circumstances in which there may be reason to believe that a local authority may be acting illegally. Certain powers are given to chief financial officers in the Local Government Finance Bill and certain powers are given to auditors in this Bill, but the two matters are very closely related.

Neither the English nor the Scottish chartered accontants are happy with the proposals. The main reason for that is that it is not the function of an auditor, in a commercial concern or in a local authority, to monitor the day-to-day activities of the organisation being audited. Therefore, in the normal course of his business, an auditor will not necessarily know that a local authority is behaving in a manner verging on illegality.

In my view there is no reason of principle for introducing the powers. However, if they are to be introduced, we need to ask how the auditor will get to know that the circumstances in which he is supposed to act have arisen. If he is to get to know because the chief financial officer supplies him with the information under the powers conferred in the Local Government Finance Bill, his responsibility will be restricted to some extent. If he will have to act only when the information is supplied to him, that at least makes a bit of practical sense, whatever the principle of the thing may be. However, if the auditor is to act on his own initiative, it is difficult to envisage how he will get to know that the circumstances have arisen in which he has been given power to act.

Even if the auditor acts only on the basis of information supplied by the chief financial officer, there will be problems. What happens if the chief financial officer takes the view that the authority may be behaving illegally but turns out to be wrong after the auditor has exercised the prohibition powers provided for in the amendment? What happens if the auditor then finds that he has caused the local authority expense? Will he be subject to claims for damages? And what happens if the chief financial officer was right in believing that an illegality was involved but the auditor took another view and did not act on his powers? If it is found that the chief financial officer is right and the auditor wrong, will the auditor be subject to action for negligence?

Those are important issues, on which I shall not elaborate at this time of night and at this stage in the Bill's proceedings. They demonstrate the close connection between the powers given to chief financial officers in the Local Government Finance Bill and the powers given to local authority auditors in this Bill. It is nonsense, and an offence to the House that these provisions are being dealt with in two Bills that are proceeding through the House simultaneously.

11.30 pm

The amendment that seeks to put power in the hands of the Audit Commission rather than in those of the local authorities has not been selected for debate. However, it is in line with the recommendations of the Widdicombe report and corresponds with the view of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. If the Government wanted to introduce the procedure, it is a pity that they did not put it in the hands of the Audit Commission.

The Opposition amendments would improve what I consider to be a fundamentally misconceived provision. A delay of one year would enable the provisions in this Bill and the Local Government Finance Bill to be more sensibly co-ordinated and allow us to see the entire picture. I do not understand why the Government cannot accept that deferral. The argument that the auditors should act only when a significant sum is involved would seem to be one of common sense. I hope that the Government, on reflection, will be able to accept it.

My personal view is that the provisions in this part of the Bill are fundamentally misconceived. If the Government want to give additional powers to local authority auditors, they should not proceed in the way set out in the clause. That which applies in England and Wales is not what applies in Scotland. I would not say that the Scottish procedure is entirely satisfactory—certainly it is not, from a local authority point of view—but it makes more sense than that which the Government seek to introduce.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has said, the Government cannot even suggest that there has been proper consideration by Parliament of the issues that are before us. We are left with the impression that the Government are determined to bludgeon these provisions through the House.

The Government argue that they are concerned about the balancing of budgets, yet on this very day the Secretary of State for the Environment, in his statement and his actions on leasehold arrangements, has pre-empted the new clause, a provision that would empower the auditor to issue a prohibition order if he had reason to believe that the authority was about to take a decision or course of action that would lead to unlawful expenditure. The actions of the Secretary of State today have made the clause redundant.

The Government's argument is based also on the provisions that are contained in part IX of the Local Government Finance Bill. The Minister said, "It is a part of the new system of financing local government." After today's events, it seems that the system that the Government have introduced amounts to them saying, "Don't finance it at all." That is why the Government need to take swift action to extend auditors' powers. The phrase used was, "The need for a quick pre-emptive act." It is a classic case of: lest they may, prevent. That is not justice; it smacks of vindictiveness. That shows that the Government are out to get local authorities. Perhaps that is what the Prime Minister meant on election night when she talked about the inner cities and said, "We shall get them next time." This is hardly a friendly amendment that can be wrapped up in a glossy brochure entitled "Action for Cities".

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made cash available to support her statement. Sheffield has been given £50 million for an urban development corporation. There have been other initiatives over the past seven years. An urban development corporation has been set up in Sheffield and there will be others in other areas.

Order. That is all very interesting, but I find it difficult to see any relevance to the matters before the House.

I am sure that I would be ruled out of order if I were to reply that the amount put in matches in no way the amount taken out of local authorities for mainstream funding, which is a crucial issue. That is certainly the case in Leeds.

The amended clause would change fundamentally the role of the local government auditor not just to that of adjudicator or quasi-prosecutor, as the Widdicombe report put it, but to a much more active role. At present the auditor's powers are retrospective. In future the auditor will be asked to seek out unlawful acts. The Government say that these are pre-emptive powers to be used in anticipation of the accounts. That is a power to fix the accounts in advance. Auditors will be Government monitors. Dare I suggest that they will be Ridley's eyes, or Marsham street spies? Once again: lest they may, prevent.

The amended clause would give power to lay a prohibition order on to put a stop notice on a local authority. No details have been given in the debate, and none were given in another place, about the procedure for the imposition of the stop notice. There were cursory references to guidelines. What does the Minister see as the guidelines, or will it be left to the Audit Commission to draw them up? What happens when the stop notice causes a local authority to break off a major contract and it is left wide open to paying damages? The auditor would be identified, but what about local authority? I am tempted to add that that in itself puts auditors in a potentially lethal position in regard to contract corruption.

The Government must accept in all natural justice fiat local authorities—in other words, the ratepayers—must be indemnified against loss. I look forward to the Minister's comments and reassurances on that. If the amended clause goes through, it will undermine the everyday working trust between auditors and local authority Officers. Who would be an auditor in those circumstances?

The auditors' professional body, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, has challenged extension of their responsibilities. In a feature in Accountancy Age, the institute recommended that any legal powers to stop local authorities spending illegally should be vested in the Audit Commission and not in individual local authority auditors. It pointed out that there were other problems:
"If the powers were to be invoked with any regularity they would soon become a costly and time-consuming obstacle to the conduct of local authorities' business and the auditors' other responsibilities."
I urge the Government, even at this late hour, to put off the introduction of these provisions which would give new powers to local authority auditors, particularly when other related legislation is being dealt with in the House. The Government should not hijack the Bill at the end of its journey through the House as the legislative vehicle for these provisions; they should use the Local Government Finance Bill. I urge the House to insist that the Government tackle the issue in that way.

This is another provision to undermine local authorities which is being slipped through Parliament by being tacked on at the end of a Bill. The Standing Committee has been prevented from considering in detail the statutory provision dealing with the powers of appointed auditors in relation to elected members. It verges on constitutional abuse and is another surreptitious shift of power to the centre. The Government are forcing it through the House without giving hon. Members the opportunity to consider it properly. That is an abuse of political power which is being used to bludgeon local authorities because their supporters have the political audacity to vote Labour.

If the Government are unable to desist from that politically vindictive strategy, can we appeal to them not to be so devious as to put the men and women who serve society as auditors into the heart of the conflict to carry out their dirty deeds? Auditors deserve to be treated fairly as independent public servants even if the Government cannot bring themselves to accept the legitimately and democratically elected Labour council. Although the councils may differ politically from the Government, they are damned good public servants and they also deserve to be treated with political respect.

That was an extraordinary speech from the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). It would be difficult to extract from his remarks the fact that we are dealing with illegal conduct by local authorities, how that illegal conduct can be controlled and what the powers of the auditors should be in relation to that conduct. I had hoped that there would be common ground between the Labour party and the Government on this matter, because I assumed that Labour Members recognised that auditors should have proper powers to enable them to control illegal spending.

The hon. Gentleman nods. Although his amendment would delay the coming into force of the powers for a year, which is a little surprising if Labour Members share our view, his attitude falls far short of the language that has just been used by the hon. Member for Leeds, West.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) commented on the fact that we are seeking to extend auditors' powers in this Bill instead of in the Local Government Finance Bill, alongside the new powers which it proposes for the chief finance officer. Those measures were foreshadowed in the Green Paper "Paying for Local Government" and are part of the new system of financing local government and making it more accountable to its electorate which is provided for in that Bill. The provisions concerning the powers of auditors in this Bill follow not from the Green Paper but derive from Widdicombe, as the hon. Member for Perry Barr recognised. We consulted on them separately, and I emphasise the fact that there has been proper consultation. The proposal has not been inflicted on Parliament without proper, thorough consultation, and the matter has been fully considered.

The powers of auditors are not part of an authority's financial administration, but they relate to the legal and regulatory framework in which authorities operate. The two measures are closely related, and we have taken and will be taking steps to ensure that they operate entirely consistently. The new powers for auditors stand on their own and are not dependent on the chief finance officer's powers. We believe that the powers should be introduced as quickly as possible, and I see no case for delaying their coming into force either until the Local Government Finance Bill reaches the statute book, or—this was the second point made by the hon. Member for Perry Barr—until we are ready to make an announcement on our attitude to the other measures recommended by the Widdicombe committee.

Will the Minister give us an idea of the circumstances in which an auditor may detect that a local authority is likely to act illegally while the chief finance officer has not?

I was coming to that point. One of the main ways in which the auditor will obtain information will be from the chief finance officer, although one Lords amendment amends section 16 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 to ensure that the auditor has access at any time to whatever information he needs for the purpose of exercising his new powers as well as his existing functions. We had the right hon. Gentleman's points well in mind, and we are providing the auditor with powers that he will need to provide information.

The Minister is not answering my point. It is not a question of providing the auditor with powers. In what circumstances will those powers be used where the chief finance officer has not detected that the local authority is acting, or is likely to act, illegally? It is difficult to conceive of such circumstances.

The auditor may have access to many sources of information, apart from the authority. The chief finance officer is an officer of the authority. The auditor will have access to other information—

Any other sources. A member of the public or a member of the council may draw information to the attention of the auditor. But I do not suggest that that will be the ordinary way in which the auditor will obtain information. We are providing the auditor with powers to obtain the information that he needs. In many cases that information will come from the chief finance officer, but it is important that the auditor should have powers to enable effective action to be taken to control illegal activity and spending by local authorities.

11.45 pm

Does the Minister understand that if the auditor received information which was not, for some extraordinary reason, available to the chief finance office, the obvious thing for the auditor to do in the first place would be to draw it to the attention of the chief finance officer so that he could exercise his power? I do not believe that the Minister really understands the way in which audits are carried out.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is that the auditor will have to consider whether the circumstances are appropriate for the exercise of his own powers. He will consider the information that has been made available to him and make his decision in that context.

No, not necessarily without telling the chief finance officer. I did not say that the chief finance officer would not be told.

If the auditor comes by some information from a member of the public or from some organisation, he would first have to verify the authenticity or otherwise of that information with the chief finance officer or the chief executive of the authority. The district auditor cannot he given powers to act on hearsay, gossip or innuendo; he can act only on matters of fact. The people able to verify those matters of fact would be the appropriate officers of the authority who, in all circumstances, will have far more accurate and full information than the district auditor.

I did not suggest that the auditor would act on hearsay. Of course he would not do that. We would expect him to verify any information that he had received with the chief finance officer. However, there may be a difference of opinion between the auditor and the chief finance officer. The auditor may regard it appropriate to act in particular circumstances, but the chief finance officer might take a different view. As I said a few moments ago, the auditor has his own responsibilities and powers and his decisions must he taken on the basis of the information available to him in the context of his own powers.

The right hon. Member for Govan, who acknowledged that the auditor would be immune from suit so long as he acted in good faith, asked whether the auditor would be immune from suit if he did not take action against an authority when it subsequently became clear that action should have been taken. I confirm that the immunity that we are providing in the provision before the House will extend to conferring immunity on the auditor in those circumstances so long as he acts in good faith.

Will the Minister tell us whether one of the factors that prompted this amendment at this late stage in the passage of the Bill was the recent experience in Southwark? The Minister will be aware that the district auditor recently issued notices against certain present and former councillors in the borough of Southwark. He will also be aware that the group of recipients of notices included 26 Labour councillors, past and present, one independent councillor, three Liberal councillors, two present and one past, and eight Conservative councillors. Later this month they will all give evidence to the district auditor and they all face disqualification and surcharge.

I believe that I am right to say that that will be the first time that any non-Labour councillors have faced disqualification and surcharge as the result of delaying the setting of a rate, which in Southwark's case dated from 1985. From reading the district auditor's conclusions it appears that the Conservative group, as much as any other, ignored advice from the council and from its officers.

An argument that we had during a debate on a private Member's Bill in February 1986 about disqualification and surcharge revealed that many of us, myself included, believed that there should be a power of pre-emptive action. Obviously, it is far better that intervention on behalf of ratepayers should take place early, when it looks as if something is going wrong, rather than its being left until much later after the event, when action to recover any loss will take years. The Southwark case is an example. The principle, therefore, strikes me as appropriate and worthy of support.

The only point that troubles me is one that was raised by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Milian). I think that the Minister may have misuderstood how the Widdicombe report, for instance, envisages that the powers will be used. The problem is not that the district auditor will be acting on information not available to the chief finance officer of a local authority. Experience suggests that the evidence of a chief finance officer is either that his or her advice may not be followed, or that he or she may not be certain about the result in law—as then perceived and adjudicated by the district officer — of certain actions of council members.

Clearly, what is necessary is an authoritative decision. Of course, the district auditor will have to go to the chief finance officer, because he will have all the figures; I cannot imagine that anyone else will be similarly equipped. But the district auditor, surely, will be acting as the judical intervention, if that is thought appropriate. The merits of whether that will be achievable at notice of a few days or, at most, a week or two, are questionable. If an injunction could be sought whereby the district auditor could intervene—which is the effective aim of the amendment — that method of intervention would seem to be appropriate.

In Southwark, a meeting is taking place at this moment to set this year's rate. While we need powers for the auditor, or someone authoritative, to intervene at an early stage to protect the ratepayer, we also need to tidy up the system so that officers are equipped with the information and the basis of auditors' decisions and can give councillors accurate and authoritative information as early as possible.

Rather than base the law only on what is in the legislation, a better course may be to reflect a bit more on the proposal in the Widdicombe report—in conjunction with others—and to seek some form of declaration, as is available in other parts of the law, on exactly what is the duty of the council in a particular circumstance. Although the intention is clearly sensible, I feel that the clause may be somewhat otiose in practice.

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to comment on the matters into which the district auditor for Southwark is currently inquiring. But one of the reasons why we think that the power contained in the provisions is so necessary is the frustration that is undoubtedly felt at the working of the present system. It takes a very long time for hearings to take place and for decisions to be made; meanwhile, the ratepayers see no investigation taking place.

As for the hon. Gentleman's other points, I can add little to what I said a few moments ago to the right hon. Member for Govan. The powers of the district auditor and chief finance officer will not be the same, and will not be conterminous. The chief finance officer will have the power to put a stop on spending pending the meeting of the council, but if the council wishes to proceed it will be able to do so, notwithstanding any reservations that the chief finance officer may have.

On the other hand, the auditor will be able to obtain an order preventing the spending from taking place. Therefore, they are different powers. The auditor has more extensive powers and, in the Government's view, it is right that he should have those powers as soon as possible For those reasons, I commend the Lords amendment to the House and invite the rejection of the amendments tabled by the Opposition.

Question put. That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:

The House divided: Ayes 77, Noes 175.

Division No.208]

[11.55 pm

AYES

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Cryer, Bob
Battle, JohnCummings, John
Bermingham, GeraldCunningham, Dr John
Boyes, RolandDarling, Alistair
Bradley, KeithDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)Dixon, Don
Clay, BobDoran, Frank
Clelland, DavidEvans, John (St Helens N)

Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)Nellist, Dave
Fisher, MarkO'Brien, William
Foster, DerekO'Neill, Martin
Fraser, JohnParry, Robert
Garrett, John (Norwich South)Patchett, Terry
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)Pike, Peter L.
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Henderson, DougPrescott, John
Home Robertson, JohnRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Robertson, George
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)Rooker, Jeff
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)Salmond, Alex
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)Short, Clare
Kinnock, Rt Hon NeilSkinner, Dennis
Livingstone, KenSpearing, Nigel
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)Steinberg, Gerry
Lofthouse, GeoffreyStott, Roger
McCartney, IanStrang, Gavin
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
McNamara, KevinTurner, Dennis
McWilliam, JohnWall, Pat
Marek, Dr JohnWareing, Robert N.
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Martlew, EricWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Meacher, MichaelWigley, Dafydd
Michael, AlunWise, Mrs Audrey
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Milian, Rt Hon BruceTellers for the Ayes:
Moonie, Dr LewisMr. Frank Cook and
Morgan, RhodriMr. Frank Haynes.
Mowlam, Marjorie

NOES

Alexander, RichardDevlin, Tim
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelDickens, Geoffrey
Amess, DavidDouglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Amos, AlanDover, Den
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Durant, Tony
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)Fairbairn, Nicholas
Ashby, DavidFallon, Michael
Aspinwall, JackFarr, Sir John
Atkins, RobertForman, Nigel
Batiste, SpencerForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Bellingham, HenryForth, Eric
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Fox, Sir Marcus
Blackburn, Dr John G.Franks, Cecil
Bonsor, Sir NicholasFreeman, Roger
Boscawen, Hon RobertFrench, Douglas
Boswell, TimGale, Roger
Bottomley, PeterGarel-Jones, Tristan
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaGill, Christopher
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bowis, JohnGriffiths. Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardGriffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Brandon-Bravo, MartinGrist, Ian
Brazier, JulianGround, Patrick
Bright, GrahamHamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Brittan, Rt Hon LeonHamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterHanley, Jeremy
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Buck, Sir AntonyHargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Burns, SimonHarris, David
Burt, AlistairHawkins, Christopher
Butler, ChrisHayward, Robert
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Heathcoat-Amory, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Heddle, John
Carrington, MatthewHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carttiss, MichaelHicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Chope, ChristopherHolt, Richard
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Howard, Michael
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Conway, DerekHowarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Cran, JamesHunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Currie, Mrs EdwinaHunter, Andrew
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Irvine, Michael
Davis, David (Boothferry)Jack, Michael
Day, StephenJanman, Tim

Johnson Smith, Sir GeoffreyPage, Richard
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Paice, James
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Kellett-Bowman, Dame ElainePatnick, Irvine
Key, RobertPatten, Chris (Bath)
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Pawsey, James
Knapman, RogerPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Knight, Greg (Derby North)Porter, David (Waveney)
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)Portillo, Michael
Knowles, MichaelPowell, William (Corby)
Lee, John (Pendle)Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)Rathbone, Tim
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkRedwood, John
Lightbown, DavidRenton, Tim
Lilley, PeterRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Lord, MichaelRiddick, Graham
Luce, Rt Hon RichardRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Lyell, Sir NicholasRoberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Macfarlane, Sir NeilRossi, Sir Hugh
Maclean, DavidRyder, Richard
McLoughlin, PatrickSackville, Hon Tom
McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Sainsbury, Hon Tim
Major, Rt Hon JohnShaw, David (Dover)
Malins, HumfreyShaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Mans, KeithShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Marlow, TonyShelton, William (Streatham)
Martin, David (Portsmouth S)Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir PatrickSims, Roger
Miller, HalSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Mills, IainSoames, Hon Nicholas
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Moate, RogerSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Monro, Sir HectorStewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Moss, MalcolmThompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Moynihan, Hon ColinThurnham, Peter
Neale, GerrardWaddington, Rt Hon David
Needham, RichardWiddecombe, Ann
Neubert, Michael
Nicholls, PatrickTellers for the Noes:
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Mr. Stephen Dorrell and
Onslow, Rt Hon CranleyMr. Peter Lloyd.
Oppenheim, Phillip

Question accordingly negatived.

Lords amendment agreed to.

New Clause

Local Authority Companies

Lords amendment: No. 14, after clause 31, insert new clause—

".—(1) A local authority or relevant public body shall not enter into a contract under which a company which is associated with the authority or body is to carry out work falling within a defined activity, unless, before entering into that contract, the authority or body has taken reasonable steps for the purpose of securing competition for the carrying out of that work.
(2) For the purpose of this section a company is associated with a local authority or relevant public body if, by virtue of any decision of the authority or body (including that of any committee or sub-committee thereof in the course of discharging any function conferred upon them by virtue of section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972, or, in relation to Scotland, section 56 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973)—
  • (a) the authority or body, or
  • (b) any member or officer of the authority or body, or
  • (c) any nominee of the authority or body,
  • is a member either of the company or of another company, which, in accordance with section 736 of the Companies Act 1985, is the company's subsidiary or holding company.
    (3) In this section—
  • (a) "defined activity" has the meaning assigned by section 2 above;
  • (b) "local authority" has the meaning assigned by subsection (2) or, as the case may be, subsection (3) of section 1 above; and
  • (c) "relevant public body" means any authority or committee falling within paragraphs (e) to (j) of subsection (1) of section 1 above.
  • (4) This section (and, so far as is relevant for the purposes of the definitions in subsection (3) above, sections 1 and 2 above) shall be deemed to have come into force on 11th February 1988 and, accordingly, has effect in relation to contracts entered into on or after that day."

    Read a Second time.

    I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in line 17, leave out 'is a member' and insert

    'form, whether separately or together, either—
  • (a) a majority of the officers of the company; or
  • (b) a majority of the shareholders'.
  • With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment (b) to the Lords amendment, in subsection (4) leave out '11th February 1988' and insert

    'the date of royal assent'.

    The Government apparently introduced the amendment to block a loophole which they thought they had identified in part I. They apparently believed that some authorities were contemplating setting up private companies to take over defined activities on long-term contracts with the local authorities before the relevant section of the Act comes into effect. If that happened it would have the effect of frustrating the timetable for the introduction of competitive tendering in such authorities.

    We are not aware of what, if any, evidence the Government have in support of the change, although there have been press comments about some local authorities contemplating such action. However, local authorities and their associations are concerned at the introduction of the new clause because of its implications for possible future Government action on local authority companies generally. Moreover, if we are reading the clause correctly, it has some serious implications for the activities of voluntary organisations.

    The Widdicombe committee considered the question of limited companies controlled by local authorities. Its general conclusion was that the case for such companies could he properly assessed only in the context of a detailed appraisal of the requirements of the service in question.

    Nevertheless, it recommended that the law in relation to local authority-controlled companies should be amended first, to make clear that they may be set up only where there is specific enabling legislation, and, secondly, to incorporate safeguards concerning their articles of association, membership and audit and reporting arrangements.

    In April last year, the Department of the Environment requested information from all local authorities on the Companies Act 1985 companies in which they had an interest. I understand that the Department is still seeking responses from some authorities to that questionnaire so the results of the survey were not available—as of a few days ago—to the Government, and they have shown no intention of following up the Widdicombe recommendations.

    Subsection (2) is a highly prescriptive, rigorous definition of what might constitute
    "a company … associated with a local authority".
    The impression is given that, whatever the institutional link with the authority, even if it consists of a single nominee on the board, the company is subject to undue and illegitimate influence from the authority. That seems rather draconian.

    We recognise that the Government's intention to close a loophole in the Bill may be legitimate, but the subsection goes well beyond what we think is necessary. It is surely sufficient to require an authority not to have a controlling influence in a company, either through the majority of its officers or its shareholders. Beyond that, the new clause sets an unfortunate precedent by seeking to control the influence that an authority has over a company by regulating the membership of the company.

    One must examine the objects, purposes and utility of a company, the non-local authority interests it may have, and other relevant matters. A good example of a company involved in one of the defined activities could be a voluntary body whose legal form was that of a company limited by guarantee. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations and other bodies are concerned about the implications of that sort of case. It is important that Parliament does not prejudge wider discussion and consideration of local authority companies on the basis of the Government's current perceived need to block a loophole that may exist in the Bill.

    Examples of companies in which member authorities of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities have interests are a company to run a multi-purpose arts centre, a company limited by guarantee, a charity, a company to make investments to promote the development of industry, the creation of jobs and job training in a borough, a regional tourist board, whose membership is spread among various local authorities, a company to advance public education in a subject such as archaeology within an authority's area, and the membership of a regional library association, which is a company limited by guarantee. There are other similar examples.

    The key point about local authorities deciding to set up or participate in a company is the flexibility that that gives the authority. It is essential that companies should be able to operate speedily, confidentially, and with minimum bureaucracy, or the employment and economic advantages that have flowed from local authority companies involved in these activities might be nullified. If the Widdicombe recommendation that companies may be set up only when there is specific enabling legislation—a proposition that we would not be inclined to support—is accepted by the Government, either much of the employment and economic development activities of local authorities will be curtailed, or such specific legislation will be required. Such legislation must not be as highly prescriptive as the new clause about local authorities' interests in companies.

    12.15 am

    Here again, we have an example of a late addition of considerable significance being made to the Bill in the House of Lords. There has been no time properly to scrutinise the proposals in Committee. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), I seriously doubt whether debating these matters at this time and in these circumstances is an adequate scrutiny of powers.

    Certainly, in addition to local authority concerns, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has advised us of its anxieties. Many voluntary organisations have company status, as the Minister will recognise, although they are obviously not public limited companies such as profit-making concerns. Instead, many are limited by guarantee, bound not to make a profit, and subject to the Companies Act 1985. Therefore, the limitation of the clause to cover companies is not sufficiently precise to serve the Government's purposes and needs to be rewritten at least to include an exemption for companies that are voluntary organisations. The definition of voluntary organisation is taken from previous legislation.

    Our understanding of the clause as presented leads us to believe that it will be harmful to the legitimate, effective—indeed, some would say necessary — and beneficial activities of local authorities, and harmful also to the legitimate and constructive activities of voluntary organisations, sometimes on their own account and sometimes in conjunction with local authorities. We know that from time to time voluntary oganisation companies have local authority representatives on them. In such circumstances, it seems that they would be caught by the legislation. That may not be the Government's intention. The Minister may be able to persuade us that that is not likely to be the case, but, for the moment, we believe that it is the case, and that is why we have tabled the amendments to the Lords amendment.

    I support the amendments. Local government should be entitled to have discretion to make decisions about such matters. The amendments seem to achieve the sort of compromise that even the Minister should be able to find acceptable. They respect the interests of local authorities of all political persuasions which have shown a desire to be able to work not only with the voluntary sector, although it is important, but independently in the community, while recognising that independence, by making sure that there is no majority domination in such separate companies. I hope that the amendments are recognised as a reasonable compromise between total independence and total dependence on the commercial activities of local government, and that the Government will support them.

    The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) asked for evidence to justify blocking the loophole. On this occasion, I am not sure whether I can give him much evidence.

    I did on the last occasion, but not on this occasion.

    This is an attempt to close the stable door before the horse has bolted. The Government have received many reports. Local authorities were actively examining the possibility of setting up companies, consisting essentially of their existing direct labour organisations, to carry out work falling within the defined activities listed in the Bill. It seemed to us that, in some cases at least, developments of that kind were likely to be aimed at circumventing competition, rather than putting direct labour organisations into a fully commercial arm's-length relationship with their parent authorities.

    No other provision in local government law requires competition prior to awarding work to a company when the work consists of services of this kind. Therefore, the Lords amendment fills the gap in respect of defined activities. What it requires is hardly onerous. Authorities are to take reasonable steps to secure competition before entering into a contract with an associated company. An associated company is not just any company in which the authority holds shares, because that could apply to companies where the shareholding came about simply as a result of pension fund management. Association exists, therefore, only when the authority is a shareholder by virtue of a decision to that effect.

    I cannot agree to the amendment further to restrict the definition of an authority so that the clause bites only when an authority and its members or officers hold a majority of a company's shares or form a majority of its officers. It is possible to exercise effective control without having a majority in either of those senses. I am sure that on reflection the hon. Member for Copeland will recognise that.

    It is imperative that such provision be retrospective to the date of its announcement, so I cannot accept amendment (b) which would delay its effect until Royal Assent.

    As for voluntary bodies and charities, amendments (c) to (e), which were not selected, addressed those issues. I acknowledge that a number of voluntary bodies and charities are established as companies limited by guarantee and that in some cases the links between those bodies and local authorities are close enough to be caught by the new clause. In many cases, however, the authority provides a grant to the voluntary body, and that will not necessarily lead to a contractual relationship between the two. It certainly seems unlikely that many voluntary bodies will be entering into contracts with authorities to carry out defined activities such as refuse collection and street maintenance. The extent of the problem has been greatly exaggerated in some of the views that have been expressed.

    I should emphasise that these amendments do not in any sense prejudge the wider question of regulating local authority companies generally. The new clause does not prejudge anything; it merely requires contracts for defined activities to be subject to competition where the local authority has a link with the company.

    If there are examples of voluntary bodies which are associated companies entering into such contracts, the new clause would not make that impossible. It would mean only that authorities have to take steps to secure competition from other contractors. That does not seem a huge burden and it will provide a useful check on the value for money secured by using the voluntary body.

    The term "voluntary organisation" covers a wide range of bodies. The definition that the Opposition proposed in amendment (d) encompassed wholly owned local authority companies which are not run for profit, which could well have been how authorities would have set up their direct labour organisations. Of course, amendment (d) would have driven a coach and horses through the new clause.

    We have never considered the provision to be more than a modest measure likely to affect a small minority of authorities, and even then only by way of requiring financial prudence which should not reasonably he regarded as a burden by any self-respecting body. I shall therefore be asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the two Opposition amendments to the new clause and to accept the clause as passed by the other place.

    With the leave of the House. The Minister's response is not satisfactory. During the last debate he produced bad-natured and abusive representations in place of evidence. This time he freely confesses that he has no evidence at all to support the Government's proposals—as we suspected when we saw the proposals. Nor does his understanding of the implications accord with ours or, indeed, interesting and importantly, with the views of the local authority organisations or of the voluntary bodies themselves.

    The voluntary organisations believe that the new clause would force voluntary organisations to tender for services that they currently provide for local communities. Invariably, those services are based on a joint concern on the part of the voluntary and statutory sectors to promote community development and the provision by local people of flexible services sensitive to local needs. That work is not prescribed by the Government, and in certain areas it is encouraged, but it could be threatened by the new clause.

    Therefore, it seems clear that the broad brush approach of the Government is imprecise and dangerous. Even if a perceived loophole in the legislation makes the Government want to act without any evidence at all, that is bad enough. However, it is unsatisfactory that the innocent activities of voluntary bodies and the local authorities that provide them with their funds should be so threatened. It would be far better to write an exemption into the Bill and thereby remove the doubt. The meals-on-wheels service that is provided by voluntary organisations and companies limited by guarantee could be affected. It cannot be the Government's intention that such activities should be caught by draconian legislation. We shall invite the House to vote on our amendment.

    Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:—

    The House divided: Ayes 68, Noes 153.

    Division No. 209]

    [12.25 am

    AYES

    Ashdown, PaddyKinnock, Rt Hon Neil
    Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Livingstone, Ken
    Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Livsey, Richard
    Battle, JohnLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
    Bermingham, GeraldLofthouse, Geoffrey
    Boyes, RolandMcCartney, Ian
    Bradley, KeithMcKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
    Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)McNamara, Kevin
    Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)McWilliam, John
    Clay, BobMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
    Clelland, DavidMartlew, Eric
    Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Michael, Alun
    Cryer, BobMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
    Cummings, JohnMoonie, Dr Lewis
    Cunningham, Dr JohnMorgan, Rhodri
    Darling, AlistairMowlam, Marjorie
    Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)Nellist, Dave
    Dixon, DonO'Brien, William
    Doran, FrankO'Neill, Martin
    Evans, John (St Helens N)Patchett, Terry
    Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)Pike, Peter L.
    Fisher, MarkRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
    Foster, DerekRooker, Jeff
    Garrett, John (Norwich South)Skinner, Dennis
    Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)Spearing, Nigel
    Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Steinberg, Gerry
    Henderson, DougStott, Roger
    Home Robertson, JohnStrang, Gavin
    Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
    Hughes, John (Coventry NE)Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
    Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)Turner, Dennis
    Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Wall, Pat

    Wallace, James
    Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)Tellers for the Ayes:
    Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)Mr. Ray Powell and
    Wise, Mrs AudreyMr Frank Haynes.

    NOES

    Alexander, RichardHolt, Richard
    Alison, Rt Hon MichaelHoward, Michael
    Amess, DavidHowarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
    Amos, AlanHughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
    Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Hunt, David (Wirral W)
    Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
    Ashby, DavidHunter, Andrew
    Aspinwall, JackIrvine, Michael
    Batiste, SpencerJack, Michael
    Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Janman, Tim
    Blackburn, Dr John G.Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
    Bonsor, Sir NicholasJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
    Boscawen, Hon RobertJones, Robert B (Herts W)
    Boswell, TimKey, Robert
    Bottomley, PeterKing, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
    Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaKing, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
    Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)Knapman, Roger
    Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Knight, Greg (Derby North)
    Bowis, JohnKnight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
    Brandon-Bravo, MartinKnowles, Michael
    Brazier, JulianLee, John (Pendle)
    Bright, GrahamLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
    Brittan, Rt Hon LeonLennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
    Brooke, Rt Hon PeterLightbown, David
    Burns, SimonLilley, Peter
    Burt, AlistairLord, Michael
    Butler, ChrisLuce, Rt Hon Richard
    Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Lyell, Sir Nicholas
    Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Macfarlane, Sir Neil
    Carrington, MatthewMaclean, David
    Carttiss, MichaelMcLoughlin, Patrick
    Chope, ChristopherMalins, Humfrey
    Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Mans, Keith
    Conway, DerekMarlow, Tony
    Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
    Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
    Cran, JamesMiller, Hal
    Currie, Mrs EdwinaMills, Iain
    Davis, David (Boothferry)Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
    Day, StephenMoate, Roger
    Devlin, TimMoss, Malcolm
    Dickens, GeoffreyMoynihan, Hon Colin
    Dorrell, StephenNeubert, Michael
    Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesNicholls, Patrick
    Dover, DenNicholson, David (Taunton)
    Durant, TonyOppenheim, Phillip
    Fairbairn, NicholasPage, Richard
    Fallon, MichaelPaice, James
    Farr, Sir JohnPatnick, Irvine
    Forman, NigelPatten, Chris (Bath)
    Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
    Forth, EricPawsey, James
    Franks, CecilPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
    Freeman, RogerPorter, David (Waveney)
    French, DouglasPortillo, Michael
    Gale, RogerPowell, William (Corby)
    Garel-Jones, TristanRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
    Gill, ChristopherRathbone, Tim
    Gorman, Mrs TeresaRedwood, John
    Greenway, John (Ryedale)Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
    Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')Riddick, Graham
    Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
    Grist, IanRoberts, Wyn (Conwy)
    Ground, PatrickRowe, Andrew
    Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Ryder, Richard
    Hanley, JeremySainsbury, Hon Tim
    Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')Shaw, David (Dover)
    Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
    Herris, DavidShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
    Hayward, RobertShelton, William (Streatham)
    Heathcoat-Amory, DavidShephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
    Heseltine, Rt Hon MichaelSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
    Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)Soames, Hon Nicholas
    Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)

    Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
    Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)Tellers for the Noes:
    Thurnham, PeterMr. Peter Lloyd and
    Waddington, Rt Hon DavidMr. Alan Howarth.
    Widdecombe, Ann

    Question accordingly negatived.

    Lords amendment agreed to.

    New Clause

    Commutation Of Smallholdings Payments

    Lords amendment: No. 15, after clause 33, insert new clause—

    ".Any annual or other periodic payments under the terms of any settlement in respect of amounts payable under section 27 of the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 which, apart from this section, would fall to be made to a county council or district council by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Secretary of State may be commuted by him into a single payment, either by agreement with that council or, in default of agreement, by an order made by him in that behalf."

    Read a Second time.

    I must inform the House that this amendment involves privilege.

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    This new clause will enable Agriculture Ministers in England and Wales to commute into a single payment, either by agreement with the individual councils or, in default of agreement, by order, payments made under the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 for the losses they incurred in first establishing smallholding estates for the settlement of demobilised ex-service men after the first world war.

    Payments are currently made in half-yearly instalments on a diminishing scale. It is generally recognised that commutation of those payments would be an administrative convenience.

    The House will recall that when we last debated this matter I said that I hoped that the other place would show a little more sense than we had demonstrated at that time. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for accepting the amendment in the spirit in which it was tabled in the other place.

    There are five prerequisites for a registration scheme—

    Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has anticipated the next Lords amendment.

    Question put and agreed to. [Special Entry.]

    New Clause

    Dog Registration Scheme

    Lords amendment: No. 16, after clause 33, insert new clause—

    ".—(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the establishment and administration of a dog registration scheme by local authorities, or such other organisations as he may, after consulting with them, designate.
    (2) Regulations made under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument."

    Read a Second time.

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 17, 36 and 37 and amendment (a).

    Each of the amendments seeks to improve the already extensive range of legislation that relates to the control and welfare of dogs. The first gives a permissive power to the Secretary of State to introduce a dog registration scheme, the second gives powers to local authorities to deal with stray dogs.

    The new clause which is the subject of amendment No. 16 was inserted in the Bill despite our strong reservations about the cost and effectiveness of a dog registration scheme. At present, we simply do not see how registration would add anything to existing legislation. However, we do not want to delay Royal Assent by having unnecessary argument with the other place and we are therefore content to accept the amendment.

    Before my hon. Friend makes this momentous decision, I wonder whether he understands the reasons why dog licences were introduced in the first place. They were introduced in the middle of the last century because there was a major criminal trade in stealing and selling dogs in London. As late as 1889, my father came to London—[HON. MEMBERS: "He did not."] Yes, he did. He was prevented from bringing his terrier to London because he was told by his father that there were men in London who stole dogs. He made the observation that looking out of the bus he did not see any men stealing dogs.

    That is why dog licences were introduced. It had nothing to do with paying for dog wardens, the licensing or registering of dogs or anything else. If someone could not produce a licence, it proved that the dog was stolen. As that criminal purpose has been succeeded by worse, I do not see the point of having licences of any kind at all.

    I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving us that insight into the reason why the licence was introduced in the first place.

    My hon. Friend will recall the debate that we had on dog licences before the Bill went to another place. I think that it is probably fair to say that if the Government accept the amendments they are going back on the arguments that they presented to the House only a few weeks ago. I hope that I have interpreted my hon. Friends remarks correctly. I understood him to say that the only reason why the Government are accepting the amendments is that they do not want to have to send the bill back to the Lords. Can my hon. Friend give us a specific assurance that the new clause will not be implemented during the lifetime of this Government?

    The Government have no intention of using the powers under the new clause but no Government can bind their successor.

    Amendment No. 17 deals with stray dogs. At present, the police have powers to seize, detain and dispose of stray dogs. Local authorities in Scotland have similar powers, in parallel with the police, under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, while about 100 local authorities in England and Wales have taken the same powers under local Acts. In Committee, we undertook to consider extending this power to all authorities without the need for them to resort to separate, primary legislation.

    Consultation with local authority associations indicated general support in principle. I should also stress that the police will retain their existing powers to deal with stray dogs. This is essential because there are areas, such as motorways, where it is only the police who are in a position to take any necessary action.

    The powers that will become available to local authorities will enable dog wardens appointed by them to seize stray dogs and detain them until claimed by their owners, who will he required to pay all costs incurred in their detention. If the owner of a stray is identified, a notice must be served on him in writing saying that the dog has been seized, and that it will be sold or destroyed if not claimed within seven days. If a dog remains unclaimed after seven days, it may either be sold or destroyed in a manner to cause as little pain as possible. Authorities which choose to exercise this power will be required to maintain a register of stray dogs that they seize.

    First, I welcome the fact that for amazing reasons the Minister has accepted these amendments. It is somewhat paradoxical that earlier today the Secretary of State urged the House to reject the Lords amendments relating to disabled people, he is presumably willing to incur delay and disagreement between the two Houses over that. However, the Minister's only substantive reason for not wanting to disagree with the Lords in this instance is that he does not want to incur delay and disagreement, having already done so on a matter that is arguably of greater importance.

    12.45 am

    Putting that to one side, we are left with the Government agreeing to accept the Lords amendment while saying that they will not implement it. I hope that the Minister will accept that he should have a little more grace in accepting that the Lords have overturned the Government on this issue, they having been given considerable encouragement to do so in this place when we last debated the matter. It was argued that at least there should be a registration system, if not a licence, and that is what amendment No. 16 provides.

    There is in that well-known Liberal newspaper, The Scotsman, a headline to the effect, "Support for the Alliance Plummets". Can the hon. Gentleman advise the House what an alliance plummet is and tell us whether it is covered by the registration scheme?

    Whatever the support at present, I do not think that there will be any difficulty in leaving the party of the hon. and learned Gentleman a long way behind before long. Its support in Scotland has been plummeting for some years, not least because of local government legislation, of which the Bill is an obvious example. I guess that the more the Scots hear of the Bill the more likely it is that support for the Conservative party in Scotland will plummet.

    I am glad that the Minister has decided to accept the amendment that I moved when the Bill was last before us. As he knows, the proposal to tidy up the law on stray dogs emanated from the Association of County Councils, which argued that often the police did not want to have responsibility for dealing with stray dogs, whereas the local authority did and was willing to exercise it. The only concern is that local authorities are not yet to receive any more money for the responsibility of dealing with strays.

    To direct a new responsibility and to provide no extra money for discharging it is a tradition with the Government, but that does not mean that it is satisfactory. It is accepted that stray dogs pose a substantial problem, and accordingly the necessary resources should be provided. We are saying that it should be made clear in any given area whether the police or the local authority have primary responsibility.

    The Minister said that the police may want to retain responsibility for dealing with stray dogs in the vicinity of motorways, but experience suggests that it may he better to transfer primary responsibility from the police to local authorities, which have other enforcement responsibilities under this sort of legislation. They should be able to retain their environmental control and responsibility.

    The Government's acceptance of the amendments is welcome but I seek to push the Minister a little further along the lines of amendment (a). Having accepted the undesirable prospect, for him, of accepting amendment No. 16 and overturning Government policy, I ask him to accept the implications of that and to ensure that the scheme that will be written into the Bill will be implemented to curb the nuisance that dogs can cause. I ask him to provide local authorities with the resources to ensure that dogs are less of a nuisance environmentally, more under control and generally looked after more responsibly by local authorities on behalf of the local community.

    I apologise for my eagerness in seeking to speak early in the debate.

    I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has accepted the amendment. It would have been kinder to the House if he had accepted it rather more gracefully and had said that he would be willing to consider implementation. As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted a few moments ago, there are five ingredients in a registration scheme—that a dog should have a national identification, that the number should be carried by the dog at all times, that there should he one legally responsible keeper, tha the scheme should be self-financing and that the scheme must assist in the financing of local authority dog warden schemes. I add a sixth—that, so far as humanly possible, the Government should have no involvement in it.

    A few days ago, a representative of the National Farmers Union, one of the organisations which support a registration scheme, took the trouble to visit the Wood Green animal shelter, which serves as a model for a national registration scheme. I ask my hon. Friend to consider an invitation to that animal shelter to see for himself the manner in which the registration scheme has been implemented. If, after a visit, we can convince him that it is a practical working scheme, he should consider the implementation of the Lords amendment.

    I hope that the Minister will be able to elaborate on the wording of the new clause which says:

    "The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the establishment and administration of a dog registration scheme".
    Although it is permissive, I hope that the Minister, if approached by a local authority, will consider the scheme put forward. The Secretary of State is shaking his head. It appears that the Minister will tell the House that under no circumstances will the Government approve a scheme which is put forward by a local authority and that a local authority would be wasting its time and official power in drawing up a scheme. Local authorities should know, because they are being squeezed in every way by the Government as they are trampled on by every legalistic and other influential means which the Government can muster.

    There is no point in local authorities wasting the valuable time of officials in producing schemes if the Government intend once more to kick them in the teeth, although the amendment is being accepted by the Government and was voted for in the House of Lords. It is the Government who place such emphasis on the importance of the House of Lords as the second part of the legislature. Then they turn round and say to the Lords in effect, "Get lost, because, whatever you do, we will take no notice of it. Although the powers will be there, we will say to local authorities that we will not exercise them." That seems to be flying in the face of the spirit of the amendment which the Lords — the body which the Government defend to the hilt—have made and have sent here for our consideration.

    When the Bill was considered before in the House, there was a great deal of support for a dog registration scheme. I outlined various considerations, as did other hon. Members on both sides of the House, in support of a scheme. I pointed out that a number of my constituents had written to me. One woman could not take her children into a park because of stray dogs ganging up, roaming round and, as she thought, placing her children at risk. Of course, there was also the problem of the dogs fouling the footpaths and the grass so that it was difficult for her to take her children to play freely in the park without the dangerous, offensive and messy business of the children being fouled by dog excreta.

    I mentioned too the headmaster in my constituency who took home a small boy who was suffering from ill health. When he got to the house a Doberman pinscher set about the headmaster. The dog literally had to be dragged off and was subsequently killed. The vet who attended said that that breed of dog was extremely difficult to deal with because often they were untrained and were hard to control. The dog attacked the headmaster so savagely that he was off work for several weeks. The police took no action. The police informed me that there is no legislation under which, once the dog is killed, they can take action against an owner. They cannot take him to court to bring a dangerous dog under control because the dog has gone.

    That omission in legislation should be rectified. The dog that was killed has been replaced—[Interruption.] The portly hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), who is so fond of making sedentary interventions, finds all this very amusing. But ordinary people live in fairly modest houses, not the jazzed-up mansion that I imagine he inhabits—with his many suits. That is in stark contrast to the terraced houses in which many of our constituents live, and parents in such houses dare not let their children out because of dogs roaming loose.

    I believe that a dog registration scheme is needed so that we can have some control over dogs that are not properly looked after. There is no bone of contention with owners who look after their animals. There would be no problems if everyone was of good will, care and devotion and looked after their dogs well. The problem is that not everyone does. When they do not, it is not the fault of the dogs, but the consequences are visited upon perfectly respectable, law-abiding citizens.

    One such example is a constituent with a six-month-old baby who lives near a house where three Doberman pinschers or rottweilers are allowed to roam loose in the garden — [Interruption.] Perhaps the Conservative Members who find this so funny would put up their hands if they would like a six-month-old baby to be lying in its pram in the garden with those three dogs roaming loose next door. Of course they would not. It is a potential danger, and the dogs have already leapt over the fence. Parents must have some assurances.

    Bradford runs a perfectly good dog warden scheme, but it is not on call when an immediate problem arises. It rounds up stray dogs and helps to contain the problem, but it does not have the facilities to cope. Bradford, like every other local authority, has many more matters on which to spend money and, inevitably, the problem of stray dogs has a lower priority. The dog registration scheme proposed by the House of Lords would be useful if the Government—

    If there was a fee for registration, the income could be used to extend the scheme. The Secretary of State cannot be so blasé as not to be aware that local authorities are short of money. They must provide education, housing, roads and all the rest, and the dog warden service must have a lower priority.

    Conservative Members take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously, as we did when he ably presented his amendment last time. But neither then nor now do I see the relevance of registration. I do not believe that that rottweiler would have acted differently had it been registered. I do not understand what difference it would make.

    1 am

    The hon. Gentleman has obviously been doing some analysis, and he will realise that dogs cannot read the registration document and would not behave differently. But without a registration scheme, the presence of three rottweilers or Doberman pinschers would be brought to the attention of the authorities only when an accident occurred. If an adult is bitten, it may be an inconvenience and it may be painful. If a child is bitten, depending on the age, it could be fatal. Then people will say, "Goodness gracious, we have some dangerous dogs at 24 Acacia avenue." Without a dog registration scheme, it would be impossible to know that—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Of course it would be impossible for anyone to take remedial action.

    The police do not take remedial action. That action is provided by the dog warden service, but only when complaints are made. If the local authority operates a dog registration scheme, the authority will be able to help people to look after dogs and provide them with guidance. The authority representative would be able to tell owners that they should have decent premises and that they should not keep three dangerous dogs tied up all day while they are at work. The authority can explain that if owners do not provide the dogs with exercise, they should not be staggered when the dogs behave in what might be termed an anti-social manner when they are released. It is simply a matter of help and guidance for owners who do not look after their dogs.

    If Conservative Members believe that some dog owners do not look after their dogs, then they recognise reality. However, if they believe that all dog owners, at all times, supervise, train and exercise their dogs with complete dedication, they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. That simply is not the case.

    The scheme that has come from another place is useful. It is not as good as the scheme that I proposed in an amendment which was designed to help dog owners provide better guidance and better care for dogs and at the same time would have provided better care for the public. Those are reasonable aims.

    I cannot understand the Minister's obdurate refusal to accept the provision. It fits in perfectly with his philosophy, which is not for collective provision out of general taxation revenue, but for specific charges. Where people use facilities, the Government argue that they should be charged because that is much closer to the philosophy of the market place. The Minister has been obdurate; perhaps that results from the fact that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State glowers at him constantly. I suppose that that is enough to frighten most reasonable people in the Conservative party.

    However, the Minister has not provided a philosophical reason to tell local authorities, "We've got the legislation. It's come from the place we revere." Truth to tell, most members of the Conservative party try to get into the other place at some point in their lives—

    Another sedentary intervention. Of course one or two Labour Members try to get to another place, but they are, thank God, a minority. The majority of Conservatives dedicate their political careers to reaching the other place. Yet when it comes to producing a tiny piece of sensible legislation, the Government obdurately refuse even to consider implementing it. That is a matter of deep regret.

    My hon. Friend the Minister's grudging acceptance of the amendments from another place will be a gross disappointment for many people inside and outside the House who strongly believe that a registration scheme would help. Now that they see that such a scheme is approaching the statute book, they will not be satisfied for it to remain a dead letter. They will constantly press hon. Members to remind my hon. Friend the Minister and his ministerial colleagues that the provisions exist and should be used.

    Even after my hon. Friend the Minister's earlier comments, I urge him to reconsider the possibility of looking closely at schemes produced by local authorities and, as the clause seems to suggest, bodies other than local authorities which might administer such a scheme.

    If proposals are brought forward, if people make the effort to produce them, they deserve the care and attention that my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues can give them. I commend the amendments and trust that they are the forerunners of action on the registration of dogs.

    I will be very brief because I do not want to delay the House. I was a member of the Select Committee on the Environment that considered the question of dog licences on several occasions, and I am aware that some pressure must have been brought to bear on the Government to deal with the present crazy situation in which we spend far more collecting the licence fee than we receive. I also want to speak from my experience in Burnley about banning dogs in a few parks.

    I am well aware of the controversy that can arise on issues affecting dogs. I believe that the present licence system is stupid and crazy and cannot go on, but what we are to do if we do not abolish it is a different issue. Speaking, as I say from local government experience, I feel that we should have reservations about allowing local authorities to determine the fixing of a local fee in any registration scheme. That is quite contrary to my normal stance, which is to disagree with the Government taking powers away from local authorities. However, I recognise the difficulties that will be caused—difficulties out of all proportion to the decision involved.

    I believe that there is a case for a national registration scheme, with a fixed fee at national level to be operated by every local authority. The provision introduced by the Lords for the Secretary of State to consult with a view to setting up such a scheme should not be ignored. It was somewhat regrettable that the Minister implied that the Government would accept the amendment but take no notice of it and hold no consultations. Perhaps at the end of such consultations the Government would say that the scheme was not a goer; nevertheless, I feel that they should look at it.

    The Association of District Councils has expressed the view that the amendment is worth while and should be pursued. I am sure that many other hon. Members will also have received a letter from Michael Ashley, the assistant secretary with responsibility for community services, who writes:
    "The ADC gave support to the amendment and believes that a registration scheme with a once-only fee of about £15 will meet the objective of getting dog owners to take their responsibilities seriously and enable district councils to provide an effective dog warden service."
    I think that those two points are worthy of consideration and consultation. I do not disagree with the Government's line on the amendment, but I hope that they will be a bit more positive, that there will be some genuine consultation and that a scheme can be set up that will allow local authorities to deal better with the problems of dogs.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government on their sagacity in accepting the amendment. The last time that this issue was debated in the House, there was something of a punch-up and a small revolt on this side of the Chamber. Their Lordships, in their wisdom, have introduced this amendment, and the Government, in their wisdom, have come to understand the will of both Houses of Parliament and have now accepted the amendment. I hope that my hon. Friend, despite what he has said this evening and his lack of enthusiasm, will come forward with an order before too long.

    The amendment, as I understand it, will allow local authorities to introduce schemes for registering dogs and raising funds that they will be able to spend on schemes for the control and welfare of dogs within their individual local authority areas. I imagine that the limits on the amount that can be raised will be set by central Government.

    Many of my hon. Friends rightly have a horror of bureaucracy, and I have a horror of it as well. But I put it to my hon. Friends that in some parts of the country—in the urban and inner-city areas mentioned by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer)—there is a real problem of dog noise, dog nuisance, dog disease and swarms of dogs roaming the streets. In those areas it is probably the strongest local problem that comes to Members of Parliament. My area is not as deprived as that of the hon. Member for Bradford, South but I receive a great deal of correspondence on the problem of dog nuisance and there is very little that we can do about it at the moment.

    The Lords amendments will allow a dedicated source of funds to provide wardens to deal with this very real problem that disfigures so many of our inner city areas. At the moment, we are introducing schemes for local government finance which will make it more difficult for the areas represented by Labour Members to raise and spend money. The last thing they will do when they are being squeezed of finance, which they will be—I am not against that—is seek to spend what little money they have on dog warden schemes. The order, if introduced, will allow a special sum of money to be used to address the problem; otherwise nothing will happen.

    I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider this issue, to look at it symathetically and, hopefully, to come forward with an order. The great beauty of this amendment is that in the past, to do anything about this problem, we have required primary legislation, a dogs Bill. No Government would gird themselves up against the opposition they would meet. People would say that it was a trivial measure. It would be putting their head in the dog's mouth, and no Government would risk that because they would get their head bitten off. However, an order, late at night, which could introduce exactly the same legislation is sexy and exciting. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to let us have one quickly.

    It is not often that I find myself agreeing with the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) about anything. However, there is an overwhelming case for having a national dog licensing scheme set at a reasonable rate in order to provide funds to enable local authorities to provide the services that are required.

    I was a little disturbed to hear what the Minister said this evening. He agreed to the amendment but said that there is no intention of implementing it in England and Wales. However, two Secretaries of State are referred to in the Bill. Since a Minister from the Scottish Office is sitting on the Government Front Bench and since there will be scope for introducing separate orders affecting Scotland, it would be useful if the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) could give us some indication as to whether it would be possible, or, indeed whether it is likely, that the Scottish Office would be prepared to introduce an order to enable local authorities in Scotland to introduce licensing schemes on the basis of the Lords amendment, which seems to be a constructive one. I hope that it will not remain a dead letter.

    With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate.

    The Lords amendment gives my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the power to make regulations. It does not require him to do so. I can understand that some hon. Members may have wished the amendment to say that it should require my right hon. Friend to make regulations but that is not what it provides. It is perfectly right and proper that we should be open with the House and say that the Government have no intention whatsoever of making the regulations and exercising the power being given by the amendment.

    Having listened to the debate, can my hon. Friend say why the Government have no intention of doing that?

    Yes, I can say why the Government have no intention of making the regulations. There are two separate rationales put forward in favour of a registration scheme. The first is to raise money for local authorities in order to enable them to exercise greater control over dogs in their area. In effect, that would be to go back to a dog licensing scheme, which we have abolished by the Bill. The alternative rationale for dog registration would be to improve the identification of dogs that commit offences. That point was made by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).

    The hon. Gentleman told a story about a Doberman pinscher. There is no way in which a registration scheme would have resolved that problem. He told the House that the dog was apprehended and put down because it was so unruly. Under the law as it is now, anyone may complain to the magistrates court that a dog is dangerous and not kept under proper control and the court may order that it should be kept under proper control or be destroyed. Therefore, massive powers are already available.

    The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) made a good and clear speech. He said that, if there were a dog registration scheme and a system of dog wardens, the dog wardens would know where these large dogs were and when there were two or three large dogs in a house. The dog registration scheme would enable dog wardens to provide advice and assistance to people owning those dogs. What my hon. Friend the Minister has just said is not correct.

    1.15 am

    In addition to the location of dogs, dog wardens would advise and guide dog owners. Dog experts have pointed out that there has been growth in the use and breeding of large and savage dogs such as rottweilers and Doberman pinschers. Owners often buy such dogs without any proper knowledge. They do not know about training, housing, feeding or controlling them. As I made abundantly clear, the dog registration scheme would offer advice and help to dog owners.

    I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that matter; he takes a very paternalistic view about dog owners. Many measures are already available to local authorities, the police and other individuals to deal with dogs.

    Those who argued in favour of a dog registration scheme assume that it would be easy to register all dogs and to maintain and enforce the register. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) say that a registration scheme would be a practical possibility, because he and some of his hon. Friends have been arguing for many hours in Committee that the much simpler and more straightforward process of registering for the community charge will be so fiendishly complicated, so easily avoided and so difficult to enforce that it is not worth introducing. The community charge registration scheme will be straightforward and easy. However, a registration scheme for dogs would be a lot more complicated than the community charge registration scheme.

    On reflection, I am sure that the Minister will agree that his comparison is completely irrelevant. If the registration of dogs were to be agreed, the system would be quite different from a poll tax that has a rolling register, that will change every day. I am sure that the Minister is making a false comparison.

    My hon. and learned Friend mentions the problem of student dogs, but I do not want to get involved with such problems.

    It is easy for hon. Members to talk gaily about registration schemes, but what would happen in practice is the same as what has happened with the dog licence in the past—irresponsible dog owners would not buy licences or register their dogs. Hon. Members who believe that it will solve all the difficulties are living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

    I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the Government do not intend to introduce a scheme.

    I will not give way again to my hon. Friend because as yet I have not answered the points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). We cannot accept the amendment that he moved because, in effect, it asks for powers that at present are permissive to be made mandatory. The power of the police to deal with stray dogs has been discretionary since the Dogs Act 1906 because it is essential for the police to be flexible in dealing with different cases. It may not always be necessary to seize a dog which appears to be a stray if the owner is nearby.

    The Government deliberately did not make it mandatory upon local authorities to appoint dog wardens. They must remain at liberty to decide whether to appoint them or not, depending on local circumstances. Where a local authority does decide to appoint dog wardens, that local authority will no doubt give them policy guidance on how to exercise their discretion under the Dogs Act. The amendment would therefore be superfluous in that context.

    If a local authority does not appoint its own dog wardens, the amendment would require local authorities to secure that police officers exercised their powers. Since their powers are discretionary it is very unclear how that would operate in practice. There is also a more fundamental objection in that the amendment would give local authorities a power to interfere in police activities. It is eminently sensible that local authorities and the police should co-operate where they are both dealing with stray dogs so that owners searching for their strays can be directed to the police or local authorities—

    My hon. Friend might like to contact the Medway towns, where, under the current system of dog wardens, the take-up of the licence is enforced. If people were working at it, there could be an effective registration scheme, particularly if it was raising money for the dog wardens who would then be able to spend that money on the control and welfare of dogs.

    My hon. Friend has made the same point in an earlier debate. That is an example of how a local authority is able to operate perfectly effectively under the existing law. There is no reason why other local authorities should not do likewise.

    I was about to make one more point against the amendment of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, but if that is not necessary—

    My hon. Friend said, quite rightly, that the Medway towns run a good dog warden system, collecting the licence fee and so on. But, to be fair, some local authorities — Left-wing Labour authorities and urban authorities—will be further constrained financially and have a severe problem of dog nuisance. Under the existing financial arrangements, they will not set up dog warden schemes. A dedicated scheme, of the sort that has been described, could be financed by such authorities.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Lords amendments Nos. 17 and 18 agreed to.

    Schedule 1

    Competition

    Lords amendment: No. 19, in page 33, leave out lines 14 and 15.

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    This is a technical drafting amendment. I can speak on it at great length, but it is not necessary in the circumstances. It deletes an unnecessary definition consequential on an amendment made in the House.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Lords amendments Nos. 20 to 22 agreed to.

    Schedule 3

    Local Government Administration

    Lords amendment: No. 23, in page 37, line 27, at end insert—

    "(2) In subsection (2) (complaint not to be entertained unless made through a member of the authority concerned) after 'unless' there shall be inserted 'it is made in writing to the Local Commissioner specifying the action alleged to constitute maladministration or'."

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this it will he convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 24 to 26.

    This allows people to go to the ombudsman directly and is to be welcomed. The matter was raised during consideration of the Bill that implemented part of the recommendations of the ombudsman's report, and will short-circuit some of the delays that people experience in getting maladministration by local authorities rectified. I hope that wide publicity will be given to the fact that when this Bill become law, people will be able to go to the ombudsman on their own without needing to go through a local councillor. I ask the Minister to make this long-sought-after extension of remedy widely known as soon as possible.

    Question put and agreed to

    Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 37 agreed to.

    Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Dr. Cunningham, Mr. Grist, Mr. Peter Lloyd, Mr. Rooker and Mr. Howard; Three to be the quorum.— [Mr. Howard.]

    To withdraw immediately.

    Reasons for disagreeing to certain of the Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.