Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
Decision invoking health or safety: notification, reasons and review
I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) The authority must ensure that any such decision as is referred to in subsection (1) above is made as soon as reasonably practicable, and the authority shall not unreasonably or unnecessarily delay a decision in a way which has the effect of preventing or rendering impracticable a review taking place in good time to allow the event to be held.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on his excellent Bill. I do not wish to delay or frustrate its passage, but I want to question, in a gentle and probing way, one or two aspects of whether it goes far enough, or perhaps a bit too far.
To explain amendment 1, I need to set out—in a way that I hope will not displease my hon. Friend—the Bill’s purpose. In Committee on Wednesday, he said that the Bill
“seeks to assist those who are charitably minded, who are community champions and who want to raise money and hold social functions in their communities by protecting them from over-enthusiastic members of local authorities who might want to stop that activity, using health and safety as a reason for doing so.”––[Official Report, Local Government (Review of Decisions) Public Bill Committee, 21 January 2015; c. 3.]
While he was being a little unfair by characterising people in local authorities as wanting to stop an activity, amendment 1 is even more unfair, as it perpetuates that characterisation and even takes it a step further. That is one of the reasons that the amendment is only a probing amendment, rather than a calculated attempt to strengthen the Bill. Let me explain why.
Clause 1, which my first amendment is designed to alter, sets out that if a decision is taken by or on behalf of a local authority which, for reasons which include health or safety, has the effect of stopping the holding of an event or of imposing restrictions or conditions upon the event, within a defined time limit from the taking of that decision the authority must give notice to the person who is organising the event. Then, as we can see from the terms of the Bill, there is provision for a review of the decision. This is an entirely excellent idea, and I applaud my hon. Friend for bringing it forward. In doing so, he is putting into effect one of the recommendations of the report called “Common Sense Common Safety” by my noble Friend Lord Young of Graffham in 2010.
If my hon. Friend is correct in implying that there are people in local authorities just waiting for the opportunity to leap out from behind a pillar and ban things, and drumming up spurious excuses for doing so—personally, I do not think that, by and large, that is what happens, although obviously occasionally it might—then I believe the Bill contains a gap, which my amendment is designed to plug in the following way.
Let us call this malicious person a jobsworth for the purposes of this argument, who finds that if he bans something on the grounds of health or safety after the passing of this Bill he will be now required to provide written reasons for doing so within a time limit that might allow the event to go ahead, which of course he wants to avoid. What then will he do? He is a clever sort of jobsworth, so he will work out that the most effective way of banning the event is not to take the decision until so near the intended time of the event that even putting the reasons in writing would make it impossible in practice to hold a review. Therefore the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the original decision is taken speedily. The decision must be made
“as soon as reasonably practicable, and the authority shall not unreasonably or unnecessarily delay a decision”.
This is not an elegant amendment. It does not deal with the consequences of a decision not being made as soon as reasonably practicable. It might not be enforceable, but it raises an issue that might not have been covered by the Bill. If my hon. Friend or the Minister tells us to take it away and to get a life, I shall cheerfully do so. In fact, I shall probably do so whether they tell me to do so or not.
It is pure chance that I am here today, but I am very glad that I am because the Bill is of great interest and significance in my constituency. Everybody here has heard of the miners gala, but what people probably do not know is that before the big gala in the city of Durham, every village around the county of Durham can have, and traditionally does have, its own mini-gala. This involves a parade with the local brass band behind the banner of the local mine. This is a long-standing tradition; it has been going on for more than 150 years.
The problem nowadays is that the organising committees for these mini-events throughout the county have to secure the agreement of the police and of the local council. The organisers are required, on health and safety grounds, to put up traffic notices three weeks before and those have to be paid for by the local organising committee. The committee must go to a professional firm to have new traffic notices made for each village with the date, the time and so forth. The cost might be several hundred pounds, but in some villages it is over £1,000. This cost is so great that organising committees are deciding not to bother. Villagers are getting on the bus and going straight into Durham for the big gala, rather than having their own little galas.
At the other end of my constituency, which is very rural, a number of traditional carnivals take place. People there face a similar dilemma: they have to get traffic notices for children’s fancy dress parades—there will probably be a brass band and there may be a carousel and so on. Such obligations are crippling these village events.
The situation is completely counter-productive. A village is a community in which people do things together—and the more they do together, the better and stronger the community will be. The police’s attitude is completely counter to their own crime reduction strategy. People are much more likely to notice a stranger or criminal who turns up if they know everybody in their village and if everybody feels connected and that they can rely on each other. The situation is totally perverse.
The amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) is sensible—speeding things up will make it easier for local organising committees—but what I am not clear about is whether the Bill will tackle the issue of cost, which is the inhibitor on these local community events that we all find so valuable. In 2006 I did a survey of all parish councils in County Durham, so I know that the costs are leading to the end of events across our county. That is greatly regretted by people in County Durham.
I should like to speak briefly about the amendment. It is important that the Bill should remain fairly simple. Although it might be enjoyable and good sport to criticise our district councils and local authorities, it is worth putting it on the record that the majority of them do a fantastic job in assisting community groups to put on these events. The Bill is designed to prevent situations in which that goes wrong and the system breaks down.
I understand the desire of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who tabled the amendment, to make the process speedy. In the Bill there is provision for the local government ombudsman to review and turn around decisions rapidly. However, I am personally keen that we should leave those processes and decisions about review and how an appeal may take place to local authorities. I do not want to put undue financial pressure on local authorities. It is important that we should leave it to local authorities to consider how they review these decisions. If things go wrong, there is provision in the Bill for the local government ombudsman to step in quickly and make sure that the authorities understand where they may have gone wrong.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), as I did on Second Reading at the end of last year, on bringing forward the Bill. All Members present have an interest in community events in our constituencies.
I thank the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) for his interest in the Bill and his amendment, which he moved so eloquently and elegantly. However, I rather agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood about the amendment. As I said on Second Reading, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) said in Committee on Wednesday, we are sympathetic to the overall objective of the Bill. We feel that the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment takes what is perhaps an unfair and unkind view of local authorities. I do not think there are jobsworths in local authorities trying to prevent community events from going ahead. There is already sufficient provision in the Bill, in that it requires, on the day the refusal has been made or on the next working day, a written justification for the decision. The Bill also provides for a review to take place within a two-week period, and then, if there are still problems, there is scope to appeal to the local government ombudsman.
I agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood that the Bill already sets out sufficient provisions to prevent local authorities from stopping events that should go ahead. Local authorities do not take these decisions lightly; they have a duty to protect their citizens and to promote health and safety. We are sympathetic to the objectives of the Bill, but we think that the amendment goes too far and that we should, as the hon. Gentleman explained, leave it to local authorities themselves to decide how they undertake a review if there is some dispute about the refusal.
In the light of this discussion, we will not support the amendment, but we look forward to the rest of the debate on this Bill.
I, too, put on record my congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for the sterling work he has done on introducing this important Bill. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) for his interest in the Bill and for giving me the opportunity to explain the Government’s position.
Local authorities should act in a reasonable, accountable and transparent manner. The Government have already taken action to make local authorities more accountable by improving town hall transparency in decision making—for instance, by allowing the public to report on town hall meetings by tweeting, blogging, and even, in some cases, filming those proceedings. This Bill adds to that transparency. It requires local authorities to put their health and safety related decisions about events in writing. We would already expect them to do that anyway. It is reasonable to expect that if an authority is advising someone of something, it does so in an e-mail or a letter.
This Bill adds to the accountability of local authorities. It gives the person who received the decision or the event organiser, if that is a different person, the right to request a review that the local authority must complete in no more than 15 days.
One potential omission is that, I believe, the Bill applies to local authorities but not to the police. Local authorities will often take the advice of the police. Surely it cannot be sufficient, for a local authority merely to give the reason that it was following police advice without giving the substance of that advice.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Bill strengthens accountability. All the considerations that needed to be taken into account when making these decisions should be put in writing as opposed to not being so; that is where concerns have arisen. It is right that the event organiser should be able to challenge decisions. As we have heard, many local authorities and individuals working within them operate in a very pragmatic and common-sense way and have good transparency. However, we want these assurances to be provided because, fundamentally, we all want our communities to be able to put on these events without being worried about the bureaucracy or any other concerns.
We consider that this is a proportionate approach. It puts in place a sensible structure—
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the particular problem in her constituency. This is a narrow Bill that addresses a particular problem. Perhaps she would like to write to me. There have been a number of events over the course of this Parliament, such as the Jubilee, and a huge amount of good practice is available on how people have been able to speed up decisions with particular agencies they have to work with and on how to reduce costs. It sounds like the example from the hon. Lady’s constituency is an annual event and that different villages face a similar situation. There is probably some pragmatic advice available that could be of assistance. If the hon. Lady wishes to write to me, I would be happy to look at the matter.
I thank my right hon. Friend. Amendments 2 and 3 do indeed touch on the issue, but I would be very happy to look at what pragmatic advice and good practice are already available to assist the residents of Bishop Auckland.
We expect local authorities to think carefully about health and safety decisions—not just the sort of careful consideration mentioned on Second Reading, with local authorities ensuring that they take a sensible approach to health and safety and avoid an over-zealous, risk-averse approach, but how they go about getting the decision to those organising the event in good time. I think that we can rely on local authorities to act reasonably and ensure that decisions are made in good time, especially as this Bill puts in place a mechanism for a review of decision making that must take no longer than 15 days to complete.
I am also concerned that the amendment might lead to local authorities being unfairly penalised if, for instance, they have to make a decision about an event close to the date of that event because they have just been made aware of it. We should not deny local authorities the ability to move quickly and flexibly when there is a need to do so.
I am confident that local authorities will recognise their obligations resulting from the Bill’s provisions; recognise that the review process is as much part of the Bill as issuing the original decision in writing; and be mindful of the time frame in which they should operate to ensure that they are able to comply with the provisions. I am also hopeful that local authorities will wish to work with their communities to ensure that events in their area are successful and safe.
This is a well-intentioned but unnecessary amendment. The Bill as drafted is both sensible and proportionate, and it ensures that local authorities are held accountable for their decisions without placing an undue burden on them. I would never tell my right hon. Friend to get a life, but I hope, with those reassurances, he is willing to withdraw his amendment.
I beg to move amendment 2, page 2, line 43, at end insert—
‘( ) For the purposes of this Act the Local Commissioner shall have power to instruct the authority to pay compensation for any costs or inconvenience caused by the authority’s having unreasonably attempted to restrict or block an event.
( ) Any compensation payable under subsection () above in relation to inconvenience shall not exceed the total amount that it would have cost to put on the event.”
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 3, page 2, line 43, at end insert—
‘( ) Section 25 of the Local Government Act 1974 (Authorities subject to investigation) is amended as follows—
( ) In subsection (1) after “(a)”, insert “() parish councils,”.”
Amendment 2 would allow the local government ombudsman to award compensation in cases covered by the Bill. Under existing legislation, the decisions of the ombudsman on cases of maladministration are not binding on local authorities. The ombudsman can recommend that a council should give compensation, but ultimately it is up to the council to decide whether to do so. When that happens, it is understandable that a constituent who is already aggrieved becomes absolutely infuriated. It was for that reason that in 2008-09 the previous Labour Government held a redress review, which floated the idea of mandatory compensation payments when local public services went wrong. Nothing ever came of that and it was all kicked into the long grass, as, of course, were the previous Labour Government.
Amendment 2 is designed to give the ombudsman an explicit power to instruct a local authority to pay compensation for costs wasted and inconvenience caused by the unreasonable hindering or blocking of an event. Again, the proposal arises out of the report by my noble Friend Lord Young of Graffham, which recommended:
“If it transpires that the local authority officials banned an event without a legitimate reason, the Government should give individuals and organisations a route for redress where they can challenge those decisions and, if appropriate, compensate them.”
“If appropriate, the Ombudsman may award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. If the Ombudsman’s role requires further strengthening, then legislation should be considered.”
The amendment provides for precisely that compensation.
Lord Young’s recommendation is not contained in the Bill and my probing amendment is intended to discover whether the Government think it might be needed at some stage. My purpose in providing for compensation is not to ensure that local authorities are penalised or put out of pocket, but to ensure that the inhibiting jobsworth behaviour does not happen in the first place.
Amendment 3 would extend the requirement for a review to parish councils. At the moment, the ombudsman cannot investigate parish councils, but they can be just as overzealous as anyone else in applying what they think are the health and safety rules, so why should the legislation not apply to them too?
The Opposition are not convinced that amendment 2 is necessary. As the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and the Minister stated on Second Reading, the ombudsman already has the power to recommend compensation. It is true that that happens in only a small number of cases, but given the mechanisms in the Bill to accelerate decisions on health and safety grounds, to provide more transparency, as the Minister has set out this morning, and to provide the opportunity for a review, I think it unlikely that the ombudsman will have to recommend compensation. Indeed, we would regard it as unnecessary in most cases.
In addition, the amendment might increase the amount of any potential compensation to the total costs of holding the event, rather than just the costs that had been incurred up to that point. In our view, that would levy a disproportionate cost burden on local authorities.
Amendment 3 would add parish councils to the list of local authorities that are subject to investigation. That may be a worthwhile addition, but between the completion of the Committee stage on Wednesday this week and today, we have not had sufficient time to think it through or to consult parish councils. We would therefore prefer not to include the amendment in the Bill.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) for giving us this further opportunity to discuss the Bill.
The local government ombudsman is a valued and respected part of the democratic process. The role of the ombudsman is generally to consider complaints from individual members of the public who consider that they have suffered personal injustice arising from the maladministration of the local authority. The remit of the ombudsman extends to district, borough, city and county councils, as well as to certain other authorities such as national park authorities. Their remit does not extend to parish or town councils for good reason, and I shall touch on that in a moment.
Amendment 2 would give the local government ombudsman the power to compel a local authority to pay compensation when it found that the local authority had acted unreasonably to prevent an event from taking place. It states that the compensation shall not exceed the cost of staging the event, so it is essentially a cancellation fee.
I am concerned that the amendment may do more harm than good. The local government ombudsman may not issue binding decisions; instead it makes recommendations to local authorities, which can include the paying of compensation by the local authority to members of the public who have suffered an injustice arising from maladministration. There is almost total compliance with the recommendations of the local government ombudsman, and making recommendations is central to the way that it carries out investigations. Because the process will not result in a binding decision, the starting point between a local authority and the local government ombudsman is not adversarial, which means that the investigation can progress more quickly and comprehensively than might otherwise be the case.
My other concern is that the amendment would unduly fetter the discretion of the ombudsman. As the Bill is drafted, the ombudsman can recommend the remedy that it feels appropriate. Capping compensation at the amount it would have cost to stage the event in question may seem reasonable at first glance, particularly if we are talking about taxpayers’ money, but we should be mindful of other potential recipients of compensation, for instance in relation to events that may be staged to raise funds for charity. Such cases may involve community-minded members of the public, companies and others that give their time and resources for free. The cancellation of such an event may not involve great cost to the organiser, but may result in lost donations to the charity in question. The Bill as drafted intends to ensure that local authorities consider carefully their decisions on health and safety at events, meaning that any decision will be proportionate and reflect the right balance of risk.
If there is a problem with the initial decision, the review process is expected to address that at local level, and only if no redress is available would the local government ombudsman become involved. We expect that to be a rare occurrence, but where it does happen, the discretion of the ombudsman in recognising redress should not be fettered. As I said, the ombudsman’s remit does not extend to parish or town councils for two good reasons. The first is a practical one. There are 9,000 such councils in England. Although they do not have the powers of a principal local authority such as a district council, they still decide on local matters and there will, of course, be people who do not agree with those decisions. Tasking the ombudsman with considering complaints about parish councils would mean—if I may understate the challenge—considerably and unnecessarily adding to the work load of that organisation.
The second reason that the ombudsman’s remit does not extend to parish and town councils is that democracy is more immediate and the council more accessible. These are smaller communities than those served by district councils, and if an event organiser does not agree with a decision about their event, they are more likely to be able to take the matter up with the council directly.
My right hon. Friend’s amendment seeks only to extend the remit of the ombudsman to parish councils so far as those local authorities are making decisions about health and safety related matters at events, but I argue that that is unnecessary, given the accessibility of those councils at local level. I hope that with those reassurances, he will be willing to withdraw his amendment.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am delighted to have got the Bill to this stage. I put on record my thanks to colleagues who have been supportive at previous hurdles it has jumped, including in Committee.
The Bill is necessary. It is an important albeit simple piece of legislation. It will make local authorities accountable for the health and safety decisions they make. It will engage them with the communities and charitable champions in our communities who put on fundraising and local community events to raise money for local charities. The Bill will ensure that health and safety is adhered to, but not applied with too much enthusiasm and an over-zealous hand. If by chance that happens, there is a redress process so that those affected can go back to the local authority and say, “Think again. Please look at this. You are being over-enthusiastic.” Even if the process breaks down at that point, there is recourse through the local government ombudsman, which is allowed to treat such cases with great speed and rapidly, and turn them around so that the event can still take place.
It is a common-sense Bill. Mr Nigel Cosway, a constituent, congratulated me on the Bill and said, “At last, we are getting common sense into politics.” I think he was a little disingenuous—many colleagues would argue that there is a lot of common sense in this building, although perhaps members of the media would disagree. The Bill is a step in the right direction. It will help members of the public to do what they want to do, and to do good things for their community.
I do not intend to delay the House unduly—I am aware that many colleagues want to discuss other Bills—but it is worthy of note that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is in the Chamber. He started the Bill process a long time ago. It was one of his ideas and he introduced the same Bill on another occasion. I hope he is as delighted as I am that we can make progress.
I do not intend to bring to the House the many stories of where health and safety has gone wrong. I am sure all hon. Members have examples of people being over-enthusiastic—schoolchildren have been encouraged to wear goggles to play conkers, and there are other bizarre occurrences.
We are there, Mr Speaker. We have made good progress and the Bill is a good one. It is worthy of support. I wish it speedy progress and hope it does not get delayed in another place.
As I set out on Second Reading, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) set out in Committee, the Opposition are sympathetic to the overall objective of the Bill. It introduces more transparency with regard to such decisions, and a right of rapid appeal when a local authority proposes to prevent an event being held, or seeks to impose restrictions on such events, on health and safety grounds.
The Bill places on local authorities a requirement for a written justification for such refusal, either on the day the refusal is made or the next working day. When an applicant requests that the authority review its decision, it must do so within two weeks. Following that, there is scope to appeal to the local government ombudsman.
It is worth underlining the fact that the Opposition do not believe that local authorities go out of their way to restrict or block events. They have a duty to their communities to preserve health and safety and ensure that people are always safe. When an authority decides that it must restrict or prevent an event taking place, it is a serious matter. Local authorities do not take such decisions lightly. In saying that, we are sympathetic to the idea of fast-tracking the appeal mechanisms and promoting transparency, because we think it is right to give communities and those who organise community events more certainty and a better process to follow.
I raised on Second Reading, and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby raised in Committee, the concerns of the Local Government Association. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), suggested that he was willing to discuss the Bill with the LGA and other parts of the sector, and would ensure that it was on the agenda for their next meeting. I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North, could confirm that that is still the Government’s intention and whether she has an idea of when the meeting is likely to take place.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby asked the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Keighley, whether the Government had had discussions with the local government ombudsman. The Minister provided some clarification on the role—and, as the Minister said today, on the discretion—of the ombudsman, but he did not say specifically whether the ombudsman had been consulted. It would be useful to know whether that consultation has taken place.
The Opposition are sympathetic to the overall objective of the Bill and will not stand in the way of its progress. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on getting the Bill this far, and wish him well for the next stages.
None of us is against health; none of us is against safety. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote, as the first sentence of his foreword to Lord Young’s report:
“Good health and safety is vitally important.”
Now, I confess that if I had been my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I might have been tempted to write, “Good health and safety are vitally important”, but how wrong I would have been. By writing “is” the Prime Minister was highlighting the fact, obviously intentionally, that over the years health and safety have been merged into one large excuse for the avoidance of taking risks.
In my constituency, I once came across a matter on which health and safety were diametrically opposed. The pedestrian crossing of a railway track near Bentley was used by people late at night, occasionally after having drunk a small amount of alcohol. The interests of the residents of Bentley, for the good of their sleep and health, required that train drivers should not sound their horns late at night. The interests of the safety of those returning from the pub required that the train drivers should sound their horns. With my help, the issue was gloriously resolved—but for the life of me I cannot remember how, and then I lost Bentley as part of my constituency in boundary changes, so I am afraid the House will never know.
Over the years, health and safety have become lumped together not only as an issue, but as a phrase to mock. There are entire websites devoted to “health and safety gone mad”. The Daily Mail loves these stories, so it came as a bit of a shock yesterday to discover it running a story complaining about Ladybird books, citing as an example:
“A brother and sister can be seen working together to light a fire using a magnifying glass in one picture, which shows little regard for safety as the boy bends over the flames and the girl holds a frying pan of hot fat.”
On every level this article was complete gibberish—when one is standing down from Parliament, one can say that sort of thing with impunity: first, until the fire was lit, I think it is optimistic to think that the fat was hot; secondly, and most importantly, how essential it is that children have adventures, do mildly dangerous things, take risks, make mistakes and, yes, occasionally burn themselves. We must spread both the word and the law that encouraging people, especially children, to take proportionate risks, and thus begin to learn what is proportionate, is good. It is bad parenting and bad teaching to protect children from everything. We must ease people away from the notion of protection towards a notion of understanding risk and acceptance of personal responsibility.
I entirely approve of the Bill, but I still have one or two concerns and questions about it that I hope might be considered by the Minister in due course. First, what if an event is restricted or refused not ostensibly because of health and safety but because, for example, of an authority’s desire to avoid the risk of being sued or the risk of a rise in its insurance premiums? Could an authority avoid the consequences of the Bill by avoiding using the words “health” or “safety” in its reasons for refusal, or does the Bill cover that?
Secondly, might not authorities be right in some cases that they would be at risk of being sued? Do we need further legislation to restrict litigiousness, or perhaps guidance for judges or training for schools and parents? Then we really are getting into the nanny state.
Thirdly, might local authorities be able to say that the decision was not theirs but that of the police, as we have already heard, or of a head teacher who might perhaps reasonably wish to avoid personal liability? In so doing, might they avoid the requirement for a review?
Those are points that my hon. Friend the Minister might wish to consider in due course, but having raised them I repeat my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and wish his Bill well.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I think the most remarkable thing he said was that he read the Daily Mail expecting to find an article that was not pure jibberish. As he says, that is the sort of thing we can say with impunity knowing that we are about to leave the House.
I welcome the Bill. It is good, if modest, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) recognised. I particularly congratulate him on having taken it to this stage. As I said last Friday, that is something that has escaped me in the 18 years of my parliamentary career. I have never taken a private Member’s Bill to this level of completion and he has done very well to do so.
The Bill deals with some of the excesses of what is described as the “health and safety culture”. Let me say from the start that an awful lot of what we read about things being stopped on health and safety grounds is in fact apocryphal. It is largely not the consequence of local authorities taking decisions on the basis of Health and Safety Executive advice, but of people at a much lower level of responsibility deciding for themselves what the law might say and overreacting to it. I am afraid that the Bill will not help with the over-zealous head teacher or the extraordinarily risk-averse scout leader who prevent people from doing perfectly sensible things, but I hope that it will provide a level of consistency through transparency, in that local authorities will be required to give their reasons, and through the review process. I hope that that requirement will mean that when an authority is clearly out of line with authorities elsewhere in its interpretation of the rules that will be brought to light and will, perhaps, result in a change of decision.
I want to raise one specific issue, to which I alluded in my intervention on the Minister, and that is police advice. An awful lot of what a local authority does in its licensing of public events is based on police advice and the Bill does not apply to the police. The police can therefore say whatever they like. They will of course act responsibly, because the police do that, but the advice might be wildly inconsistent. I hope that when local authorities are giving reasons they will not hide behind the fact that they have received advice from the police to a particular effect, but will set out what that advice is so that we have transparency and the ability to see whether the advice is consistent across the country.
I say that with a particular example in mind, from my own constituency and my own county. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) talked about the galas in County Durham. In Somerset we have one of the largest series of public events in the country, of which no one has ever heard: the Somerset illuminated carnivals. They have been going for 400 years, and they are the biggest illuminated carnivals in the world. They attract a large number of people—the Bridgwater carnival attracts up to 100,000, and sometimes more—and they probably bring about £40 million into the local economy each year. They have also raised about £2 million in charitable street collections, so they are very, very big.
Over the years, I have had to come back to the House repeatedly to draw attention to regulatory challenges to the Somerset carnivals—not because anyone has deliberately set out to harm them, but simply because no one has thought of how certain regulations apply to them. I had to do that during the passage of the Bill that became the Licensing Act 2003, for instance. One of the key factors is the intervention of the police, in the form of road closure orders, vehicle special orders, and the interpretation of rules governing who may drive a tractor pulling a large float, which changes periodically. All those factors are fed into the licensing process.
Over the years, I have observed huge differences in interpretation between neighbouring forces. Again, no one is intentionally being difficult—often the police could not be more helpful when they are consulted about these matters, and the same applies to the local authorities—but the fact is that Avon and Somerset may make a decision based on its interpretation of the requirements, while Dorset’s interpretation may be entirely different.
My plea is this. I should like the Bill—along with, perhaps, departmental guidance for local authorities—to provide a level of transparency that will enable those who manage events to say to the police, “You have made your decision on the basis of your interpretation of the law, but your neighbouring force has come up with a completely different interpretation, and that is having an effect on the licensing costs that we incur,” in respect of, for instance, additional drivers. Although such decisions will not prevent an event from taking place, they may make it less viable, and may eventually cause its extinction. I, for one, do not want to see the extinction of an event which has been taking place for 400 years, which is a lively part of the culture in our part of the world, and which, I think, adds to the gaiety of the nation.
Having said that, I welcome the Bill, but I hope that it can be built on to improve still further the licensing environment in which we must deal with public events.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) generously pointed out, the Bill was first presented to the House during the 2012-13 Session, in the form of one of the private Members’ Bills that I tabled in an attempt to put pressure on the Government to implement all the recommendations in Lord Young of Graffham’s report “Common Sense Common Safety”, which was published in October 2010. On that occasion, the Bill got as far as a Committee stage but made no further progress, apparently because of opposition from the Labour party. I am pleased to note that the Labour party is now taking a more realistic approach. Moreover, this Bill, unlike the one that I drafted myself, is a Government handout, drafted for my hon. Friend with his authority, and with explanatory notes. That just shows that big oak trees can grow from small beginnings.
I think that is an important message, because a number of measures that I bring before this House are not necessarily accepted on the first outing, but in due course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has shown, they can be accepted and they can become Government policy, and even the subject of Government handout Bills. I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this matter forward, and I am delighted to see that it is close to getting on to the statute book. I have never got a private Member’s Bill on to the statute book, but I will feel some joint-ownership of this particular one.
By lucky coincidence, I happen to be in the House today, as it is national Bingham day, a day of celebration of the small Nottinghamshire town of Bingham, and I have a group of constituents coming here.
It is my pleasure to support my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), and to congratulate him on getting to this stage in the legislative process. I think this is a very fitting Bill for him, of all Members, to be bringing forward, as his reputation in Nottinghamshire is as a common-sense, straight-talking Member of Parliament. He was also a very distinguished and respected local councillor in Nottinghamshire, so he brings to this issue a lot of hard-earned experience, which is perhaps why he has managed to bring this Bill to this stage in the process. As an MP and someone who has organised events, and above all as a parent, in my case of two young children, I think this is an appropriate and proportionate Bill as we try to bring them up in the world to take a more sensible approach where they understand risks and are willing to take them—my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) alluded to this. It sends exactly the kind of message this House should be sending out to the wider world: that we should try to live in a less risk-averse culture.
I also want to reiterate a point about the police that was very well made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), and which perhaps the Minister will take away and consider. In my short experience as a Member of Parliament, the one or two serious times when events have been, or have almost been, cancelled in my constituency have been because of advice from the police that was perhaps applied over-zealously or because the issue raised was not pragmatically resolved.
Let me give an example. Newark has a fantastic St George’s day parade, but it came extremely close to being cancelled last year because of road closures. I might once have said that Members will not be familiar with the small town of Newark, but of course a large number of them now are, having visited, in some cases three times, last year. The town centre does not have particularly bad traffic and there are lots of ways in which people can walk around and get around. The parade was cancelled because of police advice, and then resurrected because a group of only 15 local residents got together and acted as marshals. The true advice should have been that the police did not have the necessary resources and some roads needed to be closed for short periods. That was perfectly sensible advice, but there were very easy ways of addressing the situation, and had it not been for a few residents coming together and having the wherewithal to get around that advice, the event, which had carried on for decades, would have been cancelled.
This is not a question of the police advice having been wrong. It is just that often it needs to be provided with the caveat that there are sensible ways of getting around it, if people can get the correct insurance or responsible adults can come together to, for example, organise the required road closures. That is an important issue that could perhaps be addressed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood for bringing this Bill forward and succeeding in getting it to this stage.
I would like to begin by once again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for the sterling work he has done on the Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. I am very happy also to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for the work he did on this topic and, for the sake of thoroughness, to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who picked up the baton on this Bill in a previous Session.
I assure the House that the Bill will not weaken the very necessary and important health and safety arrangements that exist to protect employees and the public health and safety regime in place nationally. The public, employers, authorities and enforcement organisations have an important role to play in ensuring that not just our workplaces, but our streets and our recreation spaces, are safe. Proper and proportionate management of risk is important, and where it is done properly, it is to be commended.
The Bill will not place unreasonable demands on the local government ombudsman’s resources. Its aims are simple. Its provisions would require local authorities to give written notification of a decision relating to health and safety at an event, and also to undertake a review of that decision if requested to do so. The intention is that these measures will lead councils to give health and safety issues careful consideration, and bring to an end bans or restrictions on activity that are the result of a risk-averse culture rather than a balanced assessment of risk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said on Second Reading, the majority of local authorities take very seriously their duties on health and safety.
The Bill is intended to ensure that community events are allowed to go ahead when there are no substantial risks involved. On Second Reading, we heard examples of shared incidences, in which context it is fair to say that there have been questionable decisions about such events. The Bill is necessary because authorities have become over-cautious in respect of health and safety—not in all cases, and not all over the country, but certainly on some occasions. Where health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event taking place, or to place restrictions upon that event, it is right that such a decision be challenged.
The proposals in the Bill are straightforward, sensible and proportionate, and I would like to take this opportunity to provide further reassurance on concerns relating to some of its provisions. In Committee earlier this week, the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) raised concerns —as has the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds)—that the Bill might impact on the local government ombudsman’s resources. The Bill as drafted would provide a framework for local authority decision making. The intention is that the framework will bring transparency and accountability to the decision-making process by requiring local authorities to put in writing their decisions on banning or restricting events on the grounds of health and safety, and that that will translate into informed, sound decision making by local councils. There should therefore be little recourse, if any, to the local government ombudsman. The ombudsman has been extensively consulted about the Bill and is supportive of its provisions.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Bill does not place any additional new requirements on local authorities beyond the requirement to bring robustness to their decision-making processes. Local authorities already make decisions about banning or restricting events on the grounds of health and safety. The Bill will simply provide a framework to bring openness to that process. At a time when the public are seeking greater openness and transparency from the councils that represent them, the provisions in the Bill represent a step in that direction and should lead to greater co-operation and engagement between the council and its local community.
In answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), the Bill will enable better co-operation between the council and the local community as well as between the council and other agencies such as the police. By introducing greater transparency to the process, it will also enable people to share best practice and to flag up problems if they continue to arise.
Underpinning all this is the need to move away from a risk-averse culture. I also wish to reassure any hon. Members who have concerns that the provisions in the Bill could lead to spurious compensation claims. The Bill as drafted should not result in actions being brought against local authorities; nor should it result in local authorities having to fork out huge sums in compensation for an event being cancelled. Indeed, providing a route to challenge local authority decisions by an internal process will lessen the risk of any legal challenge or action, rather than increasing it. It is true that the Bill will allow the ombudsman discretion to award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. Let me be clear, however, that the ombudsman can already recommend this within their existing legislative powers.
The provisions in the Bill provide for the fast-tracking of a decision on health and safety grounds so that a local authority can still revisit its decision as a result of a recommendation from the ombudsman in time for the event to go ahead if any revisited decision allows. Indeed, the threat of a remedy, including a financial remedy, should ensure that local authorities think carefully about making decisions on health and safety grounds. This is as much about common sense and changing the behaviour of local authorities in the way a decision is arrived at as it is about putting in place a mechanism for allowing a member of the public to seek redress when a decision is viewed as disproportionate or unreasonable.
The provisions in the Bill require authorities to undertake certain actions when they ban or restrict events on the grounds of health and safety. In particular, it requires that if an authority makes a health and safety decision about an event, it must put the reasons for such a decision in writing, be that in electronic form or otherwise. The written decision must be sent to either the person who made the application or the organiser of the event, if no application was made. The written notification must be sent on the day the decision was taken or, if that is not possible, the first working day thereafter. The requirement to issue written notification extends not just to a ban on an event prohibiting it, but to a restriction on the event, as it is possible that that restriction might be judged to be so unreasonable that it amounts to a ban. If the person who made the application or the organiser of the event is unhappy with the decision of the authority to ban or restrict the event on the grounds of health and safety, they may request that the authority review that decision. The authority must complete an internal review as soon as reasonably practicable after it receives a request for a review and, in any case, within 15 days of receipt of the request. On completion of the review, it must give written notification, in electronic form or otherwise, to the person who requested the review. The outcome of the review is that the decision may be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced with another decision or varied, but varied only in so far as the decision could have been one reached in the first instance.
Lastly, on the ombudsman’s role, we consider it right that local issues should be resolved at a local level, without a member of the public needing to have recourse to a national body such as the ombudsman. However, if things cannot be resolved at a local level and the council is at fault, it is right that the public have a right to redress through the local government ombudsman. I have already made it clear that we believe the impact on the ombudsman’s resources to be negligible. Let me be clear, for the avoidance of any doubt, that we are not changing the powers or responsibilities of the ombudsman through this Bill. What the Bill does is make provision for the ombudsman to treat a particular class of complaints differently from another class. The local government ombudsman already has discretion to distinguish the treatment of complaints referred to it, but this new clause puts that discretion beyond doubt and will help to reduce the risk of a successful challenge from a member of the public who makes a complaint that their case has not been fast-tracked. The fast-track is an important element of the process. It is there to ensure that if a member of the public complains about a negative decision about an upcoming event, an investigation and recommendation can be made by the ombudsman in time for the local authority to consider the findings, and potentially revisit and change the decision, in time for the event.
We consider that the provisions in the Bill perform a valuable function. In an era of greater transparency and accountability it is right that if an authority takes a decision to stop or impose restrictions on an event on the grounds of health and safety, it should put its reasons in writing. It is also right that there be an appeal mechanism where the decision is considered unreasonable. Finally, it is right that the ombudsman should be able to fast-track complaints about such decisions, meaning it can conclude an investigation before the event is due to go ahead. The Government support this Bill, which is a common-sense, proportional measure, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.