Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [HL]
6:50 pm

Photo of Baroness Hamwee

Baroness Hamwee (Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I come fairly late to the issues covered by the Bill. This afternoon has been quite a seminar. I am not sure whether the Minister is still smiling—he is. I was going to start with the positive of recognising that the Bill has been preceded by a great deal of work; it has been long in gestation, and of course, consultation is a good thing; and that the aim of reducing the regulatory burden without reducing or compromising standards is also good.

Like my noble friend Lord Razzall, I heard the repeated item on the "Today" programme about the burghers of Essex and the hamburgers. It also made something of the posh restaurants that were supplied, but I suppose in their case it was not burgers but steak Diane. Like some others today, I should have liked to see the regulatory equivalent of zero-based budgeting because it seems that we are putting on more layers. I refute the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who characterised those who comment on regulation as being either uncritical supporters or unquestioning opponents. Other noble Lords might say, "Well, I would say that, wouldn't I because I am a Liberal Democrat?".

Coming to the issue with what I hope is an open mind rather than a yawning chasm, and having read the Bill before reading any background material, the first notes that I made were "prescriptive" and "top-down", which was a term used by the noble Viscount. The debate would have given me a number of additional, pretty uncomplimentary adjectives, particularly the attack by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. My remarks are particularly about Parts 1 and 2, and I hope that I will not sound overly defensive about local government. I suppose that I have form. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, described it more politely as "past" in the case of other people's experience in the business world; I have form in the local government world.

The burden on business seems to be reduced in part by increasing the regulatory burden on local authorities—a point made by the noble Viscount. We already have the LBRO company. I come—I was going to say fresh, but I am more truthfully well worn down—from the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, in which the Government were putting in place a legislative framework around arrangements that had already been made. It is fair to say that we all struggled with it, including the government side. I hope that the Minister can tell us why the Government pre-empted the legislation, what the company has done, what it will do before company No. 6237580 is dissolved and how successful that has been?

I looked at the website because some of the material gave the details. That told me that the LBRO is ready to listen and engage. It gave me a postal address and a phone number, and the information that the site was under construction and last updated in August 2005. If something has been going on that we ought to know about, I should be delighted to hear it.

Local government has long lived with the mantra, "economically, efficiently and effectively", so being told, as the LBRO is tasked to tell it, to carry out its functions effectively is not new. I observe that all this coincides with attempts to reduce the targets and indicators that apply to local government. That is a lot of what we were doing not many months ago, so it is curious to find a Bill providing for an organisation that can direct local authorities to comply with guidance, given by it, or somebody else. The terms, "direct" and "guidance" are not terms that lie easily together.

The LBRO—I started to write, "will be able to", but in fact it must publish a list of matters to which local authorities should give priority when allocating resources in connection with regulatory functions. We have heard a great deal in the past few years in this Chamber about devolution, freedoms and flexibilities for local government, so can the Minister explain what efforts there have been to encourage or facilitate local government itself assessing its priorities? What weight will be given to the assessment of local priorities? I accept, of course, the needs of business for certainty, but do they outweigh almost to the point of elimination, as I read the Bill, local differences?

Local differences are not necessarily bad. Taken to its logical conclusion, uniformity in setting priorities for enforcement seems to be possibly another way of reducing standards that business has to achieve—the lowest common denominator. If it is necessary to prioritise, that suggests that the underlying issue is resources.

Other noble Lords will have heard from the Local Government Association, the Welsh Local Government Association and LACORS—the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Office on Regulatory Services—of their strong opposition to the LBRO imposing prescriptive controls. The primary authority principle, which would give businesses operating in more than one local authority the "right"—that is the term used—to a partnership agreement, has been commented on already. LACORS seems to have ideas for an alternative approach, which would be less bureaucratic and which I read as being a real attempt to compromise and not simply restating the current position. No doubt we will explore that in Committee.

I do not dismiss the importance of consistency and certainty to business, but I do not believe that it automatically overrides the important characteristics of good, local, democratically based government—not administration of central government—which is necessarily varied.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred to health and safety provisions. I hope that we can pursue that in Committee. Health and safety is important. I felt that it was a real shame that the recent prosecution of the Metropolitan Police Service—obviously this is in connection with the events of 22 July 2005—was an inappropriate use of the legislation. That would have done an unfortunate amount to consolidate a lot of people's disregard and disrespect for health and safety legislation. It does not have a very good name everywhere, which is a shame.

I have two further questions for now with regard to the LBRO. What experience and background do the Government expect LBRO board members to have? It will be fairly apparent that I am suggesting that some of that should be local. In particular, will the board include those who are able to put the local government perspective? What relationship, both formal and informal, will it have with the Audit Commission? There is quite a lot of scope for overlap, and possibly confusion about what is expected of local authorities by the different organisations that have a role in assessing them.

There is much in the Bill about who can direct who, not least in relation to the Secretary of State's powers. The noble Lord, Lord, Berkeley, referred to that. I am sure that it will make for an interesting Committee stage—interesting to the aficionados, anyway. There is a lot of interest in how the state is moving to the use of administrative tribunals and the application of some basic principles of justice. My noble friend Lord Razzall has already trailed that. I guess, too, that we may be looking at the objectives of the different categories of sanction. I was taken by the penalties principles in the Macrory review, one of which is that the aim of a sanction is to restore the harm caused by regulatory non-compliance—restorative justice, in other words. That is not something that I have been able easily to identify from the Bill.

The Minister is not smiling as much as he did when I started. I shall end for now by saying simply that the Bill is turning out to be much more interesting than I expected.

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