'No fee in respect of any application for a permit or the issue of a permit under Part 3 of this Act shall be set at a level higher than that necessary to cover the administrative costs of—
(a) responding to permit applications;
(b) issuing permits; and
(c) maintaining a register of permits.'.—[Mr. Chope.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 10, in page 16, line 20, at end insert—
'(2A) Permit regulations shall set out standard provisions which must be included in a permit scheme so as to ensure a reasonable level of consistency between permit schemes within the authority's area, and in particular to ensure that a single electronic noticing system may be used to implement permit schemes within the authority's area.'.
No. 11, in page 16, line 40, at end insert—
'(f) for or in connection with the obtaining of permits for works carried out by the highway authority, and/or the inclusion of works carried out by the highway authority in a register of permits.'.
No. 12, in page 20, line 31, at end insert—
'(3B) A street authority may not give a direction under this section in respect of works for which a permit under part 3 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 has been issued.".'.
I hope that the Government will be as accommodating of new clause 2 as they were of new clause 1.
The provision deals with a stealth tax that is estimated to cost £1.2 billion a year or £55 per household per year. It is therefore quite high up the list of stealth taxes. To put it in context, while that figure is not as high as the pension stealth tax of £5 billion or £6 billion a year, it is greater than the total yield from the new charging regime that the Government propose to impose on higher education. Our debate is therefore significant, because if the Government accepted the new clause, they would be unable to use the permit scheme in part 3 as a new stealth tax.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Committee stage was the lack of clarity about the Government's intentions on the use of lane rental, penalties for roadworks that take longer than is reasonable and the introduction of a permit scheme, perhaps along the lines of the scheme used in New York. If the Bill remains unamended, the Government will have the power to use the permit scheme as a means of imposing charges on utilities for the mere occupation of the highway, irrespective of whether the occupation is necessary. The Transport Act 2000 introduced a lane rental scheme, which was piloted in Camden and Middlesbrough. Those lane rental pilots expire at the end of March and the Government consultants, Halcrow, will report on the outcome. It is already clear from their interim report, however, that the pilots have proved to be expensive and bureaucratic, and have not resulted in a reduction in the number and incidence of roadworks undertaken by utilities. New clause 2 would prevent the Government from using the permit scheme as a revenue-raising measure on a par with lane rental.
"the Bill is not about introducing permit schemes as a revenue-raising exercise."
He went on to say:
"We must ensure that there is sufficient ability to charge for the permits to pay for the scheme. However, it is not meant to be, and I do not think that it will be, a revenue-raising scam".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A,
The hon. Gentleman went on to suggest that he was sympathetic to our aim of including in the Bill a restriction on the power of local authorities to use permit schemes as revenue-raising measures. That was the good news, but sadly the efforts of representatives from the National Joint Utilities Group, who spoke to officials from the Department behind the scenes about finding a form of words acceptable to the Government were met with stony silence—indeed, were strongly rebuffed.
I am interested in my hon. Friend's analysis, but how does it accord with the view in many quarters that we should allow local authorities the maximum discretion in deciding what to do in their own area? Is there not an argument for saying that in this case, as in many others, local authorities should be allowed wide discretion in charging for permits, as they would be accountable to voters later?
My right hon. Friend makes a case for giving local authorities a great stealth tax power but, having been the leader of a local authority, I believe that it should be the responsibility of national Government and Parliament to set the parameters of local authorities' tax and revenue-raising powers. It is a great privilege for local authorities to be able to raise taxes through, for example, the council tax. Imposing charges for car parking or occupation of the road is one thing, but a scheme for raising more than £1 billion a year from the utilities and, effectively, the public is something else—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend Mr. Forth thinks that that is a good idea, and I look forward to hearing his arguments later. Speaking as someone who is concerned on behalf of ordinary householders whose utility bills are already of significant size and will go up further as a result of various measures introduced by the Government, I think householders throughout the country need another £55 added to their utility bills each year like they need a hole in the head. I am in favour of flushing out the Government's attitude to this stealth tax. If it means that I go down fighting on behalf of my constituents and other householders, but get some criticism from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, so be it.
Is there not a flaw in the hon. Gentleman's argument? He has argued before that the utilities, particularly modern utilities such as broadband, are delivered in a way that disadvantages people in rural communities. Is it not the case that rural communities would not pay the alleged tax that he has invented, and the burden would fall entirely on urban dwellers?
I have not yet referred to any particular utilities or to broadband. The hon. Gentleman mentions the specific issue of broadband and telecoms infrastructure. As he knows, that is a sensitive issue, and some of the more remote communities may get access to broadband without the roads having to be dug up.
I will not concede that that is wrong. It is, inevitably, an average. The calculation is based on dividing the figure of £1.2 billion by the number of households, which gives a possible cost per household of £55 per annum to introduce the scheme that the Government have in mind. The hon. Gentleman identifies a difference between rural and urban areas, which means that in some areas the figure will be less than £55 and in others it will be much more than £55.
My hon. Friend has put his finger on a crucial point. Is this not part of a pattern? The Government came in with a utility windfall tax, went on to a pension tax, then to a telecoms tax—a swingeing £22 billion on our leading utilities at the cutting edge of the technological revolution—and now the Government are going on to another set of stealth taxes on utilities trying to improve the service to our constituents. I am entirely with my hon. Friend, and in disagreement with my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth who, on this rare occasion, has got it wrong.
Indeed, I have not heard my right hon. Friend's speech. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood for his support.
Looking at the matter in context, it is clear that the biggest burden will be in the water industry, which is carrying out a major investment programme. The industry estimates that the cost of the scheme that the Government have in mind would be in the region of £300 million a year. If the Government accept the new clause, we will know that they do not have a stealth tax in mind. I recently attended a Greater London authority meeting, which was not an experience I would wish on other hon. Members. I noticed how enthusiastic the Mayor of London is about getting his hands on new revenue from the permit regime.
I shall speak briefly about the amendments included in the group. Amendment No. 10 seeks to avoid the administrative nightmare for utility companies of myriad different permit schemes operating across England and Wales. It would integrate an electronic noticing system within any permit scheme to further reduce the administrative overheads. The amendment is in line with the stated intentions of the Minister, who said in Committee:
"The greater the standardisation that the group can achieve, the better"—[Official Report, Standing Committee A,
The amendment would not prevent account being taken of local circumstances, but would ensure that differing local circumstances were taken into account in the application of a permit scheme, rather than in the scheme itself. A permit scheme needs to be flexible enough to take account of different road types and traffic conditions. Those are the key differentiating factors between local authorities. The amendment is supported by Transport for London, which states that it would prefer a single permit system to operate in London so that information could be easily shared and analysed and administrative burdens minimised.
Amendment No. 11 introduces uniformity by ensuring that the local traffic authority would have to abide by the same conditions as apply to utilities. If permits are an effective way of meeting the overall objectives of reducing congestion caused by obstruction in the road, logic requires that highway authorities should be included. Clause 32(2)(a) states that the permit scheme may make provision as to the persons who require a permit, which does not rule out the highway authority needing a permit for its works. The amendment would make that explicit.
Amendment No. 12 is designed to address the potential conflict between permit schemes and directions under section 56 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. It is absurd to have different provisions in different Acts controlling the same set of circumstances. The amendment makes it clear that where a permit is granted, it will take precedence over section 56.
In conclusion, the amendments are supported by the Transport Sub-Committee, which has expressed its grave scepticism about the entire permit scheme and its opposition to the lane rental scheme. It believes that the Government should develop a scheme, which we strongly support, for penalties where utilities take longer than is reasonable to carry out works on the highway. Introducing an additional stealth tax is the wrong way to proceed.
I have considerable sympathy with Mr. Chope because the amendments reflect a number of issues that I raised in Committee, especially a permit scheme. I was interested in why he mentioned a stealth tax and the figure of 55 quid. That assumes that the utilities would be subsidising local authorities, it assumes all the costs but none of the savings, and it is a worst-case scenario. To present the situation as the hon. Gentleman did exaggerates points that are validly made.
Did my hon. Friend notice that the hon. Gentleman omitted the effect of the business rate, and told me in response to an intervention that the £22 billion income from the telecoms auction was this Government's stealth tax? As my hon. Friend knows, that was started by another Government.
That does not answer the point that the right hon. Gentleman fought an election on that policy, which was proposed by the Government whom he supported. He has a selective memory.
The utilities have expressed concern about the way in which local authorities will operate the permit scheme. There is perceived unfairness in the local authorities' both operating and being subject to the permit scheme. I hope Ministers will discuss that with the utilities. There is also concern among utilities that additional costs will be passed to them and therefore to their customers, particularly in the telecoms industry. That industry is particularly fiercely competitive at the moment and there is not much scope for companies to absorb additional costs. In fact, most of them are fairly efficient. Telecoms works tend to be smaller in size and shorter in duration—many are completed in one day. On Second Reading, the Minister referred to the establishment of a working group to try to ensure that permit schemes take on board the needs and priorities of the economy as a whole. I urge him to consider any recommendations that come from that in relation to the operation of permit schemes.
Most telecoms companies strive to connect customers in line with their requests. There is a danger that all schemes will be treated equally although they do not cause the same amount of damage. Some roadworks are minor and involve non-sensitive roads. Permit schemes must be flexible enough to ensure that different schemes are treated differently—otherwise, people's fears about the size and cost of bureaucracy may be realised.
In response to my amendments in Committee, the Minister gave an assurance that permit schemes will be covered by regulations. I welcome that, but urge him to undertake full consultation before implementing the regulations, because the industry fears that that will not happen.
The hon. Member for Christchurch talks about the need for a national permit scheme, or at least one that is consistent across the country. Can the regulations be drafted from the point of view of someone who has to fill in the forms? Many utilities fear that they will have to fill in forms for many different types of scheme. It is important to have not only local variations to adapt to local circumstances, but consistency nationally so that national companies are not faced with myriad different approaches.
The new clause is unnecessary. This is not a stealth tax. There are legitimate concerns, but the hon. Member for Christchurch overstated them and they should be dealt with flexibly in regulations.
I share the worry felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about part 3, which gives wide-ranging powers to local authorities that wish to take advantage of them to set up permit schemes. In particular, clause 36(5) gives local authorities substantial powers to set
"the amount or maximum amount of any fee", to decide on
"cases in which fees are not to be payable or could be repaid" and on
"cases in which fees may be discounted".
They are able to settle
"the time and manner of making payment of fees" and
"the application of sums paid by way of fees."
In my experience, several local authorities—they are usually under Labour or Liberal Democrat control—are constantly on the lookout for new sources of revenue. As they have many ways of spending, or often wasting, the money, they wish to raise more. I fear that those local authorities would see public utility businesses as a soft target. They would, after all, be following the example of Her Majesty's Government, who saw them as a soft target in the run-up to the 1997 election, confirmed it in the Budget that introduced the utilities windfall tax, and continued it with their whopping auction tax on telecoms. Through this measure, the Government are effectively encouraging local authorities to see that device as a way of raising additional money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch says that there is nothing wrong with a permit scheme, despite the bureaucracy and administrative effort involved, if it achieves the ostensible objective of the provisions. Let us remind ourselves of that objective—it is to say to utility companies that there is a cost to the rest of us when they dig up the street or road, and that it would be a good idea if they did it in as timely a way as possible, restricted the amount of road that they damaged or dug up at any given time to allow traffic to flow on the remaining part of the carriageway, rather than closing a large amount or all of it, and entered and exited the streetworks at times of day or year that do the least damage to traffic flows in the area concerned.
It is a matter of great concern to many of us that some local highways authorities and utility companies decide to embark on streetworks at the beginning of a busy term just in time for the first day back at school, which always increases traffic dramatically. We often see a cessation or reduction in roadworks during less busy times of year—in the summer holidays, for example, when traffic flows are much less because there is no school run and many more people are away on holiday. We often note that roadworks do not continue over the weekend, when traffic may be rather less, and that there is considerable blockage of the road on the Monday morning or Friday evening peak when traffic congestion is at its worst.
Therefore, as someone who does not much like administrative intervention and regulation, I can live with the idea that there should be a permit scheme to regulate roadworks in the interests of making better use of the highway and increasing the capacity of the road system, particularly at busy times of day in busy areas. That may be a necessary evil. What worries me, however, is that without the amendment wisely tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, part 3 does not make it clear enough that its only intention is to discipline utilities and to encourage limited entry to the highway and entry only at the least difficult times of day or year. The Bill contains no statement that would prevent a local authority from seeing it as offering up a soft target for raising money.
We argued long and hard in Committee about why the proposals to limit or regulate access to the highway for roadworks do not apply to the public sector, because observation tells us that more often than not it is the highways authority, not the utilities, that does that work. I hope that the Minister will say more about that at the appropriate moment. As the Bill concentrates on the utility companies, it is most important that Ministers understand the strength of feeling on the part of people of all parties and of no party that there are far too many roadworks, that they are badly organised, and that they often run into periods of time or periods of the day when it would be far better if the highway were open to traffic.
The right hon. Gentleman is giving a generalised picture that does not reflect what really goes on. In the case of the telecoms companies, for example, most of the cabling has already been done, so most of the works that remain to be done are minor.
I accept that that means that such work may be much easier to regulate or does not need regulation at all. I would still hope, however, that the highways authority would take a view and suggest to the telecoms utility concerned that it would be good idea to do the work on a dull Sunday rather than a busy Monday. That would be a necessary improvement on the current regime.
I hope that the basis of any guidelines issued under part 3 will be to make more intelligent use of what highway we have and to limit the amount of restrictions upon it. It would be sensible, for example, for highways authorities to point out to water, gas, electricity or telecoms utilities that the repair or replacement work that they are doing can often be done in sections and that it would be possible, at half-past 4 or 5 o'clock at night, when the employees are thinking of going home, to close off the hole in the road again with a temporary or permanent closure of filling or tarmac so that the road can be reopened for use when they are not working on it. It would be possible to do something similar to ensure that the road is open for busy morning peaks and that the roadworks can be done thereafter.
Those are the sorts of measures for which the highways authorities should use their permit powers. If the amendment is rejected, however, greedy councils may decide that this is a marvellous opportunity to charge utilities a lot of money for engaging in streetworks and opening up the road. They may not be interested in the overall intention of speeding up the works or having them done at sensible times of the day or year, but may see a lot of advantage in allowing the utility to run on with the works, maximising the inconvenience to motorists, because they will generate more cash from the permit scheme.
I strongly recommend the new clause to the House. Without it, we will end up with another utility stealth tax that will undoubtedly have to be passed on to all our constituents in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch describes.
I wonder whether the new clause moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope is either otiose or entirely at odds with what I thought was our party's policy. I am rather puzzled, following the points that my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood made. He reminded the House that clause 36(5) says:
"Permit regulations may make provision for or in connection with requiring the payment of a fee in respect of an application for a permit or the issue of a permit, including provision as to . . . the amount or maximum amount of any fee".
My reading of that is that it has the potential to cover the matter that has caused such concern to be expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. I wonder how much added value there is in the words proposed in the new clause. On the face of it, the Bill as drafted seems to make more than adequate provision.
May I say in passing that I am uncomfortable with the immense degree of bureaucracy involved in this whole exercise? For example, clause 33—which is in part 3, the subject of new clause 2—says:
"A local highway authority, or two or more such authorities acting together, may prepare and submit to the appropriate national authority a permit scheme."
That takes us deep into the jungle of bureaucracy—up to our armpits or beyond. We have in that provision the lethal combination of local authorities on the one hand and national bureaucracies on the other. Yet, although I am sorry to say this, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch seems to be adding to that bureaucracy in a most regrettable way.
I may be labouring under a misapprehension, and I am sure that one of my hon. Friends will put me right if I am, but I thought that the whole thrust of my party's policy was local autonomy and local decision making. I have heard many of my right hon. and hon. Friends speak at great length, and with passion, about the need to give local bodies—be they school boards, local authorities or anything else—the maximum possible degree of discretion in making decisions for which they are accountable to their electorate. However, I now find to my astonishment that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has come along with new clause 2, which apparently seeks to overturn that whole philosophy, because it says:
"No fee in respect of any application . . . shall be set at a level higher than that necessary to cover the administrative costs".
My right hon. Friend protests too much. The purpose of new clause 2 is to signal clearly that the measure is not a tax. Local authorities have other taxes that they impose, but this should be simply an administrative charge that reflects the cost of giving the public something that many of them want: greater access to their roads.
My view, however—as I am the one speaking, I think that my view has primacy at the moment—is that local authorities should be given the scope and freedom to charge a fee, even if we call that a tax, at their discretion, for which they are accountable to their voters. That is the burden of my argument. I thought, in the most peremptory way, that that was the thrust of our policy, but along comes my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and tramples all over that. He is saying, in a heavy-handed way, that he has decided that were new clause 2 to be accepted, local authorities should not have that discretion. However, I bet that when my hon. Friend was the eminent, successful leader of Wandsworth borough council, he would have argued for such a stance and said, "Knowing the local conditions in Wandsworth, I, accountable as I am to my electorate, want us to have the freedom to impose such charges locally as I think are necessary."
I do not want to be drawn into such an argument, but if the hon. Gentleman is saying that in the Labour party, new or old, a debate is now called a split, that tells us quite a lot about his party's mentality. In the new, thrusting, dynamic Conservative party we welcome debate because we are confident of our philosophy, particularly our philosophy on local government autonomy, if I may say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that the whole ethos of Wandsworth borough council, when I was privileged to be its leader, was to keep taxes down? We wanted to have low tax rather than to introduce new taxes.
Yes, indeed. That was my hon. Friend's decision, and the people of Wandsworth rewarded him with a continuity of power unequalled in modern times. I am grateful to him for making that point. He made that decision and was rewarded by his electorate for it. Surely he would not now want to deny elected representatives in other local authorities the power to make different decisions for their areas. They might decide in this case, for their own reasons, that higher fees would be appropriate to their circumstances and conditions. That is why I am at a loss to understand why my hon. Friend is trying to persuade the House that somehow, in a Bill—
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the utilities and other companies that will have to pay the costs have expressed concern about the impact that those costs will have on them? That is not the same as the argument that he is making.
I shall carry the argument some way to make my point, but if a local authority were to set fees at a prohibitive level, the utilities might not undertake the repairs and improvements that they wanted to and the local populace would suffer as a result. It would then be for the local voters to make their decision, on the basis that the exorbitant fees being charged by their elected representatives were having a counter-productive effect on their lifestyle. For example, knowing the hon. Gentleman's expertise and interest in such esoteric matters as broadband, I suspect that he thinks that every home should be served by the ghastly internet, and that the horrible material on it should be accessed by every household, perhaps regardless of the cost. I would take a different view, and suggest that if his local authority were wise enough to charge a penal fee to discourage the connection of the ghastly broadband and other internet services, his voters would be very grateful to him and to the local authority.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will not allow his prejudice against broadband to disguise the fact that there are statutory duties relating to the safety of gas mains and the provision of water, which local authorities need to take into account. If they impose substantial extra taxes on the provision and maintenance of those key facilities, the undertakers will not be able to avoid paying those taxes.
And indeed, to follow that point, the undertakers will not be able to avoid increasing their charges to their consumers, who will then be able to make a market judgment. What puzzles me, coming from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, of all people, is that that they seem to be shrinking from allowing a market judgment. In the end, two mechanisms are in play on this point: the political, electoral mechanism of local authorities and the market mechanism between the utilities and their consumers, who happen in this case to be coincidental with the voters. I should have thought that that would appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, and I can see that he is thinking about it, which encourages me to hope that he might reconsider his position. In the end, however, I need to hear much more from him, and I hope that when he winds up this little debate, he will give further arguments to explain why he seems so wedded to a degree of central control and fiat that is completely at odds with his distinguished political history and his political philosophy. That is my problem with new clause 2.
To return to where I came in, were my right hon. and hon. Friends to want to go down this route in any case, my reading of the original wording of the Bill is that it probably provides sufficient powers in the key phrase
"the amount or maximum amount of any fee", although I accept that that implies a degree of centrality, central control and omniscience—not to say omnipotence—that I find distressing. However, if my right hon. and hon. Friends want the words, they are there in the Bill already, and I hope that they will reconsider the position that they have taken in new clause 2 and seek leave to withdraw it.
I am equally horrified by amendment No. 10, because here we are introduced to the phrase
"standard provisions which must be included", which strikes me as amazingly prescriptive, and to the provision
"to ensure that a single electronic noticing system may be used".
If my right hon. Friend reads the amendment clearly, he will find that it includes the words
"within the authority's area", so his argument about local autonomy is quite irrelevant. In this amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is preserving the right of the authority to make a recommendation, but saying that it should be consistent throughout the authority area.
Again, that should be a matter for the local authority itself. Why do we need a form of words to be put on the face of the Bill to tell a local authority to do something that it should be perfectly capable of deciding for itself? I do not think that this is a particularly circular argument, or even, dare I say it, a repetitive one, as I have now moved on to amendment No. 10 as opposed to new clause 2. Surely the local authority should be allowed to make its own decision about whether standard provisions should be included, even within its area. It is just conceivable that, if a local authority covered a densely populated urban or suburban area as well as an element of rural hinterland, it might be appropriate to have different provisions for different parts of the area.
Who would feel it incumbent on themselves to come along and put in cold print on the face of a statute these prescriptive requirements that intrude on the decision making of an elected and accountable local authority? A philosophical conflict is built in to what my right hon. and hon. Friends want to say about local authorities in the overall sense—with which I thoroughly agree, and which I applaud—and the thrust of what they are saying in new clause 2 and amendment No. 10. All in all, I am a bit unhappy about this, and I am very unhappy to find myself at odds with my right hon. and hon. Friends. I hope that, after the Minister has attempted to persuade the House of his position, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will take the opportunity to reconsider what he has brought to the House, to think about the overall context in which he is offering it to us, and to avoid any suggestion that this might be a blot on his otherwise immaculate reputation.
Perhaps I can steer a path between the extremes expressed by Mr. Redwood and Mr. Chope, and the eminently sensible contribution from Mr. Forth. That is not an unusual thing to say, especially for those of us who spend our time haunting this place on Fridays. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst seems to save up his sensible suggestions for Fridays, but today he is clearly having a good day on a Tuesday, for which I am enormously grateful. He is right to suggest that these proposals are otiose, but I must provide a sting in the tail to his argument. If he is putting forward the broadly social libertarian local autonomy argument, I must part company from him, albeit gently. I agree with the thrust of what he has said, but his suggestions must be implemented within a framework of regulation and guidance.
The new clause is otiose, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggests, and it tramples over local autonomy. I would also part company with him over his description of today's Conservatives as confident, bright young things compared with what they were in the past. We have to part company at some point.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham gave the game away when he suggested that he wanted to send a signal that this scheme was not about stealth taxes or revenue raising, and that it was merely seeking to cover the cost of administration, as I suggested in Committee. With the greatest of respect, legislation is not the place for sending signals. The Bill should do what it purports to do and no more. The right hon. Gentleman can send signals in a little column in The Spectator or the Wokingham Gazette or Bugle, but not in the Bill. That would be as inappropriate as the—what is the polite word?—rantings of the hon. Member for Christchurch about the figure of £55 per household. Just because something is repeated often enough, or appears often enough in The Mail or The Express—
The Mirror or The Sun, whatever you like—anything at the murkier end of what purports to be the media in this country. Just because such things appear often enough, it does not mean that they are true.
I do not think that we put a price on that in quite the same way as the hon. Member for Christchurch did when he suggested that the measures would cost £55 per household. So, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I have parted company again, which disappoints me as we usually get along so splendidly.
Many of the points made by Conservative Members fall into the trap of seeing the amendment, and all the clauses to which it refers, in total isolation from the rest of the Bill. They included the suggestion that the proposal is a devious scheme to get more money for local authorities, of whatever persuasion. When we consider the measures that the Conservatives constantly refer to in their fight-back for the drivers of middle Britain, and when we consider in detail the implementation of these schemes, there is not a whole lot of difference between the political parties in terms of what they do out there in the big wide world. There is no difference at all, save for the propensity for casualties in their areas.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham suggested that local authorities up and down the country would deliberately carry on street works for as long as possible just to extract as much money as possible from the contractors. That is in stark contrast to the provisions of clauses 16 and 17, and to all that we have said about network management duty. If an authority tried to utilise a permit scheme, suitably applied for and allowed, simply to clog up the streets—which by definition it would—simply to secure a revenue stream, it would not work because of the network management duty.
Will the hon. Gentleman firm up that promise? Is he saying that Ministers will have to ensure that the local authorities insist on speedy street works and will impose only administrative charges on people and not unrealistically high fines?
I would like to go all the way with the right hon. Gentleman in that regard, but I cannot because that issue is outwith the full comprehensive nature of the Bill. I cannot say yes to that question in isolation from the whole range of other elements of the network management duty that we went through in detail in Committee. It was clear from our discussions and from what will be in the guidance that that duty is not simply about the flow of traffic or the speed of that flow. It is not just about the absence of congestion; there is a whole range of things involved, as we explored in Committee. I agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that the new clause is otiose, for some of the reasons that he has given, and others.
New clause 2 would mean that a fee for any application for a permit or the issue of a permit could not be set at a level higher than the administrative costs to the permit authority of responding to a permit application, issuing the permit and maintaining a register of permits. I said clearly in Committee, and I repeat that permit schemes are not designed as means of raising extra revenue for local authorities. They are intended as a way of enabling all potentially disruptive activities in the street—be they utility works, local authorities' own works, the placing of skips or whatever—to be managed in an integrated and co-ordinated way.
Crucially, as my hon. Friend Brian White suggested, we have set up a working group on which all those parties sit—the utilities, local authorities and others—and charged them with considering the details of how permit schemes might work and making recommendations to the Government. That will enable us to provide in regulations and guidance that very framework within which—here I come back onside with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—those decisions can be made at local level to determine whether those involved want to pursue a permit scheme or otherwise.
I have to say again that the hon. Member for Christchurch goes on and on as though these are schemes—not only those involving permits, but others—that we are about to impose directly by compulsion on each and every highway authority in the land. We are not doing that in any way, shape or form, but we want to work with the parties on which these proposals will have the most direct impact. That will enable us to draw up regulations setting out the standard arrangements applying to the schemes, as well as guidance for those operating schemes and those who would need to apply for permits. By pure coincidence, the first meeting of that working group is being held today, just around the corner.
Among other things, the group will look at exactly what activities would require permits and what level fees should be set at. In considering fee levels, it will look not only at the costs of operating schemes, but, entirely appropriately, at whether it would be sensible to set different fees according to differing circumstances. That involves the flexible standardisation that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggested.
It is appropriate to have a framework, clearly established, within which these decisions can be made, but the whole array of ideas on how to go forward with a permit scheme should be left to the local authority. For instance, should all activities attract the same fee or should the fees be varied according to when, where and how they are carried out? Those involved will also look at how, if at all, permit schemes would fit in with existing arrangements such as that for charging utilities whose works overrun an agreed deadline. We want to give the group the flexibility to look at all those relevant issues.
In the light of the group's work, but above and beyond the working party, we will hold, later in the year, a widespread public consultation on draft regulations before those are brought to Parliament. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggests, new clause 2 is otiose, but I am a fair man. Broadly, we still have consensus in most of the House, although there is clearly disagreement and disarray in some parts. Having made those comments, I will take this away and consider what the hon. Member for Christchurch has said on the issue so that at a later stage in the Bill's passage through Parliament—in another place—we can perhaps provide more information on the Government's intentions.
I say that deliberately, because when the Bill reaches the end of the legislative process, I want it and the subsequent guidance and regulations to be fully informed by the working group and the involvement of local authorities, utilities and other operators. That will enable us to sign off those regulations and the guidance with as much agreement as we can—in some cases, people subsequently decide that there are all sorts of difficulties with such regulation and guidance—as early as we can. Then we can leave it, within the framework of regulations and guidance, to the local authorities to determine whether they want to pursue a scheme. We will have a look at what the hon. Member for Christchurch has said, by all means, but first we should let the working group have a look at the thing.
Amendment No. 10 would appear to require that regulations made under clause 36 must ensure reasonable consistency between permit schemes. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: I said in Committee that that would be of use—certainly within authorities, but between authorities as well—if there were some commonalities. I do not want to put too many consensual words in the mouth of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, but, as he suggests, much that will be needed in terms of standardisation could be dealt with in regulations.
The regulations would have to set out certain standard provisions that were common to all permit schemes, especially in relation to electronic noticing systems. I agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch that it is desirable that there should be some standardisation—I have already alluded to that—but it cannot be sensible to have dozens of entirely different schemes operating in different parts of the country. Many utilities, although not all by any means, work nationally and some standardisation is appropriate, but I do not believe that we need such prescription in the Bill, as this issue can safely be dealt with through regulations.
The working group, which we have set up to consider the details of permit regulations and the accompanying guidance, has been asked specifically to consider the issue of standardisation. I suspect that there will be some merit in going down that road. The group will make recommendations to us later in the summer on that and other matters, after which we will again go out to wide public consultation on the way forward.
Amendment No. 11 is, I understand, intended to enable permit regulations to deal with highway authorities having to obtain permits for their own works and to record those on a permit register. Again, the amendment is unnecessary. The interpretation provision in clause 38(1) already makes it clear that the scope of "works" means that permit schemes can include works carried out under the Highways Act 1980. That covers a wide range of works carried out by highway authorities, including road maintenance works, construction of bridges and introduction of traffic-calming measures.
The regulation-making powers can enable those works to be subject to a permit scheme anyway, taking into account the unavoidably different considerations that apply in regulating the activities of public authorities and private companies.
We have asked the working group looking at permit regulations and guidance to consider how the works carried out by highway authorities can be incorporated within the scope of permit schemes. The aim behind permit schemes is to improve the management of all works in the street, including highway authorities' own works.
Amendment No. 12 would have such effect that a street authority could not give an undertaker a direction relating to the timing of one of its street works where a permit had already been issued for that works. Clause 36(8) provides that regulations made by the appropriate national authority may set out provisions that modify or disapply primary and subordinate legislation. Depending on the exact structure of permit schemes decided on in the light of consultation and the work of the working group, I would expect it to be necessary for the regulations to set aside certain sections of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, which set down how, where and when works can be carried out. That is needed to ensure, as the hon. Member for Christchurch suggested, that we do not duplicate controls in certain areas.
We have asked the working group to consider which existing legislation should be dealt with in that way. The power to make directions under section 56 of that Act may be one that we would want to set aside in cases where a permit has been issued. Again, that is a matter for the working group to consider rather than for the Bill prescribe. The scope to alter provisions is appropriate and already in place.
In view of my comments and the excellent contribution, by and large, from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I am sure that Conservative Members feel able with confidence to withdraw the proposed new clause. As we suggested in Committee, the working groups that are bringing together local authorities, operators, utilities and other interests should put the real framework in place, so that we can take matters forward. I seriously ask the hon. Member for Christchurch to withdraw the new clause so that we maintain the consensus—shaky though it may now appear—that has driven us thus far on Report.
The debate centred largely on intellectual and philosophical purity. My right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood and I are on one side of the argument; my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth is on the other. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst identified a paternalistic streak in me but in the past, a paternalistic streak was found in him—when my right hon. Friend was forced, probably against his intellectual judgment, to regulate activity centres following the Lyme bay tragedy, in direct response to a private Member's Bill presented by Mr. Jamieson. Neither my right hon. Friend nor I can say, much as we might wish, that we are absolutely consistent in our intellectual purity.
If that is the best mitigation that my right hon. Friend can put forward, I leave it to others to judge.
I am disappointed that my right hon. Friend did not highlight that the House is being bypassed by the vast range of regulation-making powers in the Bill—particularly in that part to which new clause 2 relates. Only a few days ago, a leading article in the Financial Times stated that regulation is the new clause IV. The Government are using regulation instead of nationalisation to achieve their objectives. The Bill contains an enormous number of regulation-making powers over which the House will have little control.
The issue is whether one believes in low taxes, be they transparent or imposed by stealth—though we are against stealth taxes. We want low taxation. We want to protect householders from the £55 per annum burden represented by part 3. The figures have not been dreamt up by me but are the result of careful analysis by the National Joint Utilities Group.
When we put the new clause to the vote, as we intend, those who support it will be voting on behalf of hard-pressed householders by saying, "We do not think that you should be burdened with an extra £55 a year on your utility bills." Those right hon. and hon. Members who enter the No Lobby will be saying that they are indifferent to those householders' plight.