I beg to move,
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Traffic Management Bill, it is expedient to authorise the charging of fees in connection with permit schemes.
I shall try my very best, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to be neither shifty nor opportunistic.
"the charging of fees in relation to permits issued, or applications for permits to be issued, under permit schemes".
That wording was tied closely to the wording of the Bill as it existed at the time, and it would not be consistent with the amendments made in another place to allow fees to be charged in connection with the variation of permits. Variation might be needed, for example, when an undertaker approached an authority to ask for an already issued permit to be varied to allow more time for works to be carried out. Therefore, it was necessary for the Ways and Means resolution to be drafted so as to cover variation and to reflect the amendments that were agreed by all parties in the other place. It is merely a technicality, and no more.
Will the Minister clarify one matter? Is not the Ways and Means resolution drawn fairly widely, so that instead of merely allowing fees to be charged in connection with permit schemes to recover costs only, it could result in some local authorities charging fees in connection with permit schemes to make a whopping profit?
I do not accept that. This point was raised at length in the Grand Committee and in all subsequent stages in the other place. Certainly, their lordships felt able to endorse the amendments put forward. This was one of the strongest points put in that debate, and if their lordships can come to that position, I hope that this House would also agree the point—
I know that it will not necessarily be the case. The point is merely to reflect the amendments as drawn up in the other place. Given that the words of the original Ways and Means resolution were drawn so tightly in relation to the clauses on permits in the Bill as discussed in this place, it needs to move on technically to reflect those amendments to include variation on permits rather than simply their application. I strongly urge the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure is not being anything other than helpful in terms of the debate, to examine the Lords Hansard, where he will see that this question was explored in full. That is not the purpose of amending the Ways and Means resolution.
I can indeed. Amendments Nos. 28 and 29, which we are asking the House to agree today—they have already been agreed in the other place—make explicit the Government's intention that permit schemes should not be used by local authorities to raise significant amounts of revenue at the expense of those carrying out necessary works in the street. Instead, the level of fees should be linked to the cost to the authorities of operating the schemes and no more. Exactly what those costs should be, such as those in relation to processing applications for a permit, keeping a register of permits, and ensuring that those issues of permits comply with any condition attached to them, will be set out in regulations. It is those changes in amendments Nos. 28 and 29, which have been agreed by the other place, that necessitate the change. We made explicit in those debates in the other place that what I have just said is what prevails. That is entirely the point that Mr. Knight just made.
With that short introduction, I commend the new Ways and Means resolution to the House.
It is always worth while for the House to note a Ways and Means resolution, not least because it often means that another stealth tax is on the way from this Government. We have seen that on many previous occasions, and many people will be rightly suspicious that that is precisely what we are seeing again today. The Minister and my right hon. and hon. Friends have already referred to previous debates on this issue, both in Committee and in another place. The Minister will be aware of genuine and considerable concern that part of the purpose of this aspect of the Bill is simply to be a revenue-raising measure. He has sought to reassure the House in the past couple of minutes that that is not the case. He was not wholly convincing, as he said that we would have to wait for the regulations to ensure that. We are right to be suspicious that we have not yet been told how that will happen.
Even before we get to discuss the details of the proposal, it is important to establish the principle. On the surface, it appears flatly to contradict what the Minister said in Committee. He made the point that all these matters should be dealt with in regulations, and, referring to my hon. Friend Mr. Chope, he said that he understood where he was coming from, but that
"the Bill is not about introducing permit schemes as a revenue-raising exercise."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 29 January 2004; c. 163.]
In that case, why do we need a Ways and Means resolution? We need it precisely because it is a revenue-raising exercise. The very existence of this debate shows that, no doubt inadvertently, the Minister was misleading the Committee, and that this part of the Bill was always intended as a revenue-raising exercise. It is a resolution put forward by a Treasury Minister, perfectly properly, no doubt on the advice of the House authorities that this part of the Bill requires a Ways and Means resolution, precisely because it is a revenue-raising exercise.
The Minister went further in Committee. He said:
"I do not think that it will be a revenue-making scam".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A,
I hope that that counts as moderate language. We would excuse him of wanting to promote a revenue-making scam—it is not a scam at all, as it is perfectly clear that the purpose of this part of the Bill is to raise revenue, and I am glad that at least Treasury Ministers agree. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's response to that.
This is an important matter, because we need to address who will end up paying this new stealth tax that the Government are imposing on us. On the surface of it, it will be paid by relatively unpopular bodies—the utilities. They are always a good, unpopular target, as all of us have been stuck in traffic jams when the road is being dug up, and we tend to blame the gas company, the electricity company, the cable television company, or whoever it is. Such companies have to dig up the roads to promote their business, and all Members will want such work to be carried out as speedily and efficiently as possible, so that disruption is minimised.
But the truth is that this permit scheme potentially involves revenue raising, and in the end it will be not the companies themselves that pay the tax, but all of us, as their customers. When I say us all, I mean us all. Everyone in this country is a customer of one or other of the utilities, so particularly during emergencies or when the supply of an essential service is cut off, we welcome the fact that they are able to dig up the road, repair the problem and get our lives back to normal. There is genuine concern that, as a result of this potentially revenue-raising measure, the bills of every household in this country will be increased to pay for it.
It is also noteworthy that this measure seems to cut across the policies of other Departments. In their exercising of power, this Government, who promised us joined-up government, want to promote broadband. However, making digging up the roads more expensive will make the roll-out of broadband more expensive and difficult, and it will therefore happen more slowly. The Minister should perhaps talk to his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry, who constantly tell us that broadband Britain will be one of this Government's triumphs.
Given that most of the urgently required broadband involves connection from the kerb to the house, can the hon. Gentleman explain what the hell he is talking about?
Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here a few moments ago, when I appealed for the use of traditional, customary and moderate language.
Most broadband does involve such connection, but to connect from the road to the kerb requires digging up the road first. Brian White is more than welcome to visit my constituency, large parts of which are rural. There, the idea that the basic infrastructure already exists is a fantasy. That may not be true of his constituency, but it certainly is of many parts of the country, so this is an urgent issue.
We shall in due course discuss the power and responsibilities of local authorities, but it is worth pointing out now that the motion makes it clear that local authorities will be tempted to make money out of this scheme. The Minister tried to reassure us that that will not be possible, but he was unable to convince us. Frankly, he is skating on thin ice. Given that the very existence of this motion contradicts what he told us in Committee, a little humility would be in order. He should admit that he got it wrong in Committee, and that he is trying to correct matters now. He will understand why the House is mildly and moderately suspicious of his motives.
I have just one question for the Minister. Does this extension come under the auspices of the permit schemes, and do the Government's amendments requiring charges to be cost-reflective and efficiently incurred therefore apply equally to this extension?
I was shocked when I heard the Minister say in a casual way that if the House of Lords approves a thing, we should in effect nod it through; at least, that seemed to be the gist of what he said. I must admit that I am rather keen on that doctrine. If we applied it, for example, to hunting, postal votes or the Lord Chancellor, we would be in an interestingly new political world. So I thank the Minister for his inspirational lead, and in respect of those purposes I welcome his suggestion that any matter to which their Lordships agree need not be further considered in this House. I hope that he, as a representative of the Government, will convey that suggestion to the Prime Minister—unless, of course, the Prime Minister conveyed it to him.
That comment usefully set the tone for this little debate on the Ways and Means motion. I was then inspired by the interpretation offered by my hon. Friend Mr. Green. Following my last attempt at debating a Ways and Means resolution, during which I fell foul of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—not an unusual event, I admit—I again consulted "Erskine May" on this matter. It is clear that my hon. Friend had already consulted "Erskine May", because he obviously took on board exactly what it says on page 897 of the completely up-to-date 23rd edition:
"A Ways and Means resolution is a necessary preliminary to the imposition of a new tax, the continuation of an expiring tax, an increase in the rate of an existing tax, or an extension of the incidence of a tax so as to include persons not already tax-payers. It is immaterial whether the tax is solely intended to provide revenue for the public service, or whether its primary purpose is to regulate imports or to promote other public policy objectives."
As ever, "Erskine May" says it all. There we have revealed before us the very reason why we need a Ways and Means motion before us today: to raise a tax. A tax by any other name is just as painful, and a tax is what we are dealing with. It may well be dressed up as fees, but in the end people will have to pay it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is sometimes necessary to levy a tax or fee, and that it is very much better to be honest with the public and tell them that one is doing so? People become suspicious when Governments try to hide such things. Is not the real problem that the Government are trying to hide something, which must mean that the provision is actually much worse than it appears?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Sad to say, in this post-Butler era we are entitled to have exactly such a suspicion. All of us would like public life in this country to be renowned, as it used to be, for its integrity and transparency. However, we can no longer make such claims, and we will have to set our minds to that issue when we are in government.
Having sought guidance from "Erskine May", I then went straight to the Bill itself—as you would expect me to do, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to see whether I could tease out what lies behind this apparently innocuous Ways and Means motion.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to his earlier point about the insidious nature of such transport permit schemes? Is he aware, for example, that the economics of the London congestion charge—a permit scheme of a sort—depend not on the charge itself but on the enormous number of fines that are paid for not obtaining an adequate permit when travelling through London in a car?
I would like to pick up on my hon. Friend's point about fines, but not in the context of the London congestion charge; definitely not. There probably will be cause to reflect on what he said, but strictly in the context of the Bill giving rise to the Ways and Means motion. If I may, I shall build towards what he said, rather than responding immediately; nevertheless, I am grateful to him.
I want to dwell for a moment on the phrase:
"it is expedient to authorise".
I always worry when I see such a phrase used in a Ways and Means motion. It may well be expedient, but is it correct and proper? Do we approve of it? Expediency surely should not be the criterion for judging these matters. In this modern age of new Labour, expediency may well be a sufficient reason to justify levying upon the innocent taxpayer, but I certainly do not approve of that. Indeed, the use of that word is in itself almost reason enough for me to vote against this Ways and Means motion, not for it. I hope that the Minister will not suggest that the word "expedient" gives him any cover.
The resolution is bland and gives nothing of the background or detail. We are expected, as so often, effectively to sign a blank cheque on behalf of our taxpayers. We must look to the Bill for guidance. Clause 36 on permit regulations says that the
"appropriate national authority may by regulations . . . make provision with respect to the content, preparation, submission, approval, operation, variation or revocation of permit schemes."
Horror of horrors, the "appropriate national authority" is none other than the Sec of State. Right away, we have the scary phenomenon of the Secretary of State being given unlimited powers to make regulations. So far, so bad; it then gets worse.
Clause 36(5) says that the permit regulations—made by the Secretary of State, no less—
"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".
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford helpfully said that we are talking about utilities applying for permits to dig up roads. We now have a lethal combination; the Secretary of State setting out the basis on which utilities will make applications, from which the fees will flow.
As my hon. Friend suggested, it is no good the Minister saying that it will not be the consumer or the taxpayer who will pay; it will be the wicked utilities. As my hon. Friend said, the utilities will not be paying the fees. They have only our money. My hon. Friend missed a trick here, because it is not just the consumer who might pick up a larger utility bill to pay the fee. It could be the shareholder, but since shareholders and consumers overlap to a large extent, that is no excuse either. Someone, somewhere will have to pay for all this. It is not one of those things that sounds good if one says it quickly, which I am not inclined to do. My hon. Friend put his finger on it when he used the term stealth tax, which sums it up.
The Bill refers to
"the amount or maximum amount of any fee"— there is some small comfort in that—and to
"cases in which fees are not to be payable or are to be repaid."
That is encouraging, and the Minister might say whether he thinks that the number of cases where fees are not to be payable or are to be repaid will be minimal, substantial or significant. That would give us guidance as to how much of an imposition this will be on our hapless voters and taxpayers. The Bill also refers to
"cases in which fees may be discounted".
There are subtleties here that I would not have suspected had I not read the Bill in some detail.
In Committee, the Minister said:
"The clause as it stands is merely about defining—ill-defining perhaps—the permit scheme, rather than that level of detail. I would ask to leave that detail to regulation". —[Official Report, Standing Committee A,
I am sure that that will make my right hon. Friend even more suspicious.
I am grateful, sort of, to my hon. Friend. We are asked to approve Ways and Means resolutions without any details, and that is made worse when we hear that they will be spelled out in regulations. We are being asked to sign a blank cheque on behalf of our taxpayers, fee payers, stealth tax payers or any other category we care to mention.
That is not satisfactory, and it is not unreasonable for us to ask the Minister how far he feels fees will be automatic, comprehensive and at the maximum level. The authority is, after all, the Secretary of State. The Minister works for the Secretary of State—and, presumably, talks to him occasionally—so I would expect some guidance as to his expectation. We need guidance as to whether we are talking about maxima, minima, every time or some of the time, or whether fees are to be payable, repaid or discounted.
We then come to a point that was touched on by my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell—the time and manner of the payment of fees. It would be useful if we were given some indication of the relationship between the authority, the utilities and their consumers or shareholders, and of whether there will be any possibility of deferred payments. Would fines be payable and levied on those who failed to pay the initial fees? If so, what sort of fines are we talking about? It may be that if the fees are not paid, no fines would be levied, which would be interesting. If fines are to be payable, or contemplated, we need to know more before we decide whether to support the resolution.
Clause 36(5)(e) refers to
"the application of sums paid by way of fees."
I am not quite sure of the implication of that but it obviously has a bearing. The fees enabled by the resolution will be applied in a way we know not how, because we have no guidance.
I wish that Ministers would take the hint from the House, and that they would tell us what was on their mind, as well as the extent that taxpayers would be involved, so that we as Members of Parliament can make a judgment. I do not think that that is asking too much. I hope that I have given the Minister something to work on today. I look forward to him persuading me why I should vote in favour of the resolution.
I shall not detain the House for long. On most occasions when I have heard the Minister at work, I have found him a powerful advocate, but I am afraid that his powers of advocacy rather deserted him today. He has not convinced me, certainly at this stage, that the Ways and Means resolution is either necessary or desirable. Those are the two tests that the House needs to apply. Is the motion necessary to enable the Government to discharge their business in the Bill, and is it desirable?
I intervened during the Minister's opening remarks, but he discounted my concerns. I was worried that the charging of fees could be another money-raising exercise, but he said no and that he had done his best to ensure that the fees would recover costs only. He referred me to Lords amendments Nos. 28 and 29, which are relevant to the Ways and Means resolution, but what do they say? Do they reassure the House or add to the concerns expressed?
As I look at Lords amendments Nos. 27, 28 and 29, I find my concerns deepening and not being allayed by the Minister's reference. Under amendment No. 29, we are told that
"the appropriate national authority must try to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the fees payable in connection with permit schemes do not exceed such costs".
"so far as . . . reasonably practicable" mean? I notice that the amendment does not contain any requirement that the costs have to be reasonable: it simply refers to "such costs". A local authority could set up a body and employ council employees at great expense, as there is no duty on those issuing the permits to behave in a reasonable way and keep their costs down. I would have thought that the amendment should contain such provisions.
I may be able to help my right hon. Friend. He has, of course, read all the provisions and a later amendment actually refers to
"such costs in connection with permit schemes as may be prescribed."
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows that the provision goes even further than he is assuming and that the costs will be prescribed, I suspect, by the Secretary of State? That may not give my right hon. Friend any comfort, but that was my reading of the provision. Was it his?
That means that it could go either way. A Conservative Secretary of State would, as we all know, impose a provision that the costs had to be reasonable, but I am much less certain about what might be put in place by the present Government. It goes even further because Lords amendment No. 27 refers to the giving of fixed penalty notices. It occurs to me that, if we are charging people for a permit and even if it is a reasonable charge that recoups the cost of issuing it, those issuing the permits are still likely to be awash with money because of the issuing of fixed penalty notices. That poses the question why we need to charge for a permit at all. Why not issue a free permit to the contractor and make bad contractors pay the fixed penalty notice fines? The money received through such payments would undoubtedly cover the cost of issuing the permits in the first place.
My right hon. Friend is on to an extremely good point, which reinforces the reservations that he expressed—with which I agree—in his opening remarks. The whole nature of the financing arrangement through permits, including the question of how much money will be raised and what the Government's assumptions are, must be significantly explored before the House can vote on the resolution. For example, does the Minister believe that a certain percentage of the total money raised will come from people defaulting on the permits and subsequently being fined? What percentage will come from that mechanism?
My hon. Friend raises a very good point and I hope that the Minister will reply to it in his winding-up speech. I would have thought that he would have set out the answers to such questions in his opening speech rather than wait for them to be teased out by Opposition Members. These questions go right to the root of the question whether the Bill needs a Ways and Means resolution. I have to say that the Minister has not convinced me that that resolution is either necessary or desirable.
What happens when a permit scheme is in place and the fees are rolling in, but it subsequently becomes clear to those examining the arrangements that the charging body is awash with fees because it has charged too much? There is no provision in any of the amendments for a refund of excessive fees. I applauded the decision of the late President Ronald Reagan when he was Governor of California; when he found out that his tax revenues were in excess of his spending plans, he gave the money back to the people of California. Why is there no similar provision to ensure that if, after the first 12 months of operation, the fees are deemed to be too high, they can be returned to those who paid them in the first place?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but I feel a bit hurt. He was obviously not paying his usual close attention to my modest contribution to the debate. I read out clause 36(5)(b) of the Bill, which makes provision for
"cases in which fees are not to be payable or are to be repaid".
If my right hon. Friend does not mind, we could perhaps call this the "Ronald Reagan" provision. There it is—in black and white, and in the Bill.
Perhaps the Minister could therefore clarify whether my right hon. Friend is right and whether, if the fees were leading to huge profits, a refund would be made. It is not entirely clear to me that that is the Government's intention.
In relation to permit fees, no, I cannot think of any occasion when refunds have been made. However, one should always be prepared to look afresh at issues and problems. The fact that it may not have happened in the UK in the past is not a good argument, in my view, for saying that it should not happen in the future. I rather agree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth that if the Bill allows it to be done, it should be done.
The Minister referred to Lords amendment No. 29, but it does not seem to me to contain any sanctions at all in respect of incorrect calculations or huge profits being made from permit fees. What sanctions are there? Does the Minister expect an aggrieved member of the public to embark on judicial proceedings to bring about a review of the permit fees? There should be a far simpler mechanism in place to enable the fees to be reduced without members of the public having to have recourse to their own court proceedings.
There are many unanswered questions and unless the Minister can answer them all satisfactorily, I will not believe that the Bill needs a Ways and Means resolution.
Many of the points raised by Opposition Members are entirely fair, but they have already been discussed at length when we debated the original Ways and Means resolution and subsequently both in Committee and in the other place. Mr. Forth is entirely right when he quotes "Erskine May". How could he not be, as "Erskine May" is our bible? If we want to assume any revenue-raising powers of any description, there must be a Ways and Means resolution. That was made clear on Second Reading.
There was much discussion in Committee about the breadth of the original Ways and Means resolution. The need to deal with those matters made us look at the problem and table amendments in the other place.
I have not sought to introduce a new McNulty doctrine that we should agree without reservation anything agreed in the House of Lords, save for instances, such as the amendments introduced in the other place on this particular part of the Bill. They were whizzed through the House with unanimity and utter cross-party consensus. If ever an issue, such as fox hunting, were agreed and dispatched without reservation, but with full consensus and cross-party agreement in the other place, I would gladly at least look at it in some detail here.
In answer to John Thurso, yes, the level of permit fees must be directly linked to the costs of operating the scheme. The same applies to fees for extending or varying the scheme. That is precisely how the resolution is drafted. As I said in answer to Mr. Green in Committee, this is not intended to be revenue raising, and that remains the case. That was the case then and it is the case now. Because subsequent to our debates and debates in the House of Lords many Members of all parties in both Houses and many from the utility companies sought amendments that would, in their terms, restrict the Ways and Means resolution precisely to the cost of a permit scheme, we introduced the subsequent amendments that mean an adjustment to that resolution. Lords amendments Nos. 28 and 29 have been positively welcomed by the utility companies and all parties in the other place. They make it explicit that the fees allowed are confined to the cost to the local authorities and the running of the permit scheme. It is precisely because of fears of open-ended revenue raising and of my view that this should not be seen as a revenue-raising exercise that the amendments have been introduced with the subsequent adjustment to this particular Ways and Means resolution.
I fully accept that none of my subsequent points will be of any interest to Mr. Forth in that the first set of permit regulations will be subject to an affirmative resolution of both Houses. We have set up—the right hon. Gentleman will enjoy this—a working group of utilities and local authorities to look in detail at how the schemes should work and how the regulations in clause 36(4) should work in practice. It will make recommendations to us on the level of fees, among other things, and which works will not attract fees, and it is likely to report back to us in August. That is all as outlined in clause 36(4).
We started the process with a Ways and Means resolution on Second Reading to allow fees to be charged for permits, should local authorities choose to have a permit system. During our deliberations and subsequent deliberations in the other place we thought that perhaps that resolution was drawn too widely and could, potentially, allow open-ended revenue raising powers to follow from the permit scheme. As a mature, reflective Government, we listened to debate both here and in the other place and to concerns from the utility companies and others who will be directly concerned—I take the point of my hon. Friend Brian White about broadband—and we have come back with Lords amendments Nos. 28 and 29 that far more narrowly define the scope of the permit regimes so that the fees can be related only to the costs of implementing such a scheme and cannot be an open-ended revenue-raising scheme. In other words we listened and listened again.
The amendments are welcome. The utility companies and all parties in the other place across the board cheered from the rafters. There was no dissent at all. We agreed them in the other place and we bring them here. Subsequent to this resolution being passed, we shall debate those amendments that we seek the House to agree with the Lords on. We need the Ways and Means resolution changed to reflect those amendments to which we have already agreed in response to all the concerns of the utilities and other parties. While I understand the fun involved, not least for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who is a master at his craft, this is innocuous in its intention and is necessary to reflect changes that we accept from the other place. I repeat my desire to commend the new, more restrictive Ways and Means resolution to the House in the hope that we might get on to the more substantive points subsequently.