Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:10 pm on 24th October 2014.

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Second Reading

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood 1:27 pm, 24th October 2014

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is an important Bill for solving the problem of health and safety interfering with small charities and community groups that are trying to do the right thing in their community but sometimes get bogged down in the bureaucracy of local government. The Bill will make local authorities accountable for health and safety decisions that they take about events, and it will offer citizens a route of redress when the local authority cancels events or when members of the public consider that the local authority’s conditions on an event going ahead are over-zealous, unreasonable or disproportionate. In particular, it will give members of the public the right to a review of a negative decision.

The Bill also makes specific provision for the local government ombudsman to treat complaints related to health and safety decisions about events differently from how it responds to other complaints. It provides for the possibility of a fast-track process to allow the ombudsman to examine those decisions and overturn them or recommend that they be reviewed rapidly—hopefully within 14 days. It is also intended that the Bill will go some way towards halting or even reversing the risk aversion that seems to have developed in our local authorities over recent years. That risk-averse culture is what makes the Bill so necessary.

The inspiration for the Bill comes from Lord Young of Graffham’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, which was produced after a Whitehall-wide review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture. In his forward to the report, the Prime Minister expressed clearly the genesis of the Bill when he wrote that newspapers were reporting even more examples of senseless bureaucracy that gets in the way of people trying to do the right thing. He said that we should put a stop to senseless rules that get in the way of volunteering, and that we need a system that is proportionate, not bureaucratic, that treats adults like adults, and that reinstates some common sense and trust. Treating adults like adults and not letting bureaucracy get in the way of communities coming together to hold events, celebrate local anniversaries or mark a special event in the national or local calendar is one aim of this Bill.

I am sure everyone knows a story about health and safety, or a decision taken by a local authority that could politely be described as over-zealous. I have a couple of examples with which I hope you will allow me to indulge the House, Mr Deputy Speaker. A pancake race was held on pancake day in St Albans, but health and safety officials decreed that because it had rained in the morning, competitors would be required to walk rather than run. Apparently the announcement was met with playful and friendly banter from the crowd, but one can only imagine how people will have responded on that occasion. There are examples of a ban on sparklers. Anyone who is planning on celebrating bonfire night in the near future will know how charming and decorative sparklers can be—indeed, I suggest they are almost an integral part of bonfire night, unless someone happens to be at a display in Newcastle, Gateshead, Manchester or Lambeth, where sparklers have been banned. One presumes that hot soup and sizzling sausages might also be banned on account of their danger.

Finally, a recent example of just how far the culture of an over-zealous, disproportionate application of an unbalanced approach to health and safety has spread can be found at a village cricket team in Norfolk—the county where the Minister has his constituency—which has been forced to relocate after the council introduced new rules banning the use of cricket balls on its pitch. I suffer at home because my wife has banned the use of cricket balls in the house—my son and I have both been disciplined for that—but a cricket pitch is probably a reasonable place to expect to use a hard cricket ball.

The Bill tries to redress some of those issues, and proposed new section 22A(2) to the Local Government Act 1974 states that if a local authority in England prohibits or restricts in some way an event on health and safety grounds, it must give written notice of the decision, and the reasons for it, to the applicant or event organiser. Local authorities should already be doing that; it is not unusual and we would expect that to happen, but it does not on every occasion. Proposed new section 22A would also require local authorities to carry out a review of the decision if requested, and reply within 15 days explaining whether it is to be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced or varied, and the outcome of that decision must be provided in writing. Once again, one would expect a local authority to do that already, but that is not the case in every circumstance. The Bill is silent on the mechanics of such a review, which allows local authorities to determine for themselves what process to go through and how it will work, so that they can design their own systems and the most cost-effective way of responding to applicants.

If local authorities behave as they should, there will be no extra cost whatsoever. The system will work perfectly well, and the current system of inspecting health and safety and ensuring that our constituents and local charities are safe will carry on as it always has. If they behaved as they should, a review would not be needed. Any local small charity that was holding an event would apply for a licence and be given permission, with no over-zealous constraints, so that the event could run as planned.

If an issue could not be resolved locally, a complaint could be made to the local government ombudsman. If the complainant considered that they had suffered an injustice arising from maladministration of that decision, they could forward it to the local government ombudsman. Clause 2 would amend section 28 of the 1974 Act to give the local government ombudsman power to adopt different procedures for different categories of any case, including a fast-track procedure for certain cases—so what I am proposing would be legally possible. The expectation is that the ombudsman would use the fast-track procedure to deal with complaints arising from decisions of local authorities to ban or restrict events on health and safety grounds, so that if the recommendation by the ombudsman were that the decision be revisited, the authority would have the opportunity to do so before the event took place. That is important. If someone is faced with such bureaucratic nonsense, the ombudsman would have the opportunity to step in to allow the local authority to rethink its decision and for the community event to continue as planned. Unfortunately, the ombudsman does not have the power to overturn a decision, but it can recommend that a decision be revisited. If that is not possible, the ombudsman does have the power to recommend compensation. If the time scale does not allow the event to go ahead, but the ombudsman finds in favour of the applicants, compensation could be paid for their losses.

The Bill would not affect the important and necessary health and safety legislation that exists to protect employees and the public in the streets. We need to curb the over-enthusiastic and over-zealous implementation of health and safety legislation without putting members of the public in any danger. If someone were to propose letting members of the public dive off a high board into 12 inches of water, common sense would say that that was dangerous and pretty daft. Health and safety legislation has a role in looking after our constituents, but when it gets to the stage of making the players of a game of conkers wear goggles so that they are not injured by flying sections of conker, we have gone from conkers to bonkers.

Occasionally, there is less to a story than gets reported, but the stories do seem to keep coming. The Health and Safety Executive has even set up a myth-busting section on its home page. I commend that website to Members and the public to educate themselves. Anyone who thinks that the health and safety culture is a myth should consider such examples as the library that instructed borrowers not to take books into the toilet, the school that banned a sports day morning session because of dew or the village hall that ruled that washing up after events could not be done by hand but a dishwasher had to be used. Those stories, and hundreds like them, make a compelling case that this is a serious issue.

Communities should not be dissuaded from coming together, whether it is to raise money or celebrate a local or national anniversary. The health and safety culture puts extra barriers in the way of those communities who want to get involved and support each other. The Bill should help to block the actions of some of the over-zealous members of our local authorities. It would not only make local authorities more accountable for their decisions but encourage them to think more carefully about them. It would give applicants and event organisers a means of redress when events are cancelled by an authority on health and safety grounds, if they consider the restrictions unreasonable, and, crucially, help to halt the risk-averse culture that has developed in our authorities.

I hope that in Committee we can examine how the Bill might effectively address issues that have arisen over the years and that small charities, women’s institutes and others will be able to hold community events without some local authority staff being overzealous in their application of the licensing procedures. It is a simple Bill, with not many lines to amend, and I am hopeful that the Government will support it. I thank the Minister and his team for their support so far and other Members who have pursued this matter, not least my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, who first raised it, and my hon. Friend Mr Chope.

Lord Young’s 2010 report, “Common Sense, Common Safety”, which followed a Whitehall review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture, made recommendations on the compensation culture, low-hazard workplaces, raising standards, insurance, education, health and safety legislation and local authorities:

“Officials who ban events on health and safety grounds should put their reasons in writing… Enable citizens to have a route for redress where they want to challenge local officials’ decisions. Local authorities will conduct an internal review of all refusals on the grounds of health and safety…Citizens should be able to refer unfair decisions to the Ombudsman, and a fast track process should be implemented to ensure that decisions can be overturned within two weeks. 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 Government accepted these recommendations, and the Bill addresses all of them, so I hope we can move forward with it.

The Bill would insert new provisions into the 1974 Act requiring local authorities to provide the event organiser or person applying for a decision with written notification of a decision when the authority stops an event or imposes conditions or restrictions on health and safety grounds. It also provides that the applicant or event organiser can request a review to be completed within 15 days and that the Local Government Ombudsman may identify categories of complaints and require that these be investigated faster than others. On finding that the process to arrive at the decision involved maladministration, the local government ombudsman can recommend that the authority undertake to pay compensation.

This is a timely Bill; indeed, it probably should have been brought forward a little earlier. Obviously, Government business has not allowed it to come to the fore hitherto. I hope that, with Government support and the support of my colleagues, we can move forward and put the Bill on to the statute book to allow those community groups to continue to do the good work they do in raising money for charities, marking anniversaries and celebrating the sort of community events that hold our society together. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Housing) 1:45 pm, 24th October 2014

It is a great pleasure to speak again on this very active Friday and to congratulate Mr Spencer on coming so high up in the private Members’ ballot, on tabling the Bill and on proposing its Second Reading.

I seem to be having a rather disquieting day in that I have to admit that I am agreeing with Conservative Members rather more than I am accustomed to! The Minister and I did not trade blows on housing earlier this morning; rather, we had a useful discussion on the first private Member’s Bill we considered. I fear that there is going to be another reasonable, balanced and consensual discussion about this Bill, too.

Let me present the Opposition’s position on the Bill. I understand that its purpose is to introduce a right of rapid appeal when a local authority proposes to prevent an event from being held or indeed 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 a refusal.

In common with the hon. Member for Sherwood, I am keen on community events—especially if they take place in my Wolverhampton North East constituency, but I support them in different parts of the country as well. Some of the examples given in the hon. Gentleman’s opening speech are indeed worrying. It is also true to say that local authorities, as he acknowledged, have a duty to their communities in preserving health and safety and ensuring that people are always safe. The hon. Gentleman provided an example at the other extreme—about diving boards and a lack of water—and we would of course not want to see that happen. This debate is interesting in that the most difficult decisions taken by local authorities are not often at either of those extremes, but either somewhere in the middle or at the margins.

Difficult decisions need to be taken by local authorities, sometimes in unusual circumstances. In my constituency and across Wolverhampton, for example, we have a healthy and vibrant Sikh community. One year, the local council cancelled the annual Vaisakhi event, literally on the very morning it was due to take place. It takes place every year on the first Sunday in May. I attend it every year. It was cancelled on the basis of very high winds and appalling weather, and I think the council was right to do that, as it looked pretty dangerous. A local authority does not take lightly its duties to protect health and safety; it takes them seriously.

The Bill would not affect those sorts of cases, as it attempts to strip out what the hon. Gentleman calls the most over-zealous applications of health and safety legislation. I understand his reasoning. We need to strike a balance between protecting the health and safety of those whom we represent and for whom local authorities work, and ensuring that community events are allowed to go ahead when there are no substantial risks

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I hope that if the Bill is passed it will never actually need to be used, because a local authority and the organiser of a community event will have gone through the process of discussing health and safety before the point is reached at which someone would step in to stop the event. That is what causes the most frustration: a community group has advertised an event to the public, and then someone steps in and stops it at the last moment.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Housing)

I understand that. In the example that I gave, extreme weather conditions prevented a community event from taking place. In such circumstances, it is difficult to give any warning. However, the examples given by the hon. Gentleman made clear that decisions are often made too late, and events have to be cancelled after a great deal of work has already gone into publicising and marketing them. Sometimes it is difficult to let everyone know that an event has been cancelled. The Opposition are sympathetic to the idea of fast-tracking the appeal mechanisms that the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce, because we think it right to give communities and those who organise community events more certainty and a better process to follow. We are keen to scrutinise the Bill in Committee to ensure that the appeal mechanisms are appropriate and proportionate.

I urge the hon. Gentleman and the Government to consult carefully with the Local Government Association, which I hope they are already doing. The association has made known its views on the Bill, and has asked for Government assistance. The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill will not require any taxpayers’ money, but—I am being devil’s advocate here—the association contends that it may end up doing so if spurious claims are brought against local authorities. I know that the LGA is particularly nervous about the Bill. I think that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, and his Department, should do some more detailed work to ensure that authorities are allowed to make the right decisions in the right way without finding themselves having to disburse what they say could be significant sums as a result of spurious claims. I am sure that that point will arise in Committee.

The Bill is intended to change the culture and try to introduce a more common-sense approach to the way in which decisions are made, and that is welcome. Sometimes, in difficult and extreme circumstances, local authorities have to change arrangements or refuse to allow events on the basis of health and safety. They will still be able to do that, but the Bill requires them to present a written report explaining their decisions. In fact, they are probably already doing that internally, but it seems right for event organisers to have access to a local authority’s justification, and, if they feel that it is not good enough, to be able to appeal.

We broadly welcome the Bill, although some of the details will need to be scrutinised in Committee. I must say that I hope this does not start some kind of case-by-case cross-party agreement with the Minister, because I think that that would make our lives in Parliament a bit boring. However, it is sometimes good when we agree because we are then able to get down to the nitty-gritty, and it is in that spirit that we will support the Bill’s Second Reading.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government) 1:54 pm, 24th October 2014

I am not quite as surprised as Emma Reynolds that we agree; I always knew she would come round to our way of thinking eventually, and long may it last.

On a serious note, I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend Mr Spencer for his excellent work on this Bill, the aims of which are wholly supported by the Government. I want to make it very clear what this Bill does not do before moving on to the drivers of the Bill—why it is needed—and its intended effect, because I do not want there to be any misunderstanding or confusion about the provisions in the Bill, their intended effect or what the Government are supporting. The hon. Lady is right that there will be things to talk through in Committee and the LGA will want to feed into it, although I would point out to the LGA that while local government is building up reserves of some £20 billion to £21 billion it should be focused on the savings it can make by not needing to have health and safety inspectors trawling around taking up too much time—and it will probably find there is a potential saving there as well.

We do need to make sure health and safety is taken seriously and addressed sensibly, however, so let me be very clear: this House will not weaken the very necessary and important health and safety arrangements that rightly exist to protect employees and the public health and safety regime in place nationally. The public, employers, authorities and enforcement organisations do have an important role to play in ensuring that not just our workplaces but our streets and recreational spaces are safe.

Proper and proportionate management of risk is, I think we can all agree, important, and where it is done properly it is to be commended, and in most of the country most of the time that is the case. We have no problem with adequate safeguards or with the proper and proportionate management of risk, nor will this place an unreasonable increased demand on the local government ombudsman’s resources, who also provides a valuable service, considering complaints from members of the public who consider they have suffered an injustice arising from maladministration in councils and other bodies.

The Bill does not change the remit of or impose extra burdens on the local government ombudsman, so what does it do? To begin with, it may be useful to reflect for a moment on the drivers for this Bill—on why it is necessary. My hon. Friend has outlined some of them. It could be said that the Bill has its origins in the rise of the risk-averse culture. By this I do not mean tall tales of health and safety gone mad—although, worryingly, it can be impossible to tell in some cases what is tabloid exaggeration and what is an actual decision about health and safety at an event that we could describe as an over-enthusiastic application of the health and safety culture. Rather, I mean the spread of a risk-averse culture where councils are taking decisions on the grounds of health and safety that either prohibit events from taking place altogether or place such heavy restrictions on them that the event is effectively prohibited from taking place.

These concerns were crystallised in Lord Young of Graffham’s 2010 report, “Common Sense Common Safety”. The review found inconsistency across local authorities, with the rules on health and safety not being applied with a view to a proper risk management approach.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

We are also talking about some of these events being prevented not for health and safety reasons, but for other reasons, where health and safety is cited as the purpose for blocking the event. Sometimes people use health and safety just as a reason from nowhere to try to block an event that they do not want to support or have not had the time to consider. It is those types of excuses, as it were, that I want to try to stop with this Bill.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event happening, rather than an organisation being honest about whether it wants something to happen or not, that does a disservice to the entire world of local government and health and safety because it dilutes the very important role health and safety can play in our lives.

The review also found that in some instances inspectors were giving poor advice to organisations and individuals who were in turn prevented from running an event, such as a school fete, when there was no legitimate health and safety reason. Currently, there is no requirement to put the reasons for these prohibitive decisions in writing, and the specific grounds for the decision are not required to be made transparent. That is where part of the problem my hon. Friend outlined is clear. There is also currently no system for appeal or redress when an event is banned or curtailed; event organisers are simply required to accept the decision and not go ahead with the event as planned.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with organisers discouraged from planning such events for fear, or out of an expectation, that a local authority official will not allow it. That leaves us with communities frustrated in their attempts to come together to celebrate national events or local events, or to raise money for good and charitable causes. Today, we can start to bring an end to that situation. We can put a stop to the spread of this culture.

This Bill is not just about making councils put decisions about health and safety at events in writing—they should be doing that in any case. It is also not just about providing those organising the event with a right of appeal when they disagree with a council decision—again, councils should be doing that. The Bill is about making councils think—about reasonable risk and about a proportionate assessment of health and safety—before they act. The Bill’s 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 to undertake a review of that decision, if requested. The intention is that those measures will rightly lead authorities to give health and safety issues careful consideration, bringing an end to bans or restrictions on activities that are a result of a risk-averse culture rather than a balanced and informed assessment of risk. Quite simply, the Bill should put a stop to rash decisions based on a risk-averse culture and lead to local authorities making well informed and sound decisions.

The provisions of the Bill, and the need for the local authority to provide reasons for its decision in writing, would bring transparency and accountability to the decision-making process in a way we have not seen before, and would do away with the culture of decisions behind closed doors. Local authorities are accountable to their electorates in the decisions they make. It is right that members of the public should be able to see how a decision has been arrived at as well as why. If a local authority’s decision is informed and sound, there should be no reason for an applicant or events organiser to seek a review of the decision through the ombudsman and, therefore, seek recourse to the mechanism that the provisions in this Bill will provide. The Bill is as much about changing behaviour about local authority health and safety decisions as it is about ensuring the decisions are sound and well informed.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Does the Minister recognise that as a society we seem to have lost the ability to rank risk and understand risk? Members of the public sometimes obsess about things that show no risk at all. When we drive to a community event we probably put ourselves in more danger than we do at the event itself. We sometimes wrongly prioritise and misunderstand the proportions of risk.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me give him a very good practical example of what he is talking about. As hon. Members will know, I always like to refer to the fantastic area of Great Yarmouth, where I live and which I represent. We recently held an event there in September, extending the tourism season, called the Out There festival, and I want to describe one of the most fantastic things in it, which was the crescendo and which almost brought everything to a close. The media loved it, as did the public; we had a fantastic atmosphere. It was a party where everybody anywhere in Great Yarmouth got covered in paint. It was the most phenomenal colourful exhibition of fun and of a community coming together, despite the fact that everybody probably had large cleaning bills afterwards. It was fantastic, but it is exactly that kind of event that, with the wrong attitude, could easily have been stopped. That event was an amazing way of not only improving our tourism economy for the year, but bringing the community together, raising the profile of our area and bringing people together to have fantastic fun. Such events are important to our communities. Where there is risk we should be aware of it, but it should not necessarily stop a good event, good fun and sensible times being had by all.

We have all heard of incidents in which it is fair to say there have been questionable decisions about events—we have all heard our own stories—but we need to be fair. It is perhaps advisable to question the veracity of health and safety stories that occasionally appear in the press—for instance, about festive events involving reindeer being cancelled due to the threat of snow—where the reporting may have erred on the side of being enthusiastic, or where the true origin of a story, perhaps schoolchildren being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, has more to do with individuals being over-enthusiastic in ensuring playground discipline than any local authority decision.

Indeed, there are so many stories about ludicrous health and safety decisions being made based on a risk-averse culture that the Health and Safety Executive, as has been said, has an area of its website dedicated to myths. It started in 2012 and showed 325 cases by the start of this October, the latest of which is about passengers not being able to board an aeroplane while carrying hot beverages. It really is recommended reading if anyone is ever in any doubt whatsoever that there is an over-cautious approach to health and safety in local government and beyond.

A few highlights—or lowlights, some people may argue—include the case of the scouts who were not allowed to have an allotment. Apparently, a troop of scouts under the supervision of a leader was advised by the chair of its local allotment community gardens site that they could not have a plot for health and safety reasons. The scouts were keen to grow their own veg, and an allotment would have been ideal for a small group to get started with. The HSE’s site usefully includes its view of the case, and it strongly believes that this was an excellent opportunity for scouts to become involved in growing food and getting physical exercise.

I am afraid to say that this is not the only case of children being discouraged when attempting to grow their own veg. A pre-school that used a garden managed by the local parish council and a designated public open space was told that it could not leave pots of flowers and vegetables grown by the children in the garden, claiming health and safety reasons, and asked for them to be removed. The pots were placed by posts holding up a small patio area and on slabs surrounding a shed. The pre-school had been told that someone might trip over the pots and sue the parish council. It has removed the pots, but it is unhappy because the children no longer have the learning opportunity that the growing of plants and vegetables would have allowed.

The HSE’s safety supremo was far from impressed and claimed that it is potty—yes, I am sorry about the pun—to impose a blanket ban on those standard garden items. These are everyday risks, and the parish council appears to be risk-averse in case it is sued. If there are real concerns about people tripping over pots, the council should discuss them with the pre-school staff, instead of depriving youngsters of the opportunity to learn by growing their own food and flowers.

Then there is the case of council bureaucrats banning donkey rides for children at a village fete because of health and safety concerns. If we ban donkey rides, most of our seaside resorts are in big trouble. Of course, nothing in health and safety law stops children enjoying a holiday donkey ride or requires them to wear helmets to do so. The HSE was very keen to set the record straight and for this and future generations to continue to enjoy the traditions of the summer fete and the seaside holiday.

To continue the seaside theme—as MP for Great Yarmouth, people would expect me to do no less, I am sure—let us move on to chips. We have fantastic chips in Great Yarmouth market square. I highly recommend them to all visitors.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Before my hon. Friend moves away from donkeys, I should draw the House’s attention to the fact that this could be the first time that donkeys have featured in debates on two consecutive Bills. I wonder whether the fact that we are prevented from bringing hot beverages into the Chamber is a health and safety issue, or whether it prevents Members from having our own little picnic and not concentrating on the business of the day.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend’s desire for a hot toddy late on a Monday evening is one that I will leave him to debate with the relevant authorities in due course.

Let us move specifically on to chips not being served in a paper cone—something that would ruin my Friday afternoons most weeks when I am not here. When ordering chips from a chip shop to take away, a customer asked for her chips to be just put in paper and wrapped in a cone, rather than having them served in the normal plastic tray, so that they would be easier to eat and carry as she walked round the shops. However, she was told by the lady serving behind the counter, “We can’t do that. It’s against health and safety, in case you burn yourself on the chips.” She was advised that once they served them to her, she was more than welcome to remove the tray and wrap them up herself.

The Health and Safety Executive is obviously no stranger to how best to enjoy this traditional treat. I should say that that did not happen in Great Yarmouth. We are very good at looking after our customers, as my Yarmouth Greats campaign has shown, with our great chip shops. The HSE considered that the customer made a perfectly sensible request and there was no health and safety reason that would prevent the shop proprietor from doing as requested. It concluded that such cases of poor customer service need to be wrapped up and thrown in the bin—I am sorry, but I could not resist that.

Fancy a swim to work off those chips, as some Members might argue I should do more often? Just make sure you take all your own equipment. A poster at a public swimming pool stated:

“Due to health and safety regulations, we are unable to lend floats, goggles or woggles.”

I leave Members to look up the meaning of “woggle”. The Health and Safety Executive was having none of this. It was clear that no health and safety regulation prevents the loan of goggles and flotation devices at public swimming pools. Many public swimming pools continue to provide these aids to swimmers without a problem.

Then there was the case where a council managed to use not only health and safety but planning as an excuse to annoy the very community that it should be serving. As the planning Minister, I found this example astounding. A council planning department asked the public not to remove out-of-date planning notices in public areas. The public were doing this in an understandable effort to clean up their community, proud of the area in which they lived. The tone of the Health and Safety response can be described as indignant. Stopping these community-spirited people makes no sense at all, it wrote. The council should cut through some of its own red tape and support well-meaning local volunteers. Removing redundant planning notices as part of a community clear-up poses no significant health and safety risks and should not be an issue.

Finally, there was a case that illustrated not health and safety gone mad, but a sensible approach to a problem which, by the way, turned out to have nothing to do with health and safety. A borough council hung bunting carrying 20,000 small knitted Tour de France jerseys on lamp posts, but the county council asked for the bunting to be taken down owing to concerns about the structural integrity of the heritage-style lamp posts. It appeared that the problem in this case was not the use of bunting, given that the council was distributing quite a lot of it, to its own design, but the use of wire under tension to attach it to heritage-style lamp posts. Given that the lamp posts were seen to be leaning under tension, it was probably a good idea to remove the bunting. The solution lies in suggesting alternative means to display the magnificent work of the locals in creating their own tribute to the tour.

These cases demonstrate that the risk-averse culture extends beyond local government. If reports are to be believed, it can even extend to our chip shops. We in local government and central Government set a trend. We have the ability to set the tone and the direction of travel for others so that they understand the need for common sense, but it is clear that councils have proved particularly adept at banning or prohibiting things on the grounds of health and safety. What the Health and Safety Executive’s replies show, and it should know about these things with the experience it has, is that we can and should trust people to get on with things and look after their own lives. There is risk, and there is also reasonable risk. People should be free to enjoy gardening, donkey rides and hot snacks served in newspaper, should they so choose.

Simply put, this risk-averse culture must be halted, and if by means of the Bill we can introduce measures that will halt it in councils, we will have made an excellent start. Councils have authority. When they set a bad example, it is easy for others to follow. Let us encourage them to set good examples, to let children do gardening and to let their own public-spirited residents remove out-of-date planning notices if they want to. The story of the knitted jerseys in particular illustrates reasonable risk prevention. It was not the fantastic bunting that was the issue, but the decision to suspend the bunting using tension wire. One can understand why a local authority may take issue with suddenly being famed for its leaning lamp posts, but a simple solution was to use a different type of wire.

Reasonable risk, communities coming together, enjoyment and celebration without frustration—that is what the Bill seeks to achieve. It is true that there are stories about councils banning activities on health and safety grounds that, on closer inspection, turn out to have more to do with the desire to publish a good story than with what might actually have taken place. But what does the story about the council that required a pancake race to be held at walking pace tell us about health and safety? It sounds much less plausible than the story about a killjoy council stopping children enjoying a donkey ride, but it is true—that actually happened—and it is not the only example.

In short, there is a culture of local authorities making decisions about events based on the over-enthusiastic application of a risk-averse health and safety culture. Those decisions have a real effect on people and our communities. We have a great tradition in our country of communities coming together to celebrate, have a good time and raise money for good causes while doing so. It is wrong for councils for no good reason to prevent community celebrations and events that draw communities together.

The problem is this: local authorities have become overly cautious in respect of health and safety; not in all cases—let me be clear about that—and not all over the country, but certainly on too many occasions. Where health and safety is used as an excuse to stop an event taking place, or to place restrictions on it, it is right that such decisions should be transparent and challengeable.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood mentioned, and as I have made clear, the Bill does not seek to ensure that the very sensible health and safety regulations that apply to the workplace, to public areas, to our streets and to our recreation spaces are disregarded. Rather, we want to ensure that on the occasions when health and safety is used as an excuse to ban or restrict an event—when the application of health and safety concerns is over-zealous or disproportionate, or when the restrictions on the event are unreasonable, either by requiring a fee or restricting an activity—the authority must first justify its decision and then, if required, review it. That process should bring accountability to health and safety decisions and, in so doing, result in minimal recourse to seeking to review a health and safety decision.

The proposals are straightforward, sensible and proportionate. The Bill requires authorities to undertake certain actions when they ban or restrict events on health and safety grounds. In particular, it requires that if an authority decided to prevent an event from being held, or imposes restrictions or conditions on it, it must put the reasons for such a decision in writing, electronically or otherwise. That written notification of a ban or restriction 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 only to a ban that prohibits an event, but to restrictions that might be judged so unreasonable as to amount to a ban. If the person who made the application, or the organiser of the event, is unhappy with the authority’s decision to ban or restrict the event on health and safety grounds, they may request that the authority reviews the 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, and on completion of the review it must give written notification, in electronic form or otherwise, to the person who requested it. The outcome of the review is that the decision may be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced with another decision or varied, but only varied so far as the decision could have been one reached in the first instance.

Local authorities are accountable to their electorates for the decisions they make, so it is not unreasonable for us to expect an authority to put its reasons for refusing or restricting an event on health and safety grounds in writing for the people affected. That is the sort of good practice that authorities should be following—many already do—in bringing transparency to their decision-making process. True localism is about embracing the wishes of local communities. The provisions in the Bill put in place a framework that will allow localism, and not a risk-averse culture, to flourish.

Briefly, on the role of the local government ombudsman, we consider that it is 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.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister when he is in full flow, particular as he is agreeing with me so wholeheartedly, but I wanted to put on the record the fact that, as I am sure he recognises, most people who work in local authorities have the best intentions and want to support community groups, and it is only in a very small number of these cases that decisions need to be controlled and overturned.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Minister of State (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He reminds me that I should have made it clear, for the benefit of all Members, that I am sure the Committee— the shadow Minister outlined her view that it should look at this thoroughly—will want to ensure that the Bill enables his wife, Mrs Spencer, to use health and safety measures quite widely to ban his internal cricket matches at home, which sound as though they may bring his cricketing judgment into question. I am sure that his family can deal with him appropriately when he gets home.

This Bill will ensure that local authorities do not make rash, unsubstantiated decisions. The provisions that require a local authority to set out its reasons for a decision, and allow a decision on health and safety grounds to be challenged, should lead to a more informed, sound decision-making process and ensure that matters can be resolved, where they should be so resolved, at a local level by local people accountable to their local communities.

However, if things cannot be resolved at a local level and the authority is at fault, it is right that the public have a right to redress through the local government ombudsman. I stress again that we are not changing the ombudsman’s remit. We are giving the ombudsman the ability to fast-track such investigations, at their discretion, so that where they do arrive at a decision that finds maladministration, the local authority is given the opportunity to review the decision to enable the event still to take place. The Bill therefore makes specific provision for the ombudsman to treat this particular class of complaint differently from other classes.

These provisions do not change how the ombudsman currently operates in relation to local authority complaints. We expect local authorities to comply with the recommendations of the ombudsman. The objective of the ombudsman is to secure, where appropriate, satisfactory redress for complainants and better administration for the authorities. If, following an investigation, the ombudsman determines that there has been maladministration in a local authority, the ombudsman can make recommendations for redress— for instance, an apology or payments of compensation —or recommend that the local authority undertake some remedial action or provide a service.

The ombudsman can already recommend financial settlements, where appropriate, to put right an injustice. The ombudsman recommends paying compensation in a very small number of cases. While the ombudsman has discretion in the remedies that are applied where a complaint has been upheld, a financial remedy is applied only where it is felt that this is the appropriate remedy to put right an injustice. It is true that the Bill’s provisions will allow the ombudsman discretion to award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event. However, given the mechanism to accelerate a decision on health and safety grounds so that the local authority can still look to reverse that decision on review, it is highly unlikely that the ombudsman will need to seek recourse to this remedy. Indeed, I would go further and add that the threat of a remedy, including a financial remedy, should ensure that local authorities think very carefully about decisions on health and safety grounds.

As I have said, this Bill is as much about common sense, and changing the behaviour of local authorities in the way that a decision is arrived at, as about putting in place a mechanism for allowing a member of the public to seek redress when a decision is viewed as disproportionate and unreasonable. If we do this right, and the Bill goes through all its stages, its most vital aspect will be in changing people’s attitudes and getting us get back to trusting people to make decisions for themselves and their communities.

We consider that the provisions will perform a valuable function. It is right that if an authority takes a decision to stop or to impose restrictions on an event on the grounds of health and safety, it should put its reasons in writing. It is right that there should be an appeal mechanism where the decision is a negative one. It is right that the local government ombudsman should be able to fast-track complaints about such decisions, meaning that they can conclude an investigation before the event is due to go ahead and so facilitate that event. The provisions should put an end to the days of organisers being deterred from planning an event in the fear, or expectation, that some local authority official will not allow it. I therefore commend the Bill to the House as a common-sense, proportional measure.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood 2:24 pm, 24th October 2014

I will take 30 seconds to once again thank the Minister, his officials and the official Opposition for supporting the Bill. I look forward to it going through Committee so that people can get on and raise funds for great causes such as tackling breast cancer. I hope you will not call me out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, for pointing that today is “wear it pink” day and I am wearing my pink tie for breast cancer awareness. Many good causes will need this Bill to stop health and safety getting in the way of their excellent work.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).