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Local Government (Review of Decisions) Bill — Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 27th February 2015.

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Moved by Baroness Eaton

That the Bill be read a second time.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative 4:01 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, my honourable friend Mr Mark Spencer deserves great credit for steering this Private Member’s Bill through another place, from its introduction on 2 July 2014 to its Third Reading on 26 January. The Bill is a common-sense, proportional measure to make local authorities accountable for the health and safety decisions they take about events, and to offer the public a route for redress where a council makes an unreasonable health and safety decision about an event.

We are fortunate in this country to have what we recognise as strong community spirit. The Bill will, I hope, ensure that communities continue to be able to hold events, allow the public to take part in and enjoy those events, and ensure that local authorities work with their communities to ensure that events are successful and safe.

Before I outline why the Bill is necessary and explain what it does, I should be very clear about what it does not do. The Bill does not weaken the very necessary and important health and safety arrangements that exist to protect employees, or the public health and safety regime that is in place nationally. The public, employers, authorities and enforcement organisations have an important role to play in ensuring that not just our workplaces, but our streets and our recreation spaces are safe. Proper and proportionate management of risk is, I think we can all agree, important and to be commended. The Bill will not place any unreasonable demands upon council resources, nor will it place unreasonable increased demand on the resources of the Local Government Ombudsman.

Why is the Bill necessary? At Second Reading in another place, during an extensive and very useful debate about the Bill and its provisions, a number of examples of what might be described as questionable decisions about health and safety at local events were given. If one wants a real and recent example demonstrating that a culture of overzealous application of health and safety really does exist, one need only ask the residents of Banbury in Oxfordshire, who nearly lost their charming mini-library, established in a telephone box, when BT warned they were going to remove the books because of health and safety considerations. In this case, I understand that the town council has stepped in and adopted the telephone box, meaning that the library remains and that the story, appropriately, has a happy ending.

The inspiration for the Bill comes from the 2010 report by my noble friend Lord Young of Graffham, Common Sense, Common Safety. This was produced following a Whitehall-wide review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture. In his foreword to the report, the Prime Minister clearly expressed the genesis of the Bill when he wrote that newspapers were reporting ever more absurd examples of senseless bureaucracy that gets in the way of people trying to do the right thing, that we should put a stop to senseless rules that get in the way of volunteering, and that we need a system which is proportionate, not bureaucratic, and which treats adults like adults and reinstates some common sense and trust. In short, while we should never disregard risk, we should ensure that we take a proportionate and common-sense approach to allowing people to enjoy themselves.

The intentions of the Bill are simple. Its provisions go some way towards halting, and even reversing, the risk-averse culture that has grown up in councils. The objectives of the Bill are straightforward. The provisions will encourage councils to give careful consideration to decisions about health and safety at events, bringing an end to unreasonable bans or restrictions on events that are a result of a risk-averse culture rather than a balanced assessment of risk. The Bill will provide a transparent framework for council decisions on health and safety, allowing for scrutiny of council decisions and transparency in the council’s decision-making process. This should lead to sound decision-making on future health and safety decisions.

I make it quite clear that the Bill does not require councils to do anything they should not already be doing. It requires that a council must put in writing a health and safety-related decision that prevents an event taking place or places restrictions on the holding of the event. The Bill also requires that if the person who made the application to the council, or the organiser of the event, requests a review of such a decision, the council must carry out that review. The Bill does not make any provision for how the council will carry out the review—we trust councils to be able to deal with these matters fairly and efficiently. The only stipulation it makes is that the review must be completed within 15 days. The outcome of the review will be that the decision will be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced with another decision or varied, but varied only so far as the decision could have been reached in the first instance. This is, of course, to ensure that any wrong decision can be overturned or modified in time for the event to which the decision relates to take place. These measures bring transparency and accountability to a council’s decision-making process and are—I hope the House will agree—proportionate and sensible.

I turn to the role of the Local Government Ombudsman. The ombudsman is the national body to which individuals who consider they have suffered injustice arising from council maladministration can complain. The ombudsman can investigate and, if fault is found with the council, recommend redress. The ombudsman is a valued and respected part of the democratic process. The Bill makes specific provision for the ombudsman to treat a particular class of complaint differently from another class. Although the ombudsman already has discretion to distinguish the treatment of complaints, this provision will put that discretion beyond doubt and help to reduce the risk of a successful challenge from a member of the public who complains that their case has not been fast-tracked.

In discussing the role of the ombudsman, it is perhaps worth providing some assurances about what the Bill will not do. As I have already indicated, we do not expect the provisions requiring councils to put decisions in writing and to undertake a review of their decision if requested to do so to require them to do anything that they should not already be doing. Nor do I consider that the Bill will have any significant financial consequences for local authorities. In putting in place a local mechanism for the consideration and review of decisions, problems that might otherwise lead to legal action are dealt with by internal procedures and at a local level.

I would like to provide assurance to those concerned that the ombudsman might award compensation to event organisers, not just possibly for the cost of having to cancel an event but also potentially for any funds generated by the event that would, for instance, have gone to charity. The ombudsman can recommend redress, which can include financial remedy, but this remedy is more usually in the hundreds of pounds and not the thousands of pounds. Moreover, we should trust the judgment of the ombudsman in these cases. Finally, the recommendations of the ombudsman are just that—recommendations. He does not make binding rulings and cannot compel a council to comply with its recommendations, although the overwhelming majority of councils do comply.

The Bill makes sensible provisions about local transparency and accountability, and fast-tracking redress when things cannot be resolved at a local level. More than that, it seeks to make a change to the risk-averse culture that has grown up in councils by making officials consider carefully their decisions. It is hoped that the Bill will result in local authorities working together with their communities to enable them to continue to put on events that are safe and enjoyable. These events are important for the community, and community cohesion is important for everyone.

In summary, this Bill is a common-sense and proportional measure. I hope that with the support of the House we can move forward. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Labour 4:11 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for bringing this Bill before your Lordships’ House. I again declare an interest as an elected member of Lewisham Borough Council.

As the noble Baroness outlined, the Bill is intended to introduce a rapid right of appeal when a local authority proposes to prevent an event from being held or seeks to impose restrictions on events on health and safety grounds. It places on local authorities a requirement for a written justification when they refuse permission for an event to go ahead.

One of the great things about living in Lewisham is the number of festivals and celebrations that take place throughout the borough organised by different members of our community. They range from street parties—where local residents come together, arrange to have the road closed and enjoy each other’s company on a sunny Sunday afternoon—to our Croftmas and Hopfest events which take place at Christmas in Crofton Park and Honor Oak Park, the ward I represent on the council. Once or twice I have taken my turn to be Father Christmas for part of the day, and the most annoying thing for me is that the Santa suit usually fits without any need for extra padding or stuffing. Other events take place throughout the borough all year round. They celebrate our diversity, the creative arts that are developing locally and People’s Day which takes place every summer.

In Lewisham, we are also very lucky to have Blackheath in our borough and we are used to dealing with large events such as the start of the London Marathon, providing support for the Olympics Games and our fantastic free fireworks display every bonfire night, which is provided by the council, along with concerts and other major events throughout the year.

Local authorities have important responsibilities to ensure that events that are organised in their areas are safe for people to enjoy and comply with relevant legislation, which is there to make sure that people can attend events safely with their family and friends. In Brockley, we also have a small library in a telephone box—like the one referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton—on Lewisham Way. It is very popular and is used by everyone in the area. I, and I am sure many residents, would be very cross if anyone tried to take it away on any sort of grounds. I hope that it will stay for many years to come.

I am not in favour of an overzealous approach which is disproportionate to the event in question and just ruins people’s enjoyment and undermines the principle that people should be able to take part and enjoy events safely. A sensible, proportionate balance needs to be struck between protecting the health and safety of the public and also ensuring that the public can enjoy community and other events. I and the Opposition in your Lordships’ House welcome this Bill as a positive addition, a positive signal, to getting the balance right.

The provisions in the Bill that will require a local authority to put in writing the reasons for its decisions are most welcome. They are a welcome addition to the transparency of the decision-making process along with the review process for which the Bill also allows. A sound decision made by a local authority with good reasons will not be reviewed. If it is reviewed, it will only confirm what a wise decision was taken in the first place by the local authority.

I agree with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, in respect of the ombudsman. It is only the disproportionate, over-the-top, over zealous and unjustifiable decisions that will find themselves being challenged and seriously questioned. Communities coming together and enjoying themselves at events, with the organisers having taken reasonable, proportionate precautions, is something that we can all support.

In conclusion, I wish the Bill well in its passage through your Lordships’ House. I hope that no amendments will be forthcoming, that we can dispense with the Committee and Report stages quickly and that the Bill will reach the statute book before Parliament is dissolved at the end of next month.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 4:15 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I am delighted to support this Bill on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I thank my noble friend Lady Eaton for introducing the Bill. I am sure the whole House will acknowledge that she speaks with great experience in the area of local government. Her contribution today reflects this expertise. I also thank my honourable friend Mr Mark Spencer in the other place for so successfully guiding this Bill through the House of Commons. Once again I record the support shown for this Bill by Her Majesty’s Opposition. I am sure the children of Lewisham have heard a revelation today—that that jolly character they thought was Father Christmas truly is the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. Anyone reading today’s Hansard will know that, but let us hope that it stays a secret for at least another Christmas or two.

I echo my noble friend’s words in explaining the objectives and drivers behind this Bill, not least in the work undertaken by my noble friend Lord Young and the recommendations from his report, Common Sense Common Safety, which has helped to inform the Bill. In supporting the recommendation in that report, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been quite clear that good health and safety is important but is concerned that all too often sensible legislation designed to protect people from harm has been extended inappropriately to cover every walk of life, no matter how low the risk. That is why the Government consider this Bill necessary.

The purpose behind the Bill, as we have heard, is to support the coming together of communities and to help to reverse a risk-averse culture that is threatening the ability, on occasions, of communities to come together. The Bill is about strengthening the openness and transparency of the decision-making process in local authorities, bringing robustness to those decisions through review mechanisms in the Bill. The benefits of bringing openness to the process should result in better engagement between the local authority and the events organiser, and that can only be a good thing.

The Bill builds upon the work that the Government have already done on town hall transparency and greater local authority accountability. We have done this because we consider that communities are too important to ignore. The Bill will help to ensure that barriers that unreasonably prevent communities coming together in a collective celebration of national and local events—the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, articulated points about his local area—or to raise money for good causes are removed. Community events provide the opportunity for people to get to know one another, to share in the history of their community, to make the history of their community and, importantly, to bind communities together.

As we have already heard from my noble friend, the Bill will not weaken the important health and safety arrangements that quite rightly exist to protect people, nor will it impact on the public health and safety regime that exists nationally. We recognise that reasonable and proportionate management of risk is important and this Bill will in no way dilute those measures.

I have been clear that transparency and accountability should lie at the heart of a local authority’s decision-making, and I should also be clear that this Bill should not require a local authority to do anything that it should not already be doing. Again, my noble friend articulated this very point. It requires local authorities to undertake certain actions when they prohibit or restrict events on the grounds of health and safety. In particular, it requires that if an authority takes a decision to stop the holding of an event or imposes restrictions or conditions on the holding of an event, it must put the reasons for such a decision in writing, be that in electronic form or otherwise. This written notification of a ban or restriction must be sent either to 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 a written notification extends not just to a ban on an event and thus prohibiting it, but to where there is a restriction on the event, as it is possible that a restriction might be judged to be so unreasonable that it amounts to a ban.

If the person who made the application or the organiser of the event is unhappy with the decision of the authority to ban or restrict the event on the grounds of health and safety, the applicant or organiser may request the authority to review it. The Bill does not prescribe a particular review mechanism because we trust local authorities to put in place their own fair and robust review processes. The Bill does provide that the authority must complete any 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 must give written notification, in electronic form or otherwise, to the person who requested the review. The outcome of the review is that the decision may be confirmed, withdrawn, replaced with another decision or varied, but varied only so far as the decision could have been one reached in the first instance.

Perhaps I may turn now to the Local Government Ombudsman. Local issues are best resolved at the local level. However, we consider that if things cannot be resolved at the local level and the council is at fault, it is of course right that the public should have a right to redress through the Local Government Ombudsman. The Bill makes specific provision for the Local Government Ombudsman to treat a particular class of complaints differently from another class. We recognise that the Local Government Ombudsman already has the discretion to distinguish between the treatment of complaints that are referred to its office. This new clause puts that discretion beyond doubt, and in doing so will help to reduce the risk of a successful challenge from a member of the public who makes a complaint that their own case has not been fast-tracked. The Local Government Ombudsman is supportive of the provisions in the Bill, and we welcome that support.

I would like to end with some assurances. To those concerned about the Bill creating more paperwork and red tape, I can give the assurance from a Government who have striven to remove red tape from town halls, that the provisions that require a local authority to set out its reasons for a decision and to allow a decision on health and safety grounds to be challenged should result in the development of a robust decision-making process on health and safety decisions. To those concerned that this Bill will negatively impact on the resources of local authorities, I give the assurance that it does not require local authorities to do anything that they should not already be doing. And to those with concerns about this Bill leading to increased claims on local authorities, I can assure them that by putting in place a mechanism that provides for sound decision-making and an appeals process, the Bill will, if anything, prevent the need for the public to take action against their local authorities.

I close by reiterating that this is a sound and proportionate measure, as both my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, have said. Local authorities should not cancel every event through an over-zealous application of health and safety rules, nor should they allow every event to go ahead no matter what the risk. The words “sound and proportionate” are what we have heard from the contributors to this debate, and that is the aim of the Bill. That is what communities want and it is what communities deserve. True localism is about putting in place a framework that allows communities to flourish: this Bill will allow communities to do just that. From the government Benches, I am delighted to support this Bill with its supportive measures. It is about common sense and it is proportionate. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, I hope that we can now move forward with speed to ensure that it reaches the statute book.

Photo of Baroness Eaton Baroness Eaton Conservative 4:24 pm, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for his support and that of Her Majesty’s Government for the Bill. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord

Kennedy of Southwark. Like him, I regularly share in many community activities, and to think that some overzealous bureaucrat can spoil these events does not really bear thinking about. I will certainly view the noble Lord in a new light and wonder whether, in December, we will see him in somewhat different garb in the Chamber.

We have all read so often about the increasing list of apparently ridiculous decisions made on supposed health and safety grounds and have all seen so many risk-averse officials. This Bill will not affect the general requirements for safety at events but will make for very appropriate decision-making and allow people to enjoy activities so much more. I conclude by asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 4.25 pm.