Clause 17 - Effect of sections 14 to 16 on byelaws

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 27th February 2001.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 11:15 am, 27th February 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 64, in page 9, line 3, leave out

`Subsections (2) and (3) apply'

and insert `Subsection (2) applies'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 65, in page 9, line 16, leave out subsection (3).

No. 129, in page 9, line 17, leave out `10' and insert `5'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Once again, we want to probe the Government. Amendments Nos. 64 and 65 are intended to raise the importance of protecting the rights of local authorities to make their own decisions. That issue has come up in earlier debates, and my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate referred at an earlier sitting to sunset clauses, of which the Conservatives generally approve. However, we want to probe whether it is appropriate for the Government to say, as they appear to in subsection (3), that whatever a local authority has decided, it will be wiped out after 10 years. Is it appropriate for a national Government thus to insist on overriding what a local authority has decided to do? As the Minister conceded in relation to an intervention made earlier this morning by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, local authorities should consider their own affairs, and decide what is right in such matters.

We do not think that an automatic override, such as that which the Government propose here, is appropriate, and we wish to probe what they really have in mind. Perhaps they will consider whether it would be more appropriate not to have an automatic 10-year wipeout. I do not wish to take up much Committee time, but I would like to hear the Minister's response and discover the Government's thinking on the matter.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Again, I tend to the Government view. The effect of the legislation will be to enable local government to make decisions to implement national legislation. It will therefore effectively render otiose the existing procedure, which is the making of byelaws. That will not impinge on local authorities' rights, because they will still have the right to implement the legislation. The proposal is good, because there should be as little legislation as possible cluttering up the statute books. Byelaws are fine up to a point, but it is very difficult to find out which byelaws exist, and even to get into the place where they are recorded. In my experience—we have probably all had similar experiences—it is even more difficult to find out what the byelaws are than it is to find out what the current legislation is. It is hard enough to access law easily in an up-to-date, word-processed form that takes into account the codification and tidying-up of the law. Byelaws do not relate or cross-refer to one another or legislation, so anyone who is intelligently trying to hunt through them to find relevant regulations is in difficulty. The legislation provides a way of making them easier to discover.

There would be some merit in providing an easily accessible venue for anyone, including the public, who has an interest in knowing what orders are made by local government under legislation. That would apply to other aspects of law, and certainly to the matters under discussion. We should have a facility to log into the orders made under regulations by the London borough of Southwark, to discover the legislation that it seeks to implement and the way in which it seeks to do so. That is especially important when there is discretion, which will result in differences. There will inevitably be differences in this case, as it depends on local government around the country.

My final point touches again on our discussions of fixed penalty notices. If there are different parking regimes, fixed penalty regimes, tariffs and hours, we must try to make the law as comprehensible as possible. Earlier, the Minister expressed a view about the clarity of some wording in the Bill, and I agree with him. We should all make a perpetual effort to make as few laws as possible and to make them as simply drafted, accessible and up to date as possible. We should make as little cross-reference as possible to legislative provisions that no one in their right mind would want to spend a lot of time looking for on a Saturday afternoon in his or her local library.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

They would not do so on a Saturday afternoon in the library, but would charge for doing so in their chambers or offices on a Friday afternoon.

I understand exactly why there should be a sunset provision on the byelaw arrangements, but I hope, whatever the phasing out of the byelaw plans, that everyone can easily access the phasing in of the orders. That should generally be the case on this and other similar legislation.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I hope that the Minister can restrain himself from screaming about a Tory split, but I do not agree with my hon. Friends' amendments, as is clear from my amendment, No. 129. I hope that my hon. Friends will forgive me. Two principles are conflicting and, as a Conservative, there is a judgment to be made about which side of the argument to take.

My hon. Friends have properly said that the matter should be decided by local authorities, and that it is not for us to tell them how to deal with byelaws. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has made the equally proper counter-argument that the law should, as far as possible, be simple for the public to understand. Local authorities can probably use the powers through byelaws if they want to, as can be seen in the example of the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. However, as we are to use a vehicle of national legislation, I come down on the side of the argument made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, which was that it is better to have only one frame of reference—the national legislation. The rules should come into force through that vehicle, set up under the regulations and guidelines put in place by the Government under secondary legislation.

Frankly, we should get on with that process. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 129, which would reduce from 10 years to five years the handover period, in which the public will be confused as to where the authority is coming from. Once the legislation is on the statute book, it would be perfectly proper for local authorities to have a five-year period in which to examine their byelaws and the confusion of rules made in the past, to consider problems that are a nuisance to local people, such as alcohol abuse, and to decide whether they want to clear away byelaws and put the legislation in place. Ten years is too long to subject the public to the confusion of two systems running alongside each other; five years is enough. We must either get on and use the national framework created by the legislation—which means that the Minister will accept amendment No. 129—or accept amendments Nos. 64 and 65, which allow this to remain a matter for local authorities. We have to judge which of those conflicting principles is appropriate.

If we believe that the issue is a matter for local authorities and that they should be able to make extra regulations, we must accept my hon. Friend's amendments. If not, why should we allow 10 years? Byelaws should be reviewed as soon as possible; five years should be the longest time allowed for local authorities to review them and I see no case for 10.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

This has been an interesting discussion. In response to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I will let the Committee into the mind of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. While examining the issue, he and I discovered an arcane system of byelaws—what they are and how they are made—that shocked him. In party political vein, I could add that that is all part of the Tory inheritance that we are trying to deal with.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Will the Minister say how long the procedures for byelaws have been in place? I think that it is at least 150 years.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

One of my great political regrets is that the Conservatives have been in power for more of the past 150 years than the Labour party. I am glad to repeat the Prime Minister's phrase that the 21st century will be the progressive, and not the conservative, century. I assure the hon. Member for Reigate that the words ``Tory split'' will never pass my lips in the context of this debate; that would be inappropriate.

The points made by the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Reigate are correct. I would like to reinforce a point that they did not make—[Laughter.] The thought police are here. We are talking about replacing a series of local byelaws with a national framework. One reason for that is to achieve consistency across the country so that, for example, people travelling from Bradford to Blackpool or Brighton on holiday—as people from Bradford often do—will be subject to broadly the same legal framework. There is a national, as well as a general, argument for that. It will not only simplify procedures but establish some national consistency.

We agree that there would be confusion if a national framework was side by side with local byelaws, which is why we do not accept amendments Nos. 64 and 65. There are issues about the framework's operation, but it would be unreasonable to think that a local authority should chose to take the byelaw route rather than the national one that we are establishing. I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will withdraw amendment No. 64 and will not press amendment No. 65.

I am more sympathetic to amendment No. 129, tabled by the hon. Member for Reigate. It deals with a serious issue. One reason why we decided on 10 years, which may seem rather arbitrary, was because of the 10-year limit in respect of byelaws concerning dog fouling. I will examine his point about whether five years, or a shorter period, might be a more appropriate time scale with a view to tabling a Government amendment on Report. However, I want to discuss with the Local Government Association and other relevant bodies their thoughts and feelings on the matter before committing myself to five years or coming back with a recommendation. Given my assurance that the Government will seriously consider an amendment on Report to reduce the 10-year period, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Although I understand that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath does not want an overweening Government to have the right to override the wishes of local authorities, it would be worse for citizens, and more difficult for the police, if parallel sets of legislation were in force beyond a transitional period whose length can be debated. I therefore hope that he will not press the amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 11:30 am, 27th February 2001

Our probing amendments have proved to be worthwhile as they have succeeded in provoking an interesting debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate is correct that a judgment call must be made, and I am grateful that the Minister has acknowledged that the comparative power of central Government and local government is an important issue.

The Minister is wise to consider further amendment No. 129, which addresses the sunset clause issue. A local authority is unlikely to forget what byelaws are in place over a five-year period. However, over a longer period, such as 10 years, during which time a number of its officers and councillors might move on or retire, there is a danger that an authority might believe that byelaws were still in force, whereas under the Bill, they would automatically lapse. The Government must consider that issue when pondering what to do on Report, but if they want to include a sunset clause, five years might be preferable to 10.

I am grateful to the Minister for taking the matter seriously, and I accept that the Government have decided which side of the dividing line to come down on. I also welcome his assurance that he will keep the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate under review.

As the Committee has had a worthwhile debate and the matter has been sufficiently probed, I do not seek to pursue it further, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.