With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 166, in
page 16, line 25, at end insert—
'(f) for any disputes as the interpretation or implementation of a permit scheme to be settled—
(i) by arbitration; or
(ii) by a person designated by the Secretary of State on appeal by the undertaker.'.
The amendment addresses a serious issue. It would remove the power to make it a criminal offence by regulations to carry out works without a permit or in breach of permit conditions. It is bad enough to introduce that as a criminal offence, but if that is going to be done it should be done in a Bill rather than by some regulation-making power.
The Minister was involved in the deliberations last year on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, so he will know that no criminal regime operates against people who obtain planning permission and are then in breach of conditions attached to it, or against people who develop land without planning permission when they should have had such permission. Why do the Government think it right to make it a criminal offence to carry out works without a permit or in breach of conditions? That is oppressive, and it is disproportionate compared with what happens in other areas of law enforcement.
Amendment No. 166 would add a provision that allows disputes to be settled by arbitration. The Bill would lead to a situation in which the highways authorities were giving out permits while also being responsible for half of the street works. An independent appeals mechanism is surely essential to ensure that disputes are resolved in a fair, consistent, even-handed and timely manner. There is provision in the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 for dealing with arbitration. The Government have given no explanation of why they do not feel that there should be an arbitration provision in the Bill. Surely it would be a sensible safeguard. Many utilities and local authorities work closely together, but not all of them do.
The national joint utilities group is concerned that some local authorities could seek to maximise the revenue-generating opportunities available in the exercise of permit schemes. They could dispute utilities activities even when it was unreasonable to
do so. That is why the group wants an independent appeals mechanism. It wants someone to go to: someone who will enable the issues to be resolved even-handedly, thus minimising the need for costly disputes. That would enable the focus to be on reducing congestion, rather than increasing contention.
I do not want the Committee to run away with the notion that the Bill introduces criminality and criminal offences in this area. Much of the clause, not least the paragraph that the hon. Gentleman seeks to delete, is about raising the level of fine for criminal offences, as indicated in schedule 1. That relates back to a range of summary offences in the 1991 Act. We are simply setting out what level of fine—say level 4 or 5, up from level 3—is appropriate. We are not introducing new offences in that respect. If Members look at schedule 1, they will see that it relates to various sections—section 51 all the way through to sections 79, 80, 83 and 92—of the earlier Act. Clearly, there will be some new offences in relation to permits, but the roots of those are in the earlier Act.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that these are important matters, but they should be dealt with in far more detail in the regulations. I understand where he is coming from, but the Bill is not about introducing permit schemes as a revenue-raising exercise. We can rehearse that debate for ever, if he wants, but it is 28 minutes past 5, and if we did that, it would make the pair of us even more unpopular with everyone else in the Room than we are already. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is waving at me, or signalling that he is about to cut his throat—or my throat—but I get the gist.
Although the matters that have been raised are important, the clause deals principally with the increase in penalties for summary offences. Of course, new offences are an element of the clause, because the permits are a new scheme. However, matters of substance should be determined in the regulations—that is what the clause is all about—rather than in the Bill. I take the points made by the hon. Member for Christchurch seriously. I am thinking not least of his point about arbitration. If he will allow me, I will consider that issue and see whether we can incorporate some allusion to it in subsequent deliberations.
The permit schemes need some teeth when it comes to offences, which is why we have raised some of the levels and introduced some new offences. I ask that the clause remain intact. It covers an important part of the discretionary permit scheme that authorities might want to introduce.
I am sorry if there is any impatience among members of the Committee. However, we owe it to the people with an interest in such issues to consider the points of concern—I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East agrees with me—although it might be more convenient for us to leave now.
I want to address amendment No. 169 in particular, which would limit the fee to the administrative cost. The Minister has said that it is not the Government's purpose to allow local authorities to use the fee as a revenue-raising measure. One sure way to prevent that would be to limit the cost of the permits to the administrative cost. That would also alleviate fears, notwithstanding the Minister's expressions otherwise, that some local authorities have it in mind to use a permit scheme to raise revenue. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept amendment No. 169, because it would serve both his purpose and ours.
It seems that it might not be necessary on this occasion, in light of what the Minister has said. The Minister, being a reasonable man, has developed a guilty conscience about stealth taxes and has said that the fee is not intended to be one, although there have been 60-odd and will probably be more before we get rid of this Government.
We and the public need to be reassured that the fee is not meant to be a stealth tax, because the track record is pretty gruesome. It would be better to accept amendment No. 169 than my amendment, which deletes the whole subsection. That would put it beyond all doubt that the measure is not meant to be a revenue-raising exercise. If the amendment is not accepted, I will enter into a little bet with the Minister that it will not be long before certain authorities—probably those that are Labour-controlled—use the measure as a means of raising revenue. All that will happen is that people who have a good reason to repair things and to dig up the roads will receive a substantial additional cost, which will be passed on to the consumer and the receiver of the service. The last thing that people who already find it difficult to pay electricity, telephone and gas bills want is an extra charge. It will be yet another tax that the Government will try to pretend is not a tax.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what I think was an implicit withdrawal of amendment No. 37 while we concentrate on amendment No. 169.
My difficulty with amendment No. 169 is that it is clumsy. I do not know how we would define administrative cost or the point at which such costs were met. I do not know how we would explain to new applicants that it would cost nothing for them because our costs have been met. How would that sit with those who have already paid, and who effectively paid the cost in the first place?
I will happily take the hon. Gentleman's bet, without any presumption about securing Royal Assent as we will have to wait and see whether the Bill becomes an Act—
I do not think so. It is brewing, I am told.
We must ensure that there is sufficient ability to charge for the permits to pay for the scheme. However, it is not meant to be, and I do not think that it will be, a revenue-making scam, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. The amendment is clumsily written and will not achieve its aim. There would have to be some laborious bureaucracy in place to achieve what the hon. Members for Christchurch and for Spelthorne seek. I tempt fate and ask the hon. Member for Christchurch to withdraw the amendment and, perhaps, come back with something better at another stage if he wants to achieve his aim.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene, and for what he said about not accepting this wording, but something like it. Can he and I use that offer to get together and try to come up with a draft amendment, which we will table on Report, to meet the real concern that some local authorities might use the permit scheme as a revenue-raising measure? It is always difficult for the Opposition to come up with ideal wording, because the Government can say, ''That is not quite what we had in mind.'' Ideally, the Government would table an amendment on Report, or we could table one with assistance from the Government knowing that it reflected exactly the wording that they wanted.
No, that is far from it. I was not unhappy with subsection (5). All I was doing was exhorting both hon. Gentlemen to go away and try again, because this is not a successful attempt to achieve what they wanted. I am sorry to disappoint, them, but in that churlish spirit may I ask the hon. Member for Christchurch not to press amendment No. 169?
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: No. 169, in
page 16, line 33, at end insert
'but any fee set under this subsection shall represent the administrative cost of running the scheme and any fee above that amount shall be repaid.'.—[Mr. Chope.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 7.
Amendment No. 189 is about the need for a national permit scheme, which does not mean that everyone buys into it, but means that there should be some basic national parameters. This probing amendment is intended to find out what the Government think about the administrative nightmare that there would be if there were multiple schemes with different permit variations for operators working in different areas and boroughs in cities. Operators might be subject to penalties for inadvertent failures to apply. Will the Minister assure us that there will be standard core elements in any permit scheme—for example, relating to the period within which people have to apply and within which the permit must be dealt with, and the money that has to be paid to obtain the permit? Will he also assure us that the administrative burden and systems for utilities and large organisations, which operate throughout many parts of the country and work with many local authorities, will not be too complicated for what they have to do? It is true that there is an issue about the difference between urban and rural areas. That is surely one reason why we should have permit schemes only in areas that need them rather than different schemes in different areas. This is a plea for a Government response to the argument that we should have one national scheme rather than lots of individual, localised schemes.
I accept that there is a balance to be struck. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are differences between urban and rural areas, and we are pursuing the matter in the working group, which consists of representatives of local government, the utilities and others. The greater the standardisation that the group can achieve, the better, but I would like, in the first instance, to leave the matter to those who will operate permit schemes and those who will be on the wrong end of such schemes.
A number of the small, innovative companies that are coming into the market may not be aware of the working group, but they may need to dig up roads and so on. Will the Minister ensure that where such companies come on line, they are brought into the consultation process?
I cannot assure my hon. Friend that they will be part of the working group, but I can assure
him that we want the broadest possible consultation with those who may be involved in street works or permit schemes. Part of the reason for our success in bringing people on board through the working group is that many people in the field know those innovative companies and can bring them on board. Clearly, however, consultation with those most directly involved will need to be as extensive as possible.