I beg to move amendment No. 142, in
page 42, line 3, leave out 'require' and insert 'invite'.
This is a simple but far-reaching amendment. It would enable local authorities to be invited to set up a civil enforcement penalty regime, but it would not enable the Government to require them so to do. A lot of concern has been expressed about the requirement that local authorities should set up such a regime, even if they do not want to. About 80 local authorities have already engaged in the process, but why should they be compelled to do so? The Select Committee on Transport and the Local Government Association are concerned about that.
The regulatory impact assessment deals with the balance of costs and benefits, stating:
''Given that civil enforcement is designed to be self-financing it is considered that the benefits of compelling authorities to take on such powers outweigh the costs.
However, the burden of civil enforcement may not be self-financing for some local authorities, particularly those in more rural areas, which may incur disproportionate costs if they take over a civil enforcement job from the police. The regulatory impact assessment continues:
''If cost is an issue in any particular case it will be possible for an authority to raise the matter in making its representations to the national authority in response to a formal indication that the issue of a Notice is being contemplated.''
Obviously, they will be able to raise the issue, but if we do not amend the clause, the Government will still be able to compel them to set up a civil enforcement regime.
I believe in local authorities and localism, which is in vogue at the moment, and I wonder whether the Government could accept the amendment in the spirit of localism.
The point of the clause is to give the national authority a reserve power to compel authorities to apply for parking enforcement powers, whereas the amendment would allow the national authority to ''invite'' them to do so.
Effective parking enforcement is essential to reduce congestion and ensure road safety but, for good reason, enforcement of such offences is not a high priority for the police. As the hon. Member for Christchurch said, more than 80 authorities outside London have already acquired decriminalised parking enforcement powers under the Road Traffic Act 1991. They must all be thanking him for bringing in that Act—we find so many references to it. Credit where it is due, I say.
The 1991 Act, which was introduced against a background of the police giving a lower priority to enforcement, required all London authorities to take on decriminalised parking enforcement powers by July 1994. However, we are concerned that some authorities are slow in facing up to reality. They should seriously be considering the introduction of civil parking enforcement powers in their areas. That is why we feel
that the reserve power to compel authorities to apply for parking enforcement powers is needed. We recognise that authorities require sufficient time to prepare to take on parking enforcement powers—about 18 months—and we would certainly ensure that the commencement date for the enforcement powers in any notice to apply is realistic.
Subsections (3) and (5) provide for a dialogue between the national authority and the local authority before any notice is issued. I agree, to a point, with the hon. Gentleman about localism: where possible, we should allow local authorities the greatest freedom to act on behalf of the people whom they represent, but localism does not mean opting out of responsibilities. Any future Government may want to look into a situation in which an authority is not facing up to its responsibilities. I invite the Committee to reject the amendment.
I hear what the Minister says but, as I understand it, local authorities currently work very closely with the police—there is a lot of discussion, and there is partnership. The Government must believe in partnership between local authorities and the police, because they have set up all sorts of safety partnerships. If they intervene and say that they will force local authorities to take on that responsibility when they do not wish to do so, it may be damaging and burdensome to those authorities. In Dorset, there was quite a long lead-in period and long discussion with the police, which enabled some authorities to take over civil enforcement more quickly than others. It all depends on local circumstances. If the Government really believe that the changes are in the interests of local authorities, it is rather sad that they do not trust them.
I have listened to the debate with great interest, and I find the hon. Gentleman very persuasive. Is not local democracy at the heart of his argument? If we are to elect people locally to represent a local community, should not they be free to take decisions without imposition from the central authority?
Absolutely. If the police say, ''We can't carry on enforcing parking in a particular locality,'' the people in that locality should have the option of saying to their local council, ''Well, let's take that responsibility on ourselves. Let's keep it local.'' That is the burden of the amendment, and I would like to put it to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.