Clause 109 - Money

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 1st February 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister referred to clause 68 and its transfer of resources. Throughout the Bill, there have been significant transfers of responsibility—albeit discretionary in most cases—raising real concerns about how local authorities and the Environment Agency, as appropriate, will be asked to implement their discretionary responsibilities under the Bill. We heard that the hypothecation—for want of a better term—of fixed penalty notices will help to defray some of the costs. We also know that this year, and presumably in subsequent years, if there were no change of Government at the general election, the   Government would continue to impose a 5 per cent. cap on any increase in local authority council tax charges in any one year.

Without going through them significantly, there are going to be substantial costs under each part of the provision. We heard from the Home Office at departmental questions yesterday that there is a minimum 30 per cent. non-payment rate of fixed penalty notices.

There is a raft of new offences to which fixed penalty notices will apply: free literature, nuisance vehicles, noisy licensed premises, nomination of a key-holder to deal with audible intruder alarms and interfering notices. Penalty notices will be increased for some existing offences: abandoned vehicles, street litter control notices, the duty of care in relation to waste disposal, waste left out in the street and dog control offences. According to the Government's own projections, if 50 per cent. of fixed penalty notices were paid—if the name and address was given and they were paid on time—nationally it would yield £3,248,750.

For the first year or two, that is quite a high return, but it does not take into account the cost of the planning inspectors whom the Department will have to employ and the training of officials to hand out fixed penalty notices and inform the public. I therefore have severe doubts about approving clause 109: the Government's sums do not add up. These tremendously costly provisions will hugely increase the burden on resources if each and every one of the responsibilities—albeit discretionary—provided under each part of the Bill are to be paid for.

I do not believe that local authorities—Westminster city council at the top end or Hamilton district council or rural parish councils at the bottom end—will be in a position to apply the Bill's provisions. I therefore want to be satisfied that this money provision will allow for a transfer of resources not just for stray dogs but for the vexed question of abandoned vehicles.

A debate on hazardous waste will be held tomorrow in Westminster Hall that I am sure Committee members will wish to attend. Local authorities and the Environment Agency are being asked to apply a raft of EU directives independently of the Bill. With the greatest will in the world, I do not believe that local authorities will be able to meet the discretionary responsibilities in the Bill.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:15 am, 1st February 2005

We all knew before the hon. Lady made that curious speech that the Conservatives are against cleaning up the local environment and that they do not care what happens in rural areas. They do not even seem to know that several of the issues with which the Bill deals are of great concern in rural areas. I promise the hon. Lady that at every opportunity we will hang the Conservatives' reasoned amendment around the neck of her and her candidates in every part of the country.

The clause refers specifically to money needed to deal with the provisions of the Bill. The hon. Lady does not seem to have addressed the question of what she thinks should be substituted for the clause. Does she   think that expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State under the Bill should be plucked out of thin air? Does she think that increases attributable to the Bill in the sums payable should not come out of

''money so provided under any other Act''?

Frankly, the hon. Lady makes a fool of herself by the attempt to turn this simple clause dealing with expenditure into a platform for an attack on the principles of the Bill itself. The Bill arises out of extensive consultation and has considerable support from local authorities across the country. It is clear why it has their support: in the long run it will save money, reduce bureaucracy and help local authorities to be more effective. It will help them and us to deliver the improved neighbourhoods that we all want to see in our constituencies.

The hon. Lady again refers to Westminster city council, which seems to be the only source of local government information available to her. It is a rather curious choice since, judging by the correspondence, Westminster city council does not seem to be terribly concerned about any of the provisions, other than those on chewing gum, which it has misunderstood. I counsel her against accepting advice from the only quarter that seems to be available to her.

I believe that town and parish councils are able to judge whether to use the provisions that enable them to improve the quality of the environment in their local area. Let us trust parish and town councils to work in co-operation with the principal authorities to implement the Bill's intentions: ensure that people can safely and securely enjoy cleaner, safer and greener neighbourhoods.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister is on weak ground. We have identified two areas—there are others—on which there has been insufficient or no consultation: the National Dog Warden Association and sports facilities. We have established that the dog interest groups were invited only when the Bill was in Committee.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I invited them because it was clear when they wrote to MPs that they were under a considerable misapprehension about the terms of the Bill and its implications. I have reported on generously meeting the groups to remove those misapprehensions, so it is rather odd of the hon. Lady to say that I have not met everybody with whom—it is a limited group—she seems to have had some contact.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. I do not think that we should revisit the issue of consultation—on whatever matter. We are discussing clause 109 stand part. The clause is specifically about money and the payment of money provided by Parliament.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is clear that no money will be provided by Parliament to enable the provisions of the Bill to be met. The Minister says that there were various misapprehensions. That was because there was no explanation of what the provisions would be. I yield to no one in our desire to want to clean up the environment. We have consistently been doing that. The Conservative record speaks for itself—18 years in   government. It was Mrs. Thatcher who first established that we were only custodians of the environment for future generations. It was the Conservative party that introduced the flagship Environmental Protection Act 1990, which this Government continue to tinker with.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. I, in turn, yield to nobody in my admiration for Lady Thatcher, but I do not think that she should play any part in this Committee's deliberations—at least not today.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am also a huge admirer of what town and parish councils seek to achieve. They have onerous responsibilities, which this Government have imposed upon them. Indeed, my own parish council in the Vale of York has resigned en masse as a result, and I believe it is going to be placed in a very difficult situation. The Minister says that we should trust local authorities' judgment in implementing the Bill. Without the resources being made available by Parliament or transferred from other bodies as appropriate, they will simply be unable to do so.

We stand by our reasoned amendment, and will take every opportunity to waft it in the face of our parliamentary opponents at the forthcoming election, which may come sooner than we think. We shall be prepared for it.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am not sure that I need a long response to that fresh Second Reading contribution, as the hon. Lady tries to rescue herself from her comments denigrating parish and town councils. I do need, however, to rebut the generality of her remarks.

The previous Conservative Government had an awful record on local government, and on giving local government the capacity to do its job. Many of us saw the suffering created at a local level by that Government. I am not going to make any comment about Mrs. Thatcher. I simply do not share the views either of the hon. Lady or any other member of this Committee who holds Mrs. Thatcher in such high regard. To each his or her views. The fact is that this good Bill will enable local authorities to work efficiently and effectively in partnership with central and local government—a partnership that we have been at pains to reconstruct after the damage of the locust years to which the hon. Lady referred.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 109 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 110 ordered to stand part of the Bill.