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Clause4

Commons Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 25th April 2006.

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Commonsregistrationauthorities

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

I beg to moveamendment No. 95, in page 2, line 37, at endinsert—

‘(4) By agreement alocal authority may delegate its responsibility as a commonsregistration authority to another commons registrationauthority.'.

I addmy best wishes and I am delighted to be serving under yourchairmanship, Miss Begg. The amendment  tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) andfor Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and myself seeks to add alittle flexibility with regard to how commons registration authoritiesmay co-operate with each other in the exercising of their functionsunder the Bill. I, in my quick year as a Member of the House, have seena number of powers passed on to local authorities in all sorts ofareas. I am well aware, through talking to colleagues that are membersof those local authorities and indeed to officers, of the vast range offunctions that they are required to carryout.

Inevitably, somelocal authorities, acting as commons registrations authorities, willhave an area of specialism in such matters because they are responsiblefor large areas. I fear that I may refer to Bodmin moor a few timesduring our proceedings. Cornwall, my own commons registrationauthority, has large areas of common land and therefore has officesdedicated to dealing with it. However, I am sure that smaller or indeedurban local authorities have far fewer commons within their boundariesand therefore may not be able to devote resources to having specificofficer expertise to deal with commonsregistration.

The hopeis that if the Minister accepts the amendment, the commons registrationauthorities will co-operate. Those with more specialism could offer tosupport those that have less. Presumably, there would need to be someagreement on resources on that, should that be a problem. It wouldensure that landowners and people who have rights over common land, inwhichever authority the commons are based, would be able to haverecourse to specialist officers with the time and resources to resolveany issues that may need to be resolved. That would allow a sensiblepooling of resources and expertise so that all commons, their users andthe homes on them, will benefit from the advice and support ofspecialists.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

It is a greatpleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I support theamendment, as it is logical and sensible. In effect, it is a slightextension of subsection (3). The hon. Member for North Cornwall madehis points well.

Wales has 22 districtauthorities. Some have only the tiniest of commons; others, such asGwynedd, Brecon and Radnor and Powys, have huge swathes of common land.It would be sensible to introduce flexibility into the Bill.

It was mentioned on SecondReading that in times gone by, land rights were the Cinderella serviceof local government. Very often, one or at most two people manned anoffice responsible for important rights such as grazing, ownership andso on. I am sure that we all want a system that will guarantee freeaccess to adequate and accurate information for members of the publicand registered owners of land and rights. For that reason, amendmentNo. 95 issensible.

The Ministerresponded helpfully to questions about additional funding for properoperation of the duties. That is obviously a key point, but someauthorities are already far more proficient at those services thanothers. I return to the Welsh example of 22 district councils. Do theGovernment honestly foresee 22  different registration authorities, or will there be sensibledelegation, which is eminently reasonable? For that reason, I fullysupport theamendment.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for NorthCornwall as well. On Second Reading, many hon. Members made the pointthat they were pleased that the duties of the commons registrationauthority would remain with local government, and I support that. Partof the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that if a power is givento a local authority to use another organisation to carry out itsfunctions as a commons registration authority, that organisation wouldbe another commons registration authority, not an agency.

To help the Minister a littlebit, I can say that such informal arrangements are already carried outin Wales. The Swansea unitary authority and the Neath Port Talbotunitary authority share a commons registration officer. The Blackmountains in Powys are a series of contiguous commons for which thePowys commons registration officer also holds the registerforthe Herefordshire part. It is a transnational arrangement, not just across-authority arrangement.

Such arrangements happen inpractice. It would be good to put them into the Bill so that thatsolution would be available to local authorities. They could then makethe best use of the expertise available and give confidence to commonsowners, rights holders and the public that a good service is in placefor theiruse.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

I am grateful for amendment No. 95, and I amgrateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall for acknowledging themany powers that have been passed down to local authorities in theexcellent spirit of delegation to local government that this Governmentbelieve in.

I alsoagree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) thatthe amendment is, in many ways, logical and sensible. Indeed, it is soperfectly reasonable that it is already the law, generally, relating tothe undertaking of local authority functions. Section 101 of the LocalGovernment Act 1972provides:

“a localauthority may arrange for the discharge of any of theirfunctions...by a committee, a sub committee or an officer of theauthority; or...by any other localauthority.”

As thingsstand, Mrs. Griffiths will continue to be able to act as the commonsregistration officer for Herefordshire, even though she is the officerfor Powys. In general, the purpose of the amendment is already a matterof law, which is why I resistit.

I have announcedfunding and support for an association to represent commonsregistration officers in England and Wales, so that they can exchangetheir expertise and improve it. Subsection (3) provides flexibility toenable one commons registration authority to assume full responsibilityfor an area of common land that straddles the border between twoauthorities’ areas. On that basis, I hope that the hon.Gentleman will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Will my hon. Friendexplain what the default position is? If a registration authority isnot doing the job properly,  what happens to an area that wishes to come out of that agreement?Presumably, a contract can be broken and a new one can be enteredinto.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

It is up to the local authority to make thedecision as to how it would delegate its functions within theauthority, or whether to delegate to another authority. Equally, it hasthe power to terminate the agreement at any time. I hope that thathelps my hon.Friend.

I hope that,on the basis of this useful debate, the hon. Member for North Cornwallwill ask leave to withdraw hisamendment.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Shadow Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

I am grateful for the Minister’s kindwords on the spirit of the amendment. I acknowledge that the Governmenthave passed many responsibilities to local government, but whether theyhave passed with them the money to act on them is another matter. Nonethe less, I am grateful to the Minister for considering the amendmentin detail. I am pleased to hear that under the Bill, should it passinto law, local authorities and commons registration authorities willstill be able to co-operate and work together effectively and come upwith whatever agency agreement they feel to be appropriate. On thatbasis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw theamendment.

Amendment,by leave,withdrawn.

Questionproposed, That the clause stand part of theBill.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

The clause maintains the existing arrangements forcommons registration authorities. We believe that these functionsremain best undertaken at the county level in two-tier local governmentareas.

Question putand agreedto.

Clause 4ordered to stand part of theBill.