Clause 92

Local Transport Bill [ Lords ] – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:30 pm on 8th May 2008.

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Power to promote well-being

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

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 1:45 pm, 8th May 2008

It is not very often that the Committee shouts, “Three cheers for the Local Government Act 2000,” but I know that at this very moment all the people who know that fabulous Act will be doing so, because it will shorten dramatically my remarks on this clause. The Minister and I have many times discussed definitional issues, and I am sure that, had we not had the benefit of that wonderful Act, we would be spending hours over the meaning of “well-being”. As there is now established legal practice as to what “well-being” might be, I do not intend to probe that—although we could, of course, have another half hour’s fun on the meaning of “economic”. None the less, I shall resist that temptation this afternoon.

Clause 92 talks about undertaking a wide range of activities to improve the quality of life for local residents, local businesses and also those who commute or visit—all of which is understandable. The subsection in the clause that allows integrated transport authorities to work with other bodies is also understandable. Where I have a problem, and am looking for the Minister to help, is in subsection (3), which seems to bear some greater examination—particularly subsections (3)(b) and (3)(f).

Subsection (3)(b) allows for “financial assistance” to be made. What exactly is financial assistance? Is it pay, expenses, individual grants to individual bodies, or is it just a more wide-ranging power of subsidy? Can the Minister say exactly what financial assistance is, how it is determined, by whom and for whom, to ensure there is a restraint on potential abuse?

Equally, what is the purpose of subsection (3)(f)? Is it just transference between statutory bodies? Is it a power to subcontract? Is it a catch-all power so that consultants and contractors can be moved around or fed and watered? Can the Minister please give us some guidance as to the exact purpose of subsections (3)(b) and (f)?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I shall follow on from my hon. Friend’s point regarding subsection (3)(f). Reference is made to the fact that the power given here includes the power to

“provide staff, goods, services or accommodation to any person.”

Can the Minister tell us of any situation that might arise where she envisages living accommodation being provided to any person, or is the reference here to office accommodation only? If it is to office accommodation only why does the subsection not say “office accommodation”?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As the hon. Member for Wimbledon says, this clause extends the well-being powers that local authorities already have under the Local Government Act 2000 so that they also apply to integrated transport authorities. Integrated transport authorities have to operate within a framework laid down by statute. That means that they have no powers to take action except where legislation authorises them to do so.

There is a range of statutory duties that they will have to fulfil and a wider range of permissive powers enabling them to undertake particular activities if they choose to do so. This clause takes this a stage further and provides ITAs with the power to take any steps that they consider likely to promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of their local community without the need for there being a specific provision in other legislation.

As the hon. Gentleman said, these powers have already been granted to local authority by means of the Local Government Act 2000. For example, North Tyneside and Newcastle City councils have already used them to enter a joint private finance initiative to replace and repair street lighting in their areas.

In terms of financial assistance, this would enable an ITA to give grants to any person. It would be the ITA’s decision, subject to their financial abilities, to give the money. This extends to the point that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire raised about accommodation. It is not linked in the Bill to any particular type of accommodation—it could be staffing accommodation, for example. It is important to remember that the judgment about whether the power is properly exercised—I think that that is the point that both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman raised—would be subject to the usual rules for local authorities on proper accounting for expenditure and acting according to best value criteria. I hope that that explanation is helpful.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I thank the Minister for her reply, but I am not entirely happy with it. Is she saying, then, that if, to help the environment, a chairman of an authority did not want to drive 10 miles to work and back, he could set up a grace and favour flat for his own use under this power?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As I have said, we are trying to give powers in the Bill so that ITAs in the circumstances that we are discussing can, if they wish, make proper provision in respect of, for example, staff accommodation. The right hon. Gentleman gives the specific example of a grace and favour flat. The question would be whether that was a proper use of public money. Was it properly accounted for? Was it  signed off by the financial director? Was it within the best value criteria? The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Committee has a choice: do we not give any powers that would cover quite reasonable expenses and expenditure by a local authority and try to dictate exactly what every single penny should be spent on? Frankly, I do not think that we can do that. This is about striking the right balance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 92 ordered to stand part of the Bill.