Part 2A - Decisions relating to holding of events

Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 11 January 2012.

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22A Decisions invoking health or safety: notification, reasons and review

(1) Subsection (2) applies if—

(a) a decision that relates to an event is taken by or on behalf of an authority to which Part 3 of this Act applies,

(b) the decision is taken in connection with the exercise of the authority’s administrative functions, and

(c) for a reason related to the health or safety of any person, or for reasons that include such a reason, the decision has effect to—

(i) stop the holding of the event,

(ii) impose restrictions on the holding of the event,

(iii) impose conditions to be met in connection with the holding of the event, or

(iv) do all, or any two, of those things.

(2) The authority must ensure that written notification of the decision is given (electronically or otherwise) to—

(a) the person who made the application or other request to which the decision is a response, or

(b) a person who appears to the authority to be an organiser of the event if the decision is made otherwise than on a request.

(3) Written notification given for the purposes of subsection (2)—

(a) must be given on the day the decision is taken or, if it is not reasonably practicable to give the notification on that day, must be given on the first working day after that day,

(b) must, if the decision has the effect mentioned in subsection (1)(c)(i), give details of the decision’s effect,

(c) must, if the decision has the effect mentioned in subsection (1)(c)(ii) or (iii), give details of the restrictions or conditions,

(d) must include the reasons for the decision so far as it has any of the effects mentioned in subsection (1)(c)(i) to (iii), and

(e) may be a notification that is given also for other purposes.

(4) Subsection (5) applies if—

(a) for the purposes of subsection (2) an authority gives a person notification of a decision, and

(b) the person, or some other person who is an organiser of the event, asks the authority to review the decision.

(5) The authority must ensure—

(a) that a review of the decision is completed—

(i) as soon as is reasonably practicable after the authority receives the request for the review, and

(ii) in any event, within two weeks of the day on which the authority receives the request, and

(b) that the person who asked for the review is given (electronically or otherwise) written notification of the decision made on the review, including the reasons for the decision, as soon as is reasonably practicable after the decision is made.

(6) On a review under subsection (5) of a decision, the decision is to be—

(a) confirmed,

(b) withdrawn,

(c) replaced by any other decision that could have been taken in the first instance, or

(d) varied (but only if the decision as varied is one that could have been taken in the first instance).

(7) If a person has rights to appeal against or otherwise challenge a decision reviewed under subsection (5), the person has the corresponding rights to challenge the decision made on the review.

(8) In this section ‘working day’ means any day other than a Saturday, a Sunday, Christmas Day, Good Friday or a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in England and Wales”’.

New clause 2—Procedure for investigations by Local Government Ombudsman—

‘(1) Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1974 (procedure in respect of investigations under Part 3 by Local Commissioners) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (2) (investigations by Local Commissioner to be conducted in private but otherwise as the Local Commissioner considers appropriate) after “without prejudice to the generality of the preceding provision” insert “—

(a) the Local Commissioner may, as well as adopting different procedure for different cases, adopt different procedure for cases of different descriptions; and

(b) ”.

(3) After subsection (4) insert—

“(5) The differential procedure authorised by subsection (2)(a) includes (in particular) procedure for cases of a particular description that is expected to be faster than that for at least some other cases”’.

Amendment 7, title, line 1leave out from beginning to ‘safety’ in line 3 and insert

‘Make provision about the procedure for conducting investigations under Part 3 of the Local Government Act 1974; and to make provision for cases where an authority to which that part applies takes a decision that affects the holding of an event for a reason relating to health or’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I rise to support the amendments and new clauses, the effect of which would be to modify the Bill to meet the worries expressed on Second Reading and during the debate on the money resolution. The first major amendment would ensure that the Bill does not result in additional expenditure. Indeed, if it had been drafted in the way now proposed, there would not have been the need for a money resolution—a concern expressed by the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee at the time of the debate on the money resolution.

Effectively, if the amendments were accepted, the Bill would achieve a worthwhile objective and ensure that, when a local authority banned an activity on the grounds of health and safety, it would need to notify such a decision quickly to the organisers and be willing to review any decision within a short time. It would also enable the local government ombudsman to deal with complaints about administration on an accelerated timetable so that any redress could be obtained reasonably quickly. The current legislation does not allow the ombudsman to put some cases or categories of cases on a fast track.

The Bill as originally drafted—which I am now seeking the support of the Committee to amend—proposes to allow the local government ombudsman to award compensation, a matter that neither the Government nor the official Opposition were happy about as it would have opened a potential can of worms in relation to additional costs and burdens. The effect of the amendments and new clauses would be to bring the Bill into line with what most hon. Members want to achieve.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I do not wish to detain the Committee long, but I want to put on the record the fact that we consider that the Bill—even if it is amended—will impose unnecessary burdens on local authorities. Most authorities already deal with such matters as swiftly and as sensibly as possible.

A myth is going around that what Government Members call the health and safety culture is somehow a huge burden. In fact, it has reduced risks for many people at work —although we are not debating work today—and at public events. It is about public safety. My experience is that most authorities take a sensible view of such matters and seek to assist organisers where they can, so that problems can be ironed out before the event takes place.

In introducing his revised Bill, the hon. Member for Christchurch said that it will not entail any extra expenditure, but I beg to differ. More appeals to the ombudsman will generate extra expenditure for local authorities—for example, providing information, having officers deal with them and so on. Appeals cost money; they are not cost-neutral.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The hon. Lady seems to be making a case against all ombudsmen, because that is the case with every single one. Surely, all Members of Parliament should champion the cause of having ombudsmen to represent the less powerful.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

As someone who has been here longer than the hon. Gentleman—I am getting a bit long in the tooth now—I have dealt with many ombudsman cases, and I need no lessons in helping people get to the ombudsman.

The problem with the amendments is that they would prioritise certain cases over all others, and therefore very serious cases may be pushed back in the queue. I and all hon. Members have dealt with extremely serious cases that have ended up with the local government ombudsman and, for the life of me, I do not see why such cases should be prioritised over others. We cannot therefore accept what the hon. Member for Christchurch has said and we will vote against the clause stand part.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

It is a delight to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for his work on the Bill and, if I may say so, for the constructive way he has engaged with the Government and officials in my Department, for which I am personally grateful. The amendments that he has tabled are sensible, and the Government welcome and endorse them. In our judgment, if the Committee is minded to accept them, they will enable the Government to support the Bill.

In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Warrington North, I beg to differ. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough is right to point out that the ombudsman’s role as a means of redress for the citizen is important and should not be understated.

The amendments would bring the Bill into line with the recommendations in the report by Lord Young of Graffham, “Common Sense, Common Safety”. That sensible and constructive report made three important recommendations. The first recommended:

“Officials who ban events on health and safety grounds should put their reasons in writing”.

That seems sensible and fair. The second recommended that citizens have

“a route for redress where they want to challenge local officials’ decisions”—

I cannot believe that any Member of the House would object to that. Finally, it suggested that

“Citizens should be able to refer unfair decisions to the Ombudsman” and that there be a fast-track process, which again seems sensible and proportionate.

Although I accept that in the majority of cases local authorities and their officials act sensibly and proportionately and I recognise that there is a national policy need for sensible health and safety regulation, proportionate risk management is the key factor. Unfortunately, instances have come to light in which the proportionality was questionable, and it is right and proper that, in those circumstances, the citizen should have a means of redress. The Bill, if the amendments are accepted, will fulfil a useful function in achieving that.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Walker, because I have previously done so with great pleasure.

May I first say that I strongly support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North? I am not only a passionate supporter of our health and safety culture, which is a positive not a negative thing, but a passionate believer in the ombudsman. I have had a great deal to do with her over the past decade or so, as a member of the Public Administration Committee, and she has done an absolutely splendid job. I am sure that our new ombudsman will do an equally splendid job in coming years.

It has been reported only this week that our health and safety culture, which is so mocked in certain parts of the media, means that Britain actually has fewer industrial accidents and deaths than other countries in Europe, and we should be proud of that. I was working at the TUC when the first legislation was passed back in the 1970s—by, I may say, a Labour Government—and I was pleased that it went through. Many people have avoided death and injury over many years as a result of that legislation.

The ombudsman’s role is to protect citizens, who are often in a relatively weak position when it comes to bureaucracies. It is absolutely right that they have a right of redress against maladministration by bureaucracies, organisations and Government. Events put on by businesses, companies and organisations are rather different from those put on by individual citizens, who are in a relatively weak position. I believe passionately in local democracy. Local authorities ought to have the support of Government and all of us in carrying out local democratic duties, one of which is to make sure that any event that happens in their area is safe and that people do not suffer injury or even death. I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North and I shall vote with her when we divide.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker, and to follow the hon. Member for Luton North, who has just spoken. Unusually, I am going to differ from him because I think he has missed the point. He made a fair point about health and safety, and the hon. Member for Warrington North made a fair point about most local  authorities acting in fairly. However, we are considering the minority of local authorities that get it wrong. If a member of the public has had an event turned down on ridiculous grounds, they need an urgent way of correcting that. This is not for the vast majority but the minority of cases, which is what the ombudsman is for. We have all seen local authorities acting in unbelievably bad ways with enormous delays.

Opposition Members are voting against the Bill for the wrong reason—because they think it is an attack on health and safety, which it is not. It is about the minority of local authorities that get things wrong because of their culture of delay. The Bill would give the small guy—the individual or event organiser—a speedy way of sorting out the problem without any costly delay.

Finally, the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has introduced the Bill and the way in which the Government have co-operated and worked on it is an ideal example of how a private Member’s Bill should progress through the House. I hope that the Bill is accepted by the Committee and that we can debate it again in the next couple of weeks.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

It gives me great pleasure to respond. I thank all those who have contributed to the debate and all those who have contributed by their presence here today. The Committee has been well attended, and we have had a short and pithy debate on the key issues. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his supportive words and the support of his officials, and for giving access to parliamentary counsel for their advice on how to redraft the Bill to ensure that we could achieve the main objectives.

I am disappointed with the response from the hon. Member for Warrington North. She rightly made the point that most local authorities take a sensible approach. They do, but the Bill is not about them; it is about the small minority of local authorities that do not take a sensible approach and, as a result, cause dismay to people who are trying to organise voluntary or charitable activities in their communities. Just before Second Reading, I told the House about Beaulieu, where the local authority had intervened to prevent the annual pancake race taking place. It said that it would be dangerous for people to run through the streets of Beaulieu and that they should only walk. Indeed, one of the competitors who broke into a trot just before the finishing line was disqualified. That is the sort of nonsense that the Bill is designed to address. It would require a local authority in such situations to spell out the reasons. As soon as it has to spell out the reasons, which can then be articulated in the local press, the publicity probably achieves its own objective and the local authority then relents.

On a related topic from the same locality, there was a recent proposal to close down Lymington cricket ground, because every now and again cricket balls went out of the ground and into the adjoining tennis club. One of the parish councillors strongly promoted the idea that the cricket ground should be closed. When that hit the headlines in the local paper, she was quick to relent, and when the decision was reversed in favour of the cricket club, she was not available for comment. That is the power of local publicity, but that comes only when there is proper accountability and when somebody is required to give reasons for their decision, which may have been arbitrary.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 9:45, 11 January 2012

The interesting example cited by the hon. Gentleman would not be covered by the Bill, because the parish council would not have the power to close down the cricket ground. It would be dealt with, as in his example, simply by publicity.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Lady misrepresents the situation. The example I cited was the pancake race, where the local authority intervened. The example I gave of adverse publicity creating a different atmosphere causing people to change views, was, I agree, about a parish council. That does not alter the fact. The main example I gave would be dealt with directly by the provisions of the Bill. We are talking not about the vast majority of responsible authorities, but the irresponsible minority.

The hon. Lady said that there would be more appeals to the ombudsman. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, there would be appeals only if local councils’ behaviour resulted in aggrieved individuals and organisations referring the matter to the ombudsman. My hope is that transparency will ensure there will not be such appeals.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North. When I was at junior school I was hit on the head by a cricket ball, which was very painful. We did not have health and safety rules then to stop that happening. The hon. Member for Christchurch is right about having to give reasons; that is perfectly acceptable. However, having recourse to the ombudsman for matters of that nature is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The publicity is enough, as he said. Simply being required to give a reason for preventing somebody throwing cricket balls at small boys is perfectly reasonable. Clogging up the ombudsman with cases of that kind would bring health and safety rules into disrepute. That is going too far.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention because it enables me to make some points. I am glad he supports the need to give reasons, a matter covered by new clause 1, which I hope he will support. New clause 1 does not refer to the ombudsman; it would require local authorities to give reasons in such a situation, which they do not have to do at present.

New clause 2 deals with the local government ombudsman. It would change the rules so that the ombudsman would be able to fast-track some complaints. The hon. Member for Warrington North is incorrect: new clause 2 is not linked to those particular health and safety cases. It would simply give the ombudsman a general power that he does not have at the moment to deal with some cases more quickly. Whether he decided to take forward a case in the circumstances we described more quickly would be a matter for his sole discretion. At the moment that is not possible; the ombudsman has to deal with all cases at the same pace. The hon. Member for Luton North might think that an unnecessary constraint on the ability of the ombudsman to produce quick redress.

The proposed measure is very modest. It would lead to more appeals to the ombudsman only if local authorities responded unreasonably in certain circumstances.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development)

I assume that the pancake race was on Shrove Tuesday, which highlights the importance in the Bill of fast tracking, and of encouraging local authorities not to ban time-dependent events. I have had experience of such matters in my constituency.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

That is the point—the hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head. That concern was expressed by Lord Young in his report. He said that we need some redress in these situations and suggested that, ultimately, compensation should be available. I have already explained why that will not now be included in the Bill, but even giving people the opportunity to go to the ombudsman and ask for a reasonably quick decision will help concentrate minds in the local authority. Otherwise, people might have to wait a year or 18 months before the ombudsman says, “Back in 2010, the local authority behaved badly in banning that pancake race.”

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. I am concerned that the hon. Member for Luton North has said that the measure will clog up the ombudsman, because he is implying that local authorities make many bad decisions, which I do not accept. Does my hon. Friend have an estimate of how many cases might be referred to the ombudsman as a result of the legislation?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I have not, and I do not think that any rational person would be able to do anything other than put a figure up in the wind and see. It will depend on the power of local publicity and the reasonableness of local authority members and their officers. Sometimes I suspect that officers introduce banning orders without consulting their members. Under new clause 1, members must be involved, because reasons for the decision must be given, which will be an important addition to accountability.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Obviously, officers have to take decisions on a range of matters—health inspections and so on—without necessarily referring them immediately to elected councillors. I think the same situation applies in these matters. Involving the ombudsman opens the way for mischief by those who oppose health and safety provisions and legislation in general, encouraging them to raise cases and get more coverage in the Daily Mail, and so on. I strongly oppose the current drift of hostility to health and safety legislation, especially from the Prime Minister. It is valuable and something that we should be proud of.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that currently someone who is aggrieved can refer a matter to the ombudsman, but the Bill gives him the scope and discretion to deal with such a case more quickly than he currently can. The measure does not, for the first time, give people power to take cases to the ombudsman, because they can do that already; it gives the ombudsman power, under new clause 2, to deal with such cases more quickly if he so decides. The Bill does not introduce the sweeping changes that a radical such as the hon. Gentleman might want to see in legislation. It is, though I say so myself, a modest set of proposals that does not go anything like as far as he suggests in amending existing arrangements.

I hope that I have allayed some concerns in responding to this short but lively debate and that Committee members will now be keen to support the Bill so that it can make further progress.

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

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 9.

Division number 1 Decision Time — Part 2A - Decisions relating to holding of events

Aye: 3 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 disagreed to.

Clause 2 disagreed to.