HC Deb 15 December 1992 vol 216 cc402-4

Queen's Recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment—[Mr. Robin Squire.]

10.14 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I was not present on Friday when the Bill was debated, but I have read the report of the debate, and I entirely support the principle of the Bill. During the debate, the Minister made two points about expenditure. First, he said: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has agreed that all significant direct costs incurred by local authorities in carrying out a project under the technical links scheme will be met from the know-how funds. I take it that that will be covered by the money resolution, which is required, as a matter of formality, for private Members' Bills. Secondly, the Minister said,

we have made it known that the Secretary of State is prepared to sanction under section 19 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 local authority expenditure under the technical links scheme."—[Offieial Report, 11 December 1992; Vol. 215, c. 1155.] Does that mean that the Secretary of State would sanction local authority borrowing, or does it mean that the technical links scheme will be covered entirely by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under the resolution, and that only local authority expenditure in this country relating to the technical links scheme will be covered by that second point?

I think that the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill is well intentioned. I believe that many local authorities are keen to establish links with countries that need technical assistance and expertise. However, many local authority residents take the view that the priorities of such technical links should be financed by central Government: local authorities are very short of money, and many people take exception to what they see as lavish trips abroad at a time when, for example, schools are crumbling and roads need repairing. I feel that the emphasis on central Government expenditure is right.

The Bill provides for consent by the Secretary of State to the provision of advice and assistance by local authorities. That invokes the de minimis rule, which governs the level of expenditure below which such consent will not be required. In Friday's debate, the Minister said that an announcement would be made. In the context of this motion, can he tell us what the limit will be?

I know that it is the habit of the House not to question expenditure, but I do not happen to agree with that habit. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what gross sums are involved in annual expenditure. As he will appreciate, a number of local authorities providing technical advice and assistance could become involved in considerable expenditure under the two provisions that he mentioned on Friday. It would be interesting to have some idea of the scale of the Government's proposed expenditure.

It would also be useful to know how central Government will supervise expenditure. It is possible, for example, that three or four local authorities, or more, would concentrate their advice and assistance, perhaps through a technical links scheme, on a single area in a single country, because such links had been established by chance. When provision is thin on the ground, will the Government make any provision subject to the availability of financial assistance in the way that I have described? That is one of the useful things that central Government can do.

10.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire)

The prime reason for the money resolution is that the Local Government Bill will involve the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office in new expenditure in, for example, processing the occasional application for consent. That is the central reason for the resolution. I echo and endorse the view expressed by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), as he will know from reading the report of last Friday's debate, when we went into some detail, that the Bill has widespread support and that it is expected that money will not fall on council tax payers to any significant extent.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South mentioned the sanction under section 19 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982. The purpose of that provision is essentially to ensure that, in advance of the legislation receiving Royal Assent, there is no question of a district auditor being able to take action against a local authority which is offering technical assistance to other countries. It is a rarely used provision, but it exists to ensure that, when a measure such as the Bill has overwhelming support in the House, no action is taken against a specific authority. That would be unreasonable.

The hon. Member asked about consents. I do not have the figures beside me now, although I had them for Friday's debate. We are going out to consultation to local authorities on this and on a number of aspects of the Bill. From memory, we are basing the figure on population. With a population of under 50,000, there will be a limit of £20,000, rising to a consent of no more than £60,000 for authorities with a population of more than 250,000. If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the matter, because I am relying on memory at the moment, and if I have the figures wrong, he will be the first to point that out.

10.21 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

We are not practising for the Maastricht debate when we come back in January. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) might have been when he kicked off the debate, but we realise that there is a time limit on money resolution debates.

The Bill received its Second Reading on Friday, and it had all-party support. A few days later, a money resolution is provided by the Government. About a fortnight ago, we had a long series of points of order on Maastricht. One of the main points in the first run at Maastricht was the fact that we were arguing for a referendum. The Government said that there was no provision for a money resolution. We wanted to argue that occasionally the Government provide a money resolution when it suited their purpose. They do so, as I pointed out then, for private Members' Bills.

This Bill is a first-class example. Within the space of a few days, the Government have provided the necessary money resolution for a Bill which has all-party support. I hope that the Minister will ensure that his colleagues understand that, when we come back to Maastricht after the recess, the Government will have to provide a money resolution for the referendum, so that people outside this place can have a vote on Maastricht. Let us have no more funny business; let the Government not say that they are not capable of providing a money resolution, because that is what they have done tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment.

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