§ 3.15 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE, DEPARTMENT of the ENVIRONMENT (Baroness Birk)
My Lords, I beg to move 1047 that this Bill be read a second time. It gives me great pleasure to introduce this Bill, the chief purpose of which is to give general effect to clauses which are commonly precedented in Local Acts. Many of your Lordships will remember that in the context of the controversial South Glamorgan Bill on 9th December we had a lively discussion on the role of private legislation and its relationship with public legislation. As that debate confirmed, it is generally agreed that the state of local legislation is chaotic, its processes expensive and time-consuming and the results voluminous.
Under Section 262 of the Local Government Act 1972, existing local legislation is to be repealed as from 1984, 1979 in metropolitan counties. In the meantime, counties promote Private Bills seeking to retain those powers which are really needed for the efficient conduct of local administration. And we have already seen the different interpretations that are given to these words. For their part, the Government undertook to produce a Bill giving general effect to those powers which are well precedented and which were thought to be of' value to the majority of authorities.
The aim was to present the Public Bill before the bulk of local authority Bills, so that there would be a saving in time and effort for local authorities, agents, Government Departments and of course Parliament; in fact, all those closely concerned. It was hoped that the body of local law would be greatly reduced and streamlined by these means. Unfortunately, events did not keep pace with our intentions, and so when the debate on the 9th December took place, although the Bill had already been drafted, I was unfortunately unable to give a date for its introduction. As it turned out in the event it was introduced on 12th February in another place. However, before summarising its progress, there are a few words I feel that I must say about the principles on which the Bill is based.
The first important point is that the Bill consists almost entirely of provisions which have commonly appeared in local Acts. This means that it is not intended to include new provisions even though they may be desirable. And the Department will be discussing with the local 1048 authority associations next week how best to proceed on these matters. Mean-while, the present Bill follows the precedent of Public Health Acts, the last being the Public Health Act 1961 which was also restricted to well-precedented provisions.
We have avoided clauses which might lead to controversy since we wanted, at this stage, to avoid taking up too much Parliamentary time. The aim was to give local authorities a useful batch of powers and to do it as quickly as possible. I appreciate that some local authorities and also the local authority associations may feel that it would have been better to make this an even bigger Bill including other precedented clauses for which a case can be made but which might be controversial. We recognise that there may be provisions of this kind and also others which are suitable for this Bill but which were identified too late to be included in it. These matters, too, will be covered in the discussions next week with the local authority associations.
I should also mention the subsidiary purpose of the Bill. This is to alter certain provisions of the Public Health Acts; and I will return to this when I deal with the individual clauses. A further point I must emphasise is that all these powers are discretionary. Therefore they place no obligations on local authorities who will continue to be free to decide whether or not to operate them, just as they are with their own private legislation. It is important that this should be widely understood in view of the current restraints on local authority expenditure.
I turn now to the progress of the Bill so far. When it was introduced it contained 33 substantive clauses covering a wide variety of topics. The Bill made smooth and rapid progress because it was welcomed by both sides of the House of Commons, as I am sure it will be here. In only four Sessions, 54 new clauses were considered in Committee and of these 37 were added to the Bill. They consisted of the code of taxi provisions which now form Part II of the Bill. Of the other new clauses considered, most were precedented in local Acts and of these four were accepted in principle for amendment at a later stage of the Bill. They dealt with the amendment of Section 55 to the 1049 Public Health Act 1936, which is concerned with requiring satisfactory access for refuse collection; private sewers and the duty to clear obstructions; the restoration of gas, water and electricity supplies; and payment to local authority officers in certain circumstances. One further clause—enclosure of excavations to afford protection to the public—is currently being considered to see whether it is possible to prepare a Government Amendment to give effect to this.
On Report, a clause concerning the use of spare capacity of computers and printing equipment of local authorities was added by Government Amendment to meet the case made by the local authority associations. The Bill therefore comes to this House as a substantial Bill of 72 clauses, which must have a significant effect in reducing the size of the Bills which local authorities promote. Indeed, we fervently hope that some authorities will feel that they have no need to present Bills of their own before 1984.
I come now to the individual provisions of the Bill; but, since some of them are of a very minor nature, I shall, I am sure with the approval of the House, mention only the more important. The first six clauses deal with minor improvements in the law on highways, and are quite straightforward. Clause 7 enables a local authority to board up property condemned as unfit and vacated as a result of action under the housing Acts; Clause 8 enables by-laws to be made controlling the open land on housing estates to stop, for example, unauthorised parking or other activities unsuitable for the particular location such as Concorde-noise level games by children immediately outside old people's flats.
Clauses 10 and 11 contain a code of powers which will enable local authorities to supply heat from a common source to both public and private sectors. These are welcomed by the District Heating Association and the local authority associations. The requirement in Section 11(4) to keep separate accounts was put in on Report in another place by Government Amendment as a result of a proposal by the Opposition. Clause 12 and Schedule 1 empower local authorities to acquire compulsorily, on payment of compensation, rights over land rather 1050 than purchasing the land itself; for example, rights of access to adjoining land. This avoids the acquisition of land when only an easement or right is required.
Clause 14 empowers local authorities to survey land they propose to acquire compulsorily before they make a compulsory purchase order. This ensures that proceedings do not reach an advanced stage if the land then proves on investigation to be unsuitable for, say, geological reasons. Clause 15 gives local authorities a general power, for the purpose of performing their functions, to obtain information about the ownership of land. This, like the other provisions, is well precedented in Private Acts and replaces several such powers already in public Acts. Clause 18 replaces Section 4 of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937 which has been the subject of frequent amendment by Private Acts.
Clauses 22 and 26 are the only ones which are not precedented in local Acts. They derive from the secondary purpose of the Bill which I mentioned earlier—which is to tidy up various procedural provisions of the Public Health Acts 1875 to 1936 before the Law Commission begin to consolidate the Public Health Acts. Since there was clearly a lot of misunderstanding about Clause 26 in another place, I feel I should emphasise that it is not based on local Acts but on Section 274 of the Public Health Act 1936. This enables a local authority to use its powers under that Act outside its area. It seems right that that principle should apply to all local authority powers and not just to the Public Health Act 1936. Thus the clause confers no new powers on local authorities but merely affects the area in which their existing powers may be employed. For example, it would enable them to provide a school or clinic just over their boundary to serve a population which resides within that boundary.
Clause 23 is a general power to enable local authorities to set up funds at their discretion instead of having to obtain specific statutory powers for each fund, as they have to do at present—a tortuous and lengthy procedure. Clauses 27 and 28 are designed to cope with the situation which is arising because of the heart-breaking spread of Dutch elm disease. It was already in some of the local Acts, 1051 but it is for this reason that we feel it should be included in this public legislation. At this stage, that is all I want to say on Part I.
Part II of the Bill is now its dominating feature, and since it was added at the Committee stage it deserves some special mention. For a long time there has been a widespread demand for a review of legislation relating to the control of taxis in areas of England and Wales outside London and for this control to be extended to include the private hire car trade. At present, control of taxis can be exercised in England (outside London) and in Wales under the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. There is no general legislation for the control of private hire cars, but a number of local authorities have taken powers in local legislation to extend or modify the powers of the Act of 1847 in respect of taxis and to introduce new controls over the operation of private hire cars.
My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been preparing a Consultative Document on the control of taxis and private hire cars. His intention was that, when this document had been prepared and issued, there should be consultations with the local authority associations and other interested organisations. Following these consultations, the Government would prepare their own legislation which would take account of the many developments which have taken place both in technology and in society since the Town Police Clauses Act was passed in 1847. It was because it was thought that this was the best course of action that we advised the Standing Committee in another place not to include in this Bill provisions on taxis and private hire cars. The Committee did not accept the Government's advice on this matter and the Bill now includes a very substantial number of provisions relating to taxis and private hire cars. In view of the general demand for these provisions, we have accepted that they should stay in the Bill until the Government bring forward their own proposals. The Home Office are working on these now and expect to issue a Consultative Document shortly.
These are some of the more important clauses in the Bill. Although in the context of contemporary legislation it 1052 is not a major Bill, nevertheless it will be of considerable use to local authorities in serving the community. It is indeed a significant Bill in the rationalisation of local law. It will also save authorities money as well as time—a powerful justification, I consider, for a piece of legislation. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Birk.)
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Baroness YOUNG
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for introducing this Bill to us today and for explaining it so clearly. It follows from Section 262 of the Local Government Act 1972, which provides that most local government Private Acts will be repealed in the metropolitan counties in 1979 and elsewhere in 1984. The House has already experienced the consequences of this provision, for it had before it not so long ago the South Glamorgan County Council Bill, and already proceeding through its Committee stage is the Tyne and Wear Bill. But for the Bill before us, there would be very many more such local authority Private Bills.
That being so, we on this side of the House welcome the Bill, which we regard as necessary. Its proposals are, in the main, non-controversial, and in the interests of good local government we wish to speed its passage. Indeed, we agreed to take the Second Reading this afternoon after the Bill had received its Third Reading in another place only on Tuesday. This is in no sense a criticism, but it means that I have not had time to study as closely as I should like the results of the Report stage and Third Reading in another place. Nor, indeed, has it been possible to consult as fully as we should have liked our colleagues in local government, who have been surprised at the speed with which this Bill is progressing.
There is one general question which I should like to ask. I understand that one of the principles behind the Bill is that its clauses are both non-controversial and well precedented. Will the Government therefore accept Amendments which in any way extend local authorities' powers? A number of new clauses were debated in Committee in another place, and others 1053 have been proposed by local authorities; and, indeed, discussions upon these are proceeding. What is important to know is how this general principle is to be interpreted, and if the noble Baroness can say anything further on that it would be helpful.
I was very grateful for her detailed comment on Part II of the Bill, which was, of course, added in Committee in another place. It refers to the law relating to hackney carriages and private hire cars and, as I understand it, arose following strong representations made from the local authority associations, in particular the Association of District Councils. The clauses are based on the latest Private Act on the subject; that is, the Plymouth City Council Act 1975. However, as the noble Baroness herself has recognised, this Bill cannot be the last word on the subject as the law is still based largely on the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, which, after all, is 130 years out of date.
I wonder whether I could press her further about the Consultative Document which has been promised from the Home Office. As I understand the position, this has been promised for some time and it would be useful to know what the Government's timetable on the document and subsequent legislation is likely to be. Clearly, any new legislation must depend upon extensive consultations, not only with local authorities but with the trade itself. I am bound to add a personal comment, that when I was in local government I knew of hardly any subject which caused greater discussion, and often greater controversy, than taxis and hire cars. But I think it is important in the interests of good and efficient local government, as well as in the interests of the trade, let alone those who use taxis and private hire cars, that this matter should be put right as soon as possible.
There are a number of other powers which local authorities are seeking. Some Government undertakings were given in another place that Amendments would be tabled during the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House, and I was therefore very glad to hear from the noble Baroness of five Amendments which the Government propose to put down during its passage through this House. There are, however, a number of others that, so far as I can see, have not yet been 1054 debated. I do not intend to take up the time of the House this afternoon by going through them all.
I regard this as very much a Committee stage Bill dealing with rather smaller and technical points, and not one for aprolonged Second Reading debate. So far as I can see, contentious matters might arise only if there was any suggestion to extend direct labour schemes, to which we on this side of the House are opposed, or any attempt to include in the Bill any form of municipal trading. These matters were not accepted in another place, and I hope they will not be accepted in your Lordships' House. That said, we on this side of the House support the Bill. We wish it a speedy passage through this House, because it is important to get it on the Statute Book. We agree that it will make local government more effective, it will certainly save local government money, and we shall give every help we can to seeing that it makes its way on to the Statute Book.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (The Earl of Listowel)
My Lords, I welcome the introduction of this Bill and I should like to join the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, on the way in which she introduced it, because it is an important first step—but only a first step—in the rationalisation of local government law made possible by the Local Government Act 1972. It contains a number of clauses—though, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will not be surprised to hear, not as many as I should have liked—that have hitherto been included in Bills promoted by local authorities for general powers. I was glad to hear from the noble Baroness that she will have discussions shortly with the local authorities, which I hope may include the desirability of further legislation.
One result of the Bill, when it passes, will be that legislation on these subjects will no longer be piecemeal in parallel and differing local Acts, but will be incorporated in the public general law and thus capable of being kept up to date by the ordinary processes of Statute law revision. I particularly welcome the inclusion in the Bill of Part II relating to hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, which, as both 1055 noble Baronesses have pointed out, was put into the Bill during the Committee stage in another place. This will replace the antique law—I think "antique" is the correct adjective—contained for the most part in the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. I notice that Part II contains 37 clauses, and it will be readily understood that the passing of legislation of this extent and complexity in private Acts is an exercise that cannot be effectively performed by Committees on Private Bills.
I hope that there will be no difference of opinion about the principle of the Bill, and no difference of opinion has been expressed so far. But I should like, if I may, to draw the attention of the House to the provisions in two clauses about which contrary views may be expressed. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that this is essentially, from the point of view of the work of this House, a Committee stage Bill, so I hope that I may be permitted to make a few comments on two of the clauses.
The first of these is Clause 2, which introduces a new restriction on the placing of scaffolding on the highway for the purpose of building and cleaning operations on premises fronting a highway. I believe that provisions of this kind are already in force in Inner London. The general law gives a householder, who is also a frontager, a right to erect scaffolding on a highway for the purpose of cleaning, repairing or painting his house, provided of course that he does not unreasonably obstruct the highway. It is for the highway authority to proceed against him if it considers the obstruction unreasonable, and of course for the courts to decide. But under this clause, either the frontager or his builder will have to obtain a licence from the highway authority before any work that requires the placing of scaffolding on a highway can be done. So far as I am aware—and there may be facts of which I am not aware—the existing law has not created difficulty. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that a similar clause was disallowed in the County of South Glamorgan Bill. But I hope that your Lordships will examine this clause with special care in Committee, and will not accept it as it stands, unless the Government can prove conclusively that there is a genuine need for this restriction and that the advantage to road users is 1056 likely to outweigh the disadvantage to the householder.
The second provision which I think deserves careful scrutiny by your Lordships is Clause 27, which gives local authorities power to deal with trees that are complained of, because they are likely to cause damage to persons or property upon a neighbour's land. The law as it stands deals only with trees and other vegetations, such as hedges or shrubs, that affect a highway or other road or footpath to which the public has access, so as to endanger or obstruct vehicles or pedestrians which are likely to cause danger by falling on the highway, road or path. Thus the present law allows danger to be dealt with not only where it already exists, because a tree overhangs a road, but where it is likely, because the tree may fall. The law protects the users not only of highways but also of other roads and paths to which the public has access. Therefore, it enables a highway authority, or in some cases a local authority, to require the owner of the tree or the occupier of the land on which the tree stands to fell it or make it safe. On failure to comply with the requirement the authority may act and recover expenses from the defaulter.
Subsections (2) to (6) of Clause 27 of the Bill go much further than this. They are for the benefit of the person who says to his local authority, "On my neighbour's land there is a tree which is in such a condition that it is likely to cause damage to persons or property on my land. If you agree, order my neighbour to fell the tree". If the local authority agrees, it may order the adjoining owner to fell the tree to make it safe. If he fails to do so, the local authority may send its employees on to his land, do the work and recover the expenses from him. This is new law. At present these matters are covered by the right of the subject to sue his neighbour. I am sure that your Lordships will wish to hear from the Government in what respects the present law is inadequate and, if so, how far it is desirable to give to local authorities the important new powers proposed in this clause. They would include, as I have pointed out, the power in certain circumstances to enter land without the consent of the owner or occupier in order to lop or fell trees that they, the local authorities, may consider to be a danger to his neighbour.
1057 I have made these comments on these two clauses not in any carping spirit—they do not in the least diminish my gratitude for the Bill—but in case they may be helpful to your Lordships in the consideration of this Bill in Committee. What I should like to say most of all at this stage of the Bill is that I am indeed grateful to the Department of the Environment for fashioning the Bill and to the Government for introducing it because it will bring some measure of order into the chaos of local government law. Therefore, I hope that the House will give unanimous support to the Second Reading.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Lord AIREDALE
My Lords, we are indeed grateful to the Government for bringing forward a Bill which, by its very nature, is not of the kind that is popular with Governments. The truth of the matter is that there are not many votes to be got out of a Bill of this kind and my suspicion is that, as Governments come and go, they find at the bottom of their predecessors' pending tray proposals for such a Bill and there they remain indefinitely. I suppose, therefore, that we have to be grateful that this Bill has finally emerged.
It seems to me that what is needed is a greater stimulus to get such Bills rolling and I suggest that we need to invent a new procedure. I suggest that we need a body such as a commission—possibly a Joint Committee of both Houses—with whom would be deposited a copy of every local authority's Private Bill. It would be the duty of this committee to scrutinise the clauses to find any clause which fulfilled two requirements and dealt, first, with a matter of general application and, secondly, with a matter which was non-controversial. Any clause which fulfilled those two requirements would be recommended by the committee to be brought forward in a general Miscellaneous Provisions Bill.
I hope that that committee would be strengthened in its work in the kind of way that the Boundaries Commission is strengthened in its work, by all-Party agreement that the recommendations of such a committee would be respected and and that whatever non-controversial 1058 measures were recommended by the committee to be brought forward would be brought forward by whatever Party was in power at that time. If we are dealing with non-controversial matters, such Bills need not take up much Parliamentary time. Indeed, the quick passage of this Bill, upon which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, commented, advertises that not much Parliamentary time need be taken up with Bills of this kind.
So much for that general point. I come now to the rather more ticklish matter of trying to deal with individual clauses without being told that I am making a series of Committee points. I have selected three or four matters which I trust your Lordships will think are a little wider than pure Committee points. Clause 19 empowers local authorities to require what the Bill calls "sanitary appliances" to be provided in, among other places, betting shops. When the legislation which swept away the street bookmaker and established the betting shops was going through Parliament, I thought that Parliament was very strongly of the opinion that people should not be encouraged and should positively be discouraged from loitering and hanging about in betting shops. To that end Parliament laid down that television should not be provided in betting shops, as a discouragement to people to hang about and loiter there. I believe that sound commentaries are provided but not television. If people are not to loiter in betting shops, if they are to treat betting shops like other shops to which they go to make a transaction and then leave, it seems to me that there is no need to require betting shops, any more than other ordinary shops, to provide "sanitary appliances". I think we should seriously consider whether or not we still adhere to the idea that people must be discouraged from hanging about in these places and that we should set our faces against the provision of lavatories in betting shops.
I join with the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees in quarrelling with Clause 27: "Power of local authorities to deal with dangerous trees". I do not quarrel at all with the principle, which seems to be admirable. However, the clause is extremely long and complicated, 1059 and to my mind it contains one extraordinary curiosity. It operates only if the information about the dangerous tree comes to the local authority from an owner or occupier. Why should this be? If a tree, to use the words in the Bill, is in such a condition that there is imminent danger of its causing damage to persons or property, why should the local authority not be empowered to act if it gets its information from the policeman, or the postman, or the milk roundsman who may go to the local authority and say, "Do you realise that at No. 63 there is a large bough hanging by a thread and I am terrified every time I have to pass underneath it to serve those premises?" In those circumstances, why should not the local authority be allowed to invoke this clause? It seems to me quite extraordinary that there is this strange provision that only the owner or occupier of property shall set the ball rolling.
I hope that in Committee we can greatly simplify this clause by laying down that where a tree is in imminent danger of causing injury or damage to property, the local authority may go upon any land and do whatever is required; save only that if it is practicable they shall first inform the owner or occupier, who may be able to carry out the work more cheaply than the local authority, because of course the owner or occupier will have to pay for it in the end and he may have the equipment to enable him to do it himself. Secondly, if the danger is not all that imminent but nevertheless the local authority consider—again irrespective of who has informed them—that the tree is dangerous, though not imminently dangerous, then they may serve a notice upon the owner or occupier, requiring him to do whatever work is required to remove the danger.
Clause 30 deals with the spare capacity of computers. Here again we have in principle the very sensible idea that, with computers and printing equipment which local authorities genuinely require for their own purposes, if they have spare capacity they shall be able to hire out the equipment in order that the spare capacity may be used. A clause of this nature came before the second Committee which considered the unopposed parts of the County of South Glamorgan Bill. It was felt by that Committee that great care 1060 should be taken to see that the local authority, in hiring out their spare capacity of computers, should not undercut private enterprise in the same field, which after all they very easily could if the local authority chose to disregard the total cost of installing or hiring a machine upon the ground that anyway they needed it for their own purposes. They could show on paper quite a good profit by hiring it out at rates which would seriously undercut any private enterprise concern, who of course in fixing their charges would have to take into account the enormous cost of hiring or purchasing the machine in the first place.
The Promoters of the South Glamorgan Bill came back to the Committee on Unopposed Bills with an Amendment to their clause which said that they would not substantially undercut private enterprise; but the Committee was still not satisfied and the Promoters were persuaded to remove the word, "substantially". I feel this is an important matter, because Parliament tends to set its face against municipal trading, which I think was the expression used by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I seem to remember that not long ago a local authority came to Parliament with a Bill which would empower them to run shops and to engage in retail trading, and they did not get very far with that Bill. The matter of the spare capacity of computers is very much on the fringe of municipal trading, and I think this point should be looked at.
§ Lord GEORGE-BROWN
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt for a moment. Unhappily I did not hear the noble Baroness, Lady Young, but I heard the noble Lord say that Parliament has on the whole—I hope I am quoting him correctly—set its face against municipal trading. As I understand it, he quoted the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as having made that remark. I am just trying to relate that to Joseph Chamberlain and Neville Chamberlain, and indeed the whole Chamberlain family, in terms of the Birmingham Municipal Bank. When did the Conservative Party set its face against municipal trading? The Birmingham Bank—the Chamberlain Bank—is municipal trading.
§ Lord AIREDALE
My Lords, my memory goes back certainly to Neville 1061 Chamberlain, but it does not go back so far as the memory of the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown. In so far as the attitude of the Conservative Party to municipal trading is concerned, I do not think I dare trespass on that ground. All I wish to say is that apparently quite recently Parliament did not approve of a local authority's proposal to open shops and engage in retail trading, and I thought I was speaking on a clause which was upon the fringe of that topic.
I await with anxiety and great interest a new clause which I understand we are to have before the Committee stage, which I think was promised by the Minister in Standing Committee in another place, which will deal with a harrowing state of affairs which was related to both of the Committees on Unopposed Bills which considered the County of South Glamorgan Bill. The matter concerned a mother with several young children who had done nothing wrong and who had paid her rent, which included the provision of electricity and gas to her premises. She had her electricity cut off in the depth of winter, not because she had done anything wrong at all but because her landlord, to whom she had paid her full rent, had failed to pay the electricity bill. It seems that in a case of that kind it would be right and proper to empower the local authority to pay the cost of reconnecting the premises and recover that cost from the defaulting landlord. I think we have been promised a clause which will deal with that matter and I shall welcome it with open arms when it arrives.
Finally, if the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, would like to look forward for a moment to the next of this series of Miscellaneous Provisions Bills, which I hope we are to have, and select the first topic which needs to be dealt with in the next one, I suggest that it ought to be the control of street trading. If the noble Baroness ever goes shopping in Oxford Street, as I dare say she does from time to time, I am sure she will realise that the control of street trading is something which deserves the attention of Parliament.
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Viscount AMORY
My Lords, if I may venture to reply to the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, in the way that my noble friend from the Liberal Benches 1062 was too shy to reply, I should like to say that the Conservative Party never stands still, and over the past seventy years it has refined and perfected its policies in several matters. Perhaps I may leave it like that.
§ Viscount AMORY
My Lords, I wish to give a very warm welcome to this Bill. At the time when we were debating the South Glamorgan Bill the Ministers from the Front Bench, in response to requests from some of us that a Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill should be produced as soon as possible, promised us that that would happen, and I feel that the Ministers have fulfilled their obligation completely by bringing forward this Bill within a few months of telling us that. Harking back for one moment to the debate we had on that Bill, we all remember the extreme courtesy with which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, dealt with the matter on that occasion. It was a pleasure to hear him again today.
The alternative to this Bill was, as my noble friend Lady Young said, a flood of separate local Bills which would have to come forward between now and 1984. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that that is the alternative, and it is perfectly clearly so; and if that course had had to be followed, the resultant Bills would have been immensely expensive in time and manpower, and money, too. The members of the Association of County Councils, the local government association with which I am most familiar, have very few criticisms indeed to make about what is in the Bill. They feel that it could, with advantage, have gone further. We quite see the point made by the noble Baroness about it not being appropriate in a Bill like this to introduce very controversial matters, but I think there are a number of other rather similar matters to this which have been selected for inclusion. I think the Association of County Councils will be anxious to discuss these at the meeting to be held next week to which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, referred. They have some suggestions to make of very similar kinds of provision which they think could well be included in the Bill, and which would not 1063 fall under the heading of being very controversial, or controversial at all, and, it is thought, would not take long to prepare.
My Lords, when one looks at the clauses in this Bill, they are a wonderful mixed grill, but the Bill is none the worse for that. I like the rather cheerful and colourful rubric to Clause 1:Power to erect flagpoles, etc., on highways.That is a very cheery start. These flagpoles are given the very respectable description, in the last line of page 1, of "relevant works". Next year being Jubilee Year, I hope that the whole country will be sprinkled with relevant works.
There is no more I wish to say at this Second Reading stage. This is a good and useful Bill. I should like to give it complete support and, in particular, support the points which were so clearly made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. My statistical advisers have told me that it is my practice to address your Lordships for an average of twelve minutes. On this occasion, I have held your Lordships spellbound for only four minutes, but I should like to say I hope very much that the other eight minutes will be credited to me for the embellishment of any future speeches I wish to make to your Lordships over the next twelve months.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Lord MERRIVALE
My Lords, I apologise for taking part in this Second Reading debate without previously having put down my name on the list of speakers, but there is a point of principle which I should like to raise. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, referred to Clause 30 of the Bill, mainly with reference to computers, as I understood him, but not to printing equipment. in another place last Monday, 10th May, the Government introduced on Report—and at very short notice, I may add—a new clause, Clause 30, which in effect is giving much concern to CBI members in the printing industry. When introducing it, Mr. Guy Barnett, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, said the clause would enable local authorities to use up the spare capacity of computer equipment and reprographic machinery installed for their own use. As far as I 1064 can understand it, he concentrated his argument almost entirely on data processing and photographic facilities. Also as far as I can gather, on this basis the Opposition, who had no time to consult anybody in advance, accepted the provision.
The CBI and their members think that the clause in fact would allow local authorities all over the country—and I stress the words "all over the country"—to carry out printing in competition with private enterprise. The rubric to Clause 30 reads as follows:Use of spare capacity of computers and printing equipment of local authorities.The West Midland County Council tried to take a similar power in Clause 6 of their Bill earlier this year, but that Bill failed to obtain a Second Reading, largely because of the proposed extension of local authority manufacturing and trading powers.
So far as I can ascertain, the only precedent for Clause 30 is Section 38 of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1969. I should like to quote this to your Lordships because I think it places less emphasis on printing machinery. Section 38(1) of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act, 1969, says:The Council may by agreement with any person, for that person's purposes, use or promote the use of any electronic, mechanical or other equipment for accounting, analytical, statistical or other purposes or for the printing and reproduction of documents (including equipment for microfilm recording) which the Council have provided for the purposes of all or any of their work, and may provide any facilities and services ancillary to or necessary or convenient for, the use of the said equipment and make such charges as may be agreed for the use of such equipment and the provision of such facilities or services.Section 38 is headed purely:Electronic, mechanical or other equipment, etc.Therefore there is no emphasis on the printing equipment.
I understand, too, that with these lesser powers, the Greater London Council have never used the power to carry out printing for other persons. The CBI would like to see Clause 30 amended, so that the power can be used only in relation to computers or data processing equipment which, in the normal sense, 1065 would not cover printing machinery. I shall endeavour to devise for the Committee stage an Amendment to this end. In the meantime, I feel it right at Second Reading that I should raise this point of principle with regard to the question of the extension of local authority trading powers. I sincerely hope, especially as Clause 30 was introduced into the Bill only last Monday, that Her Majesty's Government will be able before the Committee stage to give consideration to the points I have made today.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord LEATHERLAND
My Lords, it is perhaps appropriate that a few words of welcome for the Bill should be expressed on this side of the House. I think it is a very good Bill; I hope it will have a very quick passage through the House. It is also probably appropriate that I should be the one to say these few words, because in a few minutes we shall be passing on to consider the Endangered Species Bill, and the Local Government Act 1972 certainly endangered the species to which I belonged, that of the county alderman. He no longer exists; he is now an extinguished species. I was for 25 years or so a county alderman and I also served on a district council. I therefore approach this Bill as one who is very interested indeed.
If one wanted to be unkind, one could possibly say that it is a hotchpotch kind of Bill, something like the vicar's wife's stall at the parish garden party. Nevertheless, it is a very good Bill, a very useful Bill, and it will be appreciated by every local government authority in the country. At the present time some of these authorities have certain powers and others have not. These powers have often been obtained through the promotion of private legislation by municipal authorities who were well heeled, whereas poorer ones could not afford the expense. This Bill will now give all councils an opportunity to adopt and put into operation the various services which are enumerated in the Bill. They will not be compelled to, but they will have the opportunity to do so if they wish. It very considerably extends the freedom of local authorities, and I think that is something that everybody in the House wants to see.
But, my Lords, I think we shall need to have another Bill from the same stable 1066 very shortly, because the various local government organisations, as the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, said, have a number of items which they would like to see in this Bill and which they propose to discuss with the Minister. If there is no time for these matters to be settled before the Bill is passed on to the Statute Book, it looks as though another Bill will be necessary.
There are a number of what appear to me to be very sensible proposals that the associations would like to see, proposals, for example, dealing with the sale of food on the verges of roads, particularly main roads. One sees this when one motors out into the country; one sees a beautiful bunch of flowers or a bag of apples or a sack of potatoes outside a farm gate and one is invited to pull up and purchase. You pull up and all the traffic behind you has to pull up; that is, if it does not bump into the back of your own car. The associations also want to see the prohibition of camping on the verges of roads, and they want to see something done to protect dangerous ponds from careful or careless members of the public.
There are one or two items in the Bill to which I would draw specific attention. Clause 5 prohibits posters on trees on the roadside. I think this is a very useful innovation. I get very angry as I motor out into the country around my area and see tree after tree labelled with such objectionable signs as "Vote Conservative" and things like that. Clause 16—and I think this is something that can be put right in the Department by the draftsmen—in one paragraph deals with 1,000 metres and in the next paragraph it deals with 1,000 yards, while Clause 2 deals with 12 inches. I think out of respect for the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, of the Metrication Board, we ought to standardise the system which we use in the Bill. Clause 10 says that councils can produce heat. You can take it from me, my Lords, as a former chairman of a county council, that a council meeting can produce heat. Clause 11 says it can produce hot air, and the same remark applies to that.
I come now to what I think is a serious point. Clause 18 allows a council to provide various forms of recreation. I see that it does not mention croquet in the long list that it gives. Quite a lot of the 1067 old people who go to our parks would, I am sure, like to be able to have a game of croquet there. They cannot participate in the other sports and recreations mentioned, like tennis. I think that would be an improvement. A point to which I want to draw attention, and to which I am opposed really, is that which says that councils can set up riding schools. I fear that councils may be involved in many suits for damages if the pupils at these riding schools are injured during their lessons. It is one thing for an instructor to show you how to get on a horse, it is another thing for the instructor to show you how to sit on the horse. But one thing the instructor cannot tell you is how to fall off a horse and to be safe on every possible occasion.
I feel that the Minister should look at that clause again and perhaps have some hesitation about authorising local authorities to set up riding schools. I speak feelingly about this because my horse once hit the top bar of an oak fence; I went into the ditch on the other side and the horse came down on top of me. I am tough and can take it, but some of the youngsters attending these riding schools might not be able to and they might be hurt more seriously than I was.
There is a trifling matter of drafting in Clause 27. We have paragraph (c) at the top of page 33 which says that,Where such a council— (c) knows the name and address of no person…If there is no person, how can you know his name and address? It might be possible to redraft this along the lines: "Where the council does not know the name and address of any person", and so on.
The new clause which has been added to Part II dealing with taxicabs and hire cars is, I think, very necessary indeed. I have lived in places where the regulation of taxicabs is very strictly enforced. I have lived in other places where there has been very considerable slackness. I would also mention Clause 23, which sets out the circumstances in which councils can establish funds. The 1972 Act provided that a council could establish what is called a capital fund. This has nothing at all to do with its consolidated loans 1068 fund, which deals with the gross amount of the money that the council has raised from outside. The capital fund is a fund which is internally established by the council itself. If it finds itself with a surplus on its estimates at the end of the year it can, if it wishes, instead of using that to reduce next year's rate, post it to a capital fund. It can also give so many pence in the pound of the rate each year to the capital fund. I established such a capital fund when I was finance committee chairman of my county council. We used to give a 3d. rate per year to the fund, and I think later on we increased it to 6d. By using this capital fund for minor capital works, we were able to save a considerable amount of money for the ratepayers.
What I want to know from my noble friend, after she has looked at the very lengthy Clause 23, is whether the new Bill in any way restricts the enjoyment which councils at present have to set up these internal capital funds; and, secondly, whether it restricts in any degree the way in which councils can invest their superannuation funds. I remember we altered our superannuation fund so that we were not restricted to investing funds in property and gilt edged stocks. We decided to go into equities as well, and the experience has been very beneficial.
The only other matter that remains is Clause 26, which authorises councils to indulge in what is called direct labour. I hope noble Lords will not overplay this clause. I do not think it means that the local council is going to become one of the great merchandising establishments in the district. There are circumstances in which it is desirable that a council should be able to use its direct labour squad on work which is outside its own local boundaries. The Greater London Council, for example, has big housing estates at Dagenham, at Romford, and also at Ockenden in Essex, and it seems sensible to me that if they want to carry out repairs to those thousands of houses they should be able to use their direct labour building squads to do the work rather than have to put it out to contract. As I say, I hope that this proposal will not be overplayed.
Of course, there is no element of Party politics in this. My memory goes back quite a long time. I remember that Tory 1069 councils used to run gasworks and electricity works, and I remember when I was in charge of the costing system of one of the Birmingham Corporation Departments some 55 years ago we carried on quite a big trading organisation. We used to sell pig food, we used to sell fertilizers, and we used to sell quite a lot of other things. There was no outcry from local traders because we engaged in this work. In fact, we were saving and earning money for the ratepayers at the same time as we were obliging the farmers in the surrounding districts. There are, as I say, one or two untidy bits of verbiage in the Bill. I think that this can all be put right, and I sincerely hope that the Bill will have a very quick passage.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, this has been a wide ranging and interesting debate. It is amazing how quite a small number of speakers, each taking a very limited time to speak, can cover such an enormous area. I suppose it is because a Bill of this sort—and, as my noble friend Lord Leatherland rightly said, it is quite a hotch-potch—is consolidating private legislation which reaches into every nook and corner of local authority activity. The Bill demonstrates this, and also that, whereas some noble Lords would like to stop up some of the holes and corners, others would like considerably to extend other areas of them.
First, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken for their welcome to the Bill and their general support of it. I should also like to emphasise that it is part only of a continuing process of securing for local authorities in public legislation those ancillary powers that they need to enable them to work smoothly and effectively. The point was made again by my noble friend Lord Leatherland that he would like to see it go further. This covers some of the points that will be discussed at the meeting with the Association of County Councils next week. Any positive result from that will be by way of future legislation, or Amendments which I hope to move on behalf of the Government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked me whether this extends local authority powers. Of course, it is true that the Government have already 1070 accepted four clauses in another place, and we shall be prepared to accept additional clauses here where they fit the twin criteria of being desirable and of being well precedented and non-contentious. Within that area there is certainly room for discussion. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, and my noble friend Lord Leatherland raised the question referring to direct labour. As we are all aware, a Working Party to go into this has been set up by my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. The Government intend to bring in general legislation on direct labour. I think that my noble friend Lord Leatherland put it extremely well, and the Government are certainly not apologetic about our support for efficiently run direct labour organisations in doing local authority work. The extension of this to any great degree must, of course, be a matter for general legislation and not part of a Bill like this.
On municipal trading, a subject which the noble Baroness also raised, the Bill does not contain any provision which would increase the opportunity for provisional trading. As there is no general power in local authority Acts to engage in municipal trading, it would not he appropriate in this Bill. There are a few isolated examples of municipal trading, such as the Birmingham Bank. and my noble friend Lord George-Brown gently tapped my shoulder and reminded me that the Tory areas of Bournemouth, Eastbourne, Scarborough and I think several other places, indulge in municipal trading. I think that this depends not only on the authority but on the trading and on the circumstances; but this Bill certainly is not opening any wide doors in that area.
I am grateful for the warm welcome given to the Bill by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I was quite aware of how pleased he must be to see this coming about at last, as he has had to carry so much responsibility for all the problems arising in the disputes over Private Bills. Taking up the points he raised on Clause 2 and Clause 27, the point on Clause 2 about the scaffolding is well precendented and it is not anything new. The clause has been put in to give the public protection against dangerous scaffolding, and the frontagers protection against proceedings, provided they have obtained a licence.
1071 But, if there is any particular point the noble Earl wants to raise on the clause, we can consider it in Committee. I also like the view taken of this clause by the noble Viscount, Lord Amory.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, also raised the question of trees, as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. I think that probably we have got that one right, because they both took entirely different views about it and we seem to be holding the middle ground. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, felt that this introduced a new law, and that the clause went much wider than he felt it should. But there are local Acts precedent, and we have been extremely careful to build in safeguards for the owners of dangerous trees; that is, they have a right of appeal. Further, we have not included the right of local authorities to enter land without a request from the owner occupier or some other person. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, on the other hand, would like to see the new law going rather wider. We deliberately took a restrictive view on the right of local authorities to enter private land to do this work, because, in the context of this type of legislation, we felt that it would be wrong to give other people who have no real connection —if you like a familial connection—with the property the right to start the operation of this clause. I appreciate his motivation over this, and particularly in the situation we have today with the danger of Dutch elm disease, but this is the reason. This again is something that can be discussed in Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, made an interesting suggestion about agreed Bills. It is an idea which I think should be given careful consideration. If the noble Lord will forgive me, I will not deal with the subject of sanitary appliances in betting shops, not because of female modesty but because I would rather consider the matter between now and Committee.
The noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, raised the question of the spare capacity of computers. The intention is not to undercut private concerns; and this again is a subject which we will consider in Committee because Lord Merrivale indicated his intention to raise it then. The argument for saving 1072 ratepayers' money by using the spare capacity of computers applies equally to printing equipment and certainly if one can save the ratepayers' money, then I should have thought that that would receive support on both sides of the House and certainly from noble Lords opposite in view of the criticism that they have expressed in our debates. The limiting words in the clause make it clear that the power extends only to equipment installed for their own needs; it will not allow them to get enormous amounts of equipment which go beyond their own needs but to run their equipment at full capacity. I should have thought that such an approach to productivity would have been very attractive to all noble Lords.
§ Lord MERRIVALE
My Lords, is this not in effect a new power, much wider than anything that has existed in the past? As I mentioned, one reason why the West Midlands County Council Bill was rejected was that in their Clause 6 they were seeking these powers. It is rather unfair competition on the printing industry because local authorities are not set up to act in competion with, for one, the printing industry.
§ Baroness BIRK
My Lords, there were a great many other points in the West Midlands County Council Bill which made it unacceptable. In any event, it was not drafted with exactly this wording. On the face of it, I think it would be difficult in principle to justify dealing differently with printing equipment than with computers. There would be great difficulty in distinguishing the boundary line between one category and the other, and although we shall be giving further consideration to the matter between now and Committee, the basis of the argument —that the local authority in this particular area should not be in competition with private enterprise, when, on the other hand, we are hearing that competition is being reduced in so many places and that this is taking the challenge and bite out of commercial life and the opportunity to give the best to the consumer—is perhaps that we should think in terms of the consumer as well. However, I have no doubt that we shall return to this subject in Committee.
§ Baroness BIRK
No, my Lords. As the noble Lord intends to raise it in Committee, I think we should leave it there for now. I was very grateful for the support of the noble Viscount, Lord Amory. If the noble Viscount supports so many of the things we do he will continue to be my favourite Tory so far as local government matters are concerned. As usual, he did so with great felicity and, as he pointed out, with great brevity. So far as I am concerned, he has a rain check, for which he asked, for future debates.
My noble friend Lord Leatherland raised a number of points and I think I have dealt with most of them. I should like to consider the one he raised about the riding school when we come to it. The fact that there is a certain amount of danger could apply to many other issues. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, raised the question of street trading. This matter is being considered by the Home Office, which is really the Department concerned, and it is one for general legislation rather than for a Bill of this type. In the way that the noble Baroness thought that taxes caused almost the greatest amount of argument in relation to Bills of this sort, I think that street trading would come equal to it or a close second. We have heard today the different views of noble Lords on this subject, but, as I say, it is not part of the Bill.
It is clear that many of the points that have been raised will come up in Committee. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Leatherland will allow me to answer his question about local authority funds in writing. I have the answer with me but it is a rather complicated matter. I would only say at this point that it does not restrict the powers of local authorities to set up funds; in fact, it widens them. Nor does it affect the investment of their superannuation funds. As I say, this is a complicated subject and I would rather write to him about it. My noble friend also raised the question of posters on 1074 trees. I am glad that he supports the enhancement of the environment which is contained in the clause concerned. On the whole, it seems that the Bill has been well received by the House. I hope that we are able to give it the speedy passage that it got in another place so that it may quickly reach the Statute Book, and then local authority private legislation will be able to be reduced; these provisions will be there to be enacted as soon as possible.
On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.