HL Deb 07 December 1993 vol 550 cc931-3

10.32 p.m.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I can be brief because this is a repeat performance of what I said on 26th May this year (at cols. 254–56 of Hansard). The noble Lord, Lord Graham, gave me unqualified support on that occasion and he has told me that I may still count on that support. I am grateful to him for that.

Briefly, almost alone of the public authorities, the Commission for New Towns, of which I am deputy chairman, does not possess delegation powers. That was brought to our notice and discussions followed with the Minister after legal advice had been obtained.

When the Housing and Urban Development Bill was going through this House, we attempted to include a clause which would cover this point, but the Long Title prevented that. My Bill, which had your Lordships' support, reached the other place too late for action—hence my efforts today. I hope that I shall not be like the late Dame Nellie Melba, having more than one repeat performance.

The commission deals with numerous transactions which now require ratification each time by the full board. For example, today when we had a board meeting 50 cases could and should have been delegated in a proper fashion—the undertaking I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, on the last occasion—to the property committee or to a senior official. With the property market looking up the need will grow.

Only this month the Department of the Environment issued a publication, Responsibilities of Board Members of Non-departmental Public Bodies. It is dated December 1993 and states: Board members serve part-time and, to the extent that the NDPB's founding legislation provides the necessary powers"— ours does not— must in practice delegate to officers authority for most decisions for the day to day operation of the NDPB. In some cases authority may also be delegated to individual Board members, committees or sub-committees … Any delegation of authority must therefore be properly documented and approved by the Board". That is the intention of our board.

The Bill is identical to my last effort, although I suppose I should be accurate and say that I have incorporated some major changes required by the parliamentary draftsman. In the Bill I presented in May of this year one of the clauses was headed "Power of delegation". That has now been altered to "Delegation of powers".

The other very important amendment required by parliamentary counsel is to paragraph 8(a) which used the words "either generally or specifically". That now reads "whether generally or specially". Those are earth-shattering alterations, and those of us who have been Ministers know that we are all too often at the mercy of the parliamentary draftsman and parliamentary counsel, who do their best to make our Bills totally incomprehensible to the ordinary man in the street. But one has to comply from time to time. I have had to do that.

I stress that the Bill is wholly non-political and wholly non-controversial. I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Finsberg.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, on this matter I speak personally and not on behalf of the Labour Party. We have indeed passed this way before—last May—as the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, says, and your Lordships—such of you as remain—may allow yourselves the modest luxury of a sense of déjà vu. Indeed, were it not for the fact that what may well be described as a little local difficulty in another place halted proceedings, we may very well have passed this Bill some time ago, which would have given the Commission for the New Towns a happy issue out of all its afflictions.

The New Towns Act of 1981 obviously does need amendment since, for reasons which are now lost in the dark backward abyss of time, incomplete provision seems to have been provided in it for the normal processes of delegation which one would now expect. The amount of work which the commission has been required to do has also increased to an extent which would have been unforeseeable in 1981 and it is therefore undesirable and unnecessary to require the whole commission to deliberate upon every question that comes before it. If the commission is to complete its work by the wind up date of 31st March 1998, it will need surely to parcel out its activities, and this seems to be all that this modest Bill seeks to achieve. It will, if your Lordships agree to its Second Reading, increase the efficiency of the commission without in any way, so far as I can see, endangering the proper exercise of its powers.

We on these Benches are well content to support the Bill and I hope that your Lordships will permit it to proceed to its Committee stage, which I trust will not be long delayed and will not, so far as we are concerned, be long protracted.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, it may be helpful if at this point I give the Government's view on the Bill. The Government support the Bill, which gives the Commission for the New Towns specific powers to delegate its responsibilities. This will increase its efficiency, thus helping to achieve the wind-up deadline of 31st March 1998 set by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, while also reducing running costs by facilitating the more effective use of its paid officials.

My noble friend has introduced the Bill because, as the New Towns Act is silent on the matter, the board feels constrained to deal personally with every minor issue relating to the disposal of the commission's assets. This is clearly not an effective use of board members' time and prevents them from deploying staff in the most efficient way. It is making it difficult to conclude sales of property and potentially impeding the rate at which the commission can dispose of its assets. Thus, as the sale of the commission's assets provides a valuable return to the Exchequer, your Lordships will appreciate that the Government are anxious to ensure that such an obstacle is removed.

I hope that the House will therefore give the Bill a Second Reading so that it can proceed in the usual way for more detailed consideration in Committee.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I am most grateful for what has been said. Perhaps I may make one thing clear. The board took the decision to ask for legislation on grounds of legal advice. We were not prepared to run the risk of being taken to court for exceeding our powers. I ought perhaps to confess that, although I cannot remember the date, it may well be that I was the Minister in charge of new towns when the 1981 Act went through. If so, I apologise for the gap that now appears.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.