Clause 54 - Unlawfully deposited waste etc

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:00 am ar 22 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath 10:00, 22 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 82, in

clause 54, page 39, leave out lines 30 to 33.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 83, in

clause 54, page 39, leave out lines 34 to 38.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

We wish to probe the Government on this clause. I was glad to see that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) has added her name to amendment No. 82. However, I was puzzled that the name of her colleague the hon. Member for Ludlow had not also been added: I did not know whether that was an accident or there had been a Liberal Democrat split.

We want to probe the Government because they are seeking to add to section 59 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which is a good piece of legislation that was introduced by the previous Conservative Government—as you, Mr. Cran, and Committee members know. The Government want to introduce more Henry VIII-type powers for the Secretary of State. I assume that, in this case, that would be the Secretary of State at what is now called DEFRA—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Minister is nodding. Most of the clauses in the Bill that contain Henry VIII-type powers give them to the Home Secretary: however, with regard to some areas, such as waste and litter, which we are currently addressing, they are given to the Secretary of State at DEFRA. If I may express a personal view, Mr. Cran, that is one of the most inelegant names that has ever been given to a Government Department, and it is an enormous shame that the important interests of agriculture are no longer recognised by the present Labour Government: that shows, once again, that they do not understand the countryside.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Yes, of course, but let us not have a debate about it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

As always, Mr. Cran, you keep me on the straight and narrow. I simply wanted to say that there are some big issues with regard to the waste and litter section—which we will come to soon.

I do not want to take up too much of the Committee's time on this issue because it is a small one. We are not convinced that even more order-making powers need to be given to a Secretary of State. Far too much of that is going on. I am sure that the Minister will say, with his usual air of sweet reasonableness, that there is nothing sinister here, that the Government have the best intentions, and that there will be guidance and all kinds of scrutiny, and so on.

However, there is one particularly significant point that makes my concerns about this greater than the normal Henry VIII concerns that my party colleagues and I always have. New section 59A(2) states:

''Each such authority must, by such time in each year as the Secretary of State may specify, provide him, in respect of such period as he may specify, with such information as he may specify in

relation to the categories and quantities of waste with respect to which it has exercised its powers under section 59 above.''

That has the potential to be an onerous burden on the waste regulation and collection authorities.

This is the biggest point with regard to our probing of this matter: I am frequently told by chief executives of authorities—in this case, it is usually my local authority—that they are constantly being given more duties by central Government without the funds to enable them to carry them out. That is a massive problem for small authorities.

Yesterday I received yet another letter from Surrey Heath borough council, which is constantly writing to me. I have previously mentioned that my constituency contains some of the territory of two borough councils, including the whole of Surrey Heath. Surrey Heath borough council said that the small increase of £49,000 in its funding from central Government this year is more than wiped out by the £54,000 cost of the extra national insurance contributions for staff imposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My small borough council has a net loss this year, and it is not alone. Many small authorities are in that position.

Almost every new Bill, especially on local government, imposes more duties on local authorities. I do not mean only Home Office Bills; I do not blame the Minister specifically. A group of bureaucrats sitting somewhere will ensure that those duties are onerous. The Minister may say that very small borough councils may not fall in the category of waste collection or waste regulation authorities. No doubt he has a massive brief that says which authorities are and which are not. Nevertheless, the same problems arise even for county councils, which are constantly being given more duties without the money to pay for them.

It is simply not good enough for the Labour Government to constantly load on extra duties. Even if they said that they were giving authorities the money, the real problem is increasingly that local authorities, schools and the NHS are finding that there is a culture in which piles of paper must be filled in and sent back to the centre. The overcentralisation of this Government drives me absolutely wild. I occasionally think, ''Is there a point to our being here in Parliament?'' Then I think that one of the main things about being on the Opposition Benches is to tell the Government, ''You simply must stop this.''

It is not relevant to the clause, but schools have shown me piles of paper yea high sent in a single term by the Department for Education and Skills to heads and governors to complete. The same thing would no doubt be true of waste collection authorities and waste regulation authorities, which could build a similar tower of paper. We simply must stop this.

I hope that with this small probing amendment I can get the following message across to the Minister: ''Don't do it. Stop doing it.'' He might perhaps take that back to his colleagues in other Departments. The way to run things properly in this country is not to impose ever greater burdens on authorities, saying:

''Each such authority must, by such time in each year as the Secretary of State may specify, provide him, in respect of such period as he may specify, with such information as he may specify''.

That means that the bureaucrats will specify—they will always over-specify. The real problem in this country is that the bureaucrats constantly say, ''It would be useful if we had this or that'', and further demands ensue. That is nonsense and our taxpayers' and council tax payers' money—yours, mine and that of every taxpayer in the country, Mr. Cran—is being wasted on all that paper. That is unnecessary, which is why I hope that the Minister will take what I have said back to his DEFRA colleagues and say, ''We do not really need this, do we? We might, in another place, take this out, mightn't we?'' There is no need for all the paper. It is no good giving the Secretary of State power to demand all this paper; in practice, that means the bureaucrats have power. That does not add to the quality of life in this country. Paper shuffling costs money; it is simply a job-creation scheme for bureaucrats and we should stop it.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that the Liberal Democrats support the amendment, although I am not sure why. The name of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole appears on the amendment and there are others on which the name of a Liberal Democrat is tagged on to the bottom. That may be due to how the amendments are printed in the amendment paper, rather than anything else.

I concur with many of the hon. Gentleman's sentiments. I am sure that the Minister will say, ''Of course, we don't really intend to use this power very much at all. In fact, it is only included in case some unforeseen circumstances crop up and it needed to be used.'' There have been times when the Government have made noises suggesting that they should be relaxing the burdens on local authorities, allowing them a little more freedom to make decisions for themselves and deciding local priorities. I have, while shadowing the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, heard exactly those sentiments expressed. However, the clause in effect gives a blanket right to the Secretary of State to dictate the priorities in a local area.

It could be a national priority. The problem could be the dumping of fridges. It is estimated that it costs £75 million to dispose of fridges, but the Government gave local authorities only £6 million to deal with the problem. The problem might be dumped cars, which might not be the priority in another area. It might be something completely different, such as abandoned tractors. I am being slightly tongue in cheek. Abandoning tractors would be rather stupid, as most farmers cannot afford to buy new ones.

In reality there are different priorities in different parts of the country. The clause will enable the Government to tell a local authority that they know best what its priorities should be when dealing with unlawfully deposited waste. That is entirely unnecessary. Few councils under whatever political control would not want to tackle the problem of unlawfully deposited waste.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling 10:15, 22 Mai 2003

Is not the hon. Gentleman's point covered by subsection (3), which states:

''Priorities set out in directions under subsection (1) above may be different for different authorities or areas''?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

Yes, in a sense it is, provided that the Government listen to the local authority when it tells them that its priorities are different. If they do not, they can impose a priority on the authority, so it still comes down from the top. The local authority does not have the freedom to decide. The hon. Gentleman may have a lot of confidence in current Ministers, but he cannot be certain that he will be as confident about every Minister who will occupy the post.

We have to look at the implications. The clause gives a blanket power to the Secretary of State to tell local authorities what its priorities are. That goes against much of the tone that comes from all three parties when discussing local government. Although our names have not been added to it, logically we support amendment No. 83. If amendment No. 82 were passed, the other subsection would be unnecessary. The idea that all sorts of facts and figures and information can be demanded and must be supplied by a certain date could be a burdensome duty on local authorities, particularly small ones.

A reason why council tax rises by more than inflation each year, and has done so under whichever Government, is that extra duties are being imposed on local government almost by accident. They slip through in Bills like this. That will continue to happen. Extra officers have to be taken on for the council to comply with those roles. I personally would get rid of council tax, but I know that you do not want me to go down that route, Mr. Cran. Given that it is not his Department, the Minister is probably not in a position to take just a small step in favour of trusting local authorities to take decisions for themselves, but I hope that he can go back to DEFRA or even consult the ODPM. I hope that this one tiny step can be taken to suggest that local authorities can be trusted to run their own affairs.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

You asked, Mr. Green, why your name did not appear on the amendment paper. It may be that only the first six names appear, so the names of those who signed at numbers seven, eight, nine or 10 are not shown. That does not mean to say that they do not support the amendment.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

The hon. Member for Ludlow raised one of the matters about which I was going to ask. Waste is a rather general term. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, it could mean abandoned vehicles or any of a huge raft of things. I support the amendment to remove the two subsections, mainly because it is not clear what they mean. I have sat on many Committees in my time and I often hear mentioned the term a Henry VIII clause. I think we should vary it. I am quite sympathetic to him, I do not know whether hon. Members opposite—

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. I have a feeling that we are wandering off the point. I do not want to have a

debate about Henry VIII clauses or how they might be renamed.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I accept that entirely. I would just suggest Ivan the Terrible or Basil the Bulgar-Slayer.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Opposition Whip (Commons)

I shall make a brief point, following from the theme of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. He has a relatively small district council in his area and I have a relatively small one in Rochford district council, which covers some two thirds of my constituency. I echo all of his comments. My chief executive constantly bemoans the raft of legislation that comes from this place. He leads a local authority with a relatively small number of staff and a relatively small number of senior officers, who have to deal with it. The more stuff that comes out of this place, the more pressure is placed upon them. As the hon. Member for Ludlow said, more staff have to be taken on in order to comply with the law that we legislators produce. It is a serious problem and I implore the Minister to think about it.

Allied to that is the open secret that it is increasingly difficult for any political party to persuade the right calibre of people to stand for local government. We all have difficulties in finding sufficient candidates. In May, the Conservatives managed to field a few more candidates than the other parties, but it is a problem for all—

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. That may be a problem—I have not the slightest idea—but I do not want to debate it. We must get back to the amendment.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Opposition Whip (Commons)

I accept your strictures, Mr. Cran. If we want to get people to stand, we must be able to persuade them that there is a point in being involved in local government and that it has decision-making power. The more that legislation of this type is created by Government, making people in local government administrators rather than decision makers, the more difficult it will be to persuade people to give up their spare time to participate. I believe that it is a growing problem and I implore the Minister to take that point on board.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

I wish to make a couple of brief remarks. I disagree with the Conservative Front Bench and oppose wholeheartedly the Conservative amendment. Last time I said something when the Whip was not here, it was reported.

It is important to recognise the seriousness of the clause. Large numbers of our constituents have demanded further action on fly tipping, as have local authorities, which do not have powers to deal with the problem on the scale to which it has increased. None of us likes Henry VIII clauses, but in many circumstances the Secretary of State needs to retain some discretion, for two reasons. First, there may be local authorities that simply do not use the powers that we want them to use. That is not true of most local authorities. Most use their powers wisely and properly, but that is not the case with some others. The Secretary of State needs to have a reserve power or other power so that he or she can say to a local

authority that clearly it is not acting in a certain way and can do something about it.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, if local authorities are given powers and discretion but fail to use them, the best judge of that is the local electorate, who can throw out the councillors who are not directing their officers to use the powers?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

That is true, but my constituents would not want to have to wait four years to make a judgment about how well or otherwise cars, carpets, rubble or whatever was being removed.

The second reason is flexibility. This is a general statement about Henry VIII clauses. One reason why there will increasingly be discretionary powers for the Secretary of State to act on legislation—this would happen whether there was a Conservative Government, a Liberal Democrat Government or a mixture—is that increasing numbers of people are telling us that the law is stupid and asking why the legislation cannot be changed or the regulations amended. That presents us with a challenge, because if we are not careful, there will not be proper scrutiny of changes to the law. However, there is a tension between proper scrutiny of legislation and allowing legislation to have the necessary flexibility, so that regulations can be amended without the full legislative process having to be gone through.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to resist the amendment. The clause extends the powers of local authorities, as they and, indeed, our constituents have been demanding. If the measure is enforced, it will help alleviate a growing problem in all areas.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for those wise and supportive words.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

Did my hon. Friend the Whip take note of that?

Mr. John Heppell (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury) indicated assent.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The illegal disposal of waste, or fly tipping, is a major blight on towns and cities. The Government are keen to ensure that fly-tipping levels are reduced. Currently, the question of who deals with fly tipping is governed by a voluntary agreement between the Environment Agency and the Local Government Association. Under that agreement, the agency is supposed to deal with the fly tipping of hazardous waste and serious environmental crime; local authorities are supposed to deal with incidents involving non-hazardous waste.

As I said, that agreement is voluntary and has been entered into freely by the LGA. However, not all authorities are following the protocol. That is leading to confusion about who is responsible for dealing with fly tipping, and creates an inconsistency between local authority areas, with some taking a stricter stance than others. In some cases, the fly tipping is transferred to areas where the local authority is less strict. That results in the Environment Agency being unable fully to focus its attention and resources where they can be most effective—on the serious end of the business.

The power for the Secretary of State to issue statutory directions, which the Conservative amendment would remove, aims to overcome those problems. The directions will be short. They will simply require all local authorities to take steps to deal with fly tipping of non-hazardous waste. Local authorities will retain the flexibility to decide exactly what those steps should be and how to deal with the problem in their area. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will consult on draft directions before they come into effect. It may also supplement the statutory directions in time with good practice guidance.

I take on board the question whether the wording of the clause is wider than intended or needed, and will ask my colleagues to think about it. I accept some of the points that hon. Gentlemen have made. It may be the intention to state clearly that a particular responsibility belongs to the Environment Agency and another to local authorities, but to leave them with the flexibility to set their own priorities. We should be prepared to examine the words to see whether we have made the clause too wide. I happily agree to consider that before Report.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:30, 22 Mai 2003

Will the Minister assure us that money will be allocated to local authorities when it is clear which extra duties they will be required to undertake? Many local authorities have targets on recycling, but only very few authorities have been fortunate enough to have won money in a competition. This is an important issue, and I want to be assured that adequate funds will be allocated.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Absolutely not. If the hon. Lady has been listening to what I have been saying, she will know that the responsibilities are already there. The division has been agreed between what waste the Environment Agency should accept responsibility for, and what waste and fly tipping local authorities will deal with. The problem is that some local authorities are carrying out their responsibilities diligently in line with the agreement that their association entered into, but other local authorities are not. We will need to ensure that the data requirement does not place an unnecessary burden on local authorities. However, we are not creating new responsibilities for local authorities; we are putting a voluntary arrangement for existing responsibilities into a statutory framework, which the Local Government Association wants us to do. What the hon. Lady is asking for is unjustified on this occasion.

Amendment No. 83 would remove the power for the Secretary of State to require annual data returns to be made by local authorities and the Environment Agency on the number and types of fly-tipping incidents with which they have to deal in any one year. At the moment, there is no national data on levels of fly tipping or on the types of waste that are being dumped and the types of land on which it is being dumped, nor do we have any way of monitoring the impact of particular policies implemented by central or local government.

We know that the agency and most local authorities collect data, but that they do not do so in a standardised way. Different classification systems are used and no one collates data centrally to form a national or regional picture. That is the case in other areas. I understand what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is saying, but he cannot have it both ways. All Members of Parliament seek relevant and appropriate answers from Ministers. Sometimes, the answer is, ''This is not collected centrally.'' It is a huge problem for the democratic process that we do not know what we should know. I accept that we should not expect to know about everything, but not knowing the picture is a problem when trying to plan how to deal with this very serious issue.

We do not know which policies the different authorities are pursuing because the data collection systems do not marry up. We, therefore, need to improve the database on fly tipping to help inform future policy development. We need an effective way of evaluating policies aimed either at reducing fly-tipping levels or at changing other aspects of waste management. We will ensure that the requirement is brought into effect in a way that is easy to follow, and that it will be low in cost for local authorities. The authorities will benefit from the measure, because they will be able to access reports from the database; and the Environment Agency will develop a website database for local authorities to enter information. We believe that that is the best way to standardise the collection of information, and people will have the benefit of being able to gain access to it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I am grateful to the Minister, not only for giving way but for the approach that he has taken. However, although I understand what he says about information being collected, I made a second point. If the Government have decided that they want the information, they should be responsible for providing a specific ring-fenced amount of money to every authority on which they are imposing the bureaucratic burden of collecting it. The Government, having made that decision, should clearly pay for it.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said, we will get the Environment Agency to develop a website database, so that local authorities can standardise along those lines.

I accept, as the hon. Gentleman says, that in some areas we do this where we should not. However, the measure meets a recommendation made by the National Audit Office in its report ''Protecting the public from waste'', which was published in December 2002. It said that a national system was needed to monitor fly tipping, which was both economic and reliable.

The Local Government Association and the Environment Agency strongly support the measures in the Bill. They believe that it will give local authorities a more strategic role in dealing with the increasing problem of fly tipping. With the assurance that I shall consider whether we might have drawn the provision too widely, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

Once again, the Minister has been most reasonable, although he did not deal with the point that I made in my intervention. However, he would be in terrible trouble if he started to make financial commitments; the Chancellor would come down on him like a ton of bricks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) shares my view, and the hon. Member for Ludlow clearly has some of the same concerns. Indeed, his contribution to the debate was extremely helpful, based as it was on his experience of shadowing other areas of Government policy. I found what he had to say interesting and helpful.

I said at the outset that these were probing amendments. I shall not pursue them, particularly in the light of the Minister's helpful explanation. Towards the end of his response, he strengthened his position by referring to the National Audit Office. However, for reasons that I shall return to in the next debate, he will not persuade me by praying in aid the Environment Agency. The agency's reputation in my constituency was never high, but is now at an all time low. I would be out of order if I were to anticipate the next debate, Mr. Cran, but I want to let the Minister know that he does not help his case by mentioning the Environment Agency.

I stress once again that if the Government are going to impose those new burdens on local authorities, whether or not they were recommended by the NAO, the Government will have to provide funding. That is what the hon. Member for Ludlow, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and I are particularly concerned about. I am sure that the Minister will take that point away with him. He helpfully said that he will review those matters with his ministerial colleagues between now and Report and the Bill's going to another place. I hope that he will decide that modifications could be made to the provision. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.