HOUSE OF COMMONS
Standing Committee C
LOCAL GOVERNMENT (OVERSEAS ASSISTANCE) BILL
Wednesday 27 January 1993
CLAUSE 1, as amended, agreed to.
CLAUSE 2, agreed to.
Bill, as amended, to be reported.
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[MR. MICHAEL J. MARTIN in the Chair]
Amendment proposed [20 January]: No. 1, in page 1, line 7, to leave out from the word 'engaged' to the end of line 8 and insert the words "outside the United Kingdom in the carrying on of any of the activities of local government. () In relation to any place outside the United Kingdom, activities shall be taken for the purposes of this Act to be activities of local government wherever they are the equivalent of, or are comparable to, any activities which in any part of Great Britain are carried on, by virtue of the functions vested in them, by local authorities.".—[Mr. Lester.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments:
No. 6, in page 1, line 7, after "government", insert "as to such other body as may be carrying out functions which are the equivalent of, or would be considered local government functions within the United Kingdom.".
No. 17, in page 1, line 8, at end insert "according to a register of such countries as shall be drawn up from time to time by the Secretary of State".
No. 25, in page 1, line 8, at end insert "(whether or not such advice and assistance is provided directly to the body concerned or to another person for the benefit of that body)".
No. 29, in page 1, line 8, at end insert "or engaged in the carrying on outside the United Kingdom of any of the activities of local government within the meaning set out in subsection (1A) below.".
No. 30, in page 1, line 8, at end insert "(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1) above, an activity shall be taken to be an activity carried on outside the United Kingdom of local government wherever it is the equivalent of, or comparable to, any activity which could be carried on, by virtue of the functions invested in it, by a local authority".
No. 2, in Title, line 3, leave out from "engaged" to end of line 4 and insert "outside the United Kingdom in the carrying on of any of the activities of local government.".
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire): At the end of last week's sitting, I had dealt with amendments Nos 1, 2, 6, 29, 30 and 17 and I had just begun to deal with amendment No. 25. 82 Amendment No. 25 seeks to ensure that local authorities will be able to provide advice and assistance to overseas bodies through the intermediary of consultants engaged by that body. I know that that is a concern of the local authority associations. It is also of concern to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in whose name the amendment stands. The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the situation in which a British local authority, which is not the prime contractor or helper of an overseas body, undertakes research or preparatory work for the main contractor—a consultancy—which is providing assistance to an overseas body within the terms of the Bill. He gave the example of Birmingham city council, which is engaged in joint project activities with the University of Birmingham's institute of local government studies, and Wigan metropolitan borough council's participation in consortium projects, operating under a company established in association with its local college. The hon. Gentleman asked for an assurance that such arrangements could continue when the Bill is enacted. Last week the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said that he had been able to consider a matter between sittings. Since last week, my officials have used the intervening period and have been in contact with officials at Birmingham city council and Wigan metropolitan borough council. Wigan has informed us that it has not directly bid or co-operated with a consultancy to provide advice and assistance to an overseas local authority because of doubts over the powers of United Kingdom authorities to do so. Birmingham city council's consultancy division has participated in a number of Overseas Development Administration financed projects with the university of Birmingham in Montserrat, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and with De Montfort university in know-how fund financed projects in Poland. All these projects were on local government matters or services which are local government responsibilities in the United Kingdom. They were areas in which Birmingham city council had skill and experience that it could bring to bear to help an overseas body. From the descriptions that we have been given, and which I have quoted, I expect Birmingham's activity to fall within the terms of the Bill. As I began to explain last week, there is no restriction on the persons in conjunction with whom an authority may provide advice and assistance to what I shall call "overseas bodies", and there will be many circumstances in which a local authority working with a consultant could be said to be providing advice and assistance to such bodies. It must, of course, be a matter of judgment in each case for the local authority involved to decide whether what it is intending to do can be described as providing an overseas body with advice and assistance. If it is clear that the advice and assistance is to be provided to someone other than such a body, the authority will have to look elsewhere for that 83 power, although I am not aware of any, because the Bill does not seek to cover such a case. The intention of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) is to give local authorities the power to give advice and assistance to overseas bodies, not to give them the power to advise and assist consultants per se. The amendment is unnecessary and the fears of local authority associations are unfounded. As I have explained, as the Bill stands, local authorities will already be able to provide assistance by working in conjunction with consultants engaged by an overseas body. I hope that the Opposition amendment will not be pressed.
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): In the circumstances, we will not press amendment No. 25.
Amendment agreed to.
The Chairman: We now come to amendment No. 28, with which I have grouped amendments Nos. 31 and 9.
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): On a point of order, Mr. Martin. I believe that you said earlier that we would have to move an amendment separate from the group that we considered previously. I do not want to miss the opportunity to move the amendment.
The Chairman: To which amendment does the hon. Gentleman refer?
Mr. Wells: Amendment No. 3.
The Chairman: Amendment No. 3 will be called later to be moved formally.
Mr. Wells: Now?
The Chairman: No, later.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 1, line 13, at end insert "subject to subsection (3A) below".
The Chairman: With this, we may take the following amendments:
No. 31, in page 1, line 13, at end insert— "(3A) The power exercised under subsection (1) above shall be exercisable in addition to any other statutory provision under which a local authority may provide information to and may undertake activities with local government and other bodies outside the United Kingdom.".
No. 9, in page 1, line 15, at end insert— "() These new powers shall not affect any existing power for local authorities to provide technical assistance to bodies outside the United Kingdom and subsection (2) above shall not apply to such powers as are already in existence.".84
Mr. Banks: I apologise for being late. We have already discussed the subjects that the amendments cover. The amendments would safeguard the powers of local authorities to engage in related international activities under existing statutory provision. We accept that discussions have taken place between local authority associations, the Department and the promoter of the Bill. No one wishes to prohibit or complicate existing practices that are covered by other legislation. However, some problems have arisen and I shall cover them briefly. I shall then withdraw the amendment, pending further discussions, and we can return to the matter on Report. Under existing legislation, local authorities provide information and advice to overseas authorities and other bodies, without need of the Secretary of State's consent. Local authorities offer training, work experience and placements for overseas personnel. They engage in professional exchanges, work on joint projects with local government partner organisations overseas, promote town twinning activities, friendship links and similar arangements and facilitate the efforts of local communities to offer help and assistance to communities overseas. I understand that the Government and the promoter of the Bill do not wish to affect those activities or to make them subject to the Secretary of State's consent. The amendment intended to ensure that those activities remained unaffected. We have made that point time and again. The Committee may have good intentions, but we must ensure that the Bill is not open to different interpretation later, when it is beyond our influence. That is why the local authority associations wished the amendments to be made. We have discussed the relevant existing powers, which include the promotion of economic development under section 33 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and several discretionary powers—for example, those of section 137, as amended, and section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972. Examples of practical help provided by United Kingdom local authorities in technical twinning, and other institutional or friendship links with overseas authorities, include the provision of computer training for Gweru in Zimbabwe by Basildon district council. I now know where the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) gets the inspiration for his questions. Other examples include: provision of information on local government budgeting for Gdynia in Poland by north Tyneside council; provision of information and advice on financial administration by Lambeth borough council—no, sorry—advice on financial administration and waste management for Blantyre in Malawi by east Staffordshire borough council. Clearly, it would be undesirable if existing powers and activities were to require the consent of the Secretary of State. I understand that the Government would not want that 85 and I look forward to the Minister making some helpful remarks.
Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel): I should like the hon. Gentleman to confirm that the interesting and useful list that he read out is not comprehensive. Arun district council, the local authority in my constituency, is providing Hungary with assistance on electoral practices and its work is mirrored by other authorities. Assisting with elections is especially relevant to the emerging democracies. I wanted to make sure that the hon. Gentleman was citing typical examples. I understand that activities such as the one that I have mentioned will continue without the Bill causing worry.
Mr. Tony Banks: The hon. Gentleman has given another excellent example of the practical and valuable assistance that local authorities can render to their overseas equivalents. I read out the list that had been kindly provided in my brief. Every member of the Committee will know of such examples, and no doubt Conservative hon. Members can feel a local press release coming on. The example given by the hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) is particularly valuable. Recently, I was in Lithuania because I was involved in studying its application to join the Council of Europe. The question of what assistance it could have in organising elections emerged. Clearly, local authorities, through returning officers, could provide valuable information. The Government and the Opposition want to encourage such things.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe): We want these worthwhile measures to go ahead without restriction, but there is a grey area about the totality of the legislation that covers local authorities. The Bill aims to clarify where the grey area is. We have dealt previously with the principal concern of the local authority associations, which is that these matters will come under the direction of the Secretary of State. The purpose of the genral authorisation and the wide remit within it is to ensure that these matters are covered by the new law and that there is no pressure from the Secretary of State which would interfere with the powers that are being exercised. I am happy further to discuss the question to deal with the associations' worries and to raise the subject again on Report, if my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) agrees.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I would welcome the opportunity of talking to the local authority associations and shall not press my amendment. I have risen to speak principally because, due to my cold and perhaps my accent, Hansard states that I referred to Ankara in the previous sitting. The Turkish Government must be wondering what on earth is going on. I referred to Accra.
Mr. Squire: I suspect that I shall be even briefer than my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, the Bill's promoter. 86 Every member of the Committee knows that, to date, the Government have not been convinced of the need for a without prejudice clause, but we are happy to review the case if the local authority associations give us further information. I endorse entirely the words of my hon. Friend. We shall review the matter seriously and in time for the Report stage. If the hon. Member for Newham, North-West remains unhappy, remedies are available to him.
Mr. Banks: That is an acceptable undertaking from the Government. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 3, in page 1, line 14, leave out from 'to' to end of line 15 and insert
"provide any financial assistance by—
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment made: No 2, in line 3, leave out from 'engaged' to end of line 4 and insert "outside the United Kingdom in the carrying on of any of the activities of local government.".—[Mr. Lester.]
Mr. Lester: On a point of order, Mr. Martin. It is only proper for me to thank you for chairing this knowledgeable and balanced Committee. We have had a genuine Committee stage of a private Member's Bill the aims of which we all endorse. We wanted only to make good and sound legislation. Speeches have been knowledgeable and supportive and have analysed the issues well. The way in which you have chaired our proceedings, Mr. Martin, has assisted us in achieving the purposes of the Bill in, as is evident day after day, these increasingly difficult times. All members of the Committee are grateful to you and to your officers, who have assisted us.
Mr. Squire: Further to that point of order, Mr. Martin. It may be irregular for a Minister to endorse what the promoter of a private Member's Bill has just said; none the less I do so. I extend those sentiments to include hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, whose presence and speeches have made the Bill a model of the way in which a small, but important, private Member's Bill can be handled and improved in Committee.
Mr. Tony Banks: Further to that point of order, Mr. Martin. I agree with what everyone has said this morning. Thank you, Mr. Martin, for chairing an excellent, cheerful, wondrous and united Committee. Let us now get back to a bit of aggravation on the floor of the House.87
The Chairman: Before we get back to that aggravation, let me say that I thoroughly enjoy chairing all Committees, but I particularly enjoyed this one. Like most members of the Committee, I served my apprenticeship in local government and I thoroughly enjoyed my years with Glasgow district council and, before that, the old Glasgow corporation. I recall that during building committee meetings, when the weather was warm and the City chambers got a wee bit too hot, some members thought that we should visit the site, which was only two or three miles away. Visiting the site takes on a new meaning under the Bill. 88 Hon. Members who have had experience of local government, as many members of the Committee have, know that that helps immensely in the House. Listening to hon. Members brought back many happy memories for me. I wish the hon. Member for Broxtowe every success with his Bill. I thank my Clerk, Hansard the civil servants and the doorkeepers for their excellent assistance on the Bill.
Bill, as amended, to be reported.
Committee rose at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock
THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:
Martin, Mr. Michael J. (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. David
Banks, Mr. Tony
Beresford, Sir Paul
Marshall, Sir Michael