Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth debates involving the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 27th Mar 2023
Tue 17th Jan 2023
Mon 27th Jun 2022
Thu 4th Feb 2021
Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No. 2) Bill
Grand Committee

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
As this Bill has gone through Committee, we have come back time and time again to the question as to whether it is more than just a recitation of missions. We have had a debate about metrics, but I would argue that we are missing a third M, which is “mechanisms”: mechanisms by which things will actually improve in the real world. I suggest that, rather than regarding this group of amendments as exploratory or testing amendments, the Government might regard them as substantive propositions that, hopefully, the House will return to on Report, because they provide one such mechanism for bringing about real-world improvements in health and the congeniality of living across our country.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, but am also attracted to others in this group. I note what the noble Baroness said about the synergy of the amendments in this group, which relate to health, housing and energy efficiency, and I think that is quite true. I declare my interests as set out in the register and note that I am also a member of Peers for the Planet.

The amendment in my name and in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Foster of Bath and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is not overly prescriptive. It simply requires the Government to set out details of how buildings can be decarbonised and become more energy efficient. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has set out, this can be achieved in a variety of ways. It is for the Government to set out the precise trajectory, but it is important that that trajectory is set.

Your Lordships have debated similar amendments to other Bills, as the noble Baroness has said. There might be an element of Groundhog Day, certainly for the Minister; but I think there is an element of Groundhog Day for the rest of us as well, because it is normally met with the cry of either “It is already being done”—which I think is open to question—or “It does not need to be done”, which is certainly open to question. I hope, therefore, that we can, ahead of Report, agree some constructive moves on how we can improve some of the oldest housing stock in Europe; the need to update and enhance that housing stock is very clear.

The benefits of fixing the old and leaking properties are not limited to simply helping people with their bills, although it will of course do that. It is not simply a question of creating more jobs in the green economy, although it would do that too. It is also, in an increasingly unstable world, with geopolitical complexities that we see every day, important that we modify our buildings, that they become more energy efficient and that we are able to be more energy self-sufficient. Also, as has been noted by the noble Baroness, we are looking at this in terms of pressure on public resources. This will enable the Government and the country to spend less on subsidising people’s energy bills if those bills come down. So it is a win-win in just about every situation.

Homes with good insulation, a heat pump and solar panels will pay 60% of the average UK energy bill. That is a considerable achievement and something that we should be looking to do. We need progress in the area. The Government should demonstrate leadership in this area at a time when we have seen leadership fail elsewhere, notably in the United States when President Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate change agreement. That now has been rectified by the current President, but there is every need for action internationally on climate change. There is a pressing imperative for us to do more. So I hope the Government will accept this amendment—certainly the spirit of this amendment—and sit down and discuss how we can achieve things, not just on this amendment but on others in this group. I lend my support to the noble Baroness’s amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab)
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My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group. I particularly want to speak to Amendments 241 and 504GF, which essentially seek to embrace the planning system within wider health and well-being and health-inequality policies. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to be positive in his response.

I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, rather took me back when he mentioned Herbert Manzoni, who was city engineer in Birmingham from 1935 to 1963.When I became a councillor in Birmingham in 1980, I was reliably informed in the induction programme that the Manzoni plans were kept in the safe in the city engineer’s office, and that policy on roads in the city continued to be dictated not by the political control of the city council but by what Manzoni had drawn in his plans.

I have seen academic arguments that suggest that, by the late 1970s, the city had started to change; but I think it was actually in the 1990s when the proposals to bypass Kings Heath/Moseley with a huge dual carriageway, along the lines of the Aston Expressway, were defeated by a group of people, including my wife Selina Stewart, called Birmingham United Against the Motorway Plans. When the noble Lord described the kind of neighbourhood that he thought we would all want to live in, he was, of course, describing Kings Heath as is, as a result of that campaign. Later in the year, of course, we will see the reopening of Kings Heath railway station, which will be the pièce de resistance of the wonderful community that I live in, in the most beautiful city in this country.

I want to make three points just to echo what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said. We know that the scale of health inequalities in this country is frighteningly large. The work produced by Oxford University and the London School of Tropical Medicine last week showed that, in 1952, the UK had one of the best life-expectancy records of any country. We have now slipped down to the low 20s, and the widening gap between the poorest and the richest people is really quite frightening and extraordinary. In the context of a levelling-up Bill, surely we have to focus on it.

Secondly, we know that local authorities have long had a tradition of seeking to improve public health. Prior to 1974, they were the principal public health bodies; from 2012, they resumed that position. During Covid, the directors of public health in particular showed their mettle when they had to take some very tough decisions at the local level.

Various mechanisms enable local authorities to influence health: health and well-being boards and, under the new arrangements of the integrated care system, integrated care partnerships. Those are all designed to give local government more say in the direction of health and, by definition, in dealing with health inequalities. The issue is whether they have enough beef: do they have the levers to make their potential influence felt? We obviously know their role in planning, air quality, the environment, leisure and various other facets. We know that they can have a really important role for health, but so far that influence has been patchy. We are seeking here to put some levers in place to use the planning system to enhance the promotion of good public health and tackling health inequalities.

There will be discussions between now and Report because it is clear that warmer homes comes within that wider context. In the end, I hope the House can assert itself to ensure that, within the planning system and guidance, a reflection on the need for planning to contribute to overall health will be part of local authorities’ responsibilities in the future.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate, who has made some powerful points. Where to start? Well may one ask. There is certainly no shortage of challenges. The area is a real minefield. I suppose the right place to start is with the Bill, although it may not necessarily be the right place to finish.

I first thank my noble friend the Minister. Let us spare a thought for her; she has to grapple with a 400-page Bill, quite apart from all the additional documents and memoranda—and with Members of this House. She has set out the case very fairly and clearly and will approach the issues with characteristic hardworking determination.

The Bill is the right place to start and, as someone who believes very much in devolution, I think devolution is the right and wise approach. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate himself lives in, and is representative of, an area that now has devolution and which is all the better for that. People are better served by it, often with better solutions, arrived at nearer to people and often more effectively, be it Manchester, the West Midlands, Teesside, Tyneside or, indeed, West Yorkshire. It is the right process. I also very often support the combining of county authorities.

As I have said, the Bill is a starting place—this is a process—but clearly, it offers just a procedural framework. Given what we have seen during the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, the idea that we will solve some of these problems with a statue of JB Priestley and a sense of place is for the birds. We need a better-performing economy and better public services, and certainly, we need to concentrate on housing. I hope we will be able to approach the Bill in that spirit, in respect of both private and social housing. We need more of it, and urgently. That will happen only with those magic words: “a budget”.

This is not down to the Minister. The Minister will perform and do a good job on the Bill, but we need to look beyond the Bill to how we deliver our country out of the crises and challenges we face—housing, the economy, and the health service. This Bill is not an obvious candidate for addressing the health service but, when we talk about levelling up, people are looking to our health service, thinking about how it served us during the pandemic and wondering how we will get ourselves out of this god-awful mess. That has to be with a budget to enable the health service to face up to some of the challenges of the 21st century—treatments, vaccines and so on. Similarly, on skills, many of our youngsters are still grappling with problems from the pandemic; that area too needs resourcing.

I hope the Bill is able to do something about the challenge of climate change, as well as housing. It has always been a mystery to me—and not just me—why we do not do more on the insulation of old buildings. It would be a boost for a green economy, for energy security, for our housing stock and for jobs. In short, it would be popular with everyone. No wonder the Government do not want to touch it. It really is extraordinary, so I hope we will be able to do something about that too.

The Bill is welcome. The Minister is working hard and should be congratulated on her efforts, but it is about not just what happens here—although that it important—but what happens elsewhere. We have to keep that within our sights and make a real difference to the lives of people in our country today.

Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2022

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Monday 5th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Scott of Bybrook) (Con)
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My Lords, I will also speak to the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2022, and the draft Police and Crime Commissioner Elections and Welsh Forms (Amendment) Order 2022.

These instruments were laid before this House on 1 and 3 November 2022. If approved and made, they will amend existing secondary legislation to take account of a change made by the Elections Act 2022. That change was to bring in first past the post voting for the election of mayors and police and crime commissioners, replacing the supplementary vote system, which is currently used for those elections. The change in principle was expressly tested during the passage of the Elections Act by an amendment brought to a vote on Report, and this House determined that the change should remain part of the Act.

The statutory instruments before us today are an essential consequence of that change. Elections to the roles of combined authority mayor, local authority mayor, and police and crime commissioner all rely on similar provisions in legislation for their conduct, forms and ballot papers. For this reason, we are considering these three statutory instruments amending those provisions together today.

For elections to be conducted consistently and fairly, it is necessary for secondary legislation to prescribe their conduct and to provide templates for many of the key documents that will be used in those elections. These measures will provide support to council officers and act as an assurance to the voting public: everywhere these elections are held, they are undertaken using the same ballot papers, with no variation in the form of that ballot paper from one place to the next.

Under first past the post, mayoral and PCC elections will no longer require a second round of counting in the circumstances where no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. These statutory instruments will amend legislation to reflect the new, simpler count process. Ballot papers are changing too, showing one column of boxes against the listed candidates, with voters directed to put a cross in the box next to a single choice. Detailed instructions for the printing of ballot papers and forms, and instructions for postal voting, are also amended to reflect the change to first past the post.

Without these statutory instruments being approved and made, election officers will not be able to effectively deliver elections for these roles. The provision of the Elections Act 2022 making this change is now in force and the change will first apply to any mayoral or PCC elections or by-elections held on or after the ordinary election day in May 2023. That is 4 May 2023, being the first Thursday in May. An instrument subject to the negative resolution procedure, making similar changes for elections to the Mayor of London, was made on 26 October and laid before Parliament on 31 October. That instrument is now in force and will first apply to any by-election or elections held on or after 4 May 2023.

In drafting these instruments, my department and the Home Office have consulted the Electoral Commission on the text and we are grateful to it for its technical comments, which we have taken into account.

In conclusion, these instruments are essential to ensure that council officers can properly implement the move to first past the post voting for elected mayors and police and crime commissioners. That change, which Parliament has approved, will mean easier voting for these posts, with more straightforward counting of votes and with clearer, quicker results. I beg to move.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the instruments so clearly. She has already answered one of my questions.

I have always been in favour of combined authorities and the devo deals that we have been seeing. I realise that this is beyond the scope of these instruments, but it has brought new dimensions of government and administration to swathes of the countryside. I applaud that. This has been happening not only in urban areas but in rural areas too. Can the Minister indulge us by updating the Committee on where we are on devolution deals—on Cornwall and Yorkshire, for example? I simply do not know. I am happy for this to be done in writing, particularly as it is beyond the scope of these instruments, if she cannot do so now.

I will not delay the Committee long. I had one more substantial question related to today’s orders and regulations. I appreciate that they are largely about first past the post for combined authorities and local government, which is consistent with the referendum held on voting systems under the coalition Government. However, in the United Kingdom today, we have myriad different electoral arrangements, particularly in Wales, where we seemingly have some anomalies, such as the voting age for local elections now being 16 while for police and crime commissioners it is 18. Can my noble friend the Minister say something about the Government’s thinking across the board?

Westminster retains some important legislative and administrative rights in relation to electoral arrangements, which now seem to be a smorgasbord of different positions, particularly in Wales, where the Senedd elections are done by a form of proportional representation—the additional member system—while police and crime commissioner elections are first past the post. Local government is now partly first past the post, but local authorities can, if they want, go down a different route with the single transferrable vote. There are some inconsistencies. Can the Minister say something on that? I am most grateful.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, may I pursue a slightly different issue, in relation to the Gould principle? As the Minister identified, these instruments would first be implemented on 4 May next year. I raise this not solely because of these orders and regulations but in relation to the recent change that, in England, moved the requirement for signatures for nominations for local government elections from 10 to two. This change was actively supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, from the Labour Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We welcomed the change, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it cannot apply to by-elections before 4 May because the Gould principle has been applied.

For the benefit of my noble friend, I identify the Gould concerned as Ron Gould, rather than the other Goulds it might be. For the sake of brevity, this is a limited quote from the Gould report of 2007. It said, on the question of six months:

“If, as proposed, a Chief Returning Officer is appointed for Scotland”—

the Gould report related to Scottish elections—

“a clause might be added to the provision permitting the time period to be waived by the CRO following an assessment of the legislation’s operational impact.”

When the Secretary of State made a report to the Commons on the Gould report, he said:

“Provided suitable safeguards can be found, as Mr. Gould’s report encourages, I am prepared to accept that recommendation for elections to the Scottish Parliament.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/07; col. 166.]

That recommendation was that six months would apply but could be waived in certain circumstances.

I am concerned that we are seeing, in effect, a concreting and misinterpretation of that six-month rule, when it is not necessary on some occasions. It would be helpful to EROs and government in general to speed up that process. I am not asking the Minister to comment in detail at this stage on the Gould report and the principle, but I want to put on record my concern about what was originally intended to be a flexible principle and is now beginning to develop into an inflexible one.

Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL]

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Social housing is not, I recognise, the sector with the absolute worst energy efficiency, but it still has 1.4 million properties that fall below EPC band C and it has the highest proportion of tenants living in fuel poverty. Taking action in this sector will not only help those tenants but also help to scale up the market for a wider role for energy efficiency improvement and low-carbon heating; it will build up the skills base and provide employment and make a significant dent in the liability created by the energy price guarantee that we will be debating tomorrow. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, referred to the need for a holistic approach to energy efficiency; this amendment is our attempt to bring that holistic strategic approach in the context of social housing, and I hope that the Minister, even at this late stage, may feel able to accept it.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and in doing so declare my interest as on the register and that I am a member of Peers for the Planet. As the noble Baroness said, the amendment has also been signed by the noble Lords, Lord Foster of Bath and Lord Whitty, and I am sure that I send the best wishes of the whole House to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for a speedy recovery.

Let me say something first about energy efficiency before moving specifically to the amendment. In the area of energy efficiency, we are presented with a sweet spot where we can do a considerable amount for so many different areas of activity. First, on energy security, which is clearly a problem for many countries, including our own, we can ensure that we garner and use our supplies sensibly. Therefore, ensuring that energy is sensibly used seems to me to be of paramount importance.

In addition, particularly in this area of activity, by ensuring that energy is conserved we are helping those who are least able to pay for it. That has become more important since the action of the new Chancellor. I applaud the action he has taken in general, but of course it will present a potential headache in six months’ time for people who are unable to pay their energy bills. This is a way of helping in that regard.

In addition, by promoting energy efficiency we are providing jobs for people, which seems a sensible thing to do. Therefore I am unable to understand why the Government do not move to do something constructive in this area. It could be done with very little cost and would show a commitment to tackling climate change, which of course is the most important global area we are looking at.

The Government profess that they are supportive of action to combat climate change. Indeed, they are supportive of the Climate Change Committee and so on. But words are cheap. When it comes to action, we very often find the Government wanting and not providing leadership. I have the utmost respect for my noble friend the Minister. I know her well. I like her. I think she is a good Minister. But the Government are dragging their feet in this area and the lack of strategy is worrying. We have seen where a lack of strategy has led on the economy, and the same will happen in this area if we are not careful. Leadership has been left to Back-Benchers. There has been no leadership from the Government. They have not come up with their own proposals in relation to the amendment we are putting forward for a strategy. Have the Government proposed their own strategy? No. Are they against having a strategy in this area? It would seem so. I will happily give way to the Minister if she is able, at this stage, to say that she will bring forward a strategy at Third Reading —or later today, perhaps. But there is no strategy from the Government. There is a void here and that really is appalling.

We heard the Government say previously that there needed to be consultation, and this is one reason why noble Lords are being invited to vote against the amendment. The amendment provides for consultation. If the Government think it insufficient, let them say that the consultation should be carried out in a different way. But there is a practical, sensible provision for consultation here that I think has the support of the House. If it were not a whipped vote, it would probably go through nem con. I cannot understand why the Government are opposing this. It makes total sense. It is practical, pragmatic and sensible. If the Government do not like parts of the amendment, they should say what they are. As the noble Baroness said, this consultation has been on the stocks for five years. That is an awfully long time in terms of climate change. In another five years, we shall have lost Tuvalu to the world. If we sit back and do nothing, we are signing up to that.

So it is for the Government now to come forward with some leadership in this area. So far, there has been a void and it looks like that will continue. I strongly support this amendment. I invite the Government, even at this 11th hour, to say that they will support it, or come forward with an amendment of their own to ensure that we are able to do something constructive in this area. It is easy to say that you are signed up against climate change, but it is action that is needed, not just warm words.

Lord Bishop of Chelmsford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford
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My Lords, it is good to see this important Bill continuing its progression through this House. I begin by declaring my specific interests as the Church of England’s lead bishop for housing and as a beneficiary of the Church Commissioners.

I add my support to Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. As the energy crisis unfolds, it is surely wise to address the issue of energy efficiency in the social housing sector in a systematic way, by including it as a fundamental objective. Many who live in social homes are among those with the lowest incomes, so they are already struggling to meet their energy bills right now. In addition to immediate relief and support, we also need to address energy efficiency to ensure true affordability in the long term.

Amendment 2, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, would secure continued accountability on progress to remove dangerous cladding and the remediation of fire safety work—an important part of ensuring that a tragedy such as the Grenfell tower fire cannot happen again. As the Archbishops’ commission on housing, church and community rights states in its Coming Home report:

“The Grenfell victims and bereaved families deserve a profound change of culture in the housing sector to make the safety of residential housing stock an absolute priority.”

I also support Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. A government strategy setting out a plan of energy demand reduction for social housing will be a significant step towards reducing energy bill costs and meeting our net-zero targets. Our national commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will be achieved only if we are intentional about building to high thermal efficiency standards.

I very much look forward to the Government’s response on these important amendments, and to working with noble Lords across all Benches to address this nation’s housing crisis. Clearly, there is consensus across the House on the importance of addressing the major problems we now face in our social housing sector.

Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL]

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
2nd reading
Monday 27th June 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 View all Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in strong support of the Second Reading of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. I declare my interest as set out in the register. I, too, congratulate my noble friend on a maiden speech of great distinction. It was truly excellent.

It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate and to agree with much of what has been said. So far this has been a debate of almost universal consensus, but I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, with whom I am normally totally in agreement, and point out to her that many of these problems are of long standing and did not suddenly arise in 2010. Nevertheless, she made a great stump speech and I know the noble Baroness is very capable of that.

Any fair-minded person would say that it is high time that we responded to the Grenfell fire with this legislation. We do that here and I congratulate my noble friend on the legislation, which is totally appropriate. The proactive regulation regime being introduced and the refining of the regulatory position are desirable, as are the strengthening of enforcement powers and the toughening up of enforcement rules. That said, when my noble friend responds to the Second Reading, will he deal with some of the costs on the social housing regulator that may be increasing and seal off that issue? I am not sure whether the costs are considerable or not.

These regulations will govern 4 million households; that is significant. They will help give some closure to the people involved in the Grenfell fire. I was Minister in the department at the time and I remember the lasting horror of that as if it were yesterday—it has been quite a long while now. I think this will help give some sort of closure, as will decisions on prosecutions, although I recognise that this is well outside my noble friend’s control as a Minister. Not all government Ministers recognise that there is a division of powers but I know my noble friend does. I am conscious that, while no doubt progress is being made, it is somewhat slow.

I am very pleased that there is something specific on electrical safety checks in the legislation that we will be considering. Members will recall that, although the cladding obviously made a massive contribution to the spread of the fire, in legal terms it was caused by an electrical fault. I pay tribute here to the work of Electrical Safety First, an excellent organisation led by Lesley Rudd, Ron Bailey and others, which does first-class work in this area and has been focusing attention on the need to extend electrical safety checks from the private sector to include the social sector. The Bill will do just that. I hope that the consultation going on in parallel with this will be comprehensive and will look at all checks of installations of appliances so that we can deal with an all too common cause of housing fires in our country. Again, that will be a welcome development if, again, somewhat late.

I join my noble friend Lord Young in asking about the relationship between the housing ombudsman and the regulator; I am not clear in my own mind how that would work and would be grateful for any clarity. I also join him as another spear carrier behind the chariot of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as it proceeds in the fight on climate change and related issues, in this case particularly including energy efficiency. We will be looking at that keenly as the legislation progresses. Nevertheless, we should all give a warm welcome to this legislation; no doubt we will seek to improve it as it goes through Committee and Report.

Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Bill

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, who certainly made some very telling points. I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out the purport of the legislation, which is clearly important. It is legislation that I broadly support. It clearly comes in two parts, “Rating” and “Directors Disqualification”.

On the “Rating” part, it is worth making the point that the Government have given some £280 billion of support to business since the start of the pandemic and that, during 2020-21, more than half of business rate payers have paid nothing. That support continues, and quite right too. The material change of circumstances would be a blunt instrument in the present situation and I can certainly see the point, on financial rectitude and common sense, of proceeding to the basis of valuation in 2023 on an unchanged basis. In the other place, the Public Accounts Committee has approved of that approach.

I have a similar question to the noble Baroness about the £1.5 billion of support. The noble Lord quite rightly referred to the importance of certainty for business, but there is uncertainty as to how this particular fund is going to be disbursed and which businesses will benefit from it. It would be good to hear when there will be clarity on that because, to reiterate the point, certainty is vital for business—as it is for us all in our everyday lives.

There is then the question of whether it will be enough and what will happen if it is not. The case has been well made in relation to, for example, airports. I know that might not be a fashionable point as we approach COP 26, which I strongly support, but we are all heavily dependent on airports in our everyday lives, as we have clearly seen, so it would be good to have some reassurance for that section of the community.

In passing—I appreciate that it is probably beyond the pay grade of both Ministers—I look forward to the Budget next week and perhaps some indication of some tax changes so that digital businesses and the Netflixes of this world, which clearly have not been paying enough tax on a fair basis, are perhaps brought into a position where they pay a fairer tax. I hope that we will get some indication of when that is going to happen.

I move to the second part of the legislation, which relates to “Directors Disqualification”. As the Minister rightly said, this disqualification change predates the Covid pandemic. In a sense, it has nothing to do with Covid; it is something important that needs to be done quite independently of Covid. I appreciate that we all have a great interest—quite apart from tackling the fraud—in ensuring that the bounce-back loans are properly dealt with, but it would be good to hear that this is not the sum total of what is intended here.

It has been a serious issue over a period of time that directors have used the ability to dissolve their company to dodge the impact of insolvency legislation. I hope this is not going to be limited to the bounce-back provision, and I hope the Government are minded to use the Insolvency Service more widely to tackle other frauds. Many creditors of companies are in a very parlous position because of this considerable loophole, which has been abused over a period of time.

I certainly welcome the partial closing of the loophole, but it would be good to hear that the Government intend to move further than that. It has been suggested by the Insolvency Service that more than 5,000 dissolutions of companies a year have sidestepped the insolvency protections of the Insolvency Act 1986 and the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. This particular legislation deals only with the protection offered by the Company Directors Disqualification Act. It does not seem to do anything about the Insolvency Act protections, because we do not know that the company is necessarily going to be brought within the purport of the insolvency legislation. There are considerable protections in that 1986 Act that will not govern these companies, notwithstanding the provisions in this legislation.

As I say, this legislation is worth one or two cheers but not three because, as far as I can see, it does not go far enough. It would be good to hear that the Government recognise that and intend to take it further to protect other creditors and to tighten it regarding those who abuse the provisions of the Companies Act—the ability to operate through a company and the separate personality provisions entailed in that. I look forward to hearing more on that point.

I also want to raise the point about reimbursement. This deals with the disqualification of directors and tightens that particular screw for directors using dissolution inappropriately, but as far as I can see it does not do anything directly in relation to them disgorging the profits that they have made fraudulently. It is important that that should happen. The Minister referred to this in a rather vague, amorphous way, but it would be good to hear specifically what it means. Is this going to be by virtue of a compensation order? How is it going to be done?

Further to that point, given what I have said about the number of companies that come within this particular provision—up to 5,000 a year, on a calculation made by the Government themselves—what are we doing about the resources for the Insolvency Service? It is stretched already and, if it is expected to take on this extra work, it will need extra resource if, as we all hope, it is to do the job appropriately.

I support the legislation, but we should not run away with the idea that it solves all the problems in this area. It does not, and we will need more action.

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Lord Greenhalgh Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to close what has been an engaging and informed debate. I thank noble Lords for their contributions both in the Room and in discussions outside—although I have to say that 10 officials were present for a drop-in session and no one turned up. I am very happy to have engagement on this, but it has sometimes been difficult. This is a short Bill, but the measures contained in it are important issues of public policy and I am grateful for all perspectives.

It is hugely important that the integrity and clarity of the valuation system that underpins business rates are maintained. That is why we are taking forward this important measure to clarify that coronavirus and its impacts should not be considered grounds for a material change of circumstance appeal. The alternative would be to allow the pandemic to have a hugely distorting effect on the rating system, casting local government financial planning into jeopardy. I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that these would have been considerable sums. Places such as Westminster obviously have a huge business rate base that is then allocated more widely. Clogging up the appeals courts for years to come is not the way forward and would have set a dangerous precedent for the future.

I am grateful for noble Lords’ support for the director disqualification measure in the Bill, which brings the conduct of former directors of dissolved companies into scope for investigation and potential disqualification proceedings. The United Kingdom has a world-class insolvency regime, and a strong enforcement framework is vital to that. Additionally, this measure will be an important tool for helping to combat bounce-back loan fraud and for deterring others from acting in breach of their duties as company directors.

Before I address the many points in this debate, which forms the largest part of my speech, I put on record that I have commercial property interests and am a company director—I should have raised that right at the start of my speech. Like the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, I did not claim from any of the schemes that we have been discussing today to mitigate against the payment of business rates.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I have to say that the purpose of the Bill is to restore the law to its intended practice and so no ratepayer will face seeing their bill increase as a result of the Bill. There will therefore be no material impact on the ratepayer.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, is a master of understanding procedure in the House, but I have been assured that this debate taking place in Grand Committee before Second Reading was agreed between the usual channels to prevent a very late sitting on Monday 18 October. In response to my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, the Second Reading will take place tomorrow but without further formal debate.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Blake of Leeds and Lady Blower, raised the issue of how the £1.5 billion would be split and the approach to that. It will be allocated to local authorities based on the stock of properties in the area whose sectors have been affected by Covid-19 and which have not been eligible for existing support linked to business rates. Local authorities will then use their knowledge of local businesses and the local economy to make awards. The noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Pinnock, raised the issue of the additional administrative burdens. This will of course fall within the new burdens doctrine so that any administrative costs to local government will be covered.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Blake and Lady Pinnock, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friends Lord Bourne and Lord Cormack, asked whether £1.5 billion is enough. This new £1.5 billion relief comes on top of an unprecedented £16 billion of relief over two years provided by the Government for the ratepayers most affected by the pandemic. This new scheme will be targeted at sectors that have been affected by Covid-19 but are not eligible for support linked to business rates. The new £1.5 billion of relief will enable local authorities to provide a meaningful level of support to those who have not been eligible for support linked to business rates.

My noble friend Lord Cormack and others raised the issue of the legislation’s retrospection. The Government are intervening because we want to ensure that the law regarding valuation operates correctly while providing significant relief to ensure that support is provided to businesses most in need. Allowing rateable values to fall for market and economy-wide matters such as the Covid-19 measures would be out of line with the principles of rating, where such matters are reflected at general revaluations. It is right that we ensure that the law continues to follow these principles.

My noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Blake, all wanted to know when the guidance for local authorities on the operation of the relief scheme will be published. I recognise that it is important because it will help local authorities make decisions over the design of the relief scheme. We will publish the final local authority guidance as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. I want to let Members know that we are engaging very closely with the Local Government Association, the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation and, obviously, CIPFA, in ensuring that we get this right.

My noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, all raised the issue of airports. It is a core principle of the business rates system that market-wide economic changes affecting property values, such as the pandemic, can and should only be considered at revaluation. The drop in demand for airports in light of the pandemic is therefore exactly the sort of economic change which should not be reflected between revaluations. The next revaluation in 2023 will be based on the market on 1 April 2021 and therefore will better reflect the impact of the pandemic.

My noble friend Lord Bourne noted that the measure is itself not enough for bounce-back loan recovery. The Government have been clear that bounce-back loan facilities are loans and not grants and have worked closely with lenders to develop industry-wide principles for the collection and recovery of bounce-back loans. This includes the recovery approach that lenders should take in the event that a borrower defaults and there is a claim on the guarantee with net proceeds being returned to Her Majesty’s Government.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con)
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That is not the specific point I was concerned about. With respect to the Minister, I quite appreciate that it is right to go after the bounce-back loans. My concern was that it did not extend to other creditors who are owed money and that there is a focus just on the bounce-back loans, whereas there is obviously a large field of creditors who have no redress if that is the only concern that the Government have.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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Beyond bounce-back loans, the Government are working closely with lenders to develop industry-wide principles so that we can learn from this and apply those in areas beyond bounce-back loans. However, I will write to my noble friend on that specific point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, and my noble friend Lord Bourne asked about the funding for the Insolvency Service. The Insolvency Service’s resources are not limitless. However, all cases are carefully reviewed and assessed to determine the degree of harm caused to the public and to business, with the most serious cases prioritised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned compensation orders and my noble friend Lord Bourne asked about the steps to get directors to reimburse. I want to clarify that compensation orders may be sought for a creditor or creditors, a class of creditors, or as a general contribution to the assets of the company. These are the rules for insolvent company director cases now and we are seeking to extend the same rules to dissolved company directors. The amount and to whom the compensation is to be paid is specified in the order or undertaking. The provision in the Bill extends this to former directors of dissolved companies, although it is unlikely that the court would order a contribution to the assets of the company in such cases.

I will not have to write to my noble friend Lord Bourne, because I have found the relevant note—I hope that noble Lords appreciate that this is not my ministerial area and I am having to pick this up as I go along. My noble friend asked whether the new measure would deal with all fraud and not just the bounce-back loans, and it will. It will, for example, deter directors from the practise of phoenixing, where the debts of one company are dumped using dissolution and a new company starts up doing the same thing. It sets that precedent to deal with the specific example of phoenixing.

In response to my noble friend Lord Holmes on the wider reform of insolvency, the Government recognise the important work that insolvency practitioners do and are currently reviewing the regulatory framework that governs them to ensure that the best possible outcomes are achieved for creditors. As part of this, the Government issued a call for evidence in 2019 to seek the views of stakeholders on the impact of the regulatory objectives introduced for the insolvency profession in 2015. The Government will respond in due course.

There was a tremendous speech from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, from which I learned an awful lot. He raised issues related to company and insolvency law. Obviously, a number of them go beyond the scope of this four-clause Bill, but we keep the wider company and insolvency law frameworks under constant review and will bring forward amendments to the House as and when needed. However, the noble Lord will know that the Government are considering wider reforms to the register of companies, and that work is ongoing. Unfortunately, it is above my pay grade to be able to approve an independent inquiry such as he called for, but I am sure he can engage with colleagues at BEIS and take forward some of those points, and I know that the team here is very aware of his concerns.

Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [HL]

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Monday 24th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and I agree with many of the points she made, not least on the antiquated, archaic references to “peppercorn rents”. The Minister referenced how it was not expected that anybody would enforce the provision for payment of a peppercorn. Let us hope not, because if they did, the only people who would benefit would be the sellers of peppercorns, and goodness knows what shortage may be occasioned by everybody claiming and enforcing that provision. It is archaic and has no part in legislation in the 21st century.

I thank my noble friend for setting out the proposed legislation as clearly as he did; it was most helpful. Its purpose, in a nutshell, is clearly to abolish ground rents on long leases in future. I strongly welcome that and this legislation, although I think it could go further, as other noble Lords have indicated. I hope it ends the iniquitous practice, particularly of late, of claiming indefensible ground rents on property that is freehold in all but name and, in recent years, increasing—sometimes doubling—these charges from year to year. That is clearly indefensible. As referenced early on by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, Liam Spender, in a valuable article on the subject, said that leaseholders are too often treated as “cash cows” by some disreputable freeholders. That practice must surely end.

I understand why the legislation is not retrospective on rights that are vested long ago. I clearly see dimensions related to the European Convention on Human Rights and so on. That is reasonable. However, I want to probe with my noble friend why the disreputable practice of late of imposing unjustified ground rents is to continue. Since the Government’s declared intention is to render it illegal, why should there be an indulgence, possibly for a further two years, towards those who are putting this in contracts now? I cannot see why that needs to be the case or that the human rights argument applies in relation to it.

Further to that, I have read that it is suggested that the provisions will not be brought into force until 2023, in about two years from now. Can my noble friend indicate why that is the case, if it is? In short, when do the Government intend the Secretary of State to bring the provisions into force, under Clause 25 of the Bill—assuming that it passes according to the programme set out by the Government?

The Bill is relatively short and straightforward, but I would like to tackle some other points with my noble friend and seek his views on the Government’s intention. First, he referred to rent not being defined, because it may lead to exploitation and loopholes being sought. I do not follow that argument; I cannot see why a definition would do that. There are definitions of rent under other provisions and no cross-reference to them in this legislation. I do not think there is a definition of rent or ground rent, except in the most general terms, in this legislation. I cannot see how that is helpful. It is not, for example, clear whether a freeholder making a provision to fix buildings insurance for the leaseholder is within the definition of rent. If it is not, it presents a loophole. As I say, this is not at all clear and I wonder whether my noble friend could provide more information about the thought given to that and the possible loopholes that may arise from there not being a definition, which I can clearly see may be the case. I hope that, on reflection, the Government bring forward an amendment to add a definition of rent to the legislation, because there are clearly practices that could be exploited by a disreputable freeholder, in much the same way as we had action on tenant fees legislation to list procedures that could be permitted. I ask the Government to give some more thought to that.

A second and related area is the permission fees sometimes imposed in such agreements—for example, for keeping a pet—when drawing up the relatively straightforward paperwork that may be needed when permission is needed under the agreement. Again, has any thought been given to restricting the exploitation of such a provision, in the same way as for the provisions that I have just mentioned? These necessary considerations could improve this legislation.

Lastly, I reference an overriding point that has been mentioned by others, including my noble friend in his introduction, on the enfranchisement of existing long leases. Clearly, if that legislation is long in coming, there is the possibility of a two-tier market in leaseholds, which—

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Garden of Frognal) (LD)
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We appear to have lost the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. I think he was coming to an end anyway, so we will go to the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted.

Gypsies, Travellers and Roma: Racism and Discrimination

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Thursday 25th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I join the noble Lord in condemning those actions. I am very glad that his name was not caught up in that ridiculous policy. It is important that a full review of hate crime is carried out. The Law Commission started it last year and will be reporting to Ministers shortly on whether we need to build on the approach taken by the current hate crime action plan.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con) [V]
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My Lords, following my noble friend’s comments regarding the Law Commission report on hate crime, and the consideration of proposals for reform, which the Government will be bringing forward this year, can he offer assurance that there will be thoroughgoing support and protection for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, which—[Inaudible]—as demonstrated by the race disparity audit that we set up?

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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My Lords, I am happy to give that assurance to my noble friend.

Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No. 2) Bill

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 4th February 2021

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) Act 2021 View all Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) Act 2021 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 146-I Marshalled list for Grand Committee - (1 Feb 2021)
Baroness Thornhill Portrait Baroness Thornhill (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I, too, am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I wish to speak in favour of Amendment 6, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Pinnock, and to support Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark.

I am very aware that this is a narrowly focused Bill and that it has had broad support and been welcomed. However, it is significant that, despite that, several Members of your Lordships’ House have taken the opportunity to table amendments. I believe that that shows the depth of concern around the whole issue of business rates. The amount of interest shown in both this tightly drawn Bill and the Government’s consultation for their ongoing business rates review shows how important it is for the review to be both bold and radical.

It is also significant that all the amendments seek to hold the Government’s feet to the fire with regard to the various ongoing impacts of the Bill, be they on sports clubs, the high street or local government finance—hence, Amendment 6 stipulates a timeframe of six months. This is due to the fact that the instability and uncertainty provoked by the impact of Covid-19 are exacerbating issues that were already of significant concern—and we are not out of the woods yet.

Indeed, the amendment seeks to continue to draw your Lordships’ attention to the challenging situation regarding local council finances. The latest figures from the Local Government Association show that the financial impact of Covid-19 on local authorities is an estimated £9.7 billion for 2020-21, with a further £2.8 billion of lost income from council tax and business rates. However, it must be noted that these figures were reported before the lockdown and the spread of the new strain was known. This is a significantly different set of circumstances from when the 2020-21 funding package was last evaluated, and is part of the reason for continuing concern around council finances. I am sure it is appreciated by all noble Lords just how important business rates are to the individual finances of a local authority.

One reason for the amendment is to highlight the volatility of the tax base, which is so unpredictable at present. For example, the loss of office space to residential—a topic much discussed with the Minister in this House—is a trend that is likely to continue with inevitable loss of revenue. The Valuation Office Agency is currently negotiating appeals and challenges for offices, airports and factories under a material change of circumstances appeal, due to Covid-19. A rebate of up to 25% was mooted. The reduction in income could be substantial. If a rebate were forthcoming, would subsequent losses be repaid to local government in line with the recently announced tax income guarantee? Some 75% of losses will be guaranteed for 2020-21, but nothing has been said yet about 2021-22. Of course, local government must make up the other 25%.

The amount of money that councils have had to put aside for appeals is also significant, hence local government concerns around cutting down the window of time to appeal and getting the number of appeals reduced. The more certainty that we can add to the processes the better. To date, councils have had to divert £3 billion from services to appeals. A significant amount of money is also tied up in irrecoverable losses for both business rates and council tax. With debt recovery and enforcement activities understandably limited due to the pandemic, and with limits on activities and pressures on court time, councils’ ability to recover debts and secure income as they usually would, will be restricted. These are not usual times, and more businesses are likely to fail.

I use these points to illustrate one purpose of the amendment and the volatility of this important tax base. There is much instability in the system at present, which is being masked by the current, much-needed and much-valued reliefs offered to businesses from the Government. This could change significantly when the reliefs end; it could impact on local authority incomes, but we do not know when this will be. If the amendment is not accepted, could the Government at least agree to look closely at the impact once all reliefs have been suspended? This could provide vital evidence on which sectors are most impacted as well as on local councils’ finances.

Regarding Amendment 1, it was noted by several noble Lords at Second Reading that the VOA has been formally criticised as being cumbersome and difficult to deal with, and its valuations opaque and inconsistent. This is why I endorse what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and support his amendment and additional amendments tabled by my noble friends. In short, the amendment asks the Government how the pandemic that happening now will affect the revaluation in 2023, based on values at April 2021, which will not be looked at again until 2028.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, who certainly speaks with authority in this area, not least from her time as Mayor of Watford. I speak to the first group of amendments and, as I indicated at Second Reading, I strongly support this Bill. It is welcome, it is needed, it is positive, and I hope that it passes unadorned. I thank the Association of Convenience Stores for its briefing on this subject. It too strongly welcomes this legislation.

The effect of moving the business rate revaluation to 1 April 2023 will mean, as has been noted, that valuations will be fixed as at 1 April 2021. This will prevent the base being on a very high value, or on a relatively high value, as at 2019. This Bill will, in short, ensure that the base that is used reflects the impact of the pandemic. That is welcome. It will also provide certainty to non-domestic rate payers. This is very welcome to a hard-pressed sector. However, I have some questions for my noble friend the Minister. While I am very much in favour of passing this Bill, I would welcome some further reassurance from my noble friend regarding what discussions there have been with the Valuation Office Agency and local authorities about timescales and resources.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority (Election of Mayor and Functions) Order 2021

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Excerpts
Tuesday 26th January 2021

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Portrait Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con) [V]
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, who obviously has a great personal interest in this draft order given her strong role in Kirklees.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out the terms of the order. I certainly welcome it. Until now, West Yorkshire has been the most obvious omission from the pattern of combined authorities and metro mayors in England. The Conservative manifesto committed the Government to a successful devolution of powers to city region mayors and to a White Paper on devolution in 2020. I understand the reasons for the delay but the Government confirmed last week that the English devolution and local recovery White Paper would be published “in due course”—three words with which we are all familiar and which have been used by successive Governments. Can I press my noble friend to indicate with perhaps more clarity the precise timetable of that happening?

The draft order, based on the devolution deal, has been agreed by the councils of the area and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, and a public consultation has been carried out, as detailed in the Explanatory Memorandum. Although all consultations for combined authorities have not had a flood of responses, this one has had the largest, as noted by the leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake. Like the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I very much congratulate her on the announcement of her Peerage, and I look forward to her presence and contributions in your Lordships’ House. The consultation demonstrates considerable support for the content of the order, from 59% on finance to 75% on transport. I am pleased to see that it very much involved the universities of the area.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I note that planning and strategic infrastructure have not been conferred and that the Government are committed to conferring planning, at least in future. Could my noble friend outline the timeframe for that to happen and perhaps also explain why infrastructure has not been included?

Finally, I ask my noble friend about the elections that we all hope and expect to take place in May, as he mentioned—not just in West Yorkshire, of course. When will the guidelines be issued for the conduct of those elections? What discussions have there been with the devolved Administrations, particularly Wales, where there will be some elections on that day governed by the National Assembly for Wales—namely, the Senedd elections—and some by Westminster: namely, the police and crime commissioner elections? Clearly, those guidelines need to be dovetailed so that they say the same things. I look forward to my noble friend’s response.