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Ms Armstrong: I can confirm that the Bill repeals section 28. That is no longer part of Britain's legislative framework. In that sense, the Bill is compatible with legislation passed in Scotland. The Bill requires further confirmation in the Lords, but I am determined that we will see a dynamic, democratic, fair and inclusive society, with local government at its heart. That is vital to securing the quality of life that people deserve and have a right to expect. The Bill, as amended, will put local government back at the heart of local communities, giving to local authorities and the local people whom they serve the rights and responsibilities that fit this age, this century.
As I have said, linking all those features gives local government a strength to which, in some areas, it has not yet woken up. The power to respond to the economic, environmental and social needs of a local authority's area, linked to the duty to prepare community plans, will radically change the way in which local government works, and ensure that local people feel that local government is working with them on their behalf in a way that has not been possible in recent years.
Mr. Waterson: I was about to say that this is the last time that we shall debate the Bill in this House, but on reflection, I would not bank on it. I echo the Minister in expressing my gratitude to all members of the Committee, who approached the matter constructively and worked hard, even if, in the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), it was a paltry 40 hours of our lives. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), who worked hard with me and my incredibly heavyweight Back Benchers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), both of whom brought enormous experience to the Committee's deliberations.
I recognise all our old friends in the Minister's speech. With the exception of holistic, they were all there--modernisation, partnership, accountability, inclusive, dynamic. That is the new Labour-speak which we have all learned to get used to in Committee.
The Minister talked about lively debate, but I suspect that that was unconscious humour. No matter how lively the debate was in Committee, it was as nothing compared with the lively debate on the Government Back Benches and in Labour local government.
The Minister said that the Government had listened. Let us be charitable and assume that she has indeed listened to all representations, not just those from the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats--on a good day--the Labour campaign for open local government, and so on. She may well have listened, but she has hardly taken a blind bit of notice of anything that any of us have said to her. There have been a few minor concessions, for which we are duly grateful, but nothing of any great substance, at least in this House.
When the Minister talked about a strong, robust and rigorous Bill, I assumed that she was talking about some other Bill. I am almost embarrassed at the Heath Robinson nature of the Bill that we are sending to their Lordships. I hope that they can make some sense of it.
I thought that the Minister was being slightly optimistic, although I know that it is in her nature, when she talked about confirmation by their Lordships. That may be pitching it a bit high, but I shall return to that.
I should have thought that some Labour Members might be a little disturbed by the Minister's suggestion that the Bill puts local government back at the heart of local communities. Any number of Labour Members have served on their local councils with distinction, some, with distinction or otherwise, as leaders of their local councils, all of whom would probably resent the characterisation that, up until now, when this brilliant modernisation agenda burst upon an unsuspecting world, they were not at the heart of their local community. That is a gross calumny on local councillors throughout Britain, of all political parties and of none, who have for many years worked for their local communities, often with minimal reward--certainly not reward of the dimensions of that accorded to some Labour leaders around the country under the modernisation agenda.
Even if the Minister is not listening to me, I have genuine sympathy with her. This has been a difficult few weeks for the Government, not least for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The so-called modernisation policy is coming apart in the Minister's hands. Labour Back Benchers are queueing up to rubbish the Bill, and it has fewer and fewer supporters in local government.
The Government have had a bad few weeks. The only ray of sunshine is provided by the fact that Ken Follett, unlike Bernie Ecclestone, is not asking for his money back--as far as I know. Labour Back Benchers have attacked the Government; for example, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) spoke of self-inflicted wounds and uncertainty and confusion about section 28. His lack of faith in the Government's direction is surprising, because I understand that he has been appointed to Labour's parliamentary campaign team. He obviously brings to his new role a healthy scepticism about the entire project. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) likened the Government to a mediaeval monarchy. A range of luvvies, Government supporters and millionaires are queueing up to complain about the course of events.
Mr. Waterson: Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is important to note that when issues arising from the Bill were discussed last week in Bournemouth at the Local Government Association conference, my right hon. Friend
The Bill remains an embarrassing shambles. The Minister referred to the wonderful new power that local authorities are to receive. We broadly welcome that, and our approach to it in Committee was constructive, as I am sure that the Minister will concede. However, the fundamental problem remains: there is no cash to go with it. The Government, who have already cut funding for many councils, are providing no extra money.
Ms Armstrong: I do not want to interrupt, but the hon. Gentleman should not mislead the House. Does he accept that the previous Government cut local government funding in real terms by 4.3 per cent. in the three years before the general election, whereas in the three years after that election we increased local government funding in real terms by 6.8 per cent.? I should not like the hon. Gentleman to mislead the House.
Mr. Waterson: No, I would not wish to do that. However, perhaps the Minister will explain why my constituents are paying 8 per cent. more council tax this year than last year. We can all bandy figures about, but people, especially in rural areas and shire counties, are feeling the pinch under the Government.
I allowed the Minister to intervene because I believed that she would deal with my point about the new power. Despite her protestations in Committee, there is no new money to back it up. Not only will the Government refuse to grant more money to accompany the power, but they have made it crystal clear in the House of Commons and the House of Lords that councils that try to raise extra cash to support the new power will fall foul of the capping regime. We still have such a regime.
We broadly welcome changes to the system of standards and conduct. The Committee, to a man and woman, welcomed the abolition of surcharging, which everyone in local government views as a blunt instrument. Although we made detailed points about the actual provisions, we welcome the changes that the Bill outlines.
Let us consider the provisions that apply to elections. The Government have a bizarre notion that the solution to historically declining turnouts in local elections is to make people vote more often--that an annual opportunity to vote for every council will somehow make electors more enthusiastic about voting. At the same time, the Government are tinkering again with the voting system for directly elected mayors and proposing the same system as was used in the London mayoral elections. Despite the bally-hoo, the turnout for that election was only 33 per cent.--compared to an average 30 per cent. in local government elections--and there was a greater proportion of spoilt ballot papers than usual.
The Minister did not mention her so-called fourth option. That is just as well. I believe that the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)--it may have been someone else--dubbed it "option 3A". That is probably overstating the case. The so-called fourth option that the Government have devised is nothing of the sort. It simply requires councils to make proposals for an executive; the Secretary of State will decide whether they can proceed. The option will apply to a group of councils, not individual councills. Surely Ministers realise that there is no great enthusiasm in local government for the structures that the Government want to impose, but enormous support for the current committee system or some variation on, or updated version of, it. I do not understand why Ministers are burying their heads in the sand.
We had a good, substantial debate about secrecy yesterday. I simply reiterate our position, which has never changed from start to finish of our proceedings. Under successive Conservative Governments, beginning with a private Member's Bill introduced by Margaret Thatcher, we established a code that ensured the rights of the public and the media to attend and get details of council and committee meetings. It would be simple for the Government to say that those rules should apply to local government cabinet meetings. Yet pushed this way and that by the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats, newspaper editors, the media generally and their rebellious Back Benchers, Ministers have evolved a complex, bureaucratic system for dealing with cabinet meetings. It is unnecessary and confusing, and it will probably be difficult to police. The system is not even complete. Only last Monday, the Government sent out draft regulations for consultation in a panic because of the pressure that was being brought to bear on them.
We have evidence of the success of the Government's policy on directly elected mayors. It has been a great success in London. The Government ended up with the wrong candidate, and the wrong candidate won the election. Any rational Government would have piloted the idea somewhere, but this Government chose London for the pilot scheme. I do not need to rub in the extent of the failure of that experiment.
There is a bigger debate still about the future of local government, which is beyond the ambit of the Bill but is still relevant. That is the question of "Front Line First"--how local government is to be funded and whether the Government intend to try to avoid using local government structures wherever possible.