Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman is now putting to me a rather different point. He talked about our abolishing local education authorities, and I am happy to reiterate that we have no intention of doing so. However, we intend to redefine their role. I do not think that any LEA should feel secure in having any future under the Government's plans once they are unveiled.
I will not be inviting my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Third Reading. As I have made clear, there are some sensible provisions in the Bill which we would not like to see lost. The Bill still needs amending in some significant ways, and I shall return to that. To use the words of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), who spoke yesterday, this is a centralising Government when it comes to local government. To use also the words of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), the Government have a contempt for local government.
To return to the meeting of the Local Government Association in Bournemouth last week, we had the non-appearance of the Deputy Prime Minister, although I understand that he found time to go to the British soaps awards. We had a panel discussion involving the hon. Member for Torbay. [Interruption.] The Minister for Local Government and the Regions asks from a sedentary position about the whereabouts of my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). The answer is that he was at Bournemouth. The right hon. Lady probably did not notice because she was being slow hand-clapped by the audience.
As I have said, we had a panel discussion, at which I was present on behalf of my party, as the hon. Member for Torbay was for his. No Minister of senior or junior rank was produced by the Government. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions may be short of funds from the Treasury, but it is not short of Ministers. I do not want to embarrass the Minister too much because she experienced the slow hand-clapping of the audience.
The fact is that the Government have wholly lost the plot on local government matters. They are obsessed with their notions, which have less and less to do with the real world and more and more to do with the liberal elite of which we spoke earlier.
The Bill will go to the House of Lords. I hope and expect that their Lordships will stand firm on the two crucial issues of section 28 and the so-called fourth option. That is a real option and choice for local government. We can only guess what will happen first. Will there be two substantial U-turns by the Government on the Bill--or the loss of the Bill--or will there be an invitation to London's Mayor to rejoin the Labour party?
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I shall be as quick as possible because I am aware that time is running out. I reiterate that the reforms set out in the Bill are not new ideas. They originated in 1991 in the consultation paper on the internal management of local authorities. However,
Early experiments have not been a great success. There have been examples of decisions being taken in secret and of small cabals taking decisions. Some local newspapers have been up in arms because they have not been able to get information. We took the Minister's assurance in Committee that that was because the Bill was, obviously, not on the statute book. Those things should not occur when, as is to be hoped, the Bill takes its place on the statute book. Time will tell.
There has been welcome movement by the Government during the Bill's passage. There has been a relaxation of the narrow, prescribed structures that were set out originally. There has been an important concession on freedom of information. There has been clarification on pensions. There has been protection for councillors serving on outside bodies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I were pleased to serve in Committee and to have contributed constructively, I believe, to the Bill's passage. It is not the Bill that we would have drafted in the first place. The freedoms that local councils need are not necessarily in the Bill, although there is some movement towards that. However, we are pleased about the power of competence in terms of economic, environmental and social well-being. In a sense, we are probably closer to the sort of local government that we would want to see, even if there is not the absolute power of competence and financial freedom that we would wish the Bill to have.
We await the Government's intentions on finance as well as the comprehensive spending review. Some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) were correct. Many new duties have gone to local government, but whether these moves will be a success will depend on whether local government has the necessary funds. It does not necessarily have the necessary fund-raising powers to make things happen. In conclusion, we will not impede the Bill's progress at this stage.
Mr. Patrick Hall: I am pleased to make a short contribution to the debate, both as a Member who considered the Bill in Committee and as a former councillor on Bedfordshire county council. I found the experience of both informative and generally enjoyable. One position lasted eight years and the other 40 hours, as has been mentioned several times. Having gone through all that, I remain a strong supporter of local government. I hold it in high esteem because I believe it to be an essential part of a civilised society and a healthy democracy. That is where I come from with regard to the Bill and the reform of local government.
Local councils have served the country well for about 120 years. They have changed many times during that period. My approach to the Bill and to local government reform is that we should add to and improve what we already have. I am convinced, having been involved in the passage of the Bill, that we will reform local government in a progressive direction.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) referred more than once in Committee and on the Floor of the House to arrangements on Bedfordshire country council. Perhaps he did so because he knows that Bedfordshire is a very good place and that I represent part of it. Also, he knows that the council is controlled by the Conservatives with a majority of one. However, it has an all-party executive and a scrutiny committee. That committee is chaired by a senior Labour councillor, and the system seems to work. I understand on good authority that some Conservative back-bench councillors are becoming annoyed about the prominence that the Labour councillor who chairs the scrutiny committee enjoys on the full council. That might be a sign that scrutiny can work. I do not see it as a second-class function to be conducted by second-class councillors. It is an integral part of the process.
The movement that the Government have made on the openness of meetings and access to information is genuine and welcome. It was rather churlish of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, today and yesterday, to criticise the Government for listening to Members. He spent a good deal of time introducing amendments, and when improvements are accepted, he seems to think them not good enough.
The changes that have been put together and presented by the Government prove not only that hon. Members have been doing their job on the Bill, but that the Government are doing their job. I have no doubt that we are creating the means for local councils to do their job in all the years ahead.
That is important. My constituents do not mind so much where the decision is made, but they want to see open discussion of the closure of an old people's homes, the new level of rents, or the opening hours of a public library--important things that touch their lives. The Minister has clarified that; it is very welcome and I am grateful.
I am grateful for and welcome the Minister's remarks on Third Reading, which I took as positive remarks, about local government and local authorities. In my experience, local authorities have not felt over the past 20 years that central Government really believed in them, or were on their side. That has been as true since the last election as it was before it. However, with those remarks by the Minister, let us hope that the Bill is the start of a new relationship between central Government and local authorities--a new, much more positive relationship. I fear, however, that the Government will need to look again at the speed at which they are moving on local government in relation to housing and education. Until those things are clarified, local authorities will not feel that the Government believe that they can deliver and do a good job within the new structure that they are forming by means of the Bill.
Local authorities are, of course, variable, as are local councillors. Many are far from perfect, but local democracy is essential for the government of this country. People want to know whom they are electing and who is making decisions, and they want those people to be accountable to them. However good services are through agencies, that is not the same as having locally elected people making decisions at a local level. With that underpinning the new Bill, and the Minister's positive remarks about the future of local government, many of us will be happy to see how the Bill works, particularly if it will be the start of a new and more positive relationship between central and local government.