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19 Nov 2002 : Column 521—continued

Regions, Transport and DEFRA

Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.30 pm

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:

Before I start on the substantive business, I am sure that the firefighters' dispute may come up in the debate. I will not deal with it in any great detail today because of the pressure on time, but the Deputy Prime Minister may wish to. We will have an opportunity to challenge his handling of the matter another day. I hope, however, that the whole House is with me when I wish him the best of fortune in trying to prevent the strike on Friday, as lives are at stake.

Back in 1999, when the Deputy Prime Minister was last in charge of this area of policy, a Labour-dominated Select Committee condemned his Department's achievements as

With at least four of his Department's Bills included in this Queen's Speech, he is planning to do something, but unfortunately it is the wrong thing. Most of those Bills share a single theme: Orwellian doublespeak, in which

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the Government talk of devolution of power but do the opposite. They are not devolving power down; they are grabbing it back up.

Before I deal with those Bills I must refer to the one glaring omission from the Queen's Speech—a Bill firmly promised, but not delivered. We urgently need a civil service Bill, to establish a clear boundary between the civil service and party politics. That is not only the view of the official Opposition. A senior member of the Labour party has said:

The senior parliamentarian who made that point is the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who speaks for many hon. Members on both sides of the House in saying that.

According to one senior figure, such a Bill is needed to enhance parliamentary scrutiny and to clarify the boundaries between civil servants and special advisers. That senior figure is Sir Richard Wilson, the former head of the civil service. When he said that, he was speaking with the Prime Minister's authority. There is now general agreement both in the House and outside it that legislation is required to mark the boundaries between party and government. It is a mark of the way in which this Government operate that such a Bill should be necessary now, after so many years without one. None the less, necessary it is.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Would such legislation encompass bodies such as the BBC? When its former director general, Mr. John Birt, published his autobiography a couple of weeks ago he admitted to being part of a political campaign involving the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) to stop the BBC introducing a Scottish news at 6 o'clock. The current director-general says that he was shocked by that revelation. Would such a Bill encompass the BBC, to secure its historic impartiality, which has been compromised by this Government?

David Davis: No, it would not. I suspect that that would have to be achieved through an amendment to a communications Bill. The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his characteristically cogent manner, however.

The Deputy Prime Minister and I have something in common as we both famously hate spin doctors. So we should agree on this matter, and I urge the Government, on behalf of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, not merely on the Conservative side, to introduce a civil service Bill as soon as possible. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman responds to the debate, he will tell us when the Prime Minister's intention of introducing such a Bill will be honoured.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Will the right hon. Gentleman be going on to talk about what is in the Queen's Speech, or will he take up all his time by talking about what was not in the speech?

David Davis: Sometimes the Opposition have to highlight what the Government do not do, and on this

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occasion there is an extremely important omission—as the hon. Gentleman ought to know, given his other position in the House.

The Government are introducing three Bills and one piece of draft legislation, the draft housing standards Bill, which is generally welcome in its intention, although I want to sound a note of caution. History shows us that when Governments try to get too involved in the regulation of rents and housing, it can lead to disastrous consequences.

Although we realise that houses in multiple occupancy play an important part in providing low-cost housing for rent, and we support greater protection for tenants in such houses that do not meet acceptable health and safety standards, it is vital that regulation should not be excessively burdensome for responsible landlords. If it is, it could actually reduce the availability of affordable rented accommodation and increase the cost of housing for those on low and intermediate incomes.

It is not as if the Government have a good story to tell on housing. Since 1997 the number of homeless people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has trebled to more than 12,000. During the past couple of months, the Deputy Prime Minister tried to blame the right-to-buy policy for the spiralling number of homeless people under the Government, but since they came to office the building of social housing has plunged from more than 30,000 units a year to just over 20,000 last year. Even if the Government had only maintained the level that they inherited, about 35,000 extra social houses would currently be available. That would be enough to house almost three times the number of families currently living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation under the Labour government.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): The right hon. Gentleman sounds concerned about social housing, so why does he propose selling it off?

David Davis: With such remarkable ignorance, we get the most predictable questions. Even Shelter, which is against the right-to-buy policy, admits that it costs at most 1,500 houses a year, against the 35,000 that were lost as a result of the Government's dilatory approach to housing policy. When the draft housing standards Bill is introduced we shall consider it carefully but, while doing so, we shall remember the Government's poor record on housing.

There will be three substantive Bills and I shall deal first with the planning Bill. Last December, the Government presented four Green Papers, which outlined their proposals for planning reform. If anything, those proposals, some of which have been dropped, were more complex than what they were intended to replace. There was a mixed story as regards consultation. The good news is that there were 15,500 responses to the Green Papers. The bad news is that most of them said that the proposals were rubbish.

Let me make it clear that we support changes that will cut through red tape, speed up the system, give greater certainty to residents and businesses and restore power

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to local people. That was also the aspiration of the former Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which was, of course, dominated by Labour Members. In its report on the draft local government Bill, the Committee stated:

Since the last war, Governments of all persuasions, including my own, have exercised too much centralised power over local government, but the Labour Government trust local government so little that they intend to abolish county structure plans. They trust local government so little that they intend to set up what they call Xregional spatial strategies"—in other words, a new raft of red tape. They trust local government so little that they plan to set up what they call a Xlocal planning advisory service": in other words, a new central Government quango to meddle with the decisions of local planning authorities.

The Government trust local government so little that unelected officials will decide no less than 90 per cent. of planning decisions. Their instinct was to trust local government so little that under the original proposals, major planning decisions would have been pushed through parliamentary Committees with little more than an hour's debate—decisions on pylons, incinerators, railways, housing estates and other large infrastructure projects. That led one environmental coalition to publish an advert that summed up the reduced influence of local people with a picture and a slogan, XYour new power station goes here. What colour would you like the gates?" I am glad to say that the Deputy Prime Minister appears to have pulled back from the brink on that heavy-handed, unworkable proposal. Unfortunately, he replaced it with something almost as bad.

The Deputy Prime Minister now has the power to appoint inspectors, conciliators and advisers, and to set the timetable and the evidence taken for any large-scale planning application—and all as the result of one statutory instrument, on which there was 90 minutes' debate. That is control-freakery on the highest scale.

The Government's instinctive lack of trust in local government is bad for the environment, bad for business and bad for democracy. It is bad for the environment because their proposals will impose incinerators, pylons, railways, housing on green fields regardless of local opinion. It is bad for business because the Government will introduce more red tape than they remove. After all,

Those are not my words, but those of the CBI. After strong opposition from Opposition Members, the Deputy Prime Minister at least dropped the absurd tariff proposals, which would have constituted a stealth tax on development.

The Government's instinctive lack of trust in local government is bad for democracy because planning decisions will be snatched away from local people and granted to remote regions and a distant Whitehall. That is the purpose of the planning Bill. By itself, it will not create a single new house or bring back into use a single new patch of brownfield land. It will not devolve power, but grab it back. The same is true of the local government Bill.

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We in the House forget too easily how much progress in this country was achieved by local government. Its institutions brought water supplies, sewers, street lighting, public baths and health services to Britain's cities after the industrial revolution. Local not central government delivered the reduction in infant mortality from 160 deaths per 1,000 births in 1850 to 20 in 1950. All that was done without best value initiatives, central targets, performance indicators and the like.

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