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19 Nov 2002 : Column 538—continued

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I am pleased that the 50 per cent. discount will be abolished, or at least that councils will be given the right not to discount the council tax by that much, but why not get rid of it entirely? The notes with the press release talk about an incentive being given to the owners of second homes to come clean. Surely that is not necessary. None of the rest of us has an incentive to comply with the law. Just get rid of it all together.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Well, I think that the judgment has been made. The way to establish a register

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and to identify such homes is to require at least a 10 per cent. payment; otherwise, we would have to go searching for all those houses. A legal requirement to pay 10 per cent. is a practical measure that enables the keeping of a register, so that local authorities can get their resources.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): In looking at this issue, it is important to recognise that we are talking about a discretion on the part of councils. As my right hon. Friend will recognise, many people in towns such as Burnley cannot sell their homes, and the introduction of 100 per cent. council tax on those homes would constitute a tremendous burden.

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend gives a good reason why we leave the matter to the discretion of councils. However, to judge by what I have seen of his constituency—in certain cases, there are terrible circumstances—it would be nice to know who does own their own home. That is one of the problems that the pathfinder scheme that we have implemented in his and other areas seeks to address.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: New business improvement districts will generate a real partnership between business and local authorities, to improve local areas for everyone.

In all these ways, we are continuing to strengthen communities, and to give them a greater say in the decisions that affect them most. That principle is at the centre of the programme of legislation before this House. All of us will need to work together, and to think differently, if we are to make a step change towards building sustainable communities.

We have stability in our economy. We have a generous financial settlement from the Chancellor for regional development agencies, local authorities, housing, planning and regeneration. We have the legislation in the Queen's Speech, and the forthcoming communities plan. With all these measures in place, we have put in hand what is necessary to secure the step change in policy that is required to build successful, thriving and sustainable communities. I ask the House to reject the Opposition's amendment in the Lobby this evening.

5.26 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The Deputy Prime Minister has stood accused of many things in this House, but one thing that he cannot be accused of is legislative inactivity, whether in the past or the present. In previous roles, he has helped to produce many hefty Green Papers and White Papers, followed by a number of hefty Acts of Parliament. Since he became Deputy Prime Minister in 1997, at least 11 major Bills that he proposed have become Acts. In particular, I remember his legislative tour de force: the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which, I am reliably informed, emerged into the daylight as the longest Act of Parliament since the India Act 1784.

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I doubt whether he now considers that creation his finest, given the debacle over Ken Livingstone and the sad, ongoing saga of public-private partnership for the tube.

To me, that flawed legislation should be in the minds of the Deputy Prime Minister and his Ministers as they approach the Bills promised in this Queen's Speech. The GLA Bill, like those on regional assemblies and local government reform, promised devolution. Its rhetoric was very much like today's rhetoric on regions and councils. London was going to get its own government; it would regain its freedoms and pride. Yet what did we end up with after three months of trench warfare in Committee? A toothless, hybrid monster, whose parents effectively disowned it almost from birth. The problem then—as now, with the Bills on regional and local government—was that its parents did not want an independent, free-thinking child. They dreaded creating an offspring that might rebel, talk back, and challenge their parental authority. So the Government produced a weakened, malformed creature, with few powers to act and few incentives to grow up.

The 1999 Act not only gave few powers away; it contained almost as many references to the Secretary of State as to the Mayor of London. The lack of trust that produced such weak devolution has resulted in weak government in London. I am afraid that the London experience may well be repeated in the Deputy Prime Minister's programme in this Queen's Speech. Indeed, that is exactly what will happen if the Government continue with their limited vision for regional and local government across Britain.

On regional government, the Government seem not just timid but almost cowardly—or perhaps it is just that the Cabinet cannot agree. There is more than a suspicion that the Deputy Prime Minister is fighting a reluctant Downing street. As for local government, the Government's proposals show a total lack of trust. How can they talk so warmly about partnership with councils, when so many of their actions show their disdain for them? Neither of the main Bills for the regions and local government begins to match the rhetoric that has accompanied them.

Before I discuss the Deputy Prime Minister's proposed legislation in more detail, I should like to comment on his update on, and his work on, the fire strikes. We hope that the employers and the Fire Brigades Union will talk, and that they will avoid the threatened eight-day strike. I wish all those involved in trying to prevent that strike the very best. In many ways the fire strike negotiations could have potential legislative implications. I was surprised that the Gracious Speech did not mention some legislation on fire safety.

The basic proposition on the fire strike proposed by the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister is not disputed in many parts of the House. The proposition as I see it is that any pay deal must be accompanied by comprehensive reform of the fire service. There have been many questions and much argy-bargy about the handling of the dispute, but on the central issue of the link between pay and reform there is some agreement. It is more important that we focus on the reform agenda and modernisation because there has been far too much talk about particular pay figures when we still have not had proper discussions about reform. No matter what

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the final pay figure is, although it matters hugely for the economy and wider the public sector, modernisation is the key to the dispute. Without wanting to be over-dramatic, the case for modernisation is a case built on saving lives.

Yes, reform might produce efficiency savings, which must be costed to see whether they will help fund the pay increase, but let us remember the stronger case for modernisation and the fact that it could dramatically improve the quality of protection for the public. Reform will save lives. The Government have been too mealy-mouthed in making that case. It may be that they did not want to inflame the dispute or it might have been a negotiating tactic, but as crunch time approaches we need more of the Deputy Prime Minister's famous plain talking on reform.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: In a moment.

It may be that the FBU has at last come up with its own proposals for reform—good and about time too—but it should be putting those ideas to the Bain review, and from what we have seen of its ideas so far, they do not seem to measure up to the Bain agenda on reform.

Mrs. Dunwoody: In the detailed press notice that the hon. Gentleman is reading with such care does he have space for an insertion on the views of elected Members such as that in industrial disputes people have the right to put their point of view, the right to demand at least some understanding of their position and the right to exercise that under existing trade union law? Also, could he please not read the rest of his speech?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for that intervention, but I am simply following the lead of the previous two speakers. The hon. Lady is right that there needs to be a negotiated settlement between the employers and the trade union officials. However, the FBU leadership needs to get real about the need for reform and modernisation. Some of the terms and conditions of the fire service in the XGrey Book" are arcane and go back not just to the 1970s but to the immediate post-war period. The FBU needs to grapple with the reform agenda.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. In the circumstances the Chair has allowed reference to the fire dispute for obvious reasons given the concern of the House and the country. However, it is outwith the terms of the amendment under discussion and I hope that we will now move away from that subject.

Mr. Davey: I am more than happy to do that. I simply wanted to respond because the Queen's Speech talks about a range of public service reforms, and that public service needs massive reform.

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