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7 Jan 2003 : Column 46—continued

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Select Committee report commented on the amount of regulations that would be used to bring these measures into being, and recommended that most of those regulations should be made available in draft form to the Standing Committee. Will he tell us when these important regulations will be made available?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. As I said to the Select Committee, we intend to make available to the Standing Committee, by the time it comes to consider each of the relevant passages of the Bill, the main regulations in draft that will apply to those passages, or—I make one caveat—in certain respects, particularly relating to the business improvement district programme, the guidance that we propose to issue that will inform the regulations. The reason for that is that the business improvement measures represent an innovative approach, and we intend the regulations to enable changes to be made in due course, but we do not want to be too prescriptive. That is why we are using the regulatory framework rather than putting detailed prescriptions in legislation, but we will issue guidance to illustrate how we expect the business improvement district programme to be taken forward.

The Bill covers both England and Wales. It responds to a number of requests made by the Welsh Assembly for specific Welsh provision. The Welsh Assembly supports the Bill, and has welcomed its introduction. The Bill has been the subject of extensive consultation, and, indeed, was preceded by a draft Bill published last summer and scrutinised by the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee of the then Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Of course, areas of concern arose from the consultation, and we have gone some way towards meeting those concerns. Most notably, we removed one of the most controversial measures, which originally proposed to merge revenue support grant and national non-domestic rates.

I turn now to the substance of the Bill. Part 1 makes a fundamental change—

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am grateful for some of the changes that were made as a result of the Select Committee's recommendations. Before my right hon. Friend outlines all the measures in the Bill, will he tell us more about one or two of the things that have been left out? Will he tell us also when he envisages those measures being inserted in the Bill during consideration in Committee? I have in mind especially the controversial issues that arise from section 28. Secondly, there is the registration of landlords. Local authorities would very much like that power when dealing with empty homes.

Mr. Raynsford: As my hon. Friend knows, we have given effect to all the legislative commitments in the White Paper, and that was our objective. Perfectly rightly and properly, there is concern about section 28 and other measures. The Government will support a

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suitable amendment to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, if one is tabled. We regard section 28 as an unnecessary piece of legislation.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): I welcome the steer that my right hon. Friend has given the House. Is he saying that the Government would be minded to accept an amendment during consideration of the Bill?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend exactly that assurance. We will support a suitable amendment to repeal section 28. As I have said, it is an unnecessary piece of legislation.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Why will the Government not table their own amendment? Why will they say that an amendment is not appropriate in their eyes? If they are to make that judgment, the Government should table one.

Mr. Raynsford: As I have explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), the Chairman of the Select Committee, we have been working extremely hard to give effect to all the legislative commitments in our White Paper. The Bill fundamentally deals with local government finance. The hon. Gentleman will fully understand—I know that he will have studied the Bill—that many measures are involved, and we have concentrated on putting them in place. We have always made it clear that if suitable amendments are introduced in respect of other measures, we shall be prepared to be sympathetic. That applies especially to section 28. I have given a clear indication to the Chairman of the Select Committee and to my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) that the Government will consider an appropriately framed amendment sympathetically.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): While my right hon. Friend is displaying an open and magnanimous spirit, is he aware that the Bill offers an opportunity to tackle the issue of private landlords? Would he be similarly open-minded and magnanimous in accepting an amendment that dealt with that issue? I suspect that there will be no other opportunity, unless he can assure me otherwise, to tackle the matter.

Mr. Raynsford: Housing provisions are the subject of separate legislation that is being prepared by the Department. I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will want to say more about that in the near future. We have an important agenda in proceeding with the finance measures set out in the Bill. We do not want to overload the Bill with a large number of measures, especially when there are other options for achieving my hon. Friend's legislative objective.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May I tell the Minister that if the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) tables an amendment to secure the repeal of section 28, I shall certainly support it? Some time ago, I came to believe that section 28 is gratuitously offensive. It causes justified resentment and should, in the interests of fairness and decency, be urgently repealed.

Mr. Raynsford: I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I wholly concur with his view. We see no

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useful purpose for section 28. Contrary to the views that are often expressed, it does not have an effect in relation to what is taught in schools. There are separate provisions to cover that. As he rightly stated, it gives considerable offence to many people whose lifestyle is stigmatised by the provision. We regard it as unnecessary and undesirable. We shall support an appropriate amendment to achieve its repeal.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): In that case, why did the right hon. Gentleman not include the provision in the Bill?

Mr. Raynsford: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening when I answered precisely that question from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey).

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): If the Government do not, on balance, like a provision, but do not have a very strong view on it, it is legitimate for them to say that they will open themselves to persuasion by a Back Bencher. However, if the Government fundamentally believe that a measure is wrong, as the Minister has just stated repeatedly in this case, it is sheer gutlessness not to try to repeal it by tabling an amendment with their names attached.

Mr. Raynsford: I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who has done the job that I am doing now. He will know that putting legislation together is complex. When one has many competing claims for provisions to be included and there is a White Paper with a series of important commitments that need to be implemented, it is right and proper that the Government should concentrate on those. He will know also that it is perfectly reasonable to seize opportunities for change that may be presented by amendments tabled by Back Benchers in Committee. I seem to recall, when I was in Opposition, moving amendments in Committee that were, in some cases, at least temporarily successful in changing legislation for which he was responsible. That is a proper part of the process.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I intend to make progress, as we have dealt with this matter at considerable length.

Part 1 makes a fundamental change to the way in which local authorities borrow to support capital investment. It ends the current consent regime that requires authorities to obtain Government approval for all borrowing. In future, local authorities will be free to borrow without Government consent if they can afford to service the debt without extra Government support. We will, of course, continue to support the major part of authorities' capital programmes, but authorities will be free to use their self-financed borrowing for any kind of capital spending—that is on buying, building and improving property and infrastructure.

There are many ways in which councils will be able to use those new freedoms. They could include, for example, major social services schemes such as improvements to residential care homes and grants to voluntary organisations for family centres. They could

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involve environmental schemes to encourage household recycling. There could be an emphasis on crime prevention measures such as improving street lighting and car park security. Those are random examples. Authorities will have complete discretion as to how they apply that new freedom.

Local authorities must accept that those freedoms go hand in hand with a responsibility to act in a way that ensures high standards of financial management. That is why we have retained reserve powers and are setting out specific obligations to monitor financial performance and maintain prudent reserves.

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