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7 Jan 2003 : Column 55—continued

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I do not know whether the Minister has skipped through part 6, but on second homes and councils' ability to end discounts, how much of such discounts will local authorities be able to use without restriction?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in the case of second homes, our proposal is to enable local authorities to vary the discount from the current obligatory 50 per cent. downwards to a limit of 10 per cent. There is a purpose for that. We believe that local authorities should retain the proceeds of the reduction in the discount if they choose to do so. The only way in which that can happen is if they know which properties are second homes, and they will have that information only if the owners of second homes have an incentive to record it. That is why we have set the 10 per cent. discount as the absolute minimum, and it exists for that obvious reason. The objective is that local authorities will derive the whole additional revenue that is drawn from the reduction in the discount if they choose to do so. However, it is a local discretion—one more example of the way in which the Government are devolving power and enabling local authorities to take decisions.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I am sure that the Minister will conclude by saying that champagne corks should pop because local authorities will have much more power, but how does he explain why 70 pages of legislation contain 79 references to the Secretary of State's powers—new powers, reserve powers and powers that will not be given back to the local

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authorities? There is only one instance in the Bill of power being given away without obligation, and that is in connection with the prescription of rateable values.

Mr. Raynsford: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not read the Bill, which makes it clear that local authorities will have a substantial number of additional freedoms. For example, the borrowing approval requirement will be ended, councils will be allowed to charge for discretionary services, and fair, good and excellent authorities will be allowed to trade. In addition, councils will be allowed to give discretionary council tax discounts, and to reduce or withdraw discounts on second homes and homes that have been empty a long time.

Dr. Pugh rose—

Mr. Raynsford: No, I have given way already to the hon. Gentleman. He may not like what I have to say, but he is going to hear it. The Bill gives a substantial number of freedoms and benefits to local government. Local government welcomes that, as the hon. Gentleman should know. However, the Bill also contains a number of innovations, such as the business improvement district. We do not want to be too prescriptive at this stage, as that would hamper innovation and the exploration of different models. As I explained in detail to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee—and I think that the hon. Gentleman was present at the time—we have chosen, in the relevant part of the Bill, to operate largely through regulation. The Bill contains frequent references to regulations made by the Secretary of State, because that allows us to give effect to policies that emerge as the business improvement district scheme unfolds. If we specified in the Bill how the scheme should operate, it would be more difficult to alter, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He should not jump to the conclusion that the references to the Secretary of State's powers mean that it is a centralising Bill. The official Opposition have made exactly that mistake. The Bill is not a centralising measure, but a deregulatory one. It gives substantial additional benefits and freedoms to local government, and local government welcomes it.

Mr. Bercow: Leaving aside the question of the precise balance between centralisation and decentralisation in the Bill, will the Minister say whether, on the whole, the bulk of the Bill's powers to make regulations and orders will be subject to the affirmative procedure of the House, or to its negative counterpart?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman will discover if he serves on the Standing Committee considering the Bill—and I should be very pleased if he does—the Bill offers a judicious mix in that regard. The affirmative powers will be used in respect of a substantial number of measures, and the negative procedures will be used in other cases.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm whether the housing direct labour organisation in my area will be able to trade with

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former tenants who have exercised the right to buy? Will the HDLO be able to sell those tenants double-glazing at a reasonable price, for example?

Mr. Raynsford: I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters, and I have visited the double-glazing factory in his authority. It manufactures units to a very high standard, but I must say no more in case it could be implied that I am giving a commercial advantage to one operator. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that authorities that achieve a good, excellent or fair rating under the comprehensive performance assessment will be given powers to trade—with the private sector, with individuals who have purchased their homes and with other authorities. That is another of the important deregulatory measures that give local government additional powers, and which are the hallmark of the Bill.

I was referring to part 8 of the Bill, which contains the non-finance provisions and gives to local authorities greater freedoms, such as the trading powers that I have described. However, all local authorities will also have the freedom to hold advisory polls on any matter relating to the services for which they are responsible, and on matters connected to the well being of their areas. Councils will also be allowed to retain the proceeds from litter and dog fouling penalties and spend them on local environmental improvements.

I turn now to the fire service, which is a local government service and fire authorities are included in a number of the reforms that the Bill will institute. In addition, the Government will move an amendment in Committee to remove Whitehall's detailed operational control of fire brigades' establishments—the number of staff, the deployment of appliances and the location of fire stations.

Such an amendment arises from the Government's acceptance of the urgent need to facilitate a move to a new approach to fire cover, identified by the Bain review as the key to change in the fire service. The current detailed control makes modernisation on the ground more difficult. That amendment will repeal, in England and Wales, most of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said on 16 December, when the Bain report was published, that we would introduce such legislation at the earliest opportunity, and he announced his intention to use the Bill as the vehicle to do so on 19 December.

My right hon. Friend also made it clear that we accepted in principle the Bain recommendations for wider legislation to modernise the fire service, to improve inspection and service delivery and to set up a new central body to drive modernisation. We will give further attention to those matters in a fire White Paper, which we intend to publish in the spring. We will therefore consider the issues raised in that regard by the Bain review during the next few months, and a Bill giving effect to the White Paper proposals will be introduced as soon as the legislative programme allows.

Mr. Pickles: I seek clarification on what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. Can he give us an indication of how much the proposals will affect the local determination of fire services run by local councils?

Mr. Raynsford: The measure is all square with our overall approach—to devolve power—and it specifically

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builds on the Bain recommendation that modernisation should be based on a risk assessment carried out in each fire authority to determine staffing and the correct location of appliances. Those issues should be determined by the fire authority in consultation with the senior fire officer for the area. In our view, such matters should not be determined by Whitehall. The current position is a relic of a previous centralising regime that goes back to the 1940s, which should be replaced in line with our overall approach.

Mr. Curry rose—

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) rose—

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I will give way to my hon. Friend, and then I shall give way to other hon. Members.

Ms Walley: Will the amendment that my right hon. Friend has just mentioned be consistent with the findings of the earlier working parties that were set up jointly by the Government and fire service employers? The Bain recommendations should be considered, but the amendment should be consistent with the wider work that took place with the fire service.

Mr. Raynsford: That amendment is warmly welcomed by the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association, and I believe that it will be very warmly welcomed by employers. Certainly, the employers' representatives to whom we have spoken have been extremely enthusiastic to hear that we are making such rapid progress on implementing that firm recommendation of the Bain review. It is crucial to ensure that modernisation is carried forward on a proper, risk-assessment basis to ensure that, in every area, those people best able to determine how to respond to the risk of fire do so and that the deployment of appliances and crewing levels are sufficient to meet the needs of that area in the most effective way. That is the objective, and it should be achieved through local assessment.

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