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7 Jan 2003 : Column 58continued
Mr. Curry: We have already heard that an amendment relating to section 28 will be moved in Committee, and we have now heard that there will be an amendment relating to elements of the Bain report. My understanding is that the Bill is intended to go into Committee on 21 January and to come out on 6 February. That is what the Local Government Association says, and it seems to get much more advance notice of such things than we do. Even though there has been some pre-legislative scrutiny of elements of the Bill, does the Minister seriously think that what is now becoming a parliamentary pantechnicon is capable of being examined in six sittings?
Mr. Raynsford: As the right hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, the Bill has been subject to very detailed pre-legislative scrutiny. It was scrutinised by the Select Committee and was the subject of detailed observation by local government. We will certainly try to ensure that it receives the most effective scrutiny in Committee, and a programme motion will determine
Mr. Raynsford: I was about to say that we will publish a fire White Paper in the spring, and we will consider the issues raises in this regard by the Bain review over the next few months. The conclusions, which we will set out in the White Paper, can therefore be brought forward, as soon as legislative time allows, in a new piece of legislation.
This is an ambitious and far-reaching Bill, which extends substantial new freedoms and benefits to local government. It takes a very significant step forward in putting central-local relations on a sounder, more constructive footing. It will help local government to be more responsive to local needs and pressures, and will improve the delivery of local services. It will encourage councils to be innovative in developing new services and partnerships. It will encourage all councils to emulate the achievements of the very best performers, and will be warmly welcomed by all who care about the future of local government. I commend the Bill to the House.
Many high hopes and expectations were raised by the earlier White Paper. I shall make a small confession, which I pray will not get me into too much trouble with my partyI found the White Paper bold in its promises. Its general direction offered promise and a chance to address relationships between central and local government, which was long overdue. I had reservations, of coursewho would not with this Government? I was not sure whether they would have the bottle to see it through, and we have seen evidence today that they do not. This poor managerial mish-mash falls well short of the radical overhaul promised. In the words of the Select Committee,
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) raised some legitimate points. We now know that important matters relating to the future of the fire service are to be considered, which will take a little timealthough I suspect that we will support the Government's aims when they table the amendments, if they are in the terms that the Minister has mentioned. We have the prospect of the repeal of section 28 of earlier legislation, which will take some time.
We have just three weeks to consider the matter. The Minister made a promise about regulations, which I am sure he will fulfil. I hope that those regulations will be available in sufficient time for members of the Committee to be able to table relevant amendments. That will cause problems.
I therefore hope that that time will be reconsidered. After all, a similar time was allowed for consideration of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. That is a complex measure, but it is nothing compared with this. If we get wrong the provisions for prudential borrowing, pooling, business zones and trading, we will rue the day. Local government deserves reasonable time for scrutiny of those issues.
Andrew Bennett: Earlier, we heard a ringing declaration from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) about section 28. Can we now hear the position of those on the official Opposition's Front Bench?
Mr. Pickles: We will wait to see the amendment that is tabled. We very much regret that the Government have not had sufficient bottle and have twice failed to table their own amendment. Perhaps they will rely on the services of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), but I am confident that whoever tables the
Kali Mountford: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The House has had many opportunities to discuss what is known as section 28, but is, in fact, section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, and the issue should not be used to play ping-pong on the programme motion. Does he agree that it is far too important an issue for that sort of parliamentary game?
Mr. Pickles: I agree with the hon. Lady. The amendment should have been tabled by the Government. In due course, I hope that we will be able to debate this important issue. However, that point underlines the strong and overwhelming need for the Government to provide extra time in Committee to discuss it.
The Bill falls at the first hurdle over which any radical overhaul must jump. If it managed to negotiate this hurdle successfully, everything else would follow naturally. The hurdle is one of simple trust. The Bill plainly shows that the Government do not trust local government. It seeks to provide for prudential borrowing, but the Government retain draconian powers. It seeks to give new financial responsibility, but they will retain the powers over balances. It seeks to give more freedom to housing associations but introduces the pooling of capital receipts. It seeks to recognise the community advocacy of councils, but introduces business improvement districts.
Local government is marginalised in the eyes of the public. It is seen rightly or wronglyI believe rightlyto be utterly the creature of central Government for pay, for rations and for policy. The recent settlement and the comprehensive performance assessment findings will have confirmed just that and the public's suspicion. What used to be a sea of vibrant vitality, innovation and new ideas is slowly turning into an ocean of bland uniformity. Local government has been diminished to the local delivery of central services. Little wonder that the electorate do not think it worth while to walk a few hundreds yards to put a cross on a piece of paper. We wring our hands and complain of apathy, but it is not apathy. The electorate have rumbled us. When a change to the grant regime can move tens of millions of pounds to and from an authority and when an authority can raise council tax by 6 per cent. to generate just 1 per cent. of income, the public draw their own conclusions as to who is running the show.
The Government think that the problem is voter fatigue. That is why clause 103 will give the Secretary of State the power to lay an order to make the date of the local and Greater London Authority elections in 2004, and therefore enable them to coincide with the European parliamentary elections on 10 June. There is no case for combining the polls. The suggestion that it might be done to avoid voter confusion and fatigue looks, even at the most cursory examination, as a thin veneer to hide partisan advantage.
Even in this meagre Bill there are measures that the Conservatives can support and improve. We support the concept of prudential borrowing. The idea that local authorities can manage their financial affairs within their own resources should attract wide support. It is an important step on the long road towards establishing a healthy relationship with local government. It is such a pity that the Government find it necessary to have wide and catch-all reserve powers.