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7 Jan 2003 : Column 58—continued

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

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that—that is not the subject of this debate, but it will no doubt be considered later. I am sure that the Bill will be properly scrutinised in Committee.

Mr. Syms rose—

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.

Mr. Sanders: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once already, and it is time that we made progress.

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.

5.36 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to move, To leave out from XThat" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

It is pleasure to start the new year by following the Minister, who, as always, is a master of his brief and has a clear idea of where local government should go, even though, occasionally, it pays to go in the opposite direction from what is intended.

Let me start with a quote:

Those were the opening words of the Select Committee's verdict on the draft Bill. That Bill, unaltered other than by tinkering at the edges, is before the House today. I want to pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee—it has made the Bill easier to understand and has acted as a persuasive advocate for more

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freedoms for local authorities. It has not pulled its punches in that report or in the report that it published last Friday. I am sure that the House is grateful for its work.

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 party—I 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 course—who 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,

At least I now have empathy with the plight of Labour Back Benchers. I, too, know what it feels like to be betrayed by new Labour.

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 time—although 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.

Andrew Bennett Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: I will do so in a second.

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.

Kali Mountford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: In a moment.

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

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amendment will do their best to seek consensus across the House so that it receives wide support. No doubt, well before that, the Conservative party's Chief Whip will announce the whipping for that particular debate.

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 wrongly—I believe rightly—to 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.

The right hon. Gentleman's consultation paper does not address the problem of possible voter confusion by having to vote in elections with different voting systems

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on the same day and with the resulting set of complex ballot papers. Voters in London will face three, and possibly four, different voting systems simultaneously: a supplementary vote for the Mayor; the additional member system for the London Assembly Members; the regional list system for Members of the European Parliament; and the first-past-the-post system if there is a by-election in a borough for either a constituency or the council. Holding both elections on the same day will prevent a proper debate on the separate issues of Europe and local public services and London government. In particular, issues relating to local government will be squeezed out. It is a recipe for confusion and spoilt ballot papers.

The Bill gives powers to the Welsh Assembly to introduce similar measures. The Welsh have dealt with the problem before. I commend the words of the Labour Minister Edwina Hart, who said:

To combine the polls on the same day shows a lack of respect for local government and the clearest indication to the public of what the Government really think about the value of councils.

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.

Mr. Tony Travers of the London School of Economics told the Select Committee that the

I fully understand the need for the Government to manage the national economy and to control the amount of aggregate borrowing. Conservative Members are in favour of making the scope of the Government's intervention limited and transparent. More sensible people would want that and see it as reasonable. I recognise that the Government have offered a reassurance on that, which I suspect is about to be repeated.

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