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7 Jan 2003 : Column 66continued
Mr. Pickles: I am grateful for that opportunity, but I have to say that I am surprised by the aggression of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, as I was largely following the lines taken by his Select Committee. In fact, I was quoting his Select Committee with regard to the amount of overburdening, but perhaps he is retracting.
Andrew Bennett: Let us be quite clear. I want to know which regulations, most of which were introduced by the Conservative Government, the hon. Gentleman is prepared to renounce. A list would be very helpful.
Mr. Pickles: I am not partisan. I am not suggesting that a matter is sacrosanct because it was laid before the House by a Conservative Government, but if the hon. Gentleman is retracting what he said in the comfort of his Select Committee, so be it. I happen to think that he was right when he showed courage in attacking the Government, so I am sorry that he seeks to retreat from that.
The Government know that they should release their grasp, but they seem unable to do so and the Bill is no more than a pause in their march towards centralisation. I commend the amendment to the House.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I am grateful to be called, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, may I make it clear to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that we look forward with pleasure to seeing his list in the Library so that we know which regulations covering local government he would repeal? Then, perhaps, we could have some common ground. My disappointment with the legislation is that it does not go far enough or fast enough, although it is easy for him to have a general feeling that there are too many
I want briefly to deal with the question of scrutiny of the legislation. I very much welcomed the Government's publication of a draft Bill in the summer, although it would have been nice if they had given the Select Committee a little more time to scrutinise it. I understand all the difficulties for the Minister, however. In a sense, the difficulties involved not the Select Committee, but the people outside who gave evidence. The strength of a Select Committee report is the quality of the evidence it receives. I make the point to the Government's business managers that if we are to get pre-legislative scrutiny right, we need a little more time for it.
May I also place on record my appreciation of those who advised the Select Committee? I must refer in particular to Rita Hale, Professor Michael Lyons, Anna Capaldi and Amanda McIntyre, whose help was important. I also want to place on record my appreciation of the Clerk, David Harrison, and our special assistant, Claire O'Shaughnessy. They all worked very hard. I also express my appreciation of all members of the Committee, as we had to carry out the scrutiny in a week. A little more time might have made our efforts that bit better.
Mr. Edward Davey: Given that the Select Committee had so little time to scrutinise the draft Bill, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the Government allowing the Standing Committee only six sittings to scrutinise the real Bill?
Andrew Bennett: The question is, are we getting scrutiny in the House right? It seems to me that the key to scrutiny in the House is what goes on beforehand. A draft Bill was available in the summer, so almost everyone involved with local government had a chance to study it then, and the Bill itself was published about five weeks ago. People outside have had a goodopportunity to consider the legislation and the fact that the Bill will be considered in Committee for a relatively short time does not mean that there is a problem with the scrutiny.
I have wasted lots of time in Committee filibustering, which does not take the arguments forward. The question is, how effectively is time used in Committee? I believe that a Standing Committee of the House will be able to deal with the Bill very effectively. If I were an Opposition Member, I would not be complaining about the time available in Committee. I would be rather more concerned to ensure that there is adequate time for consideration on Report. The legislation can be adequately scrutinised and a good job has already been done, up to this stage at least.
I am pleased that we had the chance to scrutinise the Bill, but I would like the Government to have even more confidence in local government. I believe that the Minister has that confidence, but the difficulty lies in convincing some of his colleagues in other parts of government that we should provide that extra power. I hope that we can move in that direction.
The question of giving greater powers to excellent local authorities lies, unfortunately, in the hands of the Audit Commission. Anyone who considered the scrutiny process and the evidence given by Paul Kirby of the Audit Commission would have been flabbergasted by its quality. We were totally baffled by the end. If that person is supposed to be setting out the league tables, we cannot have much confidence in them.
I am very worried about the local authority league tables. In football, the teams at the top of the league have usually scored more goals than those at the bottom. That is pretty objective, but it would be difficult for a football referee to judge whether one team had played better than another without referring to the goals scored. Some Audit Commission decisions are extremely subjective and some people who come out from the Audit Commission to study local authorities do not have a clue what is going on.
One of my great complaints about Reddish is the fact that so much rubbish is left behind by the cleansing department when it clears the bins, yet that local authority has been commended for its refuse collection service. Instead of relying on the Audit Commission, why do not the Government rely a little more on the local electorate? If they are going to give the local authorities more powers, let the local authority and the local electorate decide whether they will be used, rather than depend on the Audit Commission league tables.
Dr. Pugh: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that a Select Committee recommendation was that it should be possible to appeal against the decision of the Audit Commission, although the Government did not accept that and it is not in the legislation? Will he urge the Standing Committee seriously to consider that matter?
Andrew Bennett: There is a case for an appeal process, but that would just make everything even more bureaucratic. I should prefer to get rid of the whole thing and tell local people to make up their own minds about whether they trust their council with the extra services, rather than telling them that because their council was just above the relegation zone on one bit of the table it would be allowed to have those extra powers.
Andrew Bennett: I cannot remember the exact figure that the Audit Commission is charging local authorities, but it is pretty appalling. It worries me greatly that officers are being taken away from actually running services to hold discussions with the Audit Commission's representatives. I have great reservations about the amount of inspection, but fortunately the Government are starting to move in the right direction by reducing it. Services need a push to get them going, but once they are rolling they have their own momentum. It worries me that the Audit Commission may not be able to step back but will want to carry on pushing.
Andrew Bennett: I understand that many local authorities have benefited from the process. I have been told regularly by people who have helped with the process in an authority other than their own that they found such work useful and learned much from it.
However, I am a little concerned about some of the quirks in the league table. I have been pressed by Tameside metropolitan borough council because Wigan received a much better result, which appeared to turn only on the question of when their respective social services departments were inspected. Wigan has done an outstanding job in the north-west but Tameside is a good authority, too, and my electors would rightly be a little suspicious if Wigan received extra powers and Tameside did not.
Revaluation is important, but the key point for local government is that it should have a form of buoyant income. Whenever there is revaluation, there is an outcry from people and local authorities usually take the flak, even though they are not actually involved in the process.
I was very disappointed that the Opposition were not prepared to support the proposals on bands. They do not understand the problems in places such as Denton and Reddish and the east side of Greater Manchester. When properties are losing value due to the weakness of the housing market and people cannot even sell them for #10,000 or #15,000, yet similar houses only a short distance away go for #30,000, #40,000 or #50,000, there is considerable concern that council tax bands do not reflect economic reality in those areas.