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7 Jan 2003 : Column 119—continued

9.31 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): This has been a wide-ranging, constructive and good-tempered debate. The only issue on which I agree with the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), whom I am pleased to follow, is that the Bill is an opportunity missed. It could have included so many good things to strengthen local government and devolve power to the lowest possible level. Instead we have the reverse: a highly centralising Bill that gives huge powers to the Secretary of State and introduces 34 order-making powers by secondary legislation.

We heard some excellent speeches, particularly from some very experienced right hon. and hon. Friends. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made an excellent speech—I did so agree with what he said about pooling capital receipts. His council is similar to mine in many respects, and had my council not been able to make a large-scale voluntary transfer of 500 houses and spend the interest on the receipts, it would have not been able to build 400 new affordable houses in the past four years. If the Secretary of State insists on the pooling of capital receipts, I suspect, as many right hon. and hon. Members have said, that we will not see so many affordable houses built with the proceeds from large-scale voluntary transfer. The only crumb of comfort is that the provision will apply only to capital housing receipts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is another colleague with extensive local government experience. I particularly agreed with his comments about the restrictions on local authorities' prudential borrowings regime. How will they be able to operate CIPFA's draft code if they do not know what grant they are likely to be given by the Government in future years?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) also made an excellent speech. He made some very interesting points that I should have thought would appeal to Labour Members, if they were listening, about the interaction between the voluntary, public and private sectors—an extremely important point that will be one of the main political issues in the next year. I am not sure that the Bill does a huge amount to encourage that interaction. My right hon. Friend described the Bill as a small earthquake in Walsall, and I think that he was probably right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) used his experience to point out some of the deficiencies in the BIDs regime proposed in the Bill. He said that it is an American concept, but that the difference between these proposals and those in

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America is that in this country it is mostly the tenants who pay non-domestic rates, whereas in America it is the landowners. Landowners in this country, of course, will benefit largely from the BIDs proposals. Bizarrely, tenants who pay non-domestic rates might vote for a scheme from which landlords might benefit. We must look at those proposals carefully in Committee.

We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who made his usual special pleading for the island. He is right that his is the largest constituency in this country, and it has specific problems. He correctly focused on the proposal to pay specific grants wholly at the Secretary of State's behest. Conservative Members believe that we should move away from specific and special grants and give local authorities more discretion over how they spend their money through the rate support grant mechanism.

This huge Bill has 123 clauses and seven schedules, yet the Government propose a timetable with just 12 Committee sittings. Members should compare that with the fact that the considerably smaller and less complex Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill has also been given 12 sittings. I appeal to the Minister across the Dispatch Boxes and in a non-partisan way: we still have time before the Bill is debated in Committee to consider, through the usual channels, giving it more than 12 sittings.

I am sure that the Minister wants, as I do, to ensure that all colleagues in local government feel that the Bill has received proper scrutiny in this place. That is all the more pertinent as he has announced today a completely new proposal to amend section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, which we welcome. We look forward to seeing the detail. The proposal accords with Professor Bain's report, so we shall consider it and we hope to give it a fair wind in Committee, but that will not take five minutes.

We have also been told by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) that section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 is to be amended. If that is so, no doubt it will take up further time in Committee. Therefore, I say to the Minister and the usual channels that the time allocated for consideration in Committee is not adequate.

Mr. Swayne: It is an outrage.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As my hon. Friend says, it is an outrage. I hope that we can consider the matter before the Bill reaches Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley made pertinent remarks on the prudential borrowing regime and the reserves included in the Bill. Those matters are complex and they need careful examination in Committee. He also made the point that we are swapping one regime for another—the permission to borrow for the new capital and special grants scheme. We need to consider that carefully to see whether we are not just making a huge nutcracker to crack a very small nut represented by bad councils such as Hackney and North Tyneside, which the Minister mentioned.

My hon. Friends have referred to the pooling of capital receipts as well as the fact that the Minister is taking to himself some draconian powers to deem that such receipts have been received and to direct how they

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should be pooled for other, less efficient councils. Members on both sides of the House, particularly those representing new towns such as Hemel Hempstead, have criticised the Minister over those proposals, so we must consider the matter very carefully.

Indeed, some while ago in a reply to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that the proposal is aimed at encouraging debt-free authorities to take up their borrowing allowances. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) made the point that there are 48 debt-free authorities in this country. Some may have achieved that status through good fortune or the assets that they have been able to sell, but I put it to the Minister that most have achieved debt-free status through good management. Some councils have managed their affairs prudently for many years, which has enabled them to become debt free, so forcing them to borrow is draconian step. I ask him to consider that very carefully.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy drew up the draft code on prudential borrowing, which has been refined from that which was originally proposed. Here, the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and to the Select Committee, which has worked on the Bill and made some pertinent criticisms. Through his Committee, the hon. Gentleman is achieving a considerable reputation for the thorough scrutiny of draft Bills according to the short timetables set by the Government. The Bill was published only on 21 November, so it was a commendable achievement to come up with such a substantive report in the time available.

The Government should take note of that point. There is no earthly reason why Bills should be rushed through in such a way. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is being rushed through in exactly the same way. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) made the highly pertinent point that if there are 34 order-making powers in the Local Government Bill, we want to see draft copies well before we reach the relevant stage in Committee so that we can table appropriate amendments.

If we cannot do that, it will be an abrogation of democracy and neither the House or the Standing Committee will be able to do their jobs properly. For all of us who want to uphold the reputation of the House, those procedures are bad practice and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will take note of our comments and ensure that Bills are not rushed through in future.

Andrew Bennett: Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that he should be congratulating the Government? The promise about regulations is firm. Will he promise us that the list of all the local government regulations that the Opposition want to get rid of will also be available by the same date?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It is the Government who are making the proposals; it is the Opposition's job to scrutinise them, not to offer alternatives. If the hon. Gentleman serves on the Standing Committee—I hope that he will, given his knowledge—I can give him the categoric assurance that we shall scrutinise the

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proposals with all the vigour that we can muster. What we lack in numbers, we certainly make up for in intellectual argument, rigour and vigour—[Interruption.] We can all get excited about that, but the Bill includes other important proposals and if I do not deal with one or two of them I shall not have properly summed up the measure.

Much comment has been made about the proposal that the elections for the European Parliament and the local government and London Assembly elections should be held on the same date in 2004, even though they are all subject to different election regimes—as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar pointed out. The proposal amounts to gerrymandering; altering the dates of elections sets an unfortunate precedent. Elections are set for certain dates for good reason, so that people have a proper time to carry out their mandate, whether for central or local government. It is an abrogation of democracy to gerrymander the dates in such a way.

The latter part of the Bill deals with trading and local authorities. The proposals that local authorities should be involved in trading will set a difficult precedent, unless they are carefully constrained. To allow local authorities to set up trading companies would evade prudential borrowing regimes and other regimes. The Minister referred to the matter in his opening speech, but when the Under-Secretary sums up will he assure us that he will make doubly certain that such companies will be subject to resource accounting? As the Minister will know, that means that they have to make a proper return not just on revenue but on all capital assets employed—on all the property that they employ. The Opposition will be scrutinising that point carefully in Committee, because the powers to trade could distort competition, which is a cause of real concern.

I do not see why a local authority should trade in any service that is not included in its normal delivery pattern. As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) pointed out—although he is not listening to the debate because he is talking to his colleague—if one was to sell double glazing just because there was a particular double glazing firm in one's constituency, it would set an extremely difficult precedent indeed and I caution the Government—

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