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10 Mar 2003 : Column 117—continued

Mr. Raynsford: On the subject of BIDs, the hon. Gentleman has just commented favourably on the American system of local taxation, which is based on property tax. Will he try to explain how that fits in with his earlier comment attacking the council tax—which, incidentally, was introduced by his party and is a mixture of a property tax and a tax relating to people's receipt of local services? Why is a property tax acceptable in America but not here?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: That was a mischievous intervention by the Minister, and one of his poorer efforts. As he knows, council tax applies to private individuals who occupy and own houses. We are talking about businesses, so the scenario is entirely different. We want some mechanism by which BIDs can work. We are concerned that there is a substitution affecting what the taxpayer should pay for and what is additional in the BIDs process. Under the timetable imposed by the Government, we did not have a chance to discuss our concerns about the mechanism of council vetoes in BIDs. We would have liked the veto to operate before the vote, as it is unnecessary to go through a complicated ballot only to find that the local authority vetoes the outcome. If we had had sufficient time, without the programme motion, we would certainly have liked to explore that in greater detail.

We did not have any time to discuss the change of the date of European and local government elections in the Bill—an important matter that was simply squeezed out by the restrictive timetable. Gerrymandering the timing of those elections is quite wrong.

Mr. Raynsford: Oh, come on.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the Minister believe in democracy or not? Perhaps he will tell me.

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what is gerrymandering in presenting an option that has been the subject of widespread consultation and brings together local government and European elections in 2004 to try to encourage a higher turnout than the deplorably low turnouts in recent European and local elections?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: That is gerrymandering because when a term is set for a council it should be adhered to. If one lengthens or shortens it, one is interfering with the democratic right of elected councils to carry out their mandate for a full term. If it is shortened, they do not have an opportunity to complete their mandate. Once the gerrymandering principle is established, what will

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we gerrymander next? Will the Government extend the term of this Parliament? Whatever next? The principle is poor, and we never had time to discuss it.

The Bill is a highly centralising measure. It is typical of this socialist Government that they want to try to control everything from Whitehall, from the Secretary of State's office. They simply do not trust local authorities to make their own decisions on finance or anything else. This is a bad Bill, and I shall encourage my hon. Friends to vote against it on Third Reading.

9.29 pm

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I welcome the Bill. Many of us spent many hours in Committee discussing its provisions, but there were some aspects that we did not have time to discuss. I particularly welcome the decisive cross-party vote tonight on the repeal of section 28. I hope that the cross-party nature of that vote will be noted in another place when it comes to debate this issue, so that we will now see an end to this iniquitous piece of legislation. Before I came to this place, I was a secondary school teacher, and since being elected to Parliament, I have heard from former students how their fear and uncertainty over section 28 added to the misery that they experienced by making them reluctant to seek protection from homophobic bullying when they needed it most. Let us end this regime here and now tonight and through the further passage of the Bill.

My main point is that I would like to commend part 4 of the Bill, which deals with business improvement districts. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, this legislation will help to bring councils and their business communities together in a new partnership, with guaranteed funding for at least five years, to improve the appearance and prosperity of their areas. As chairman of the steering group overseeing the business improvement districts pilot project, I know the enthusiasm with which more than 20 areas across the country are now preparing schemes which they will get off the ground as soon as the legislation is in place.

I commend the draft guidance on business improvement districts produced by a score of national organisations and agencies, co-ordinated by the Association of Town Centre Management. That guidance deals comprehensively with such vital issues as the financial management of business improvement districts, and the balloting process for setting them up. Some official Opposition Members found their copies of the guidance document somewhat elusive during our debates in Committee, and some other hon. Members lost their copies through lending them to others. Nevertheless, I know that this full and comprehensive guidance has been much welcomed by all those in the 20-plus constituencies in which BIDs projects are now being prepared, and I know how helpful they have found it when taking forward what I believe to be a bold venture in partnership between business and local authorities.

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9.32 pm

Mr. Edward Davey : I wish to raise three concerns before I go on to say why my hon. Friends and I will be voting in favour of the Bill. First, some mistakes remain in it, despite our best efforts to amend it. Secondly, there are some omissions from it. Thirdly, there has been a lack of debate on certain crucial parts of it. The mistakes, particularly those in clause 11 that relate to pooling, have been widely debated, and the Liberal Democrats do not accept the Government's arguments. There will be a serious impact on debt-free authorities in particular, especially with money being taken away from them so that they will be unable to tackle the problems of shortages of affordable housing in their areas. The Liberal Democrats, working with the Conservatives, have tried to persuade the Government of this. The Government came forward with a modest package of measures to try to provide some transitional relief, but we do not think that it went far enough.

We are concerned about some aspects of the Bill that retain a degree of centralisation, especially in regard to the reserve powers retained by the Government with respect to borrowing and the reserves of councils. I also have concerns—some may suggest that they are esoteric—about clause 31, which gives the Government a wide-ranging power to provide grants for local authorities. We are very worried about that; it takes financial powers away from the House and is therefore greatly to be regretted.

My second area of concern relates to the omissions. When the Government published the draft Bill, they said that it represented an historic change for local government and that there would be a real revolution in the relationship between central and local government. I am afraid that, for many of us, the reality is very timid when set against that rhetoric. Far greater powers need to be given down, and we need to see that happening to restore civic pride and encourage more people of good will and competence to go into local government, whether as councillors or as officials. We also need to see electoral reform in local government, to ensure that it becomes more representative and to prevent the corruption and the monopoly of power associated with one-party local government. Only proportional representation through the single transferable vote system can break that monopoly of political power.

We need to go far further with our local government finance reforms, and this party wants council tax to be abolished. I find it bizarre that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has criticised the Government's timid reforms of council tax, which will make it a little fairer, because Conservative policy is to retain that incredibly unfair tax. For him to say at this moment—council taxes are going up so much—that he wants to retain the unfairness in the system is extraordinary.

I make this recommendation to the Minister: if the Government are to propose more local government reforms, they would do well to read material coming from bodies such as the Local Government Information

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Unit, which produced a good document called "Commission on Local Governance" to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) contributed. It made far-ranging proposals that had cross-party support in local government and which really would have represented major change with respect to relations between central Government and local government.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am becoming a little weary of the Liberal Democrats proposing their local income tax system without putting a figure on it every time we have such a debate. Will the hon. Gentleman put a figure on the average local income tax he reckons would be needed to replace council tax; and what redistribution system would he adopt to redistribute money raised from the richer areas to the poorer?

Mr. Davey: We will certainly do that in due course, but if I went down that road tonight, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would rule me totally out of order. In terms of getting weary of other people's speeches, the incoherence and inconsistency that we have had to endure from Conservative Front Benchers throughout the Bill's passage has been particularly tiresome.

My next concern is the lack of debate in Committee and on Report on key aspects, particularly the trading and charging proposals in clauses 93 to 100. While the Government must take some blame for the lack of debate due to the various programme motions, the Conservatives should share the blame. Those who bother to read the reports of proceedings in Standing Committee will see how much time that Conservative Front Benchers wasted on trivial points, preventing us from dealing with the more serious issues.

The Government have serious questions to answer with respect to the trading and charging clauses. For example, they have used one model for local authorities to operate new powers to trade and charge—the company model. That might be restrictive, as local authorities could undertake many types of trading, which would effectively be at the very margins of their activities and also be unsuitable for setting up a legal structure as detailed as a company.

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