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Standing Committee Debates
Local Government Bill

Local Government Bill

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Standing Committee A

Tuesday 21 January 2003

(Morning)

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Local Government Bill

8.55 am

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move,

    That—

    (1) during proceedings on the Local Government Bill, the Standing Committee do meet when the House is sitting on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8.55 am and 2.30 pm, except that the Committee shall not meet on Thursday 23rd January 2003;

    (2) 14 sittings in all shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill by the Committee;

    (3) the Committee shall report the Bill to the House not later than Thursday 13th February 2003;

    (4) the proceedings to be taken at a sitting shall be as shown in the second column of the Table below and shall be taken in the order so shown;

    (5) the proceedings which under paragraph (4) are to be taken at any sitting shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the third column of the Table;

    (6) paragraph (4) does not prevent proceedings being taken (in the order shown in the second column of the Table) at any earlier sitting than that provided for under paragraph (4) if all previous proceedings have already been concluded.

    TABLE

    Sitting

    Proceedings

    Time for conclusion of proceedings

    1st to 6th

    Clauses 1 to 19, Schedule 1, Clauses 20 to 42, Schedule 2 and Clauses 43 to 73

    5 pm at 6th sitting

    7th to 11th

    Clauses 74 to 100, Schedule 3, Clauses 101 to 105, Schedule 4, Clause 106, Schedule 5 and Clauses 107 to 116

    11.25 am at 11th sitting

    12th and 13th

    Any new Clauses standing in the name of a Minister of the Crown and relating to functions of the Audit Commission in relation to registered social landlords; any new Clauses relating to the repeal of section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986

    11.25 am at 13th sitting

    14th

    Remaining new Clauses standing in the name of a Minister of the Crown, remaining new Clauses, new Schedules, Clauses 117 to 121, Schedules 6 and 7, Clauses 122 and 123 and remaining proceedings on the Bill

    5 pm

It is a pleasure for the Committee to meet under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths. I have not yet served on a Committee of which you were Chairman, and look forward to the experience of the next few weeks with a great deal of enthusiasm and anticipation. You will be pleased to know that the Bill has a Welsh dimension. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for Wales is with me, as well as the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie). We will

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be touching on matters of interest to Wales throughout our discussions on the Bill.

This is a Bill of considerable importance. It incorporates key elements of the Government's proposals for implementing the White Paper that we published just over a year ago. It gives new freedoms and opportunities to local government and is wide-ranging. It includes a large number of measures that will be of interest to people concerned with local government and good governance generally. The Bill's spectrum spans some relatively arcane matters, which I suspect we will get on to quickly this morning, and some issues relating to local government finance. The Bill also ranges over a number of exciting and innovative new arrangements such as business improvement districts, which will encourage new partnerships and economic development opportunities.

Inevitably, some aspects of the Bill have aroused controversy, and we will undoubtedly have robust debates at various stages during our consideration of the Bill. However, I suspect that there will be broad agreement on some of the measures that will, I hope, achieve a better framework for local government finance, removing some of the extremely obscure and complex provisions that have bedevilled local government for many years and extending freedoms and opportunities to local authorities.

The Bill has already been scrutinised; it was published before its introduction in the summer, and the then Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the regions was able to consider it. We have been able to respond to a number of the Select Committee's suggestions, and have made one major change: we removed provisions relating to our previous intention of combining the national non-domestic rate with the proceeds of council tax. That was largely welcomed. I believe that sufficient time is available to us under the programme motion. The 14 sittings will give us plenty of opportunity to consider the full range of issues, which, as I have said, have already been subject to detailed pre-legislative scrutiny.

The Bill will make important changes to local government, and it is important that it reaches the statute book in time to allow implementation of the new prudential system by 1 April 2004, if possible. That is what local government anticipates, so I hope that we will not have too many synthetic expressions of unhappiness from the Opposition about the lack of time. That would, essentially, be a cover for delaying tactics to try to prevent the Bill reaching the statute book—a Bill that is eagerly awaited by local government, which will extend important new freedoms to it.

The number of knives has been limited to ensure that the Committee can devote as much time as possible to the areas that it considers most important, while allowing reasonable flexibility to organise our proceedings in the most efficient way. The motion is sensible and I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I, too, wish to express my pleasure at having the

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opportunity to serve in Committee under the joint chairmanship of you, Mr. Griffiths, and Mr. Conway, and my pleasure at once again facing the Minister. It is one of the peculiarities of this place that, whereas the previous Committee on which we both served was small but conducted its business in the cavernous expanses of Committee Room 14, the powers that be have decreed that this large Committee of 29 Members should be squeezed into one of the smaller Committee Rooms. I am sure that, 20 years down the line, I will still be trying to work out how such things are decided.

I am delighted that the Minister is in his place with his customary expression of happiness and enjoyment in his work—especially as he has at least two Bills and a fire strike to deal with, which I imagine is quite a management exercise. I hope that there will be a measure of consensus in our consideration of this Bill. However, if the Minister thinks that Opposition Members will accept that the Government's timetable allows adequate time to consider a large and complex Bill, I shall have to disappoint him.

Parts of the Bill are welcome—welcome on this side of the House and welcome in local government. However, as the Minister has acknowledged, other parts of the Bill are extremely controversial, and they are most unwelcome in local government.

The Bill is long—it contains 122 clauses and several long schedules—and we know that it will get longer. New clauses have already been tabled. One of them has Government support although, curiously, it is not in the Government's name. I refer to new clause 1, which will be very controversial and will warrant considerable debate in Committee. The Opposition will also be tabling a new clause that deals with the same area, suggesting ways in which other parts of legislation may be strengthened to ensure that the Government's intention in supporting the repeal of section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 is achieved in practice. The issues raised will add to the time that will be required for deliberations on this Bill.

A new clause, which has yet to be tabled by the Government, will repeal section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. That may not be terribly controversial, but it will no doubt provoke a discussion on some of the wider issues that surround the future organisation of the fire service. Those matters will be dealt with in sittings 12, 13 and 14.

Before I move on, I want to ask the Minister about another possible new clause that I have been considering, which is not in any sense party political. I have considered tabling a new clause that would extend to local authorities outside London the powers that are enjoyed by local authorities in London to control establishments that offer cosmetic body piercing. Many hon. Members will be concerned by this issue and will be aware of the recent tragic death of a young man in Sheffield as a result of septicaemia contracted following a body piercing in an unlicensed establishment.

When the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was a Health Minister, in reply to a written question she said:

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    ''The Government believe there should be primary legislation introduced to give local authorities outside London powers to regulate the hygiene and cleanliness of cosmetic body piercing businesses, when parliamentary time allows.''—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 53W.]

The Bill gives us an opportunity to do that. I have had a stab at drafting a new clause but the relevant section of the London Local Authorities Act 1991 runs to nine pages, so the issue is complex.

Would the Minister be predisposed to cross-party work to draft a new clause that could be moved in Committee or on Report to achieve something that the Government have said should be done when the opportunity presents itself? In view of the recent tragedy in Sheffield, I suspect that hon. Members of all parties would feel that the issue is ripe to be addressed. If the Minister can help us with that, it will represent yet another new clause, and I believe that further new clauses relating to registered social landlords are yet to be tabled by the Government.

The net result is that we will have just 11 sittings—27 and a half hours—before we reach clause 116. In the previous Committee on which the Minister and I served, we discussed the use of grammar and the English language, subsequent to which I wrote to the Minister for School Standards to see whether he agrees with the Minister for Local Government and the Regions about certain aspects of grammar and how they should be taught in our schools. Perhaps we can now move on to mathematics. If my mathematics serves me well, we have a fraction over 14 minutes to scrutinise, debate and decide on each of the first 116 clauses. The Minister is wrong if he thinks that those who will be affected by the Bill will consider that to be adequate time for parliamentary scrutiny of such an important and complex Bill.

In fact, the situation is worse than that because, according to the knives that have been inserted, we must reach clause 73 by 5 pm next Thursday, which, by my calculations, gives us just over 12 minutes to consider each of the first 73 clauses. That does not allow for these introductory discussions and any Divisions that might interrupt our deliberations. That is frankly a scandal.

The Government's only defence, which the Minister predictably gave, is that the Bill was published in draft and has been considered by a Select Committee. The Minister is right; the draft Bill was considered by a Select Committee. The Committee said:

    ''The Government promised to redress the imbalance between central and local government. This Bill fails to achieve that. It makes some small steps in the right direction but at the same time increases the power of the Secretary of State. Central Government seems to be terrified of trusting local authorities and allowing them their independence.''

It continued:

    ''The draft Bill is far too reliant on regulations. The Government should set out its intent on the face of the Bill, not through secondary legislation.''

The Committee concluded:

    ''The White Paper on which this Bill is based, raised considerable expectation about a change in the relations between central and local government. On the whole the draft Bill appears to be far from a radical overhaul and in many cases gives more powers to the Secretary of State. The way in which it is drafted could enmesh local

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    authorities in more regulation. We are furthermore concerned that aspects of the Bill centralise powers unnecessarily. We strongly believe that if local government is going to regain the public respect and authority it once enjoyed, the Government must be prepared to trust it much more''.

In other words, although the fact that a Select Committee has deliberated on the draft Bill is used as a reason why we have less time for scrutiny, the Committee's conclusions create a strong imperative for more time being given to scrutinise what it identified as a weak and inappropriate Bill.

 
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Prepared 21 January 2003