Local Government Bill

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Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but the situation is even worse that he alleges. On Second Reading, the Chairman of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee told the House that the Committee had had only a week to examine the draft Bill and make its considerations. Therefore, it is outrageous that this Committee has been allowed so little time to scrutinise the Bill.

Mr. Hammond: I agree entirely. This is a big, important and complicated Bill. This is an early test of the pre-legislative scrutiny system. If the Government are simply going to use the fact that there has been pre-legislative scrutiny as an excuse to curtail proper scrutiny during the passage of this substantive Bill, that system falls at the first hurdle.

The Labour-dominated Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee has exposed the Government as spinning the exact opposite of what the Bill actually does. The Select Committee rejected many key issues in the Bill and it falls to us to deal with those weaknesses, notwithstanding the guillotines put in place by the Government.

We will do our best—I know that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will do the same for the Liberal Democrats—to scrutinise the Bill carefully. Not all clauses will require the full 12 minutes of time allocated, but many clauses will require much longer. Frankly, I doubt that all of the clauses will receive scrutiny or debate in this Committee. Therefore, on a practical level, I appeal to the Minister to do his bit in trying to ensure that we have a reasonable chance of scrutinising the principal clauses by not chewing up the Committee's time reading out what he described in the context of another Bill as ''a load of guff'' from his brief. He should limit his responses to answering the questions of Committee members. If he can do that, hopefully we will be able to scrutinise the maximum possible number of clauses in the Bill.

It is bad enough that the Bill has been guillotined, which allows us a hopelessly inadequate allocation of time. It would be intolerable to listen to ministerial filibuster on clauses early in the Bill at the expense of an opportunity to properly scrutinise those further on. We will play our part in seeking to ensure that debate is constructive and to the point, but we will not dance to the Government's tune by passing over matters that require debate because of the timetable. If, at the end of the Committee's deliberations or the fall of any

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knives, some of the clauses have not been debated, the responsibility will be the Government's alone.

Mr. Davey: It is a real delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths, for the first time on a Standing Committee. My hon. Friends and I look forward to your guidance and that of your colleague, Mr. Conway.

In relation to previous Bills in this Session of Parliament, I have reminded the Minister of some of the marathon debates that he and I had to endure in the proceedings of the Greater London Authority Bill, which met for three months in a similar-sized Committee. The proceedings were fraught and went late into the night. We will not have that pleasure in proceedings for this Bill, especially with the motion before us.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said, but it was unfair of him to suggest that the Minister ever speaks ''guff''. Unlike some of his colleagues—not, I emphasise, his colleague in Committee today, but some of those who served on the Standing Committee for the Greater London Authority Bill—he is often to the point, clear and helpful to the Committee in its proceedings.

It is a great privilege to serve on the Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), who is especially concerned about how provisions in clause 11will affect councils in her constituency. It is also pleasing to serve with my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who will be joining us shortly. He is an experienced council leader as well as a member of the Select Committee that scrutinised the Bill, so he should be able to help us.

It is a particular delight to welcome the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), who is a recent addition to the Committee. Plaid Cymru was not willing to take up its place and, since the Government Whips were kind enough to allow us to take it, we eagerly accepted it. My hon. Friend will no doubt be of help when we scrutinise issues regarding Wales.

9.15 am

The Minister will know that my colleagues I and voted for the Bill on Second Reading. We welcome much of the Bill, whether on business improvement districts, the reform of council tax, or the prudential capital regime, as far as those go. Despite the many welcome aspects, the Committee has a serious job to do, because vast improvements could be made, not least to the prudential capital regime that we will debate this morning. The Bill is a step in the right direction, but many more steps are needed before it becomes something under which local government will be truly free of unnecessary and onerous intervention from central Government.

I think that the Minister is keen to hear the debate and that he comes to the Committee with an open mind. I hope that he will listen to some of the arguments with respect to winning new freedoms for local government and that he will try to take the

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Treasury influence away from such matters. Some of us have detected that Treasury officials and Ministers had their sticky paws all over the Bill before the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published it and got it to this point.

As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, there are a number of new clauses that have already been, or may be, tabled by the Minister. The hon. Gentleman may also be threatening us with some new clauses. That backs up the argument of both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that we need more time to debate the Bill. Some of us doubt whether the Government believe their own rhetoric when they say that the Bill is historic and will make sweeping changes to local government, but if that is the case, the Committee should surely debate it more closely than the 14 sittings will allow.

If the sittings motion is put to the vote, my colleagues and I will not support it—we did not support it during the Programming Sub-Committee—because we believe that the Bill is worthy of greater scrutiny. Unlike the Conservative Opposition, we came to that position from a belief that there is much of worth in the Bill upon which we want to build. Our position is different from that of the Conservatives.

Should Conservative Front-Bench Members criticise the Government for limiting the freedom of councils some of us will be impatient, because many Government and Liberal Democrat Members remember the kinds of controls and restrictions that successive Conservative Governments put on local government. There would be a degree of, and a smell of, hypocrisy were we to hear from the Conservatives this morning that they want local government to be freer of the shackles of Whitehall than the Labour Government propose.

I suppose that we should welcome sinners who have repented, but the 18 years—[Interruption.] The Conservative Whip accuses me of being a sanctimonious creep. I am not sure whether that remark is in order, but it appears that I have got up the hon. Gentleman's nose during the first sitting, so I mark that down as one-nil to us.

I hope that the Conservatives will not be hypocritical and that, should they call for greater freedom, they will preface their remarks by saying, ''We regret that we failed to do that during our 18 years.''

Mr. Raynsford: I shall respond briefly. I thank the hon. Members for Runnymede and Weybridge and for Kingston and Surbiton for their kind remarks and I look forward to renewing our acquaintance in Committee. We had a constructive engagement in the Committee that dealt with the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. We will consider that Bill on Thursday, and I must express my appreciation of the flexibility that has been afforded us, which allows us to concentrate on that Bill on Thursday instead of the present Bill.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge rightly referred to the range of measures and the number of new clauses. He specifically asked about a

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new clause relating to body piercing. We have sought legal advice on whether that would be within the scope of the Bill; we have not received an immediate answer, but I will let him know about that either verbally or in writing as soon as possible.

However, there are important new measures relating to fire, on which the hon. Gentleman commented, and to other crucial issues, particularly the universally incorrectly referred to section 28, the repeal of which we will come to. It is right that there should be space for consideration of those measures in subsequent sittings of this Committee.

There are 116 or so clauses in the Bill, but many of them are uncontroversial. The first clause, which we will come to shortly, defines the powers to borrow of local authorities, and it is significant that the Opposition have tabled no amendments to it. It is a sensible, practical, well-expressed clause that can be quickly agreed to. Therefore, the mathematical calculation that the hon. Gentleman has made might be inaccurate, because we will not require the 16 or 12 minutes—or however many minutes he has calculated that we have—to consider that clause, unless he speaks at length during the clause stand part debate, which I am sure that he will not.

Mr. Hammond: I certainly will not speak at length in the clause stand part debate for clause 1. However, I do have questions to put to the Minister about that clause, and I would caution him not to assume that if amendments have not been tabled, that means that there are no issues to be raised. I do not know how the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has approached this, but I have chosen in respect of some clauses not to table amendments but to raise particular issues during the clause stand part debates, because of the limited time that is available.

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