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Mr. Forth: I wonder whether the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is either otiose or entirely at odds with what I thought was our party's policy. I am rather puzzled, following the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made. He reminded the House that clause 36(5) says:

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My reading of that is that it has the potential to cover the matter that has caused such concern to be expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. I wonder how much added value there is in the words proposed in the new clause. On the face of it, the Bill as drafted seems to make more than adequate provision.

May I say in passing that I am uncomfortable with the immense degree of bureaucracy involved in this whole exercise? For example, clause 33—which is in part 3, the subject of new clause 2—says:

That takes us deep into the jungle of bureaucracy—up to our armpits or beyond. We have in that provision the lethal combination of local authorities on the one hand and national bureaucracies on the other. Yet, although I am sorry to say this, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch seems to be adding to that bureaucracy in a most regrettable way.

I may be labouring under a misapprehension, and I am sure that one of my hon. Friends will put me right if I am, but I thought that the whole thrust of my party's policy was local autonomy and local decision making. I have heard many of my right hon. and hon. Friends speak at great length, and with passion, about the need to give local bodies—be they school boards, local authorities or anything else—the maximum possible degree of discretion in making decisions for which they are accountable to their electorate. However, I now find to my astonishment that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has come along with new clause 2, which apparently seeks to overturn that whole philosophy, because it says:

Mr. Redwood: My right hon. Friend protests too much. The purpose of new clause 2 is to signal clearly that the measure is not a tax. Local authorities have other taxes that they impose, but this should be simply an administrative charge that reflects the cost of giving the public something that many of them want: greater access to their roads.

Mr. Forth: That might be my right hon. Friend's view, but—

Mr. Redwood: It is.

Mr. Forth: My view, however—as I am the one speaking, I think that my view has primacy at the moment—is that local authorities should be given the scope and freedom to charge a fee, even if we call that a tax, at their discretion, for which they are accountable to their voters. That is the burden of my argument. I thought, in the most peremptory way, that that was the thrust of our policy, but along comes my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and tramples all over that. He is saying, in a heavy-handed way, that he has decided that were new clause 2 to be accepted, local authorities

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should not have that discretion. However, I bet that when my hon. Friend was the eminent, successful leader of Wandsworth borough council, he would have argued for such a stance and said, "Knowing the local conditions in Wandsworth, I, accountable as I am to my electorate, want us to have the freedom to impose such charges locally as I think are necessary."

Mr. Miller: May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if we are hearing a Tory split, or a Tory filibuster?

Mr. Forth: No, we are hearing a mature Tory debate of the kind that—

Mr. Miller: It is a split, then.

Mr. Forth: I do not want to be drawn into such an argument, but if the hon. Gentleman is saying that in the Labour party, new or old, a debate is now called a split, that tells us quite a lot about his party's mentality. In the new, thrusting, dynamic Conservative party we welcome debate because we are confident of our philosophy, particularly our philosophy on local government autonomy, if I may say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.

Mr. Chope: Will my right hon. Friend accept that the whole ethos of Wandsworth borough council, when I was privileged to be its leader, was to keep taxes down? We wanted to have low tax rather than to introduce new taxes.

Mr. Forth: Yes, indeed. That was my hon. Friend's decision, and the people of Wandsworth rewarded him with a continuity of power unequalled in modern times. I am grateful to him for making that point. He made that decision and was rewarded by his electorate for it. Surely he would not now want to deny elected representatives in other local authorities the power to make different decisions for their areas. They might decide in this case, for their own reasons, that higher fees would be appropriate to their circumstances and conditions. That is why I am at a loss to understand why my hon. Friend is trying to persuade the House that somehow, in a Bill—

Brian White: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the utilities and other companies that will have to pay the costs have expressed concern about the impact that those costs will have on them? That is not the same as the argument that he is making.

Mr. Forth: I shall carry the argument some way to make my point, but if a local authority were to set fees at a prohibitive level, the utilities might not undertake the repairs and improvements that they wanted to and the local populace would suffer as a result. It would then be for the local voters to make their decision, on the basis that the exorbitant fees being charged by their elected representatives were having a counter-productive effect on their lifestyle. For example, knowing the hon. Gentleman's expertise and interest in such esoteric

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matters as broadband, I suspect that he thinks that every home should be served by the ghastly internet, and that the horrible material on it should be accessed by every household, perhaps regardless of the cost. I would take a different view, and suggest that if his local authority were wise enough to charge a penal fee to discourage the connection of the ghastly broadband and other internet services, his voters would be very grateful to him and to the local authority.

Mr. Chope rose—

Mr. Forth: But who am I to make such a judgment? I know not about such matters, and they are not for me or, may I say, even for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to comment on. He looks pregnant, so I shall give way to him.

Mr. Chope: I hope that my right hon. Friend will not allow his prejudice against broadband to disguise the fact that there are statutory duties relating to the safety of gas mains and the provision of water, which local authorities need to take into account. If they impose substantial extra taxes on the provision and maintenance of those key facilities, the undertakers will not be able to avoid paying those taxes.

Mr. Forth: And indeed, to follow that point, the undertakers will not be able to avoid increasing their charges to their consumers, who will then be able to make a market judgment. What puzzles me, coming from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, of all people, is that that they seem to be shrinking from allowing a market judgment. In the end, two mechanisms are in play on this point: the political, electoral mechanism of local authorities and the market mechanism between the utilities and their consumers, who happen in this case to be coincidental with the voters. I should have thought that that would appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, and I can see that he is thinking about it, which encourages me to hope that he might reconsider his position. In the end, however, I need to hear much more from him, and I hope that when he winds up this little debate, he will give further arguments to explain why he seems so wedded to a degree of central control and fiat that is completely at odds with his distinguished political history and his political philosophy. That is my problem with new clause 2.

3.30 pm

To return to where I came in, were my right hon. and hon. Friends to want to go down this route in any case, my reading of the original wording of the Bill is that it probably provides sufficient powers in the key phrase

although I accept that that implies a degree of centrality, central control and omniscience—not to say omnipotence—that I find distressing. However, if my right hon. and hon. Friends want the words, they are there in the Bill already, and I hope that they will reconsider the position that they have taken in new clause 2 and seek leave to withdraw it.

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I am equally horrified by amendment No. 10, because here we are introduced to the phrase

which strikes me as amazingly prescriptive, and to the provision

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