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Ruth Kelly: Of course what we need is a balanced diet, not indigestion. The White Paper sets out sensible proposals and is not subtitled “repentance”. The story so far is of improved local public service standards and an increased capacity in local government. The reason
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we have achieved that increase in standards is the central drive from Government, for instance with the literacy and numeracy hours from the Department for Education and Skills and the decent homes programme, which is putting right £19 billion of under-investment and backlog that we inherited in 1997. That is why we are in a position to devolve more and, as I have argued in the past, we have now reached a tipping point at which local government can take on more responsibilities.

The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically about city regions. The White Paper proposes employment and skills boards and city development companies in cities that want them. It will set out the clear principle that the more powers to be devolved, the greater the premium on transparent, visible leadership. The Leitch review is looking at skills and the Eddington review is looking across the board at transport, and we will come back with specific proposals for each city.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I welcome the White Paper’s commitment to extending devolution, but may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to two issues? First, I endorse what she said about the need for different governance formulae for different areas. What is right for a city region area such as that including Birmingham will be different from elsewhere. Secondly, we need to keep focused on the need to empower communities, not simply local authorities or agencies. Birmingham is a huge city and it needs the governance arrangements that go with that strategically, but the real test of success will be its willingness unambiguously to devolve further power to local communities such as mine, so that local people can have much more of a real say.

Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He is right to say that we must go with the grain of partnership working in different local city areas. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he was in my job, set up a process of city summits, which I was happy to take forward. It is clear to me that there is a huge appetite out there for more powers to be granted at the city region level. The city regions are already working together on a partnership basis, but the extent of their ambition and their capacity differs. The identification of citizens with their local areas also differs from place to place and we must build on what is happening locally. My hon. Friend is right also to suggest that we have to empower communities. A real test of our proposals will be the extent to which citizens and communities feel that they have a greater say in the provision of local public services.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): What consequences will the White Paper have for how and when legislation will be introduced to transfer powers to the Mayor of London?

Ruth Kelly: None.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Local Government Association in anticipation of
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drawing up the White Paper? Now that it has been launched, does she anticipate the LGA having any major problems with its content?

Ruth Kelly: I have had months of discussion with local government partners through the LGA and the different political groups on it, as well as with different towns, cities and rural areas across the country. The LGA has welcomed the full extent of the proposals, arguing that the White Paper is an essential first step on the road to a new relationship between Government and local government.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): In her statement, the Secretary of State said that communities must have a bigger say in the issues that matter to them most—a sentiment with which we would all agree. Will she put some flesh on the bones? For example, one issue on which local communities may feel very strongly is road safety. Will the local highway authority be able to introduce speed limits and install pedestrian crossings without any interference from the Department for Transport?

Ruth Kelly: When the right hon. Gentleman has the chance to read the White Paper, he will see that the Highways Agency is one of the named partners that will have to co-operate with local objectives. That means when a citizen or a community has an objection to a particular proposal, they will have the right, through their ward councillor, to have it considered by the overview and scrutiny committee, so that proposals can be made. The Highways Agency would have to take those into account when considering future measures.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition of the role of councillors as community champions and the need for ever better strategic leadership in local authority areas. The first of those will mean working more closely with community and voluntary sector representatives in the streets and estates of local authorities in ways that are informative, meaningful and flexible. At a more strategic level, will she look again at the way in which local strategic partnerships operate, in particular those with the good practice of really involving representatives of the community and voluntary sector to ensure that their voices are heard in LSPs?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right. The LSP, which brings together local partners, business representatives and the voluntary and community sector, will have a real role to play in deciding the future of a local area. However, the LSP should be chaired, or the chair should be agreed, by the local authority leader. Local authorities will be the bodies that are accountable, that take the decisions and that have the powers and tools they need to work with the voluntary sector to deliver real improvements for local people.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the greatest restrictions on local accountability, prioritisation and efficiency is the ring-fencing of funds by central Government, who specify in increasing detail how and on what money is spent? She has set a
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target to reduce targets, so will she ring-fence the amount of ring-fencing? What does she propose to do to reduce the amount of ring-fencing?

Ruth Kelly: I am glad that I have been able to give the right hon. Gentleman a degree of confidence that we are going down that route. Just over £500 million flows from central Government through the local area agreement, which is the delivery agreement with a local area. Measures in the White Paper will cause that to rise to up to £4.7 billion, with the presumption that, unless there is an exceptional reason to the contrary, all area-based funding will go un-ring-fenced through the LAA. There will also be a single capital pot, so local authorities will have real flexibility as to how they meet their targets.

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement. Continued improvement in performance must be the best way to strengthen local authorities’ leadership and autonomy. That is good news for 95 per cent. of local authorities, but a minority will always be unable to cope well, through either incompetence or extremism. What powers will the Government retain to deal with councils such as the new Tory administration in Hammersmith and Fulham? In the past few weeks it has announced that it will close one of the borough’s three secondary schools to sell the land that it is on. It has also cut the delivery of meals on wheels from once a day to once a week—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Secretary of State has got the drift of the argument.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right that the Government should be able to agree key requirements with a local area, and to expect them to be delivered. Where those requirements are not delivered, the Government should be able to provide support or to intervene. In addition, local people should be able to have their views taken into consideration.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): The Secretary of State talked about providing freedoms to local authorities, but what real opportunities will local authorities and communities outside cities have to draw down powers and funds from the plethora of unelected quangos that control so much local spending? For example, are there any plans to change the fact that the only democratically elected person with responsibility for health is the Secretary of State for Health? Is not it true that the White Paper will not give local government the powers it wants?

Ruth Kelly: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is labouring under a misapprehension about the proposals in the White Paper, which mean that locally elected representatives will have a key role in the health and well-being partnerships, and can lead them if they wish to do so. As a result, PCTs and social services will work intimately together, with a local democratic input.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I, too, welcome the White Paper, which amounts to a step change in the
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relationship between central Government and local government, and between local government and their communities. In particular, I welcome the important leadership role that democratic and accountable local councils will have. How will she ensure that the budget held by agencies that deliver non-local government services will change to reflect the leadership role, and the local partnerships, outlined in the White Paper?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He has huge experience as a local councillor, and as chair of the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities. He is right to emphasise the importance of strong local leadership. Local authorities need to have real input into setting and agreeing objectives with their local partners. That means agreeing the objectives that all the local agencies—and that includes the PCTs, in the case of health—should work towards. The White Paper contains a long list of all the partners that must co-operate with the local authority in fulfilling those objectives. As a result, there will be joint commissioning in the future, and different agencies will be working to the same ends. Another consequence is that they will not have conflicting targets, with one agency trying to do one thing and a different agency something else. In future, all agencies will be able to work on an integrated basis.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): In her statement, the Secretary of State said that councillors should be able to sort out planning issues. My district council—quite rightly and of its own volition—is building 9,000 houses to meet housing need. However, an outcry has erupted at a proposed development of 6,000 houses on the edge of Leighton Buzzard, as it is in the green belt and on a flood plain. On this issue, will my councillors be able to respond to the needs and wishes of the people whom they represent?

Ruth Kelly: Local authorities already have huge planning powers. For instance, some have managed, through their local development framework, to prevent building in back gardens—a matter about which, I know, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has very strong feelings. By using the powers to their full extent, local authorities can respond to local citizens’ wishes. Many Opposition Members do not want the homes to be built, which is why we have a national framework for agreeing how many homes are needed. I want greater local flexibility in the framework, and the hon. Gentleman should await the forthcoming PPS3 on development.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I too welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend. I hope that she will agree that the investment and support given to local authorities by this Government stand in stark contrast to the cuts and devastation inflicted over years by the Opposition. However, I seek clarification on two points—

Mr. Speaker: Order. At this late stage, one point would be fine.

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Dr. Blackman-Woods: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The one point about which I seek clarification has to do with those county councils that, like Durham, are seeking unitary status. What is expected from a bid in addition to value for money? What time scale will apply, and will councils still have to achieve consensus?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for her questions, and she will be able to examine the invitation to councils that we are publishing alongside the White Paper. There will be a narrow window of opportunity, and the timetable is set out in the document. Any proposed change to a future unitary government structure must be affordable within a council’s existing resource envelope and must enjoy a broad cross section of support. We also expect strong leadership and local accountability to be part of any such proposal.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The Secretary of State spoke about listening to local people, but I remind her of the result of the north-east referendum. It emphatically rejected regionalism by a staggering seven to one majority on a nearly 50 per cent. turnout. Does she believe that unelected regional assemblies will be more popular than elected ones? Will she include in her proposals provisions for referendums in all the regions of England, so that local people can decide whether they want to keep unelected regional assemblies, or whether they want the powers to be returned to local authorities, where they belong?

Ruth Kelly: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman focuses on having referendums up and down the country, as regional assemblies are voluntary partnerships composed mainly of local authority representatives. Of course, they will have a key role in determining local housing numbers—so perhaps he too has an ulterior motive.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. Given that so much of local service delivery is provided by arm’s length companies and trusts, it is right that scrutiny panels have even more control over them. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, other than in commercially sensitive matters, all the information and background documents from those trusts and arm’s length companies will be made available to councillors? That is not what happens at present.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There must be accountability in the provision of local public services. A set of named partners will have the duty to respond formally to the overview and scrutiny committees when they request information. If that mechanism does not apply in his
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local circumstances, which I should be happy to investigate, I remind him that the freedom of information provisions still apply.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), I suspect that those of us who have been councillors or are recently retired councillors will find today’s statement not only a disappointment but a failure to recognise much of the reality that we face. The Secretary of State talked about councillors being champions for their wards. Most of us have been doing that for years. What in the statement is new and will give extra powers at ward level to councillors? What exactly is the community call for action?

Ruth Kelly: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not agree with fellow councillors up and down the country who are this morning welcoming the proposals set out in the White Paper. Indeed, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, the Tory chairman of the Local Government Association, called the cutting of targets “great news”. The hon. Gentleman asked what specific powers there would be. I would have thought that the opportunity to set byelaws at local level to deal with street nuisance, which people really care about, was a huge devolution of power from the centre. Councils will not have to drag those cautioned for an offence through the magistrates court, but will have the opportunity to issue a fixed penalty notice. He asked what the community call for action was. It is the opportunity, as I have just outlined to my hon. Friends, for a community or individual, through their ward councillor, to have their complaint or issue properly examined, responded to and taken into account at whole-council level.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I welcome the White Paper and its focus on strengthening the role of local councillors and on strong local leadership. I note the proposals for four-year elected terms for leaders, executives and mayors. Has my right hon. Friend given consideration to the thorny issue of the failure of such individuals as a result of abuse or corruption? How do we ensure that public confidence is maintained in the leadership and how will political groups work with a leader who is there for four years if they have lost confidence in him or her?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The presumption will be that leaders are elected with a four-year mandate so that they are able to draw up a local strategy for the area and see it through, taking decisions as required, but if the leader of the council loses the confidence of the council, he or she will have to go.

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Business of the House

12.32 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I shall be pleased to make a business statement, if I may—[ Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that she has not asked for the business, but she will be aware that where we have a business statement rather than business questions, I am expected to stand up without being asked. That is how it works.

Monday 30 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill, followed by a debate on security of energy supply on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Tuesday 31 October—Opposition day [un-allotted half-day]. There will be a debate entitled “Conduct of Government Policy in Relation to the War in Iraq and its Aftermath” on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National parties, followed by motions relating to the Crossrail Bill.

Wednesday 1 November—Business of the House motion relating to proceedings on House of Commons business, followed by motions relating to House of Commons business including September sittings, the legislative process, matters sub judice, Select Committee evidence, shorter speeches and European Standing Committees.

Thursday 2 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Education and Inspections Bill.

Friday 3 November—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the beginning of the following week will be as follows:

Monday 6 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Animal Welfare Bill, followed by proceedings on the National Health Service Bill [ Lords], followed by proceedings on the National Health Service (Consequential Provisions) Bill [ Lords], followed by proceedings on the National Health Service (Wales) Bill [ Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, on a subject yet to be decided.

May I also inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall will be:

Thursday 2 November—A debate on the Fifth report of Session 2005-06 for the Home Affairs Committee on Immigration Control (HC 775) and the Government response.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for his business statement. He read out a list of those subjects that will be included in the business of the House motion on 1 November. Does he expect anything to be added to that list and, if so, what?

Last week, when pressed for a debate on Iraq, the right hon. Gentleman said in so many words that it was up to the Opposition. For example, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), he said:

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