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Ruth Kelly: I do. My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We should listen not only to established voices in our local communities but to people whose voices have not traditionally been heard in this debate—the voices of women and young people in particular, and of the grass-roots organisations that play a genuine role in rooting out extremism and promoting our shared values as a society, spreading and enhancing economic and social justice. Last week the director general of the Security Service, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, outlined the scale of the terrorist threat—some 200 groupings or networks with a total of more than 1,600 identified individuals who are actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here or overseas—so my hon. Friend is right to say that we should take action. Let no one tell us that those who
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commit terrorism in the name of Islam represent the vast majority of decent, law-abiding Muslims in this country. Isolating extremists is a shared problem: the Government should step up their work, all faith groups should stand up for core shared values, and Muslim leaders should actively condemn extremism. As a Government we will work in partnership with organisations that take a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Did the Secretary of State note that the head of Security Service said that the Government were in danger of spending too much time talking to faith groups and not enough time engaging in a dialogue with community groups and elected councillors?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We must reach out to more people who are active at grass-roots level and connect with young people and individuals who may be susceptible to the threat of extremism. It is therefore important that we build up the Government office network and work with local authorities. In the past few weeks, I have talked with local authority leaders and chief executives about the work that they do as local leaders to combat the threat of extremism.

The quality of our environment and the steps that we take to enhance and protect it for future generations are integral to the health and strength of our communities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will say more about the national action that we are taking to address the challenges of climate change. My Department has taken action at local level, too. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds centre at Rainham marshes, which I visited last week and which will be enjoyed by thousands of local people and schoolchildren, is an example of a beautifully designed low-carbon building. Our aim is that the Thames Gateway should become an exemplar for low-carbon and zero-carbon development. We will publish a code for sustainable homes that will set agreed standards for homes’ environmental performance. We want to make it easier, too, for people to make informed choices about more sustainable lifestyles. The introduction of energy performance certificates will inform home owners about their home’s energy performance.

Strong and prosperous communities are central to the long-term health of our democracy and our country—

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I sense that the right hon. Lady is close to a peroration, and I have not yet heard her mention the words “Lyons” or “local government finance”, which is curious in a speech about the Government programme in relation to local government. It is like a meal without the meat. It is reported that Sir Michael Lyons will deliver his report to Government in the week that the House goes into recess for Christmas. Will she give us the assurance that it will be published in the week that the House returns from the Christmas recess?

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Ruth Kelly: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I thought someone might ask me about the council tax during my speech, and I am glad that he took the opportunity to do so. He will know that we published a local government Bill covering the form and function of local government, because it is right to examine these issues in a serious and orderly way before we consider finance. He is right, too, to say that Sir Michael Lyons is taking an independent view of the local government system for finance and that he will deliver his report to us when he has completed it. He has not yet given us a date for delivery of his report. It would be a little premature to comment on when it will be published, but published it will be.

Mr. Curry: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ruth Kelly: No. I have given way once to the right hon. Gentleman.

Strong and prosperous communities are central to the long-term health of our democracy and our country. I believe we are well equipped to meet the challenge—sustained investment, not short-termism and cuts; supporting aspiration for everyone, not privilege for a few; social justice, not the politics of despair. It is a record that I am proud to put before the House today.

2.56 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Forgive me for expressing my disappointment, but I thought the point of the debate on the Gracious Speech was for the Government to promote their legislative programme. I have therefore addressed myself to what was in the Queen’s Speech. Members of the public listening to such a presentation by a Minister will be disappointed by the level of party political point scoring and evasion of the point of the debate.

We welcome the debate and for good reason we have chosen to yoke together the subjects of local government and the environment. It makes sense to do that because it is local authorities that shoulder a great deal of responsibility for taking the steps necessary to improve the quality of our environment locally and, by extension, globally. In most cases councils are rising to that challenge with innovative ways to reduce our environmental impact. The work that they do is poorly recognised by central Government, who fail to credit local authorities for the amount of commercial waste that they collect and recycle and the amount of composting that takes place. Even the transformation of waste into energy does not count.

Local authorities tell me that these important aspects are not taken into account when a council is assessed for its green credentials. That is evidence of a lack of coherence in the approach of the two Government Departments represented in the Chamber today, a lack of coherence that stems from a party unsure of its future direction, as was laid bare in the Queen’s Speech last week. The Queen’s Speech comes not long since the publication of the local government White Paper and it allows us to compare the rhetoric of the White Paper with the reality of the legislative programme.

Let us start with the local government Bill. We will welcome any measures in the Bill that give greater
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freedom to local councils. Rationalising the inspection regimes, cutting Government targets, scaling back best value and the comprehensive performance assessment will not be met with opposition from us, mainly because we have been campaigning for so long to scrap those procedures, although we shall wait and see if the replacement, the comprehensive area assessment, which sounds suspiciously like “son of comprehensive performance assessment”, merely results in more red tape under a different guise.

I am sure I am not alone in seeing the irony of the Government’s present position. In order to cut the targets and directives that have hamstrung councils, the Government will have to repeal their own legislation from the Local Government Acts 1999, 2000 and 2003. But in a spirit of consensus, I shall simply say, “Better the sinner that repents” and leave it at that.

I shall be watching closely, however, to ensure that we do not have a bonfire of directives one day, only for new regulations to break out like rekindled embers from the fire on the next. I hope that taking a knife to the red tape will genuinely liberate councils in the long term, but I am sceptical that the culture that created the red tape in the first place can really be changed overnight. I find it astonishing, for example, that my local authority is being prevented by the Department for Education and Skills from fitting a sprinkler system in a brand new academy, despite four local cases of school arson in the past two years.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Given that we are supposed to have joined-up government, does my hon. Friend not agree that this is an example of one Department cutting targets while another is ladling them on?

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a lack of coherence between Departments on the issue of genuine localism.

Mr. Sheerman: As Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, may I give a little more detail to the House on this issue? We are considering the issue of sustainable schools at the moment, and the evidence suggests that there is no directive on the matter. Indeed, the Department is encouraging the installation of sprinkler systems in new schools.

Mrs. Spelman: I refer the hon. Gentleman to a parliamentary question that I tabled in July, and I will send him a copy of the reply that I received.

We welcome measures to give parish councils more powers to pass by-laws enabling them to take action on antisocial behaviour and graffiti, but several questions remain unanswered. What calculations have been made of the cost of policing on-the-spot fines and of putting community support officers on the streets, and of the working capacity of the councils that will implement and manage those schemes? How far down the road of summary justice are we prepared to go? Of course we need to come down hard on problems such as graffiti and antisocial behaviour, but are there sufficient safeguards in place? Already, people who mix up their recycling or accidentally put their dustbins out on the wrong day are being fined. Surely we should be looking to the magistrates courts as the means of delivering
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prompt local justice, with the safety net of giving defendants a fair say. That was the courts’ original purpose, and the Government should be trying to restore that role.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend mentioned waste. Is she aware that well-intentioned policies on waste management can often lead to fly-tipping, which has become a real problem in my constituency? What does she feel that the Government should do about that? At the moment, there appears to be a complete lack of a considered, joined-up approach.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it allows me to point out that the Government’s proposals for a bin tax or rubbish tax would have exactly the unintended consequence of driving people to the unacceptable option of fly-tipping.

In reality, when considering the models of leadership that the Government propose, most councils will opt to retain the status quo—that is, a leader appointed from the controlling group who has an automatic four-year term. The Government’s proposals are a far cry from their original plans for directly elected mayors in every town. Now we have a White Paper containing a whole series of leadership options from which councils may choose. We welcome the fact that local authorities will be given that choice, but we are sceptical that we shall see anything other than the retention of the status quo.

The proposals are welcome in that they will give communities and councils the chance to decide for themselves on their leadership requirements, rather than having a model forced on them. So, in the spirit of letting councils decide for themselves on their new leadership arrangements, why will the Government not go the whole hog and allow them to decide whether they want to stick with a cabinet structure or revert back to one involving committees? A simple measure such as that would add credibility to the Government’s professed enthusiasm for localism.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Does the hon. Lady not agree that the question that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) put to the Secretary of State earlier is the key? We can fiddle around with the structures and the organisations until we are blue in the face, but unless local councils have control over the finance to do the things that local people want, we shall not get anywhere. What is the Conservative party’s position, not only on the Lyons report but on that crucial question?

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman invites me to repeat that the local government White Paper had an obvious hole in that it made no mention whatsoever of local government finance. We are all waiting for the outcome of the review by Sir Michael Lyons. The hon. Gentleman’s party has experienced the damage caused by getting ahead of Lyons in promoting the local income tax, which has been deeply unpopular with the electorate. There is every good reason to await the outcome of Lyons. I reiterate the call by my right hon.
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Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)—we want the report to be published as soon as possible, preferably the day after it is given to the Government so that we, too, may benefit given the long period for which local government finance has been under review.

Mr. Curry: Does my hon. Friend agree that three dates matter—when the report is delivered to the Government, when it is published, and when the Government respond to it—and that it is crucial that all three stages should be completed well before the May local elections?

Mrs. Spelman: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It will become increasingly difficult politically for the Government to publish the report as the date of the local elections approaches; and it will not have escaped his attention that that moment could coincide with the change in the leadership of the Labour party. I strongly suspect that the reason why the Government are seeking to withhold the report from us is that they are unsure about the direction in which the new leader of the Labour party will take them.

The proposals to reform local area agreements will make interesting reading. Like Ministers, I spent last week meeting many people involved in local government. The local area agreement reforms carry a great deal of expectation. I welcome moves to deliver greater involvement and consultation with community stakeholders. Nevertheless, there is a built-in tension, because however empowered the local authority may feel, the centralised nature of Government means that representatives from other public services are dancing to the tune of their own Department in Whitehall instead of that of their local community. The Department admits as much in a report on local area agreements from last month, which says:

As a case in point, the report even referred to the different views in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government on what a sustainable community looks like. Until the Government are unified across all Departments in delivering localism, I fear that the potential of reformed local area agreements will remain extremely limited.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Lady’s interest in local area agreements. I am sure that she agrees that local authorities, increasingly working with the voluntary sector, provide an important means of delivering local services attuned to the needs of local communities. Does she acknowledge that since the Conservatives took over London councils, grants to voluntary sectors across London have been slashed, with Tory councillors claiming that that is to reduce council tax?

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman heard me state that the local area agreement has potential as a vehicle for bringing together the strategic bodies that serve a
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local community. However, until now the experience of those in the voluntary sector has been that they are not being treated on an equal footing, as was manifest at a conference that I attended with a Minister last week that addressed the voluntary sector’s role in the context of local area agreements. That is enshrined in the local government White Paper, which contains an obligation to consult with voluntary organisations but still does not ensure that they are treated on an equal footing. We need to recognise the important role that the voluntary sector—or third sector, to use the terminology—can play in partnership with local authorities. It has even greater potential than we have yet seen. However, I shall remain sceptical as long as the other representatives of Departments to the local area agreement are dancing to the tune of their own Whitehall Department. That is my beef with the Government.

The local government Bill will also contain a measure to provide for the restructuring of local authorities, despite the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government herself described that restructuring as a “distraction”. The reality is that there is no public appetite for restructuring. The only people for whom it holds any interest are politicians and some academics.

One academic in particular—Cambridge professor Michael Chisholm—puts the transitional costs of restructuring at £121 per person. He also asserts that in two-tier authorities it is unrealistic to suppose that the creation of a unitary authority will generate financial savings. In fact, he concludes that there is every prospect that the ongoing costs will go up. So, it is a brave person who is prepared to stand on the doorstep pledging the abolition of someone’s local council and charging them more than £100 for doing it.

The Queen’s Speech promises a Greater London authority Bill, which will extend considerably the powers of the London Mayor. We want genuine devolution of power and decision making to local communities, but this Bill will not deliver that. It will draw powers up from local communities. Local councils will no longer be able to take decisions in the interests of the communities that they serve on issues such as housing and planning.

Local opinion will effectively be steamrollered by the Mayor, and we already know what a controversial issue planning is. Rather than a London council considering the needs of its local community and agreeing a local development plan, as at present, the Mayor will produce his own housing strategy and councils will simply have to fall into line. So much for localism.

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that one reason that the Mayor might need those powers is the appalling record of Conservative London councils, some of which are building fewer than 10 per cent. affordable housing of all the housing built in the boroughs? An opinion survey shows that more than 80 per cent. of Londoners want the Mayor to be able to have at least 50 per cent. affordable housing built. If councils from the hon. Lady’s party got things right, maybe those powers would not be necessary.

Mrs. Spelman: I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman, and nor do the London electorate. He will recall that, as recently as last May, they voted in a
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further eight Conservative boroughs. We oppose the transfer of those powers to the Mayor because we want local people to have a strong voice in how their neighbourhood evolves.

We are not alone in opposing those changes. Council leaders have branded the transfer of planning powers

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