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Is the National Assembly for Wales in favour of that? I asked earlier whether there had been consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government but did not receive a detailed response. On the radio this morning, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) said that he had spoken to the people of Wales, but I want to see a submission by the Welsh Assembly Government. Have they been consulted? If so, what is their view, and where is their formal, considered written response? That should have been put in the Vote Office before this debate, or it should be put there before the end of it. Otherwise, it is—dare I say it—the worst kind of imperialism. It is us as a Parliament saying to the Welsh Assembly: “We think this will be good for you. We have decided that this is in your interests so we are giving you this power.” That is not what devolution is all about.

Mr. Jones: Without wanting to get into the internal politics of Wales, may I ask what my hon. Friend thinks would happen if the plan were approved by the local community in Wales and by the Secretary of State but strongly objected to by the Welsh Assembly? How would that lead to the efficient delivery of services in local communities in Wales?

Mr. David: That is a good question. It would be extremely unhelpful if we knew. We have seen examples in the recent past whereby legislation was agreed in this House and there was a strong feeling among the people of Wales that it was not required. Going back to the 1970s and 1980s, that is precisely why we had the groundswell in Wales for devolution in the first place. In 1997, there was a referendum and the people of Wales voted in favour of devolution so that they themselves could decide what legislation they wished to have on the statute book within certain confines. A clear delineation has been made in which of what powers are devolved and which powers are not devolved.

Mr. Dismore: A similar issue arises in relation to the London assembly and the London Mayor, who were elected after a referendum of the people of London. Picking up the point that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made about local policing plans, policing is a responsibility of the
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London Mayor in terms of setting a budget for the Metropolitan police. Does my hon. Friend think that problems could arise in similar circumstances as regards what the London Mayor is trying to achieve in improving policing in the capital?

Mr. David: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Devising structures and processes that will inevitably create conflict is not a good recipe for creating consensus in society and implementing progressive policies. With regard to Wales, many of the policy areas that would be covered by the Bill, such as health, community regeneration and local government, are devolved matters. The Bill is saying to the Welsh Assembly: “You must fulfil certain processes, even though you might not like them and even though you have not been consulted, in areas where we have decided that you should have responsibility.” That is profoundly ill thought out.

Ms Butler: We all agree that we must work to achieve safe, healthy and sustainable communities. The Road Traffic Act 1991 devolved parking enforcement to local authorities. In Brent, the new Lib Dem-Tory administration decided to send a battalion of traffic wardens out on new year’s day to issue hundreds of parking tickets. Local councillors Bobby Thomas, James Powney and Bertha Joseph, and a local resident, Rocky Fernandez, started a petition to try to get the local authority to take account of what was going on. That is another example of how the Government have devolved some powers to local authorities and where sometimes it can go a bit wrong.

Mr. David: As I said, the principle of devolving powers is now widely accepted. It is significant that the Conservatives, who opposed Welsh devolution, now support it. The principle of devolution has been accepted, but for it to work, first, it must have the support of the people, and secondly, it must be well thought out. We are not talking about separatism but a new set of relationships. It is extremely important to ensure that when we talk about devolving powers we work out clearly and precisely what the relationships are between the Government, regional bodies in England—if that ever happens—the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, and do not simply go with the flow because the rhetoric is positive and we are all getting a warm feeling.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is developing an interesting line of argument. Clause 6(1) refers to a local authority submitting its plans to the Secretary of State for approval, but nothing in the Bill says what happens if the Secretary of State does not approve the plan. That is another lacuna.

Mr. David: Yes. I do not know what the solution is, because I did not draft the Bill. It would be interesting if the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood could deal with that point. As I understand it, the buck would stop with the Secretary of State, who would then have to decide whether to thwart local opinion and potentially create conflict. Putting the Secretary of State in that invidious position would be very bad for local democracy. As a member of central Government, it is his legal, as well as political responsibility to
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consider the interests of the country as a whole—he could not bow to every local demand in every local action plan. It would be fraudulent and misleading to give local people the impression that just because they have put together a certain action plan it will be accepted without taking into account wider concerns.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The Secretary of State is empowered to do that under clause 4(3) anyway. Clause 6 is not at all unclear. Subsection (1) says:

and subsection (2) says:

I do not see what is unclear about that.

Mr. David: With all due respect, I am not a lawyer; all I have is a degree of common sense. If something is submitted to any individual—the Secretary of State or anybody else—for a decision, it is up to him or her to decide yes or no; that is what approval is all about. My point is that if a plan were rejected, that would create an extremely bad feeling in the locality if people had been given the impression that they could come together to create a set of priorities that central Government would automatically rubber-stamp.

David Howarth: That is something that the Secretary of State would have to take into account in deciding to reject. That is part of the devolutionary philosophy of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman claims that he is in favour of it, but every sentence he utters shows that he is against it.

Mr. David: With all due respect, devolution does not mean that, so let me provide an example of what it does mean. The Welsh Assembly Government have the ability to decide spending priorities according to their own priorities—full stop. There is no question of the Welsh Assembly Government deciding their spending priorities, then submitting them to a Secretary of State in London for approval. If that were the case, it would not be devolution. My point is that the Bill uses all the rhetoric of devolution, but it does not contain the practical means to bring it about.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that what we have just heard is precisely what we have come to expect from the Liberal Democrats, who often allow people to believe that they have control over their communities, but then make promises that cannot be delivered? Does my hon. Friend agree that the worst thing that can be done in local politics is to raise people’s aspirations and hopes that they will get something useful, but at the end of the day to take them away? I well know from Liberal Democrat leaflets that they often look both—or even three or four—ways at the same time.

Mr. David: That is absolutely true. Speaking as someone involved in serious politics, I learned early on that politics is about taking honest and difficult decisions. Sometimes we have to be accountable for
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those decisions, but politics is not simply using rhetoric and whipping up local feeling—a different feeling in one area than in another—and assuming that somehow, by a complicated process of metamorphosis, everything will be right in the end. That is not serious politics, but, to be honest, that is precisely what the Liberal Democrats have historically and contemporaneously engaged in. If they are serious about ever becoming a party of government, it is a lesson that they will have to learn.

Ms Butler: I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Is he aware that in my Brent constituency, the Lib Dem-Tory administration is known as the “Fib-Dem-Cons” on account of all the promises it has made but failed to deliver?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I rather think that that is not directly to do with the subject of our debate, whose general tenor needs to be somewhat elevated.

Mr. David: While I am on my feet, I will simply make this point. The debate that we have had so far has been a genuinely consensual debate. It is significant that there is cross-party agreement that the principles are desirable. Our debate is important in that respect alone. However, our debate also has to focus on the fine detail of the Bill and whether it is capable of translating into practice the fine principles that are expressed in it.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I have studied clause 6 with particular interest. Most of us agree with the Bill’s intention, but one concern that we could debate further is that when we give such a power to a Secretary of State, what happens depends not just on the relationship between central and local government but on the predilections of the particular Secretary of State. I have worked for four Secretaries of State under the present Government and there were, I think, six under the previous Government. Even within the parties themselves, there are centralisers and devolvers. Does my hon. Friend think that this power could, in the wrong hands, make the situation worse rather than better with respect to devolution—notwithstanding the intentions of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), which I share?

Mr. David: The Minister makes a very good point. One of the concerns inherent in the Bill is that it puts tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of the Secretary of State at that particular time. If there were some sort of collectivity, perhaps with the Cabinet having a rubber-stamping role, that at least would be something, but the provision focuses on the Secretary of State at a particular moment. Of course, the Secretary of State may change from time to time and we must be concerned about the coherence and consistency of government over a period of time. It is not impossible, for example, for one plan to be agreed one day by one Secretary of State and then on the following day, after a Cabinet reshuffle, for a different Secretary of State who has different principles to have to agree another action plan. That is why it is so important to have some clarity and some well thought out process in place to ensure that these desirable principles are put forward in a coherent manner.

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Mr. Dismore: Staying with clause 6(1), the problem with the clause is that it is drafted on the assumption that the Secretary of State will rubber-stamp what is put forward. The fact that only three months are given for approval of what could be 400 plans shows that, under the Bill, the Secretary of State is not to be given any sensible consideration whatever. Let me put it to my hon. Friend that the Bill amounts to a bureaucratic process—I do not think that anyone would deny that it creates a lot of bureaucracy—and does not allow us to deal with an occasion on which a Secretary of State would refuse approval. It provides no mechanism for what happens after a decision is taken under clause 6(1). What happens then? No provision is made for reference back or for revision of the plan; no provision is made for a negotiating process to resolve differences. That amounts to a bureaucratic lacuna in a very bureaucratic Bill.

Mr. David: Once again, my hon. Friend makes very good points.

In order to make some progress, I would like to move on. I have already spoken about Wales and opened up wider considerations, but I would like to speak about something else—the different way Scotland is treated in comparison with Wales. If we look at clause 13(3), we see that it clearly states:

That is very clear, but my question is why a similar stipulation is not made to Wales. Wales has a different devolution settlement from Scotland, but the current settlement is not fully taken into account and nor is the new Government of Wales Act 2006. That is important. Under the 2006 Act, which will be in place after the Welsh Assembly elections on 3 May, the Assembly will be given legislative powers for the first time. If we approved that legislation we would not be taking into account previous legislation that the House had approved. There will then be two Acts in place that are, to some extent at least, contradictory. When it comes to the spirit of the legislation, I imagine that the Welsh Assembly would take an extremely dim view of having a second-class status assigned to it under a Bill that is supposed to take forward the principle of devolution. It is a contradiction in terms. That is another of my concerns.

Mr. Kevan Jones: There is provision missing from the Bill for a conciliation service for disputes between not only local authorities and the Secretary of State but between the Secretary of State and Wales. However, even if the measure included such a clause, would not it lead to administrative gridlock and thus fail to deliver the laudable aims that clause 1(2) outlines? Could not it lead to services grinding to a halt in some places?

Mr. David: I hope that that would not happen, but the scenario is unfortunately a distinct possibility. We should thank my hon. Friend for making the point; we should take it seriously. [Interruption.]

Mr. Jones: Conservative Members laugh, but, as someone who spent 10 years on a city council and had to work closely on the budget each year as a member of
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the finance committee, I know that decisions have to be made about drawing up a budget. The measure could delay that process and make decisions harder instead of easier.

Mr. David: My hon. Friend may well be right and I am sure that his point is worth considering.

One of my concerns about the Bill is that it implies that there is a policy vacuum on supporting sustainable communities. Yet the need for sustainable communities was one of the main reasons for the Government’s creating the Department for Communities and Local Government. The idea of sustainable communities was fundamental to that. The Department was created to work towards more economic exclusiveness in communities, and to encourage social mobility and many other things. That is important.

We should not forget that the Government recently produced a White Paper entitled “Strong and prosperous communities”, which is a groundbreaking document. It sets out clear principles and suggests some strong policies, which would realise some of the laudable aims in the Bill. The measure should be read in conjunction with the White Paper, in which the principle of empowering communities is central.

The need to take young people’s views seriously has been mentioned. It is an important principle. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for the youth service and part of my responsibility in Wales was to draw up a programme with the National Assembly for Wales so that local government and the newly created Welsh Assembly could take the views of young people into account. When young people come forward to express their views, they have plenty to express. They might not relate easily to traditional politicians and traditional political parties, but they have plenty of opinions on the matters that concern them and their communities.

It is important that all Bills place greater emphasis on the need to consult young people. There is not much emphasis on that in the measure that we are considering. It is important not only because young people have strong and well-thought-out views but because they are sometimes unfairly criticised for being responsible for antisocial behaviour, which is often cited as leading to difficulties in our inner cities and towns.

Mr. Dismore: Clause 3(1)(d) contains the Bill’s only reference to young people—

I should have thought that we wanted to consult people who were under 18 or perhaps even younger to ensure that their views are heard. If we are simply considering people who are 25 and younger, we may end up continuing to exclude the people that my hon. Friend identifies.

Mr. David: I agree. The youth project that I helped to establish was called Young Voice and is now called Funky Dragon. It has a website if hon. Members wish to read the young people’s views. However, we are considering not only young people but children. In that youth initiative, children’s voices were taken as seriously as those of young people.

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The Bill refers to the role of parish councils and community councils. As a former member of Cefn Cribwr community council in Bridgend in south Wales, I believe that Governments of all political persuasions have tended to underestimate the role of parish councils in England and community councils in Wales. I understand that the Government are in the process of making a commitment to establishing parish councils in London. I warmly welcome that.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for raising the important role of parish councils. There are approximately 8,000 parish councils in England. Roughly how many community councils are there in Wales?

Mr. David: That is a helpful intervention. I will leave the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who has mentioned quite a few of them. Certainly, there are nowhere near as many community councils in Wales as parish councils in England. Nevertheless, that is the tier of government that is closest to the people.

When I was a member of a community council, although we had a good attendance at our meetings and debated all manner of issues, one of the great frustrations that I and other councillors experienced was that the local authority above us seldom took any notice whatever. The community council was usually charged with making sure that footpaths were open and giving small grants to various community organisations. Worthy as those things are, they are not enough. If we are to involve local people in parish or community councils, we should have sufficient faith in them to ensure that attendance is worth while. I commend the Bill’s reference to parish councils, but more emphasis should be given to them. If we compare some of the ideas in the Bill with those in the White Paper to which I referred, we see that the Bill ought to take some lessons from that White Paper.

Mr. Hurd: I just want to point out that the hon. Gentleman has now been speaking for longer than I did. In the process, he has raised a number of issues that are perfectly legitimate for debate in Committee. He has created the impression that his purpose in coming to the Chamber this morning was to talk the Bill out. That might surprise people, because he is registered as a supporter of the Bill. Will he confirm that he wishes to see the Bill proceed to the Committee stage?

Mr. David: I would point out that I have probably taken more interventions than any other Member who has spoken— [Interruption.] I have given way eventually to every Member who has wished to intervene.

Mr. Dismore: Is not the purpose of taking interventions that, if properly answered and debated, they may obviate the need for other Members to raise such points in speeches at greater length?

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