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My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) spoke about the Secretary of States powers of veto, to which the right hon. Member for
West Dorset also referred; indeed, the Secretary of State is mentioned nearly 40 times in the seven pages of the main part of the Bill. Of course, central Government still have an important role, such as in setting national priorities, making sure that standards in some key areas are maintained across the country and setting out the framework for delivery.
Any Government face two paradoxes in this debate. The first paradox is between devolution and fairness: on the one hand, people criticise policies when there is a perceived or real postcode lottery, and on the other, they call for devolution. It is not always possible to reconcile the two. The right hon. Member for West Dorset went straight to the heart of the matter when he said that power is increasingly translated through money, not through the law. That leads to the second paradox in the devolution debate: how to determine the allocation of resources. I imagine that those in charge of local action plans would come up with arguments for money, or arguments for a reprioritisation of local expenditure, in a way that might not be compatible with the arguments against a postcode lottery. That seems to me to strike at the heart of the debate.
Mr. Letwin: I understand the Ministers desire to make progress, but I think it important for us to be clear about the nature of the Bill. It does not permit those in charge of local action plans to seek more money, but it does permit them to reorder priorities: that is, indeed, its intent. In any case in which a Minister believes that the postcode lottery is the side of the argument that wins over localism, it is open to him to define the matter as of primarily national significance. I do not think, therefore, that the Minister can use the argument that there is a problem with local authorities prioritising over matters that Ministers will have already accepted to be of primarily local significance.
Mr. Woolas: I would add to the right hon. Gentlemans premise the right of Parliament, as well as national Government, to have a say in the debate. The proposal to identify public money that is spent locally, some on national imperatives and some on local priorities, is one of the Bills strengths. I believe that our local area agreement policy moves substantially in that direction, notwithstanding the scepticismnot cynicismshown by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood.
In the current financial year, £500 million of public moneynational moneyis being pooled through local area agreements. Under the current proposals, in the next spending period that amount will rise to some £5 billion, pooled through local area agreements and thus subject to the prioritisation decisions of the locally elected representatives. Incidentally, that
represents a larger sum than the revenue support grant that we redistribute through the formula.
That is the scale of the change in relation to local area agreements that is heralded by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we will debate on Monday. Our LAA policy will allow the identification of money in different areasan approach pioneered by Kent county council, my own council and others. It will also allow the mandatory outcomes, as the jargon has itthat on which national Government and, through national Government, Parliament can insistnot just to be radically reduced in each area, but to be tailored specifically for that area. We expect each area to have about 35 goals, or objectives, in the achievement of which the council and its partners will have a statutory duty to co-operate. Those 35 targets, however, will not be the same in all areas in order to reflect the differences between areasbetween, say, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish in Greater Manchester and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes in north-east Lincolnshire.
I believe that our policy is the best way of squaring the circles created by the paradoxes I have described, and it is strongly supported by the Local Government Association on a cross-party basis. We have spent nearly two yearswhich some would say is too longin developing that policy. The role that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State, although probably well-intended, fails to deal with the difficulty that would inevitably result from local action plans that would either require more money to meet local priorities or, through local decisions, seek to gain control of moneys identified for national priorities. I am thinking of moneys such as benefits budgets or health budgets. There is an advantage to identifying what those moneys are, but the important question of how one decides on prioritisation then arises. I fear that, because of the way that the Bill is constructed, it would inevitably lead to the Secretary of State vetoing decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly said. I would not have a problem with the current Government having that veto, but I suggest that future Secretaries of State might not support the localist agenda. Members should take that important point into accountand Liberal Democrat Members in particular should do so.
Shona McIsaac: I wish to ask some questions about the powers of the Secretary of State. Under the Bill, there would be a rubber-stamping of plans; the Secretary of State would not be able to refuse plans that were highly controversial. I also understand that the Secretary of State has to approve of the creation or abolition of parish and town councils. As I have said, I am a strong supporter of parish councils, and in my constituency a review of parish arrangements is under way. Given the time constraints, I do not expect the Minister to address the detail of the plans now, but will he meet me to do so?
Of course I can comply with that; my hon. Friend represents the constituency of Cleethorpes and I know Immingham very wellmy family originated from that part of the worldso I am more
than happy to do so. In fact, I plan to attend the annual general meeting of the Lincolnshire parish councils, at which all the parishes in the countyI think that there are several hundred of themwill be represented.
Let me make two points. The House might be amazedif not frightenedto learn that under existing legislation the Secretary of State takes detailed decisions in respect of parishes. Just before Christmas, I was asked to approve a capitalisation request to purchase the front door of a civic hall in a parish in the part of the world of the right hon. Member for West Dorset. I honestly did not enter politics or the Government to make those sorts of decisions, and I do not think that anybody should. On a more serious note, the proposals to allow the powers of byelaws to be set locally, without the Secretary of States decision, are a genuinely devolutionary measure.
Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend the Minister might recall that we had a debate in this Chamber which by pure chancebecause the business collapsedwent on for much longer than intended. It was the talk of parish councils for months, not just weeks. In a previous ministerial role, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs talked about double devolution. In so doing, our party made it clear that there will be some rough edges in the debate on how to devolve responsibility and powers. That is nothing new, so the Minister must not think that we face a particular challenge.
Mr. Woolas: I remember the debate that has been mentioned very well because I arrived for a 30-minute debate but it lasted for four and a half hours. My hon. Friends prediction that as a result of it the postbag would fill up with correspondence from parishes across England proved to be true. I wish to put on record my appreciation of the National Association of Local Councils, which represents parish and town councils, for warmly welcoming the proposals that we will debate on Monday.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the Bill would add to the draconian powers of the Secretary of State? Under clause 6(1), he has to approve the plans, and therefore he can disagree to them. Also, the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) helpfully pointed out clause 4(3), which states:
The Secretary of State may by order define the services or types of services which are of primarily national significance for the purposes of subsection 2(c) and shall give reasons.
Mr. Woolas: Potentially, the Bill could do that. Its proponents understandably say that there needs to be greater prioritisation locally, which is true. The underlying debate is about identifying what is a national and what is a local requirement, and what is important is the mechanism that provides that definition. I strongly and passionately believe that the work that we have done through the local area agreement process is the best way forward; however, I do not have a closed mind on that issue.
Under our approach, each area has three key documents. The sustainable communities strategy, which sets out the overall vision for a given area, is already in place, and Members in all parts of the House will doubtless engage with their councils and constituents in that regard. Secondly, the local development frameworkwhat we used to call the planning report; however, the framework goes much further than thattakes forward the spatial element of that vision. The third document is the local area agreement, which I have already described. The first two documents are already embodied in legislation, and the Bill before the House on Monday willif the House agrees to its Second Readingstrengthen the third. Placing a statutory duty on public sector agencies to co-operate with those plans will take the ability of local elected representatives to influence their areas and the various priorities much further down the line.
Mr. Greg Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He started out with some warm words, but in the last few minutes he has doused us with cold water. Given that he has said twice that he supports the Bills policy intentionswe take him at his wordand if he is being reasonable, is not the correct course of action for him to consent to its going into Committee, and to seek to amend it there? Is that not the reasonable position to take, and will he confirm that he is prepared to do that?
Mr. Woolas: I am, I hope, an entirely reasonable Minister. My statement that both I and the Government want to accept the intentions behind the Bill was a genuine one. We believe that we are the authors of the idea of sustainable communities. We unleashed the debate about how we make them real, so we regard this issue as very important. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government do not put a whip on a private Members Bill. There is the very real point that we will have another such a debate on Monday, but the Governments attitude is of course to listen to the views of the House, and there is strong support across the House for the intention behind the Bill. I hope that he takes my word on that. I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. My real concern about the Bill is the position of minority interests, be it a minority area such as the ward in my constituency that I mentioned earlier, or a minority community. There are inadequate safeguards in the Bill to prevent such a minority from losing out to a majority who disagree with them. I shall
give a concrete example. Let us suppose thatGod forbidthe British National party gained control of a council and decided to cancel all English language teaching. That would not necessarily be a national priority, but it could have a significant impact on a minority within that local community. What safeguards are in the Bill to prevent such a thing from happening?
Mr. Woolas: The point that my hon. Friend makes about the cohesion of communities is a strong and powerful example of the paradoxes that can emerge from localism. I hope that he realises that, given my experience of the Cantle report and the Ritchie report on local communities, I understand very well the point that he makes. The Bill that we will debate on Monday deals with safeguards against such difficulties and the boundaries of localism. [Interruption.] Well, I cannot speak for the authors of the Bill before us, but this is a matter for legitimate debate.
It may be helpful if I lay out how the Bills drafting may produce some unintended consequences. The point has already been made about the definition of sustainability, but the definition of valid measures requires further clarification. I have already mentioned the difficulty about how control of the financing would work or how the measures would fit with the local council tax system. For example, if priorities are not being addressed, would there be an ability to raise local precepts? The right hon. Member for West Dorset said that he was in favour of a power to enable the creation of parishes, but other Opposition Front Benchers spend much of their time putting out press stories claiming that council taxes are going up because we are creating parishes. There is a valid point in that, because parishes do raise precepts, but if the right hon. Gentleman thinks that there should be a power to create parishes, I wonder what his policy is towards such raising of precepts through local taxation.
Mr. Letwin: We are in a Second Reading debate and the Minister, who has obviously done serious work on the Bill, will recognise that it does not say anything about that. It does not provide for a single penny of difference in local taxation and it is explicit in stating that all that the local councils plan can do is to reorder priorities for spending money that has already been allocated by the Government to that locality. The Minister is talking about an issue that relates to Monday, not today.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct. The Bill does not mention that issue, but this is a good opportunity for me to counter the story in this mornings papers, which was prompted by his colleagues, whose calculations of potential council tax figures are based, in part, on the suggestion that we will create more parishes. The right hon. Gentleman has a point about this being a Second Reading debate, but I would ask the Opposition parties whether, first, they will give a commitment that if the Bill were to become law and local priorities were not met, because the Government, supported by Parliament, felt that it would be wrong to localise certain aspects, there would not be a call for further taxation to meet those priorities. Secondly, can they guarantee that no criticism would be made of the amounts of money raised by local authorities through
council taxes as the result of the need to implement those plans? As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is the money that causes the difficulty.
I have further questions about the Bill. How will the arrangements fit with local accountability for other public services? The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned the police. The police authority in his constituency is accountable to the county councilsthe combined police authority. Indeed, the chair of the police authority is Councillor Peter Jones, a county councillor. The polices local priorities are already governed by local authority representatives. The debate behind that, which we are having today, is the feeling that many people have that they have no influence on that, but that is why I believe that the problem is best addressed by considering the empowerment of local elected representatives as well as forums such as community calls for action. However, the measures in the Bill may be unnecessary in the light of the changes that have already been made in the local structures and other proposed changes.
We have already mentioned the Secretary of States role and the Bill may be criticised for not taking into account other local government legislation, not only the Bill on Monday. A major issue of policy that relates to this Bill is the performance framework. The Governments intention is that the performance frameworkthe auditing of the performance of local areas, which will move from the comprehensive performance assessment to an assessment of the outcomes under the sustainable communities plan in the local area agreementwill involve a radical shift towards local accountability and will be backed up by new measures on overview and scrutiny.
The measures that we shall debate on Monday are the other side of the coin of this debate. There are some deficiencies in the Bill, as well as some unintended consequences. As it stands, the measure would centralise rather than devolve, because of the role given to the Secretary of State.
If it is the will of the House that the Bill goes into Committee, I give an undertaking that we shall engage with all seriousness in the debate. I know that the House will reciprocate in that process, should it take place. Todays debate has been useful in highlighting points raised in the campaign and by Members outside this place. I shall answer some of the questions put by Members today.
My hon. Friend talked about the difficulties faced by small shops. Although it is true that both the British Retail Consortium and the Federation of Small Businesses recognised in their responses to consultation
on the Bill the importance of planning law to the protection of small shops, ultimately consumer choice determines a shops success, or otherwise. I was grateful that the Federation of Small Businesses and, to a lesser extent, the British Retail Consortium, drew attention to the fact that one of the Governments major achievements in planning policy and devolution has been to put an end to the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. In my area, the Trafford centre, which was opposed by all local authorities of all political parties, went ahead nevertheless. That is no longer possible under our policy.
Mr. Woolas: Indeed. The innovative, new IKEA stores in Ashton and north-east London were a direct result of our local policy. That leads me to question whether the assumptions in the Bill associated with the snappy soundbite ghost town Britain are fair. The villages and towns of my constituency could hardly be described as ghost towns; indeed, I would describe Oldham on a Saturday night as a wild west town.
Mark Hunter: The Minister will not be surprised that I want to take him up on his point about IKEA. He cites those stores as a good example of the way the system works at present, but is he aware that IKEAs chosen location for the new store was in Stockport and that there is a murky story about how it ended up in Tameside? The handling of those negotiations negates rather than illustrates his point about policy.
Mr. Woolas: It would be unwise for me, on behalf of the hon. Gentlemans constituentslet alone mineif I were to go down that route. I said that our policy had improved the situation. It is true that major retailers have changed their policies in recognition of the change. Definitions in unitary development plans of where town centres are, and are not, are an important aspect of planning policy, which is why the local development frameworkthe second of the three legs I talked aboutis extremely important. However, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and I have a conversation about what happened and perhaps he will find that the difference between us is not as significant as he thinks.
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