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Ruth Kelly: I have full faith in my hon. Friend, but I do not recognise the account that he gives. That is certainly not the policy intention. It is absolutely right that we look for strong leadership, but strong
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leadership may take different forms. It is one of the criteria, and another is that the arrangements are responsive at neighbourhood level. That is the sort of governance arrangement that we will look for, but there is no mandatory requirement for any particular form of strengthened leadership.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): May I refer the Secretary of State back to her earlier remarks, in which she said that local government had expressly wished for a short window of opportunity, namely the period ending on 25 January? Will she tell us on what evidence she based that statement?

Ruth Kelly: Of course, there has been conversation on the subject between central and local government for a number of years, and it began before the Government came to power in 1997. One point that was made to me very forcefully was that local governments did not want unitisation and unitary authorities to be the only thing that they were thinking about for months and years to come. They wanted to get on with the job of delivering for local people, but in certain cases they made a powerful argument for change. They said, “Well, if you’re serious about the place-shaping role, and if you really want us to deliver value for money, and you want us to keep the council tax down to its lowest level, give us the opportunity to present our case.” The agreement that we reached was that the strongest bids would be considered against extremely strict criteria, but that the window of opportunity would then close, and the unitary debate would, I hope, close down thereafter.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ruth Kelly: I will take one further intervention, and then I will move on to a different topic.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): On the issue of directly elected mayors, will my right hon. Friend confirm for the record that the unique situation flagged up in the White Paper in Stoke-on-Trent, which has a council manager and an elected mayor, can be changed in a referendum? Will she confirm that when it comes to choosing the kind of governance that we want in the elections of 2009, the Government will work with all elected representatives in Stoke-on-Trent to find a way forward that fits the particular local governance needs of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent?

Ruth Kelly: I understand the issue that my hon. Friend raises. She will, of course, have seen the written ministerial statement made on Friday, which says that we will work with local representatives and people to find a way through on the issue.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD) rose—

Ruth Kelly: I must make some progress.

The Bill is the start of a devolutionary process. Other ongoing work is a vital part of the picture, including the comprehensive spending review’s consideration of government structures and powers in relation to transport, skills and economic development at the sub-national level, as well as the Lyons review of local government finance. The Bill is a huge stride forward in
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taking the practical action needed to make a real difference to our communities. Today, I am publishing an implementation plan that sets out how we will deliver on other commitments in the White Paper, too.

It is the role of councils to serve local communities and respond to citizens’ needs. People want clean, safe streets and public services that respond quickly to their everyday problems. They want effective solutions without endless bureaucracy, which is why the White Paper and the Bill place a strong emphasis on the role of democratically elected councillors. We should celebrate their role, and make it easier for them to get things done. Our proposals will give a new voice to individual councillors through the community call for action, which gives citizens and councillors a new way of raising issues that they care about such as persistent antisocial behaviour, a poor recycling service, or problems with care when people come out of hospital. The community call for action will allow a councillor to draw those issues to the attention of colleagues and demand an answer from the council. Councillors can act collectively, too, through overview and scrutiny committees, which enable them to hold partner authorities to account on behalf of local communities. The Bill therefore proposes to strengthen the powers of those committees to enable them to demand information from partners and require providers to have regard to their recommendations.

The new powers that we propose to give local councillors will help them to represent their communities better, but we also want those communities to have a greater say in the places where their members live and in the services that they receive. They cannot do so without adequate information, consultation and involvement. The best councils already engage with their communities, and the Bill proposes to require all local authorities to inform, consult and involve local communities as appropriate.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Somerset Association of Local Councils has raised a narrow but important point about parish councils’ inability to enter into a guarantee. Parish councils are often involved in partnerships and charity work usually undertaken by companies that are limited by guarantee, but they cannot become full participants because of that legal bar. Will the Secretary of State look at that during proceedings on the Bill?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that we are actively considering with local parishes. We are seeking to find a way forward, but I shall certainly correspond with him to see whether we can address the problem.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. She said that the Bill will empower local people and councillors to make decisions in their area, but she will appreciate that in an extremely large rural county such as Shropshire, councillors living 30, 40 or 50 miles from Shrewsbury will make decisions that affect the town. That is not right, because they live too far from Shrewsbury to know our town.

Ruth Kelly: The principle behind the Bill is that it is local people who are best placed to determine such
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issues, not central Government. If local people want to move to single member rather than multi-member wards, it should be for them to decide. If they want to opt in to unitary status that, too, should be for them to decide. That is the point of devolution. We will provide a new power for the best parishes to promote economic, social and environmental well-being and, in addition, we will give communities the power to establish parishes in London, as they can already do so in the rest of the country. Those powers will give neighbourhoods more control over very local issues such as leisure facilities and provision to keep the streets clean and safe.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept the concerns of London Councils, which was previously known as the Association of London Government, about the need to draw up criteria to prevent extremist groups active in London politics from seeking to challenge sensible determinations by local authorities not to permit the establishment of parish councils for purposes that neither she nor I would support?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. In the White Paper, we made it clear that local authorities should make the final decision about whether a new parish should be set up. That decision should be based on a number of grounds, including the contribution that the parish would make to community cohesion. During the passage of the Bill, I propose to introduce statutory guidance to define the role of parishes in community cohesion.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned community involvement in provision to keep the streets safe. If a community can make a call for action on that subject, why is it not allowed to become involved in measures to tackle crime and disorder?

Ruth Kelly: There are separate powers, which are already established, for local communities and local citizens to be involved in community safety issues. They can already issue a call for action, which must be responded to. We are supplementing that power in the Bill with a broader community call for action, which covers the other areas of local public service delivery. To improve local areas, we need to empower councillors and the communities that they serve, but we must also give council leaders the powers that they need to provide direction and take tough decisions.

We recognise that leadership comes in different shapes and sizes. We are therefore offering three different leadership models: a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive of councillors, or a leader elected by their fellow councillors with a clear four-year mandate. The way in which councils choose to govern themselves will be different in different parts of the country, but each of our models will help make local leaders more visible and more accountable, and a clearer mandate will make it easier for council leaders to take tough decisions and see them through.

Mr. Pelling: The discretion given to local councils to decide which model they wish to employ is a positive step in the devolution of decision making, but will the
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Secretary of State consider allowing councils the discretion to return to the committee system, in which all councillors were involved? Will she also consider, under the strong executive model, reducing the number of electors required to prompt a referendum to decide whether a strong executive or mayoral system should be put in place?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is no longer necessary to hold a referendum to move to a mayoral system, although it will still be possible to petition for a referendum. As to whether it would be possible for a council to move back to the committee system, we have ruled that out for a purpose. We think that greater devolution of powers goes hand in hand with the responsibility for stronger leadership that is able to look over the whole area in which local people live and be responsible for the quality of life across that area, not just for the local public services that are delivered in that area. Local council leaders will be responsible in future not just for social care, for example, or for the services directly delivered, but for the quality of the environment, climate change and all the issues that are of concern to local people. With that comes a responsibility not only for strong leadership, but for responsiveness at neighbourhood level.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell us about the fixed terms for council leaders? In the whole of the UK—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and pretty much across the board—there is no such thing as a fixed term for an executive leader. Where does the idea come from?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is familiar with the model of an elected mayor. What else is that? With the council leader model, we are trying to strengthen the mandate of the council leader to take decisions that are relevant to the people in their area, and to have the confidence and ability to see those through without constantly looking over their shoulder, wondering whether they will be in position the following month or the month after. That is an option which local people may be able to consider, and one that will prove attractive to many councils throughout the country.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I strongly support the thrust of the Bill and many of the measures in it, but on the subject of council leaders, High Peak council is currently run by a coalition of Liberal, Conservative and independent councillors. The leader of the council is a Liberal, who is one of only eight Liberal councillors on the council. I do not see how an elected leader from within the council could be sustained for a period of four years under those circumstances. There must be a way for councillors to recall a leader within those four years, especially if the political complexion of the council changes.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which is why we have embedded in the provisions the possibility of a vote of no confidence, so if the political complexion of the local authority changes, there will be
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an opportunity for members to hold the leader to account. We are trying to strengthen the mandate of the leader and the presumption that the leader will be in office for more than one year.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I cannot understand why the Government are fixated with the idea of leadership. Local government delivery of regeneration schemes in Manchester, Leicester—where my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) was leader—Newcastle and Gateshead occurred under the old committee system. Those councils had strong leadership and also the ability, which my right hon. Friend described, to remove a leader. What is the difference between what she described and the current system?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend describes a system of strong leadership. We want strong leadership everywhere. We have examined different options that might be attractive to councils in delivering that, not only in areas that already have it but in those that do not. We do not say that people can be in post for four years without challenge. Of course they will be challenged and responsive to local members. In exceptional circumstances, a vote of confidence could be called and the leader could be changed. That is a useful way out. However, rather than living in fear that they may not be in place in a year, local council leaders can make decisions, safer in the knowledge that they are more likely to be there for several years. That is a compromise between the committee system and others for stronger local government.

Anne Main: I am a little confused. The Secretary of State made a comparison with a directly elected mayor. However, he is directly elected by the people, whereas a council leader will be elected by elected members, who may not have a large mandate to serve on the local authority. Why did the Secretary of State make a direct comparison between a directly elected mayor and an elected council leader? It does not stand up.

Ruth Kelly: I described a directly elected mayoral system and an indirectly elected leader system. They are not equivalent, because one is directly elected and the other is indirectly elected, but they both have strong mandates and are visible and accountable to local people. When devolving more power to local people, it is important to have a visible and accountable local leader. One is directly elected and the other is indirectly elected.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ruth Kelly: I must make progress. Given the time, I believe that Opposition Front Benchers, too, would appreciate it if I made some progress.

In future, local authorities will set out their vision for their places and influence their relationship with central Government through three key documents. First, the sustainable communities strategy provides the overarching vision. Secondly, the local development framework sets out the way in which an area’s physical development contributes to that vision. Thirdly, we propose to strengthen the local area agreement through the Bill. That will be at the heart of the central-local
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relationship, setting out agreements to deliver priorities for local areas and defining local authorities’ role in making them better places to live.

The strengthened local area agreement will radically cut the number of national targets and indicators for a local area. There are currently up to 1,200. We envisage reducing that to 200 indicators, with around 35 targets, plus the existing statutory education and child care targets.

Local authorities on their own cannot shape the places they serve. As well as engaging communities, they must work closely with other public service providers. The Bill therefore places a duty on key partners to co-operate with the local authority to agree the targets in the local area agreement, giving a transparent set of priorities to deliver.

We also propose, by amendment, to make provision in the Bill for new health and well-being partnerships and joint waste authorities. Those would support stronger local partnerships and help improve health and waste services.

In the spirit of devolution, the Bill also includes important framework powers for the National Assembly for Wales.

I believe that we have reached a watershed. Local government is up to the job and constantly improving. It is not only right but necessary for it to lead reform. The Bill takes important steps down that road. There will be further steps in due course, but the measure sets out significant proposals to empower communities, enhance the leadership role of local government and bring about a radical change in the nature of the relationship between central Government and local government and its partners. I commend it to the House.

4.8 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move,

I begin by expressing sympathy for the Secretary of State, who clearly does not have the full support of her own side, leaving aside the concerns that Conservative Members have expressed. Perhaps I can help her understand the reasons for that.

We had barely a month’s consultation on the White Paper before the Government proceeded with indecent haste to publish a Bill. Even more surprisingly, we are being asked to debate and scrutinise local government reform while still waiting for the much delayed Lyons report on local government finance. So instead of
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confronting the real problems facing councils, including council tax levels, and the lack of care for the elderly, of housing and of waste disposal facilities, the Government have opted for what the Secretary of State herself called a “distraction”, namely, the restructuring of local government. They have taken a new power, way beyond the scope of the White Paper, to direct councils to restructure. That is certainly radical, but it is the opposite of devolutionary.

I wonder what came over the Secretary of State? Did she panic about the lack of volunteers for the mass restructuring of two-tier local government by the 25 January deadline? The Bill gives the Secretary of State unfettered power to redraw the map of England. At one extreme, this might involve there being no more counties; at the other, it could involve the abolition of districts that are known, trusted and local. At least her predecessor, the Deputy Prime Minister, agreed that referendums should be used when changes of this scale were to occur. He said:

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