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Why has that principle been swept aside?

Daniel Kawczynski: Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Secretary of State gives strong advice to the chief executives of county councils about referendums? The chief executive of Shropshire county council has been playing a strong role in this matter, both on television and in public, yet I believe that it is fundamentally wrong of civil servants to play any role whatever in referendums of this nature. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that point is put across very strongly to the Secretary of State?

Mrs. Spelman: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts to secure a voice for the people of Shrewsbury on this important matter, and to their success in securing a referendum. I feel strongly that those people should be given the chance to say whether they want their present local government arrangements to be abolished. I invite the Secretary of State to comment on my hon. Friend’s point about whether a public servant should remain neutral on the issue of referendums, or whether they should take one side of the argument or the other.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Lady not agree that her own party has form on this matter? When it abolished the Greater London Council and Tyne and Wear county council—the “mets”—there was never a proposal for referendums. To their credit, this Government at least provided for a referendum when the ill-fated assembly of the north-east was being proposed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) has said, the people in Northumberland and Durham spoke out quite clearly on that issue. Should not we therefore just press ahead for a single unitary authority in County Durham?

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman made a number of interesting observations during the Secretary of State’s speech. I sincerely hope that the Government Whips Office will consider him for participation in the Standing Committee, because he would clearly bring a great deal of experience to enhance the debate. His
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intervention on me largely concerned history, however, and I want to concentrate on the threat that will face local government as a result of the Bill.

We now know that the whole invitation process, complete with its consultation and deadline, was a farce. First, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) toured the country giving the chief executives of councils an insight into the promised land of unitary government. In bypassing the elected councillors and going to the appointed officials, he could not have made clearer his disdain for local democracy.

Then came the appointment of the present Secretary of State, who declared herself to be

I wish that she had stuck to her instincts in that regard. I can understand why she formed that view. She has a background in economics. When have we ever heard of a restructuring exercise that did not cost money? Proponents of unitaries may point to huge cost savings, but in the short term, there will be a big bill for redundancies, employment tribunals, contract write-downs and other sunk costs. Those costs will be added to the bill for council tax payers. Cambridge university has estimated that restructuring would mean an extra cost of £121 per person. That would work out at roughly £345 on top of the average council tax bill—a bill that has already risen by 84 per cent. since Labour came to power.

Daniel Kawczynski: My borough council has commissioned two reports by professors at Oxford and Cambridge universities, which show that redundancies in Shrewsbury alone could add up to as much as £20 million—money that we local council tax payers will have to foot.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which shows precisely why the people of Shrewsbury are so entitled to their referendum on abolition. I pay tribute to the work of his council, which has prudently kept reserves in hand, little though it might have thought that the fateful day would come when it would have to investigate the cost of its own abolition.

It is a real irony that voters are being offered the chance to pay more tax for less elected representation. Did the Government ask people whether they wanted such change? Are members of the public spontaneously running up to the Secretary of State and her colleagues asking for restructuring? I doubt it. The latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy survey, conducted in the autumn, showed that only one quarter of respondents believe that local government reorganisation would be desirable.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Is it not the case that the Government have no intention of holding referendums on any of these issues, as they know that they are trying to ride roughshod over the popular will of many communities around the country, and having lost in the north-east, they have no intention of losing again?

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Mrs. Spelman: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I suspect that the R word—referendum—does instil a little fear in the Government.

Why have the Government set district councils against county councils in a battle for survival that will cost the taxpayer dear? It cannot just be that they were stung by losing the chairmanship of the Local Government Association, and by the erosion of their position at successive local elections. Is not the truth that Labour is trying to do at the Dispatch Box what it cannot do at the ballot box?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I have a simple question: does the hon. Lady support the Conservative leader of Cumbria county council in wanting a unitary authority for that county?

Mrs. Spelman: If one is a serious localist, one should support the view of democratically elected local councillors. They, in turn, need the evidence of local opinion. Given the Government’s time scale, however, with two days remaining until the deadline, how is it practically possible, in places such as Durham, to establish that view?

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Let me give my hon. Friend some guidance on what is happening in my area, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), and pose a question through her to the Secretary of State. To establish a broad consensus of opinion, will the Secretary of State rely on ballots of opinion taking place, as we speak, in four out of the five districts in Shropshire? Alternatively, will she rely on a survey of a focus group of 44 people in Shropshire, which the proponents of unitary status argue gives them the consensus of opinion?

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend must await the answer to that question from the Secretary of State. He will also be aware, however, of a poll conducted by the BBC to try to establish what local opinion in Shropshire might be in relation to this matter, which the BBC had to curtail because it had been abused by people being urged to vote early and often, if I may use such parlance.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Spelman: I must make some progress.

With no warning and no consultation, the House is suddenly being asked to grant the Secretary of State the right to abolish or rearrange great swathes of local government, wherever and whenever she feels so inclined. Should not the Bill at the very least set out in detail specific situations in which that power can be invoked? However, it does not do so; there are no limitations on the scope of the power, or the circumstances in which it can be used, which makes it a formidable weapon for any Secretary of State. I caution Members to think long and hard before approving such a power, which will put councils for ever under the sword of Damocles, knowing that at a stroke they can be reorganised out of existence.

Ruth Kelly: It would have been better had the hon. Lady consulted more closely her colleague, the
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chairman of the Local Government Association. If she had done that, she would have known that we have already given a commitment to the LGA that we will narrow the scope of the power to direct, but that it may be necessary in the short term, as a result of the current invitation, to deal with residual areas to make the unitarisation proposal work. There is no intention to force any council down a route that it does not want to go down.

Mrs. Spelman: Of course I consult the chairman of the LGA. That is why I am aware that the Secretary of State failed to consult him prior to introducing the clause that will enable her to direct councils to restructure themselves. That is step one. Step two is how hon. Members are to know about the extra explanation given orally by her if it is not on the face of the Bill or in the explanatory notes. At least we have been able to extract a willingness on her part to constrain this draconian power, but until we see it in writing in the form of an amendment, we will continue to press for the extreme power to be curtailed.

Daniel Kawczynski: I spoke to the LGA today—its name has been bandied around—and have been informed that if the Secretary of State tries to overturn a referendum in a place like Shrewsbury, we could go for a judicial review. If she does that, I will spend night and day helping my council to pursue a judicial review. She will not destroy the independence of Shrewsbury.

Mrs. Spelman: The House is left in no doubt about my hon. Friend’s commitment to his constituents and those who live in Shrewsbury who do not want the status of their district council rolled over either by direction or through the power of the Bill. Local government is asking itself what on earth it has done to deserve this treatment at the hands of the Government. In fact, councils have been more effective in making efficiency gains than any Department, so why the kick in the teeth?

The Government hold out the promise of reducing the straitjacket of performance targets, but why is there no upper limit on the face of the Bill? When the White Paper was published, the Opposition were sceptical about how long it would be before the tick-box tendency took hold again, but even we thought that the Government’s pledge to reduce targets would last long enough to make it from the White Paper to Bill. It seems that our faith was misplaced. When it comes to the crunch, the Government simply cannot bring themselves to trust councils. They will not commit themselves to ending the target-driven tyranny that is such an obstacle to devolving power to local communities.

I understand how the culture of targets and directives comes about. Any new Government want to make their mark and they try to do that by driving things from the centre. That applies to Governments of all complexions. However, the Government have had almost 10 years and they still feel the need to micro-manage. Local government is desperate for more freedom to innovate and to better meet local needs. Local communities are hungry for a bigger say in decision making, and central Government are in the way. The Bill implies that there should be a general
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move towards less regulation, but there is nothing binding and nothing on which the Government can be held to account.

The same criticism can be levelled at the uprated local area agreements, of which the Government have made much when justifying their localist credentials. The provisions for the agreements lack a clear process of how they will be achieved and to whom they are ultimately accountable. As the Local Government Information Unit says in its briefing, it is not clear how the duty to co-operate will be secured in practice. Will the chief constable, sitting at the table with the council leader, dance to his tune or that of the Home Secretary? Who has the line management? In home affairs, Whitehall has. Far from getting together and reaching an agreement based on the wishes of the community they serve, representatives are all dancing to the tune of their relevant Whitehall Departments.

I see nothing in the Bill that would remedy that problem. To make matters worse, I see no sign that other Departments are sympathetic to the devolving of power to local communities; the reverse, in fact. We will end up with a heavily compromised agreement between representatives who are in hock to their masters in Whitehall. That is why we have proposed something more radical in the Sustainable Communities Bill, which gives local councils far more discretion over the way in which money is spent locally and, for the first time, total transparency in regard to how much is spent.

The Government have rightly given councils a choice of leadership ranging from elected leader to elected executive to elected mayors, but rather like an anxious child dipping its toe in the waters of localism, they recoil and refuse to let councils decide for themselves whether they want a cabinet or a committee system. When asked about that earlier, the Secretary of State said, “We think it is not desirable to return to the committee system.” That is a classic example of centralism if ever there was one. Central Government “think”, therefore local government do not get. Has the Secretary of State listened to councillors? Strong leadership is about people, not structures. It is a relatively small issue, but it is a symptom of a Government who, beneath the surface, are still committed to micro-managing councils.

The Bill contains measures that seem localist on the face of it, but beneath the surface do nothing to loosen the stranglehold of central Government over local government. We welcome the measures to devolve power beyond the town hall to parishes, but urge the Government not to overlook other models of local governance such as residents associations and other elected forums. As we have heard, London councils in particular are concerned about the effect that introducing parish councils might have on community cohesion.

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), I should add that the Commission for Racial Equality has also raised concern about inclusiveness in the proposed governance arrangements. Only 3.5 per cent. of councillors in England come from ethnic minorities, compared with 8.4 per cent. in the population as a
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whole, and last year only 10 per cent. of parish council seats were contested. That is the cause of the concern about cohesion.

If we are to encourage more civic-minded people into local governance, there must be root-and-branch reform of the Standards Board, beyond the scope of the Bill, to stop the frivolous and malicious complaints that will put people off serving their communities. More public involvement may be secured through the community call for action outlined in the Bill, but why has the exception been made for law and order? The Secretary of State said it was because a facility was already in place. If it is, it is not working particularly well.

The health provisions contain further evidence of the centralising tendency that dogs the Bill, particularly the section on public involvement. It is not a year since the Government published their White Paper “Our Health, Our Care, Our Say”, which stated that democratically elected councillors should have a local voice in health and social care. Where is that in the Bill? Without it, councils cannot give real expression to the statutory duty that they already have for public health, and health commissioning remains a Whitehall-driven process.

A further weakness is the lack of genuine public involvement. What the Government propose is supposed to be the answer to the whole sorry saga of abolishing community health councils in the teeth of strong public opposition. A myriad bodies have been created over the last few years, including the patients forums. Those have already cost £120 million, much of which will presumably have to be a sunk cost under the new formula, but that is now about to be ripped up in favour of LINKs, or local involvement networks. As we have already heard, there is a real danger in what the Government are proposing because of a conflict of interest. Local government already provides social care, which has to be wired into NHS provision. The question is, how independent and how representative will the LINKs really be?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Given that the Bill includes public involvement in health in its title, is the hon. Lady as surprised and disappointed as I am that the Secretary of State, in a very lengthy and detailed speech, did not cover that issue at all? I do not think that a case has been made for the abolition of patient and public involvement forums. Will the LINKs have adequate resources? Will they work within the terms of the Nolan principles, so that people directly involved in the provision of health and social care services will have to state as much and to withdraw from discussions? Most importantly, will they be bound by anti-discrimination legislation, because those who are involved in the PPI forums such as the successful ones in Leicestershire have not been able to get information on that out to their would-be successor organisations—the LINKs?

Mrs. Spelman: Another cogent case has been made for membership of the Standing Committee. The hon. Gentleman has a genuine interest in the issues under discussion, and I share his concerns. In particular, I
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have no doubt that we share a concern that the Disability Rights Commission has. It calls on the Government to make sure that there is proper representation on the new LINKs forum. I also share with him a concern about the loss of expertise that will arise as a result of the abolition of the—very recently created—PPI forums.

The Government are struggling to find a way to replace community health councils. I am concerned that although public involvement is mentioned in the Bill, the word “patient” does not arise a great deal. The voice of the patient was clearly articulated by community health councils, and I am concerned that that voice might be lost in this subsequent reform.

I have spent some time setting out the Bill’s biggest failings. However, its biggest failing of all is not to do with what is included in it, but with what is not. All Members will agree that what gets people really fired up about local government is the level of council tax. That is ironic, given that the blame for punitive council tax rises lies firmly at the door of the Chancellor. It is odd that the Lyons review has been put off until the Budget, by which time the Bill will have completed its passage through the House of Commons.

That is why we have asked for Sir Michael Lyons to come before the Standing Committee on this Bill, in accordance with the new model of evidence-taking by a Bill Committee, so that we can take account of his views as the Bill is amended. We have also asked for Kate Barker, Rod Eddington and Sandy Leitch to do so, because they are all reviewing areas that directly affect the role of local government. Taking evidence as part of the scrutiny of legislation is a new House procedure, and the Government must make sure that they keep their promise to let scrutinisers have a proper say over who they call before them.

We are debating the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, but what is missing is the one vital measure that would make it truly local. That measure is the abolition of unelected and unaccountable regional government—regional quangos that cost every household almost £600 every year. How much longer must Ministers indulge in this absurd regional agenda? It was the Deputy Prime Minister’s pet project, but it has now become the elephant in the living room.

Nobody wanted regional government, but it was forced on them anyway, and for as long as it exists anything that the Government say about localism will be met with scepticism. Abolishing regional government would help to bring council tax down and give real force to localism. If the Bill were to contain that measure alone, it would be greeted with great enthusiasm across the country. But of course, the Bill does not provide for that, just as it does not provide many commonsense measures that would deliver real localism.

Instead it shackles local government more firmly than ever to Whitehall. How could the ongoing threat of abolition be perceived as anything else? Far from being a feast of devolution, this Bill simply throws councils a few scraps from the table. The reason for that is understandable. The Government are ruled by a centralising Chancellor.

Several hon. Members rose—

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