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Although I fully appreciate the problems of listing people and groups in legislation, I hope that the Minister for Local Government will understand that, although the best authorities already co-operate with and consult non-statutory bodies, too many councils do not and will not unless some means is found of compelling them to do so. Will the Minister set out the mechanisms that enable the Department to ensure that local authorities seek the voluntary sector’s support and advice? The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is worried that we are considering an extraordinarily grey area and would like the voluntary and community sector to be recognised as an essential non-statutory partner.

Issues that relate to delivering the many proposals in the Bill also have an impact on the voluntary sector. In the main, it does an excellent job, but if the Government and local authorities are serious about using its expertise to best effect across the range of new aspects that the Bill outlines, it will need support to build capacity. Local authorities should also take account of other Government-funded programmes for supporting the sector, such as Change Up and Capacity Builders. It is important, when providing support to the community and voluntary sector and enabling it to engage with the Bill, to link what is happening locally and nationally. Otherwise there is a risk that the Bill’s best intentions—empowering local citizens to have their voice heard—will not be fulfilled as comprehensively as it is hoped.

Making the public aware of the new opportunities in the Bill will fall partly to the voluntary sector. When we look back on the Bill, the last thing we want to do is wonder why, as we have with other game attempts to engage the wider public, so many people continue to feel disillusioned about their ability to make their voices heard or influence decision making.

The provisions to extend scrutiny powers are important, but questions have been raised with me about their scope. They represent a further devolutionary move, which enables the partnerships to be more accountable to the communities that they serve and is therefore welcome. Respected organisations such as the Local Government Information Unit, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Local Government Association have asked why several key local providers, especially in the health sector, have not been included. Again, I appreciate Ministers’ dislike of including lists in legislation, but perhaps the Minister will explain the reasons behind the exclusion of NHS foundation trusts and health trusts as well as housing associations from the short list.

Andrew Gwynne: As my hon. Friend knows, on several occasions I have raised examples of leisure
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trusts or arm’s length housing companies depriving locally elected councillors of background information, which would have been required under the access to information regulations in the Local Government Act 1972, but is not under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Does my hon. Friend perceive an opportunity in the Bill, through strengthening overview and scrutiny functions, to ensure accountability when co-operation does not work?

Alison Seabeck: Yes, I agree. In Committee, we have some scope to make progress on that. My hon. Friend mentioned arm’s length companies. Housing associations are an interesting case. Given that much of the Government’s housing policy has been to move local authorities’ role to providing a strategic overview of housing of all sorts of tenures in their area, it is perhaps a little odd that housing associations are not included, especially when they are often partners in a range of social policy initiatives, such as those on antisocial behaviour, as well as being the main social housing providers in some areas. There is also the wider criticism that a minority of housing associations are not as accountable to their tenants as they ought to be. The Bill provides a real opportunity to do something about that.

Following on from what my hon. Friend has just said, there is also a case to be made that contractors providing services to the public sector and carrying out public functions ought to be included. Will the Minister tell us whether there are precedents for imposing responsibilities on private bodies involved in the delivery of public services in that way?

I am also concerned that partners do not appear to be required to attend scrutiny meetings, which is also the point that my hon. Friend has just made. I am not convinced that sending a written report will be adequate, either. The provision in the Bill seems to be a watered-down version of what was in the White Paper. Clause 93 seems only to place a requirement on members of the authority, whereas paragraph 3.35 of the White Paper stated that

I might have misread the Bill, or failed to read across to another clause, in which case I stand to be corrected, but I would welcome clarification on that point from my hon. Friend the Minister.

The community call for action will be a useful tool for citizens whose local authorities are not already following best practice. We all know that well-run councils enable proper scrutiny, but others can behave in petty-minded ways, either for political or personal reasons. Individual councillors sometimes complain that their voice is not heard or that they are not taken seriously, perhaps because they are in a minority, either politically or for reasons such as race, gender or religion. I must stress that that is not the norm, but in those cases, the public can understandably feel helpless and voiceless. It is important, particularly in the interest of community cohesion, that the voices of
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those in our smaller minority communities are heard, and that they feel fully represented by their elected representatives.

The Commission for Racial Equality is rightly keen to ensure that community calls for action are operated fairly and monitored centrally, so as to ensure that all citizens’ views are equally championed and investigated. The community call for action can strengthen the hand of councillors and citizens, but we also need to be wary of the vexatious citizen or group. Proper safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the call for action is not misused, for example, to slow up important decisions or to give interest groups more influence over decisions in the wider community.

I know that SIGOMA—the special interest group of municipal authorities—also has worries about that part of the Bill. We all know that those who are well educated, literate and who have good communication skills can quickly form action groups, not necessarily for the benefit of the whole community but more on a nimby basis. They have the power and the tools to do that, and unless the voluntary sector is given the right funding and recognition to support the vulnerable, certain groups in our communities will still not be heard or have the support that they need.

Other hon. Members have already expressed concern about local area agreements. I am pleased that the targets are to be extended, and there is evidence from the existing scrutiny of health that that will strengthen partnership working and assist in finding solutions to local problems. However, the Bill restricts the duty to respond to scrutiny to specific agreed LAA targets, which leaves gaps. Many outside bodies would like to see the scrutiny power over partner agencies extended to cover other issues of local concern, and not just the issues covered by LAA targets.

I should like to make one small point relating to the openness and accountability of first-tier councils. Will the Minister explain why the Department does not hold a database of first-tier authorities? Is it because the bureaucracy involved would be enormous, or are there other good reasons? He will know that this issue exercises the National Association of Local Councils, and it would be helpful if that matter were clarified.

The Bill specifies a new duty on local authorities to extend the participation of local citizens, which will be essential if the raft of measures set out are to be translated into better and greater engagement from residents. However, the duty does not specify how that is to be done. It appears to leave it up to the local authorities themselves. How will the Secretary of State monitor whether local authorities are widening participation? The Bill is wholly non-prescriptive on that issue. So much of the Bill’s success hinges on greater involvement from a range of partners, and yet it appears to leave how that is done in the hands of councils, which is little change from the current situation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will offer reassurance on that matter.

There is much to be gained from the Bill. I suspect that good local authorities and well organised community groups and individuals will make good use of it, in the same way that the best councils make good use of tools already at their disposal. With planning gain supplement in discussion, I know that section 106 is not necessarily popular, but the best councils used
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section 106 agreements to good effect, and it has taken the others a long time to catch up. In Committee, let us consider whether strengthening some elements of the Bill will enable swifter and better use of such tools by our citizens and local representatives.

5.35 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who has made an elegant transition from political adviser to parliamentarian. She raised some extremely practical points about how things work on the ground, which is the most important question.

The Secretary of State described the Bill as radical, which makes me think that we ought to call in the trading standards officers. I do not think that there is much that is radical about the Bill at all, but I note that Bolton lost 5-1 away to Middlesbrough on Saturday, so perhaps she had a bad weekend in preparation.

The impression that I get from the Bill is that it is very provisional—many parts of it seem to betray unmade-up minds in the Department, which has not really decided in which direction it is facing. We understand that we are in a period of regime change and transition, and that there are pulls in different directions, which all Departments are caught between. The Department for Communities and Local Government in particular is caught between different tendencies. The Government’s ambitions do seem to have been diluted significantly, however, since the departure of the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Of course, there is always the argument, “We are waiting for Lyons.” We have been waiting for Lyons so long, I am amazed that Pinter has not written a play about it. One might say that Lyons would be the ghost at the feast, if we had a feast. We do not have a feast, however; we just have a ghost. We keep waiting to hear not just when Lyons will be delivered but when the Government will decide to publish it, and whether they will publish their own conclusions, so that they can be judged by the electorate in the local elections in May and we will not be caught by local government purdah; otherwise, we will have entered a further stage of regime change, and it will be another year before local government finance starts to be given any future shape.

If the Bill is intended to be a charter for devolution, it is timid and tentative. If it is a blueprint for empowerment, it is hesitant and unadventurous. If it seeks to introduce a revolution in leadership, it is muted and confined. Only in unwinding some of the best-value gendarmerie of inspection and control does it show a few red blood corpuscles; curiously, the debate has concentrated little on that, which I think is the most important part of the Bill. Of course, the Bill does not specify in any detail what will replace that. The Government made clear in the White Paper that there would be a rigorous system with a framework of outcomes. We agree with that, but the devil would be in the detail in relation to how it operated in practice. That part of the Bill, however, is welcome, and one to which we can all subscribe.

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The most puzzling part of the Bill, which has attracted all the attention, which I am not sure that it deserves, is the reorganisation. Two years ago, we had the Miliband momentum, which made it clear that the Government wanted to deal with reorganisation once and for all by heading for unitaries. One year ago, we had the Kelly crush for directly elected mayors. That also seems to have been diluted. What we have ended up with are some confused signals from Government. Does the regional agenda still hold true? Could it be reconfigured to help the idea of city regions to develop, and I am enthusiastic about the concept of city regions? Do we find the Prime Minister’s attachment to charismatic leadership running up against the Chancellor’s devotion to institutional solutions? All those questions seem to be unresolved.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I am listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has to say. Can we summarise it as the Curry compromise?

Mr. Curry: It is always boring when people start sentences with the words, “When I was a Minister,” but I inherited the boundary reorganisation. The job then was to get that brought to a conclusion, which we did. I see strong arguments for unitary councils, but I am much more an enthusiast for smaller unitaries. I am fed up with the obsession with capacity which seems to underline so many Government actions. Other factors are important, and accountability, identity and responsibility are among them. I would be much more sympathetic to a French-style system. It appeals to me a great deal more because the level of accountability is much more tangible than it is in our system.

Andrew Stunell: I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman says, but does he accept that there is a contradiction in wanting small local community-based authorities and city regions, which suggests two tiers, while espousing unitaries as the right outcome?

Mr. Curry: I do not think that there is a contradiction, because there are different circumstances. There are two overwhelming issues that the Leeds city region could address which perhaps could not be addressed in a different context. One is transport and the other might be skills. Those are the two issues that I would highlight in my part of Yorkshire as being the most important to address. There must be a geographic area that corresponds to the sensible solutions to those problems. Other parts of the country have different problems and would not need the same solutions.

In the Bill, the Government seem to want unitaries, but just a handful of them. We have this famous narrow window of opportunity—I am not sure how those adjectives fit together. I am not sure whether the aim is to allow Cambridge or Oxford to become a unitary, but based on current boundaries, there are serious questions about both those cities. Nor do I feel that the conspiracy is as deep-seated as others do. In any case, it is fairly small beer. The applications will be in by the end of the week, if I remember the date correctly, and then we will see.

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One of the other problems with the Bill is that however much the Government talk about devolution, leadership and letting people decide, they cannot, at the end of the day, kick the habit of prescription. The prescription of different forms of council management are not necessary. If we have a sensible framework to deliver outcomes, I do not understand why the Government should be preoccupied with the structure that delivers them. It was, after all, the Prime Minister, I think, who said that what works is what is best or what is right. Although I do not usually quote him with approval, and I see some cringing on the Labour Benches at that non-ideological, pragmatic approach, on the whole he is right. That is what matters, rather than the structures. I regret that we have that form of prescription.

A large part of the Bill is unexceptional and, frankly, unobjectionable. I am mildly in favour of it. There are three main thrusts: leadership, devolution and empowerment. I have said that I cannot quite see that any of them is enough to send the citizens storming to the barricades. Leadership is covered by the local area agreements, requirements on public bodies to co-operate and the scrutiny powers. The local area agreements offer important opportunities and possibilities. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport said, there is bound to be debate on who is embraced by the local area agreement. If one is not careful, one gets an absolutely gigantic sort of jellyfish of an orgasm— [Laughter.] I wondered how many of my colleagues were awake. I am agreeably surprised. I meant “organism”.

That organism will be very difficult to manage. People will ask why the health trusts and housing associations have not been incorporated, but if they all are incorporated, the poor local authority that has to manage the arrangement will spend the whole of its time packing its bags for a journey that it never gets around to taking. There must be some framework and limit to the working of the system, but I think that there are huge possibilities. Given the pattern of local government expenditure, it may well turn out that in a number of years the expenditure flowing from the local area agreements surpasses the expenditure flowing from the revenue support grant. We need to find sensible ways of managing the reorganised system and giving it a proper direction.

Another issue is devolution and the possibility of all-out elections and single-ward councillors. I am not sure to what extent my agent constitutes a representative focus group, but he is passionately keen on the idea on the grounds that it will make his job a great deal simpler. This is something that can be decided locally. The enactment of byelaws without the approval of the Minister of State is welcome, but will it be possible to enact byelaws dealing with the issues that my constituents get excited about? They are constantly demanding traffic-calming measures, for instance, and measures to deal with antisocial behaviour—which, no doubt, will be covered by the local area agreements in any case. Then there is the final repatriation of the ethics committee to councils.

The Standards Board has had an extremely rough ride, which I think it has deserved on the whole, and is
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now becoming sort of watchkeeper—or perhaps, if I may use a classical analogy, it is Charon, whose job is to ferry people to the land of the dead. It has a hugely unhappy history; let us hope that it improves in its new manifestation.

As for empowerment, I am rather in favour of parish councils. I recognise that in metropolitan areas certain issues may arise when there is a concentration of people from particular ethnic minorities or persuasions. I only hope that people will beware of thinking that parish councils can achieve very much at all. In fact, their powers are token. The smaller parishes devote most of their time to writing letters to the other authorities in a mood of increasing frustration, trying to persuade them to do something about a local issue, or complaining about or giving advice on planning when they know that the district council will not take a blind bit of notice in any circumstances.

I speak with some feeling because my wife is a parish councillor. She brings to her parish council a way of doing things that is no doubt due to her French blood, and occasionally leads her to pass comments on Uttlesford district council and Essex county council which would not bear repeating in the Chamber. I have no doubt that the officers of those two councils would reciprocate in equal terms.

Creating parish councils may provide a voice, but the voice is often not heard. We need to think hard about whether the powers of parish councils—which can vary hugely in size, from representing a small market town to representing 200 people in a village—are really effective in an age of devolution.

I can see what the community call for action is trying to do, but I am a bit sceptical about whether it will get very far in practice. Councils are pretty disillusioned, and many have not found it easy to extract any reality from the scrutiny role. However, in so far as the community call manages to kick some councillors into some sort of action on behalf of their communities, it may prove welcome. Many councils take their cue from the officers rather too easily. We live in hope, provided that—as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport mentioned—the initiative is not captured by people with particular interests or agendas, as sometimes happens.

The salient point about the legislation is that it will be launched in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The slowdown in the rate of increase in public expenditure will dominate the remainder of this Parliament. It will be the dominant continuing political event. The comprehensive spending review will mean tight rations for local government. The most telling phrase in the White Paper, which can be found as early as the executive summary which is a bit of a relief, is:

I hope that local government realise what will be sought of them in respect of those ambitious efficiency gains. They will lead to constant pressure. That will eclipse any measures taken under the Bill. Compared with that imperative, a large part of the Bill is, frankly, merely ornamental.

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