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22 Jan 2007 : Column 1229

During the course of my campaign on this issue, I spoke about one thing and one thing only. I did not get involved in the fiscal or financial elements, but spoke about local councillors being accountable to local people in Shrewsbury. Let me provide one example. Councillor Mrs. Judith Williams, who has represented the Porthill area for nearly 20 years, is an extremely hard-working Conservative councillor. She knows every single flagstone on every single pavement in that part of Shrewsbury. That is exactly the type of local person living in Shrewsbury who is accountable to the people of Shrewsbury and who can take the decisions that affect Shrewsbury. Nobody else from outside our town could do so as well.

The county council is currently looking into proposals for congestion charging in Shrewsbury as part of TIF—the transport innovation fund. This quango said yes to providing money for a north-west relief road, but explained that the downside would be the imposition of congestion charging in Shrewsbury. If we have no borough council in Shrewsbury, the unitary authority will be able to impose such measures, so councillors from outside our community will be able to impose congestion charging on Shrewsbury and we will have no say in it whatever. In a unitary authority, Shrewsbury would have only about a third of all the councils across the whole of Shropshire. Tanners, a major company in my constituency, is extremely concerned and has said that it will leave Shrewsbury if congestion charging is imposed.

I am trying to be as quick as I possibly can, but I also want to say that the Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council gets £80 less per household than the neighbouring Labour council of Telford and Wrekin. For every single house in my borough, we receive £80 less, which is an extraordinary amount of money. Two identical Shropshire hamlets—Withington on my side of the border and Roden on the other side—are subject to that difference of £80 for every single house. That is a great anomaly, which I want the Minister to take into account.

I always get replies from the Minister for Local Government saying, “Oh well, there are significant areas of deprivation in Telford.” Well, yes, we have significant areas of deprivation in Shrewsbury as well. I am sick and tired of Ministers telling me, “Oh well, yes, but Shrewsbury is a beautiful, quaint little English town with flowers—a picturesque little town.” Yes, of course, we want to have that image—ours is a beautiful town—but we have areas of deprivation. When his Parliamentary Private Secretary visited my constituency to look at a new library in a very run-down part of Shrewsbury, she was amazed. She said, “I didn’t know you had areas like this in Shrewsbury.” There is that sort of prejudice among the Government. They think that, if people are out in the countryside in Shropshire, they are somehow very wealthy and do not need extra support from the Government. That is not true.

I shall finish now, because I have been told that I can speak only for seven minutes. I could speak for hours on this issue. I will finish by saying that at the end of today’s sitting, I will present the Minister with a document, which I hold up proudly, entitled “Local
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Governance by Local People for Local People: Darwin Option for Shropshire; Evolution of Change; Outline Case for the Enhancement of Effective Two Tier Working.” That document has been created by my borough council and its chief executive, Robin Hooper, to make the case for an enhanced two-tier system for Shropshire, rather than having an unwanted unitary authority imposed on us.

9.1 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I strongly support local government—it is an important part of public life in Britain—and I should like to concentrate on two issues in the Bill: the ability of local authorities to opt for unitary status and the devolution of power to communities, certainly to parish and town councils. A lot of the rest of the Bill is about unpicking some of the mistakes that we have made in the past 10 years. I support doing that, but I am not sure whether we will find the perfect local government solution for which the Government appear to be looking.

The baseline for me in local government is accountability—it has been said already that that is part of the attractiveness of local government—and it involves two things: the ability to elect someone to local office and the ability to remove someone from office, which is just as important. My concern with some of the things that have been said about the Bill and with the tenor of some of the things that the Government are doing is that, somehow, we are trying to depoliticise the process. The suggestion seems to be that using a quango, a board or something that is not directly elected by the people provides a better way to deliver services. I am sorry, but I do not agree with that because, ultimately, people must have the right to remove people from office.

A classic example—which will not go down well among Government Members, but I am sure that it will among Opposition Members—is the North East assembly, which the people of the north-east rejected overwhelmingly. It is now in place, sitting there, costing £2 million a year. It is not relevant to people, but it is having a direct effect on my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), by coming up with the regional spatial strategy. When the two of us asked to make representations to a Minister, we were told that we could make our representations as part of the consultation process, as though we were just ordinary members of the public. The same thing has been said to local councils in Durham. It is completely wrong that an unelected body should have such influence.

I also want to touch on the issue of leadership, which seems to be something that the Government have grasped, saying that it will solve all local government problems. The options available are a mayor, a directly elected executive, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has already described as “bonkers”—I completely associate myself with his views—and a new style of leadership, which is very interesting.

I was heartened after my intervention on the Secretary of State when she said that the Government would not be prescriptive in the model that was proposed. I must tell the House that that is not what is
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coming from the civil service. Officers in County Durham have been told that, if they want their unitary bid to be taken seriously, it must contain an element of the new system—either a mayor, or a directly elected executive. I am pleased that the Secretary of State scotched that and said that other options can be put forward. I just hope that that is correct. The case made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham for a single unitary county in Durham was strong and passionate, and I totally believe in it.

I fear that, by means of this leadership method, we might get mayors by the back door. I have a copy of a briefing note that was sent to me today by the parliamentary Labour party. It is for people who cannot think for themselves. It says:

he is known as “Ken” now—

That demonstrates where the problem comes from. We are looking at the issue in the light of a London-centric model. We have to recognise that there are examples up and down the country of where the old committee system, which I served under for nearly nine years in local government, served us perfectly well. Most of the regeneration of Newcastle and Gateshead was done under the old committee system. The revitalisation of Manchester was done under the local committee system. Let us not be fooled by some of the people who write these position papers and documents. Many of them have never served in local government, but they think that they have the answer to all our prayers in these models. I do not denigrate the hard-working councillors of all political persuasions, who, let us be honest, do their work for little monetary gain and who get a lot of hassle.

I strongly support the case for a single unitary in County Durham. A bid will be put forward by the deadline of this Thursday. A single unitary will, overnight, clear up the confused mess that we have at the moment. We have a county council that spends 86 per cent. of the budget, district councils that are too small and bicker among themselves and over the most small-minded things with the county council. It will do away overnight with 275 councillors. I have 60 councillors in my constituency alone. They vary in quality. We have some good county and district councillors, but all parties are struggling to get people of quality to come forward. Comment was made earlier about savings. The change will save £21 million for the council tax payers of County Durham. More importantly—this will be attractive to many council tax payers—the bid says that the precept will be moved down to the lowest, which is Chester-le-street. Six out of the seven districts will see their council tax precepts reduced.

The other issue is about devolving power to the local level. That is a good aspect of the Bill and something that we should grasp. I hear people say, “You can’t have a unitary county, because you can’t represent local people.” That can be done. In County Durham, we have some examples of good town and parish councils.
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That is why I have been fighting for the last two years against Derwentside district council to form the new Stanley town council, which will deliver at a local level. Okay, it is not high politics. It is about flower beds, litter picking, street lighting, Christmas lights and so on. But that is what a lot of people want. The Bill will give them that. The bid from County Durham stresses that devolution of power to local town and parish councils. I accept that that puts some pressure on the existing ones to go for quality status and make sure that they are professional, but it is welcome.

I do not know whether the Minister has worked out that the timetable for the changes means that we will have elections in May this year and, in the middle of that, we will be saying to people, “Your council will be abolished in the next year to 18 months.” Will the Minister think about how we can improve that in some way? It will not help turnout at those local elections.

Finally, I turn to health. Ever since I was elected, I have made representations about accountability at the local level, and I feel strongly about the subject. What is proposed in the Bill is a complete dog’s breakfast. We are unpicking something that we put in place quite recently, as it does not work. It does not work for one reason, which relates to my point about accountability: there must be the ability to affect actions. People must be able to change things. Neither what is proposed in the Bill nor the system currently in place can really change decision making in health at local level, and that is because of that terrible body, the NHS Appointments Commission, which appoints staff without any reference to local people. Even if those staff commit a host of mistakes, local people cannot remove them. If local councillors had made the mistakes that some local trusts in the north-east have made, they would be out on their ear at the next local elections. That is the issue.

We have missed an opportunity to democratise local health provision, after the mess of foundation hospitals. I am glad that I voted against the idea when it came before the House, and I have been proved right: it did not work, and did not make health more accountable. The Bill is a missed opportunity to introduce if not direct elections to health boards, then at least some way for local people or bodies to remove the decision makers. If we do not ensure that, we will not really interest people in local health. There are opportunities for local people under the Bill, but I do not think that it will be the panacea that people might think it is, or that it will bring about the Government’s ultimate aim of finding the perfect form of local government.

9.11 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). I agree with practically everything that he said—I am sorry if that damages his career prospects—and perhaps that is because he spent a long time in local government before he came to the House, as did I. I wish that some other people had done the same. I am sorry to say it, but the truth is that the Bill is thoroughly disappointing. It is devolution of the kind that Napoleon Bonaparte brought to Europe. He said: “I bring freedom to the peoples of Europe, provided that you (a) subscribe to the French governance model,
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(b) subscribe to the code of Napoleon, (c) subscribe to the continental system of tariffs in trade, and (d) send a levy of troops to the Grande Armée. Once you’ve dealt with all that, you’re entirely free to do what you like.” The same situation applies to the Bill.

The provisions are totally constrained, and the leadership model is a good example of that. When I was a London borough councillor in Havering, we had strong political leadership, and we had a leader and a cabinet. It was the leader who chaired the policy and resources committee, and he and the committee chairman met, and gave the officers and the authority the direction that they needed. There is no need to tinker with that, because it worked. The other problem with the Bill is that it is all about tinkering and creating a plethora of new structures, but what we should be doing is reinforcing existing democratic structures.

That brings me to the buzzword of empowerment. The first thing that we could do is empower democratically elected councillors as local champions. I had the pleasure of being the deputy chair of the commission on London governance; I think that the Minister for Local Government is acquainted with some of its work. My chairman was the former Labour leader in Croydon, and we had input from leading Liberal Democrat council members, and we came to an all-party view. We thought that much more could be done, not to diffuse accountability, but to reinforce and concentrate it around the elected councillor as the local community champion. I am sorry to say that the Bill misses an opportunity in that regard, but I suggest that we could change that by taking some simple thoughts on board.

We could strengthen the position of councillors by giving them a statutory right to be consulted by all public service providers in their ward. I was horrified to find that under the model for safer neighbourhood teams, the involvement of local councillors is almost discouraged, but they should be involved. Local councillors should be consulted about local health provision, on issues such as where a local surgery should be sited in their ward. We could strengthen their powers in that regard.

Mr. Woolas rose—

Robert Neill: I am sorry, but I cannot give way to the Minister, because time is so short. I appreciate his courtesy on past occasions, but he will appreciate the constraints that I am under, and I am sure that he will make his point when he winds up.

Instead of worrying about parish councils in London, where there is little demand for them, it would be far better to provide a devolved ward budget for spending in the public realm. Some progressive authorities already do so by providing £20,000 or so to be spent in each ward. If we entrenched such a provision, it would empower councillors to make local decisions, consult their community and make a proper business case for what they do. It would refocus everything around people who have democratic legitimacy.

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We ought to make sure that there is better working between the health service and local authorities. We have made a start with overview and scrutiny committees, but why should we not go further and give ward councillors, too, involvement at borough level? That would strengthen things at the base and give them teeth. Should we not consider the possibility of allowing successful local authorities to take on PCTs’ commissioning role? Local authorities had a good record in public health in the past. We ought to return to that practice and build on it, instead of replicating a massive range of structures. Time is pressing, and I want to make sure that other hon. Members can make a contribution. I hope that I have indicated in a few brief headlines the missed opportunities in the Bill. That saddens me, as it saddens all of us who entered Parliament because we are passionate about local government, which is desperately important to the country’s health. We could do better, and if the Minister and his colleagues will only listen, we may yet do so.

9.16 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his contribution? I hope that he has done enough to be drafted on to the Public Bill Committee.

I shall be brief, and deploy a broad-brush approach to part 11, which endeavours to deal with patient and public involvement. In health, we are confronted with two parallel worlds—the world of decision making and the world of consultation. The world of decision making is made up of quangos, trusts, appointees, NHS networkers and so on, who decide what services are available, commissioned and cut, as well as the way in which they are configured, structured, run and financed, and even where they are located. They respond to ministerial instructions, financial pressures, turnaround teams, European directives, advice from the royal colleges, pressures from professional and union bodies and, of course, market forces. That is called local decision making, in the same sense that colonial government was local decision making.

The parallel world of consultation produces bodies such as community health councils and patients forums, which will be replaced by LINKs—local involvement networks. It produces, too, brochures, meetings, consultations and pseudo-consultations, surveys, much frustration and not a great deal of change in the eventual decision making. The public are given rights to be heard and consulted, as well as rights to a response, a hearing, a survey and a visit, but not a scrap of decision-making power is surrendered to them. Power remains with commissioners and providers and, ultimately, head office at Richmond house.

One cannot move from one world to the other without confusion, so one cannot avoid developing a deep cynicism. The Bill resolutely keeps those worlds apart. Poring over its small print, I could not find a single clause allowing the public to determine what the decision makers do. Ministers should be honest and tell us what they think—that the public are not capable of shaping the health service. If they think that locally elected people are probably too dim or lack relevant
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expertise, why do they not come out and say so? Why do they not admit that such people cannot make tough decisions or are likely to make bad ones if they are allowed such powers?

The Government choose to ignore the fact that many health services were locally grown, planned, owned and, at one stage, locally financed in part. Things are run differently in other parts of Europe. Almost every hospital has a long history of public involvement and local commitment going back many years, and it would be great to revive that practice. I accept that we have overview and scrutiny committees, which I support—indeed, they should be enhanced—but apart from fine words, ultimately they have the power only to refer things to the Secretary of State.

So in my view the Bill, unamended, leaves the parallel worlds of the decision-makers and the consulted just as far apart as they were before, and still parallel. Patrician rule remains, and hollow consultation and quango rule are still in place. There will be patient and public involvement, but it will be an extraordinarily frustrating business.

9.20 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Minister while he is in his place. To my surprise, I have a few moments, so I shall touch briefly on two issues.

I reiterate the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the timing of the Bill. As the Minister for Local Government said from a sedentary position earlier in the debate, the issue of local government reform has been on the agenda for over two and a half years. The Lyons review was commissioned by the Government to look at the restructuring of finances for local government. It is due to report in March. Why is the Bill not presented for our consideration after the Lyons review has reported? That is extraordinary.

Another timing issue that I should raise is why areas have been asked to volunteer to change their status by Thursday this week, after Second Reading but before the Bill has completed its passage through the House. We heard from the Secretary of State that she intends to make amendments to the Bill, which could be significant, to do with the powers of the Secretary of State to direct local councils. Councils are being invited to abandon their existing structure for a structure that is still unclear, in terms of both the powers that will be available to them and the financing regime within which they will be operating. That seems a peculiar way to go about making legislation that will affect local government.

I welcome aspects of the Bill. I welcome the reduction in targets, which we have heard about from many hon. Members in all parts of the House. I welcome the reduction of best value reports. My council—I should have reminded the House that I am still a local district councillor and proud to be so—has to produce best value report notes on some of the most minute aspects of the council’s service, which seems quite unnecessary. I welcome some of the plans for increased powers for parish councils.

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