|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I did not expect such an exciting flourish at the finish from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is normally such a consensus politician. Let me, in all seriousness, draw the Houses attention to the reaction to our White Paper and the Bill from the Conservative-led Local Government Association, with which we have spent two years building consensus to ensure that English councils can benefit from the devolution that the rest of the United Kingdom has already experienced.
The hon. Gentleman criticised the Government for not being able to let go. We let go in Scotland; the Conservatives opposed it. We let go in Wales; they opposed it. We let go in London; they opposed it, having abolished it in the first place. We let go on transport. We let go in Northern Ireland. We let go through the prudential borrowing regime. We are letting go through the local authority business growth initiative, to the tune of £1.5 billion. We let go through non-ring-fenced grants and £500 million from the neighbourhood renewal fund, opposed by the Conservatives. The local area agreements and the change in the performance regime that the Bill introduces have already let go significant powers, to the tune of £500 million of pooled money, to local government and its partners. That amount will rise to £5 billion by the end of the next period. We are letting go across the country.
Let the House be in no doubt about the Conservatives response when we do let go, and ask councils to come up with their own proposals for new organisationnot ourswith the clear criterion that they will be allowed to go ahead only when there is value for money and no extra burden is imposed on the council tax payer. What is their response? It is to get
out the Central Office staffers and send them to the county councils of England to hold their hands and tell them that they are not allowed to present proposals that their own officers are telling them would reduce the council tax bills of people in those areas. The Government have not prescribed where the unitary proposals should come from. We have not told districts or counties which model we prefer. We have said that value for money for the council tax payer should be the criterion.
We have heard a great deal about Shropshire this evening. Shrewsbury is a beautiful place and it does have pockets of poverty, although not as many as Telford. Members have spoken as if the Secretary of State were proposing to abolish the council in the constituency of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). It is not the Secretary of State who is proposing that; it is Shropshire county council.
I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who may wish to ask me who is the leader of Shropshire county council. In fact the leader of Shropshire county council is a very eminent Conservative, Malcolm Pate. It is a Conservative proposal that the hon. Gentleman is trying to pretend is an example of the Governments taking central powers. It is not possible to square that with the proposals of the 1980s and 1990s, which changed the boundaries of local government in England in Berkshire, Middlesex, Lancashire and other areas across the country. The former Secretary of State Mr. Heseltine admitted
Mr. Woolas: No, I will not give way at this point. Mr. Heseltine admitted in the Local Government Chronicle that he had made his final decisions on the boundaries in England on the basis of a helicopter flight around the towns and an ordnance survey map. That is the truth of what happened under reorganisation. This Government will stick to the criteria that we have published. We will abide properly by those criteria, and we will judge proposals accordingly.
Mr. Woolas: I will not give way. We have plenty of time in which to debate these issues. The timetable for consultation issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensures that after proposals have been submitted there will be widespread consultation. I look forward to that, including the consultation with the public. They will of course have their say, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) pointed out.
It is incumbent on me to try to respond in as much detail as possible to those who have asked questions and made comments. Unfortunately, some myths have been perpetuated, but some sensible detailed points have also been made. If the Bill is enacted, there will be two new local government statutory duties. Let me make it clear what they are. First, a statutory duty to co-operate will be imposed on the local authority and its public partners. That will empower local councils in a way that has not been the case for many decades; indeed, that is already happening through the local
area agreements. The second duty that will be imposed on councils will change the relationship between them and their citizens; it is the statutory duty, through the best value regime, to involve, consult and devolve the double devolution part of the devolution.
I advise Members of all parties to take a serious look at those proposals. I must pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who said that he welcomed much in the Bill although he wished to raise some points of detail. Having been a Minister with responsibility for such matters for four years, he understands the importance of this change in the legislative regime. Our proposals are genuinely devolutionary. I advise the Conservative party to try to change its mindset, because its opposition to our proposals will leave it floundering in the wake of those local authority leaders who are already grasping the new powers.
Members of all parties had points to make about the leadership model. As elected representatives, all of us know that devolution can go only so farthat, at whatever level, somebody has to take a decision. The Bill ensures that, ultimately, those who take such decisions are elected representatives. Concerns about community cohesion and unrepresentative groups are met by the fact that a central role will be played by the elected councillor, either as a front-line ward councillor, or as a leader or part of the leadership of a council.
Let me say something about the boundary on the devolution of power. Given that through the local area agreement more money will be pooled by the Government and their local agencies than is contained currently in the revenue support grant, and also that more money will be distributed, the boundary on that devolution is the insistence, on behalf not only of the Government but of Parliament, which has the right to intervene in local decisions should it wish to do so, that areas have strong and accountable leaders for their local councils. That is why we have put forward what we see as strong leadership models.
Admittedly, the indirectly elected leader does not in practice change significantly what is already the case in most areas, but in the context of what we are talking about, one cannot expect any Government of any political persuasion to go down the route of radical devolution. Anybody who has studied the financial arrangements in the Bill cannot expect us to devolve power to leadership at local level that is not accountable. It has been said that we are prescribing mayors; we are not. Nor are we prescribing the modus operandi of councils in detail. However, we are insisting that if there is to be power at local level it must be accountable.
I know that the Minister is not prescribing, but there is an enthusiasm for directly elected mayors. If he believes so strongly in the idea,
might he consider reducing the number of electors that are required to force a referendum on that issue?
Mr. Woolas: Points made on the numbers can be debated in Committee, should the House agree to the Bills Second Reading. However, I have met mayors from across the country, and those who are in placewhether Conservative, Labour, independent or Liberal Democratare making a difference.
A number of Members asked why the Lyons report will come after the Bill. It seems to me that any consideration of the proper function and form of local government and the changes that are being made in order to build on the reforms that this Government introduced elsewhere in the public sector could sensibly be made only before we discuss the finance.
I appreciate that it is the job of the hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) to opposethat is their constitutional dutybut there is one thing that I would bet my council tax on. Incidentally, according to todays report by the Local Government Association, my bill is the second lowest since the council tax was introduced, but I see that the Opposition are giving no credit to the Government. [Interruption.] Presumably, we are now getting the Hammersmith and Fulham argument. The Opposition call for devolution, but why is it that, when councils of their own party put the council tax up, it is because of a centralised, heavy-handed Labour Government, yet when they lower them and cut services, they blame the cuts on a Government who allegedly do not give them funds? Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart of the Local Government Association speaks more common sense in one press release than the Opposition have done throughout todays debate.
That is not to mentionno, I will mention itthe fake consensus that we had on Friday. When the Sustainable Communities Bill was given its Second Reading, with support in all parts of the House, the Government agreed with its intention and said that we would study its details in Committee. Do we see the same consensus regarding the plea of the Local Government Association and of Labour Members? Surprise, surprise, Mr. Speaker, we do not. It is no wonder that people think that the Opposition are cynical.
Does it not make sense to discuss the possible reforms of local government finance after the House has had a chance to discuss the roles, functions and direction of travel that it wants for councils? Had we done it the other way round, I bet my council tax on the fact that the Opposition would have said tonight that we had got it the wrong way around. The proposal has always been that we would take forward the form and function before the finance.
On the duty to direct, let me give the Opposition the reassurance that they and the Local Government Association are looking for, and which I have already given them. We have taken that powerwe will introduce amendments to clarify it, as I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have undertaken to do, to ensure that there are limited circumstances in time and geography where that can be donebecause
we have a duty to ensure that we do not do what the previous Government did, which was to introduce unitary proposals for some areas that had detrimental effects in others. We have to provide a solution that is fair to all.
That, in all seriousness, is the point that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made. He had a referendum, and the Government must, and will, take the opinions into account, but we must also take into account the impact of proposals on other parts of the country. That is why the directive exists. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar says that he is not reassured. Given the cynical mood that the Opposition are in, I would imagine that they would not be reassured if I promised him a zero council tax and free meat pies. [Interruption.] I notice that it was the meat pies and not the low council tax that got him going, but there we are.
The measures in the Bill represent the most radical empowerment of local authorities and their partners, and of local councillors as front-line councillors in their communities. There are powers to set byelaws; to decide the configuration of wards; to decide to move to all-out elections, if so required; to work with their partners in the expenditure of taxpayers money over the 35 outcomes that they will decide, in conjunction with the Government; and local targets that they will decide on behalf of their local people. It is a radical measure and I call on the House to support the Bill.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|