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9.44 pm

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 House’s 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 organisation—not ours—with 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
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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 Government’s 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—

Daniel Kawczynski rose—

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.

Daniel Kawczynski rose—

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
22 Jan 2007 : Column 1244
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 far—that, 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.

Mr. Pelling: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Woolas: Not now, as I want to finish the point that I am making. I am normally generous in taking interventions, but I have only a few minutes left.

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 will now take a quick intervention.

Mr. Pelling: 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,
22 Jan 2007 : Column 1245
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 Bill’s Second Reading. However, I have met mayors from across the country, and those who are in place—whether Conservative, Labour, independent or Liberal Democrat—are 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 oppose—that is their constitutional duty—but there is one thing that I would bet my council tax on. Incidentally, according to today’s 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 today’s debate.

That is not to mention—no, I will mention it—the 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 power—we 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 done—because
22 Jan 2007 : Column 1246
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.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—


The House divided: Ayes 206, Noes 283.
Division No. 026]
[9.59 pm



AYES


Afriyie, Adam
Alexander, Danny
Amess, Mr. David
Ancram, rh Mr. Michael
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Baldry, Tony
Barker, Gregory
Baron, Mr. John
Beith, rh Mr. Alan
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Bercow, John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Bone, Mr. Peter
Bottomley, Peter
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brake, Tom
Breed, Mr. Colin
Brokenshire, James
Brooke, Annette
Browne, Mr. Jeremy
Browning, Angela
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burrowes, Mr. David
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Alistair
Burt, Lorely
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Cash, Mr. William
Clark, Greg
Clarke, rh Mr. Kenneth
Clegg, Mr. Nick
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davey, Mr. Edward
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Davies, Philip
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice and Howden)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Duncan, Alan
Duncan Smith, rh Mr. Iain
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Farron, Tim
Featherstone, Lynne
Field, Mr. Mark
Foster, Mr. Don
Fox, Dr. Liam
Francois, Mr. Mark
Gale, Mr. Roger
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
George, Andrew
Gidley, Sandra
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gove, Michael

Gray, Mr. James
Grayling, Chris
Green, Damian
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hague, rh Mr. William
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hammond, Stephen
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harvey, Nick
Hayes, Mr. John
Heath, Mr. David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hemming, John
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hogg, rh Mr. Douglas
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Holmes, Paul
Horam, Mr. John
Horwood, Martin
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Hunter, Mark
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Jones, Mr. David
Kawczynski, Daniel
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Key, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Kramer, Susan
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Lamb, Norman
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Laws, Mr. David
Leech, Mr. John
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Loughton, Tim
Luff, Peter
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Maclean, rh David
Main, Anne
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mercer, Patrick
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Milton, Anne
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Moore, Mr. Michael
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Mulholland, Greg
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Neill, Robert
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Öpik, Lembit
Ottaway, Richard
Paterson, Mr. Owen
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Penning, Mike
Penrose, John
Pickles, Mr. Eric
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Rennie, Willie
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Rogerson, Mr. Dan
Rosindell, Andrew
Rowen, Paul
Ruffley, Mr. David
Russell, Bob
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Scott, Mr. Lee
Selous, Andrew
Shapps, Grant
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Simmonds, Mark
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Sir Robert
Soames, Mr. Nicholas
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Spink, Bob
Spring, Mr. Richard
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Stunell, Andrew
Swinson, Jo
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Matthew
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Teather, Sarah
Thurso, John
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Viggers, Peter
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Walker, Mr. Charles
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Webb, Steve
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wiggin, Bill
Willetts, Mr. David
Williams, Hywel
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Wright, Jeremy
Yeo, Mr. Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Ayes:

Michael Fabricant and
Angela Watkinson

NOES


Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Janet
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, Mr. Ian
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Balls, Ed
Banks, Gordon
Barlow, Ms Celia
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr. Joe
Berry, Roger
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Blunkett, rh Mr. David
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brown, Lyn
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, rh Des
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burnham, Andy
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Caborn, rh Mr. Richard
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Ms Katy
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clelland, Mr. David
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cooper, Rosie
Cooper, Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire
Darling, rh Mr. Alistair
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ennis, Jeff
Farrelly, Paul
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flint, Caroline
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goodman, Helen
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr. Tom
Havard, Mr. Dai
Healey, John
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Heyes, David
Hill, rh Keith
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hoey, Kate
Hood, Mr. Jimmy
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Hutton, rh Mr. John
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Helen
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Jowell, rh Tessa
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally

Keeley, Barbara
Kelly, rh Ruth
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kennedy, rh Jane
Khabra, Mr. Piara S.
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Knight, Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lammy, Mr. David
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
Mackinlay, Andrew
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFadden, Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Meacher, rh Mr. Michael
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Milburn, rh Mr. Alan
Miliband, Edward
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, Mr. Austin
Moffat, Anne
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Moran, Margaret
Morgan, Julie
Mountford, Kali
Mudie, Mr. George
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Olner, Mr. Bill
Osborne, Sandra
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pope, Mr. Greg
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, James
Rammell, Bill
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Reid, rh John
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruane, Chris
Russell, Christine
Ryan, Joan
Salter, Martin
Sarwar, Mr. Mohammad
Seabeck, Alison
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Alan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Smith, John
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Todd, Mr. Mark
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Vaz, rh Keith
Walley, Joan
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, Malcolm
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Woodward, Mr. Shaun
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, Mr. Anthony

Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wyatt, Derek
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Michael Foster and
Kevin Brennan
Question accordingly negatived.
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