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17 May 2007 : Column 776

‘(m) a registered social landlord which lets or owns houses in the area of the responsible local authority and which has been notified in writing by the responsible local authority that it is a partner authority.’.

Amendment No. 257, page 55, line 10, at end insert—

‘(m) Regional Offender Managers;

(n) Probation Trusts and providers of probation services’.

Government amendments Nos. 23 to 25.

Amendment No. 255, page 55, line 32, at end insert—

‘(4A) In this section, “house”, “let” and “registered social landlord” have the same meanings as in Part 1 of the Housing Act 1996.’.

Government amendments Nos. 26 to 28.

Amendment No. 253, in clause 81, page 56, line 13, after ‘area’, insert

‘, including targets relating to energy efficiency standards and microgeneration, as defined by section 82 of the Energy Act 2004 (c. 20) in buildings in new developments,’.

Amendment No. 171, page 56, line 17, at end insert—

‘(1A) In this Chapter “national improvement target” means a national target for improvement designated by the Secretary of State in respect of which there shall be a maximum number of 35.’.

Amendment No. 156, in clause 82, page 56, line 40, after ‘authority’, insert—

‘(ia) other non-statutory partners to the local area agreement;’.

Amendment No. 248, page 56, line 41, at end insert ‘; and

(iii) recognised trades unions.’.

Amendment No. 172, page 57, line 3, leave out ‘and’.

Amendment No. 173, page 57, line 4, at end insert—

‘(iii) the comprehensive area assessment which shall be phased in to coincide with the commencement date for this Chapter.’.

Government amendment No. 92.

Amendment No. 174, in clause 83, page 57, line 20,at end insert

Amendment No. 175, in clause 85, page 57, line 38, leave out ‘local’ and insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 176, page 57, line 42, leave out ‘local’ and insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 177, in clause 86, page 58,line 16, leave out ‘local’ and insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 178, page 58, line 27, leave out ‘or’.

Amendment No. 179, page 58, line 28, leave out subsection (b).

Amendment No. 180, page 58, line 31, at end insert—

‘(7) The responsible local authority may in its absolute discretion, with the consent of each person to whom the target in question relates, change, remove or revise a local improvement target.’.

Amendment No. 195, in clause 87, page 58, line 39, leave out ‘all’ and insert ‘either’.

Amendment No. 181, age 58, line 40, after ‘to’, insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 182, page 58, line 41, after ‘of’, insert ‘national’.

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Amendment No. 183, page 58, line 42, leave out subsection (c).

Amendment No. 184, page 59, line 2, after ‘a’, insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 185, page 59, line 5, leave out subsection (b).

Amendment No. 158, page 59, line 9, after ‘authority’, insert—

‘(ia) other non-statutory partners to the local area agreement, and’.

Amendment No. 186, page 59, line 12, after ‘of’, insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 187, page 59, line 12, leave out ‘, or additional local improvement targets,’.

Amendment No. 188, page 59, line 20, after ‘of’, insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 189, page 59, line 20, leave out ‘, or additional local improvement targets,’.

Government amendment No. 93.

Amendment No. 190, in clause 88, page 59, line 42, after ‘a’, insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 191, in clause 89, page 60, line 8, leave out ‘local’ and insert ‘national’.

Government amendment No. 94.

Amendment No. 157, in clause 90, page 60, line 34, after ‘authority’, insert

Government amendment No. 95.

Amendment No. 192, in clause 92, page 62, line 5, at beginning insert ‘national’.

Amendment No. 194, in page 90, line 9, leave out clause 127.

Government amendment No. 55.

Andrew Stunell: The new clause is simple and straightforward and should be added to the Bill. The Government have repeatedly said that the torrent of targets, plans, guidance notes and approvals should be throttled back, and they have stated clearly that the Bill will do that by relieving local government of the burden of bureaucracy, red tape and financial costs and allowing it to get on with the business for which it was elected.

The new clause provides a way of measuring and taking stock of the Government’s performance. Just in case their rebuttal is that it may be perverse to add yet another target to their work load when we are arguing for the reduction of targets, I simply point out that given the burden they are taking from local government and from themselves, a small diversion to measure it would not go amiss.

I draw the attention of the House to some of the views of Sir Michael Lyons in his recent report to the Government. He said:

17 May 2007 : Column 778

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that Sir Michael’s contention about greater centralisation is reinforced by the answer to a parliamentary question I received recently, which reveals that the ring-fencing of local government budgets has risen from £1.6 billion in 1997 to £7.2 billion in 2005?

Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend is right—or rather the statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government are right. The Government are more and more prescriptive about how local government should spend the money it receives.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas) rose—

Andrew Stunell: I am happy to give way to the Minister—I feel good news coming.

Mr. Woolas: Obviously, I was aware of the answer given to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), which I considered carefully. Those figures included the dedicated schools budget, so that should be borne in mind when making a like-for-like comparison. They also showed that the recent trend is in the opposite direction.

Andrew Stunell: The Minister makes a case, but it is not a particularly good one because many local authorities believe that the prescriptive way that school funding is allocated is not good either.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a briefing I received from the Local Government Association, which notes that the Audit Commission recently informed councils that an additional 54 performance indicators on economic regeneration should be collected “on a voluntary basis”. What is a council supposed to do when the Audit Commission says that it must collect a further 54 indicators on a voluntary basis? That is a weird sort of voluntarism. We are told that additional customer satisfaction indicators are being developed and that as neighbourhood performance management develops, indicators will have to be translated to lower levels, resulting in more data to collect.

The new clause would monitor the Government’s good intentions and would enable us to hear from them precisely how well they are doing—in the context not just of the point my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) drew to the attention of the House, nor of the LGA’s report that more and more indicators seem to be required every day, but of the rumours that reach us on the civil service grapevine. We know that a number of Departments meet the DCLG’s challenge to reduce their indicators and targets for local government by asking their staff to turn the indicators into sub-targets and sub-sub-targets; so there is a higher order target with, beneath it, exactly the same requirements as before—except that they are not called targets. We need to assess whether the Government’s intentions as a whole—not just the Minister’s good intentions—actually produce results.

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In Committee, the Minister affected to be somewhat heartbroken when we showed occasional signs of distrust at his protestations of good will and innocence. However, there are many local government doubting Thomases out there. Over at least 20 years, they have been trained to doubt by the actions of different Governments at the expense of local government. The Minister has only to accept the new clause and he will allay their doubts and fears. Let us make it transparent that the targets are being reduced. Let us see the tide turn and watch as the burden is lifted year by year.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State set out her stall. On targets, she said:

The new clause is designed to restore trust in the Government’s commitment on targets, to cut bureaucracy and to give the Secretary of State something to boast about every year when she publishes her annual report. It follows that we will also support new clause 35, which reflects the same way of thinking. I seek your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether it is in order for me to comment on the other new clauses and amendments in the group.

Mr. Deputy Speaker): Order. It is perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to comment on any of the amendments or new clauses that Mr. Speaker has grouped with the hon. Gentleman’s new clause.

Andrew Stunell: Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In that case, I draw the House’s attention to the further new clause standing in my name and that of my hon. Friends: new clause 30 on the national partnership scheme. My colleagues and I raised this matter twice in Committee, in different contexts. We are raising it again because of its tremendous importance to building a strong, healthy democracy in our country. We have an over-centralised country. It is a monolithic state with a one-size-fits-all approach to Government and local government. That issue relates strongly to the issue of targets. It is assumed that if something works in Northumberland it should work in Hackney, if it works in Hackney it should work in Plymouth, and if it works in Plymouth it should work in Braintree. Wherever one goes, the situation is supposed to be the same. We do not believe that that is the right approach for central Government to take and we want to see a much more decentralised state in the future.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Apropos of the hon. Gentleman’s last comments, is it not important for the Government to try to ensure universality and equity across the country in the provision of services? Sometimes that might be at the expense of local freedom, but equity is important too.

Andrew Stunell: It is certainly right that there should be fair shares. I accept that. However, what many people find difficult to accept is the assumption that the way services are delivered, the volume of services, and even the price of services should be set by central
17 May 2007 : Column 780
diktat or regulation or be the subject of targets. The hon. Gentleman is not wrong, but there is always a tension between making sure that every person in the country gets exactly the same thing and allowing personal freedom and community choice some rein.

At the moment, there is no doubt that in comparison with western Europe, and even more so with our friends across the ocean in the United States, we have an excessively centralised country. I have sometimes used the example of Hampshire in this country and New Hampshire in the United States. The population of New Hampshire in the United States is less than the population of Hampshire in the United Kingdom, yet New Hampshire can set its own laws and taxes and can even set and vary its own criminal code up to and including the death penalty. I want to reassure hon. Members that I am not suggesting that Hampshire county councillors should have the liberty to impose the death penalty, although perhaps they would want that.

A flourishing local democracy is the way to get community and individual engagement with our society. One of the strongest factors in people’s failure to participate in democracy at a local level is that they think that it does not make any difference what they do or how they vote because councillors cannot do anything. I have to say that councillors tend to reinforce that view, because if things go wrong in their area, they always say, “It’s because the Government have stopped us.” We need to get out of having local government in victim mode and we need to restore powers to our local communities.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab) rose—

Andrew Stunell: I am happy to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who is an expert in these matters.

Mr. Raynsford: I share the hon. Gentleman’s objective—and that of the Government—of giving greater discretion and autonomy to local government. That is clearly a desirable objective and I am pleased that we are moving down that route. However, I can see a problem with his new clause. He has stressed that it is inappropriate to set national targets and expect them to apply across the country because different circumstances will apply in different locations. Does he accept that, as part of a proportionate system of regulation, in some areas it might be appropriate to have rather more in the way of regulatory requirements and indicators of performance? I was conscious of that when I was responsible for improvements in local authorities. In certain areas, which we were doing badly, there was clearly a need for more focus in order to get an improvement. If he agrees with what I have said, how is that compatible with a system that simply seeks to reduce the total number of targets across the country, regardless of local variations?

1.45 pm

Andrew Stunell: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, which sounded just like the comments of local government Ministers and former local government Ministers through the ages. Obviously, if one is in the middle and wants to see changes at the
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periphery, the best way of doing that is to order people to make those changes, but that is the opposite of what a localist approach should be. New clause 30 is not specifically related to the issue of the number of targets; it is about defining the boundaries between central Government decision taking and local democracy’s decision taking. The new clause is about setting up a mechanism for establishing where those boundaries should be—on an equal partnership basis between local and national representatives—and about presenting a report that would lead to a much clearer line being drawn. That would prevent some of the interference, perhaps in both directions, that is such a bind to our democratic system.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman said that his measure was not simply about the number of targets, plans or other regulatory burdens. However, his new clause requires the Secretary of State to

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