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prepare a report on progress during the period to reduce the number of local improvement targets, plans and other regulatory burdens.
Andrew Stunell: The right hon. Gentleman is quoting from new clause 29. I am more than happy to respond, although at the moment I am speaking about new clause 30. On the point that he has just raised, of course the reduction in regulation should be proportionate to the risks and benefits. It is certainly not our view that we should simply look at an alphabetical list and leave the top 35 targets and cross the rest off. There has to be discussion and negotiation about what is needed and what is not needed, and about what targets should be decided at a much more local level. In Committee, the Minister correctly argued that in some cases it would be right for partnerships of local authorities and other public bodies in an area to decide what targets should be. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would think that that was desirable.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Does my hon. Friend believe that part of the problem is the fact that many local authorities are at a loss to understand why the targets are being set and what the end result will be if the targets are not met? The Government do not clarify what they expect and what the punishment is, or what the carrot will be. If there is to be a change, there needs to be greater co-operation between central Government and local government in evolving a set of targets that are both realistic and clearly defined, with a mechanism to give to those who achieve the target whatever end result the Government have in mind.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. Many people in local government find it difficult to understand the purpose of the targets they are asked to meet. Officers know that they have to meet the targets, because if they do not it would be difficult to go to another local authority and say, Please can I have a job? I never met any of my targets in my last job. If one is a councillor, it is difficult not to work towards achieving targets, because the council will be
slagged off in the press for not having the right number of stars. Councils might even be penalised in terms of grants and freedoms. This morning, I met a group of councillors from a number of local authorities who made the point quite strongly that when the whole performance culture was introduced, a clear signal was given that those who achieved the targets would get extra power, responsibility and freedom. They said that now that they face the next generation of targets, they cannot see why they should try hard to meet them because they did not get anything worth while when they met the original targets [Interruption.] The Minister will no doubt have the opportunity to explain not only what councils have had, but what they will get as the number of targets shrinks and they focus more accurately on things that matter.
New clause 30 would simply set up a mechanism for developing a proper relationshipa constitutional relationship, if you likebetween local government and central Government. It could lead on to measures of decentralisationindeed, it points in that directionsuch as a cull of the quangos that take up so much of central Government spending. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to a parliamentary question that he had asked about ring-fencing of funding for local authorities. Another aspect of the issue is the huge amount of spending from central Government that used to be channelled through local authorities, which had some discretion over its use, but is now spent by quangos of one sort or another. The Learning and Skills Council is often cited as an example.
We have been moved to bring the proposal back to the House for yet another go because we are not at all persuaded that the Government understand the need to set that constitutional framework and to protect both central Government and local government from all the distrust and misinterpretation in the current relationship. If the Minister rejects the new clause, what exactly does he propose instead? Are the Government really serious about the good intentions that have appeared time and again in his comments and those of the Secretary of State for a while?
I do not know whether amendment No. 253 will be pressed, but my hon. Friends and I certainly support the intentions of the Bill, which are the genesis of that amendment. If the opportunity arises, we will support it.
Mr. Raynsford: Given the grouping of the amendments, I shall not follow the specific issues raised by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). Instead, I shall focus on my amendment No. 254, which deals with the inclusion of registered social landlords in the list of organisations that local authorities are required to consult as part of the preparation of a local area agreement.
Local area agreements are a very important part of the current local government agenda. They are a vehicle for enabling greater discretion to be devolved to a local level and, above all, for ensuring closer co-operation between a local authority and its partners in the area. That is the way forward for local government in ensuring more joined-up delivery of services and better planning, bringing together the range of organisations that contribute to a huge variety
of services and strategies that impact on the local community. I strongly support local area agreements and had the privilege of introducing the concept when I was Minister with responsibility for local government.
I welcome the measures in the Bill that define more precisely the range of bodies that need to be consulted as part of the preparation of a local area agreement, but I am surprised that registered social landlords are not included, because they are hugely important to the delivery of one of the most important services to local communitieshousing. They are responsible for about half the total social housing stock in the country; they are developing and improving large numbers of homes in almost every area of the country; and they have a crucial role to play as partners in a variety of initiatives that will affect local communities, not only in the provision of housing and regeneration but in other areas. I have noticed the participation of registered social landlords in my own area in various measures designed to reduce crime, to work more closely with the police and to improve health outcomes. They have an integral role to play in many different areas, and it is curious that they are not listed.
I can understand the argument, which my hon. Friend the Minister will probably use, that registered social landlords are not an authority. They are, in essence, individual bodies that do not have a statutory existence, so they should not be defined as an authority. However, given the huge range of bodies listed and the wide variety of services included, it seems odd that there is no reference to registered social landlords. I understand that this issue was raised in Committee, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give it some further thought. If he cannot accept the amendment to include registered social landlords in the list of bodies that must be consulted, I hope that some thought will be given to how local authorities will be advised to ensure that registered social landlords are not left out of an inclusive approach to better and more joined-up service delivery, to which they have a large contribution to make. I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will give the amendment sympathetic consideration, even if he is not able to accept it.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Given the wide-ranging nature of the first group of amendments, I shall not follow the remarks of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), although I will touch on the changes being made to the partnerships included in local area agreements.
May I say to the right hon. Gentleman how welcome it is, when I am running the London marathon, that he is always there, outside his constituency office in Greenwich, cheering on the runners? He has done that for many years; it is always a welcome moment, although I wish that next time he will have some alcohol available as I run past.
This is an opportunity to discuss a number of matters relating to the Bill, and I will not go on too long because time is limited and there is a lot to cover. Something has been missing, however, from the comments of Ministers, whom I welcome back to their placeswe will enjoy this afternoons proceedings, as we enjoyed the Committeeand those of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). I have been thinking about what it is and I have realised that this is the first opportunity we have had to discuss local government in detail since the local government elections the other week. We need to root this debate firmly in the context of what the public think about the local government performance of our respective parties.
I thought that it might assist the House if I reminded it that the Conservative party gained 39 councils at those elections and now holds 165. There were 911 councillor gains, and we now hold 5,315 council seats across the country. Labour lost eight councils and 505 councillors. The Liberal Democrats lost four councils and 246 councillors. The Conservative party is therefore the party of local governmentfull stop. The remarks that my colleagues and I make are bolstered by public confidence in our recent performance.
Alistair Burt: I note the hon. Gentlemans comment. What happened was balanced by the fact that I lost the only Labour councillor in my constituency, so I now have none. It was a bit of a topsy-turvy night for his party, but more turvy than topsy.
Daniel Kawczynski: My hon. Friend will know that we made big gains in Shropshire, where we were all campaigning vehemently against a unitary authority. The Government said that they would take note of the outcome of the elections. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it is important that the Government take that on board.
Alistair Burt: Indeed. I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend speaks well, and it is not the first time the people of his constituency have spoken about organisational arrangements. We will debate those arrangements later, and I do indeed share his hope that the Minister will listen to what the people have saidit covers a broad measure of public opinion, which he ought to take into account.
To speak more directly to the amendments in the group, I welcome, and thank the Minister for, the changes proposed in the Government amendments, especially those relating to the addition of national health service trusts and public health bodies. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee expressed
the wish that those bodies be added to the list of partners in local area agreements. We think that the amendments make that list more complete. The Minister has responded to our concerns and honoured the pledge he made in Committee, which we appreciate.
Amendment No. 257, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and other colleagues, proposes the possible addition of probation trusts. The Local Government Association would welcome the opportunity to include those trusts. It believes:
A duty to cooperate on all offender management and probation services would help move reducing re-offending closer to the mainstream of local partnership activity.
We tabled amendments Nos. 156 to 158 in response to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations plea that there be a specific requirement to engage properly with non-statutory partners. We discussed in Committee whether such bodies were covered by the catch-all provision that such parties as the local authority thought fit should be consulted but, for reasons that have previously been set out, the NCVO believes that ensuring that local authorities engage and consult properly with non-statutory partners would strengthen local area agreements. In its briefing, the NCVO says:
Whilst there are many examples of local authorities working effectively with the voluntary and community sector there are also many examples of local authorities refusing to engage and consult properly.
If the hon. Member for Hazel Grove divides the House on new clause 29, we will support it. The relationship between central and local government and the increasing burden imposed by central Government over the years through targets, quotas, ring-fencing and the like formed much of the background to our debates in Committee and, indeed, to the interesting evidence sessions that preceded those debates, which were the first to be held on a Public Bill. I remind the Minister of the comments made by Simon Milton, who gave evidence in the first evidence session as a representative of the LGA. He commented on an amendment that we tabled in Committee and have tabled again on report. Amendment No. 171, as it now is, proposes an upper limit on the number of targets. Simon Milton said:
We would like to see an upper limit expressed in the Bill, because there is a tendency, we suspect, despite the best wishes of Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to have target-creep over time. Therefore, we would rather have an upper limit in the Bill. [Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 30 January 2007; c. 24.]
I am not, but I am not surprised to hear that. The danger is that we can set formal limits, then along come sub-clauses A, B and C and, before we know where we are, there are new targets. I think that is
what Simon Milton meant when he talked about target-creep and it is what we have in mind when we attempt to ensure that the Minister sticks to the Departments first belief expressed in the White Paperthat there should be a maximum number of, say, 35 targets for local area agreements, rather than the unlimited number that became the norm as the Bill proceeded.
In that spirit, although we will not press amendment No. 171, we shall support new clause 29 as a symbol of the concerns of Conservative MPs and local government representatives throughout the country. The serious part of the earlier amusing diversion was to remind the House that, in terms of the number of councils and the number of seats held, the Conservative party represents more than all the other parties combined, including independents and others. When colleagues around the country speak of their concern about the burden imposed on them by central Government, they are speaking from a position of knowledge and significant authority. Taking new clause 29 as a symbol of the concerns expressed by local government about targets, burdens, regulatory creep and so on, we think it important to have a Division so that we can show our concern and, in so doing, express the hope that, as the Bill passes from this place to another, the Minister will consider further the legitimate concerns of local government representatives across the country and do more to address them.
We are well aware of the burden and impact of the targets. They imply a lack of trust that those working at local level will do their job. That affects government across the board. The misery of the Secretary of State for Health yesterday has surely been compounded by the fact that what the Government sought to do in medical training reflects their sense of not quite trusting the senior people who have been in charge of training over the years and their desire to impose a bureaucratic system instead. The stories heard over the weekend about the police chasing up insignificant offences to reach targets is a further symbol of what happens when people become motivated solely by mechanistic targets, rather than being allowed the discretion they need as professionals to judge what is important in a community.
Our aim is to attack the Governments desire to work in a centralised, directive manner in relation to local government, and we have picked new clause 29 as a symbol of that. The Minister should not mistake the fact that many of the amendments tabled reflect the concern that there is too much national and not enough local, and too much determination to make decisions centrally in Whitehall rather than rely on local government expertise and what local people think to inform decisions. That is why we want to vote in support of the new clause.
We are also interested in amendment No. 253, which stands in the name of the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) and to which several of my hon. Friends have put their name. It represents an important extension of the sense of local government devolution. The Minister knows that in Committee we discussed the relationship between this Bill and the Sustainable Communities Billa private Members Bill. We believe that the latter represents genuine devolution of power, whereas the Governments Bill does not go as far as the
Government think it does. Representatives of Unlock Democracy gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee. Peter Facey said:
The Bill devolves power by giving powers to parish councils, and in relation to byelaws, and that is to be welcomed. However, with respect to the powers of Westminster, and in most policy areas, it reorganises the powers of local government and gives local government the ability to administer things better, but it does not actually shift power significantly downwards to local authorities or communities. [Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 1 February 2007; c. 69.]
We have previously debated the fact that we do not think that the Bill does what the Minister thinks it does. Amendment No. 253 provides an imaginative way for the Government to demonstrate that they really do believe in local community power by giving local authorities the ability to encourage more powerful energy conservation targets for new buildings in their areatargets that go beyond the national targets. The Government could extend discretion to the local level, enabling local people to express opinions on the vital issues of climate change and conservation.
We should bear in mind the strictures of the Ministers colleague, the Minister for Housing and Planning. When we discussed home information packs yesterday, she made the point that our lack of support for the Governments proposals on HIPs was in contrast to what we believe about energy conservation. I now put the same point to the Minister for Local Government: if he does not support amendment No. 253, which his colleague, the hon. Member for Gower, tabled, it calls into question the Governments commitment to energy conservation and the like, and rather undermines the next Prime Ministers attempt to establish eco-homes. The Chancellor is going around the country talking vehemently about the environment, which he did not start to do until very recently. We will be very interested to hear the Ministers response on amendment No. 253, which we want to be accepted.
The amendments deal with a variety of concerns about the powers of local councils and communities and their entitlement to more of a say and to be included. We welcome the extension of partnership, through local area agreements, to the bodies that have been mentioned, but we want it to be extended further. The Government have sought a couple of new powers. In Government amendments Nos. 93 and 94, there is a power to vary or revoke directions that was not included in the original Bill. I should be interested to know in what circumstances that power might be used. When the Minister gets a chance to reply, perhaps he will explain what is behind those powers, and say why they were introduced at this stage of the Bill, and not earlier.
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