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co-operation across the country was variable from probation services, health and fire services, though all of these are covered by a statutory duty to co-operate.
That did not always work on the ground. In the past, I have found that one or two of those services in my locality were not co-operating to the degree that we all wished. We were able to fix it, but it would be better if we had more tools to ensure that delivery.
It is also interesting to see a Home Office document, Making Partnerships Work, which again highlighted concerns at the CDRP level about failure to achieve co-operation in practice on multi-agency agreements, even though those agreements had been made through the statutory partnerships. That comes close to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). Clear areas of concern are flagged up by such empirical evidence as we have.
It is against that background that I hope that Ministers will consider sympathetically two suggestions by the Local Government Information Unit. First, the Bill should specify a minimum standard of 12 weeks for responding to consultation. That would apply the Cabinet Office guidelines to those partnerships. A partner that did not respond within those periods could be considered to have breached the duty to co-operate. That would give the provisions some teethsomething to pull people together and get them round the table.
Secondly, the Bill should identify a performance improvement process that could be triggered when there is a breakdown. We do not want to watch a train crash in slow motionwe want a practical means of taking matters forward. The Audit Commission will co-ordinate inspection in localities across its four inspectorate areas, so it would not be too difficult for it to co-ordinate information on breaches of duty to co-operate, which could be fed to the relevant inspectorate of the partner organisation. That would have the advantage of giving an incentive to partner organisations to co-operate, because if its own
inspectorate was aware of failures on its part, that could be reflected in its performance assessment.
Those are two straightforward, practical and not in the least bit costly things that could be done to improve the working of local area agreements and other partnerships. I hope that Ministers will consider them sympathetically.
The broad issues raised in this part of the Bill are very significant, but they have been well outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I hope that the practical points that I have raised flesh out his principal argument.
Kelvin Hopkins: I shall speak briefly, because there is a lot of business to transact. First, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on his powerful and compelling speech. I am pleased to be one of those who signed his amendment and hope that the Government will recognise the strength of his argument.
I wish to speak to my amendment No. 248 to clause 42, which, in essence, would insert a requirement to consult trade unions in drawing up local area agreements. I should perhaps declare an interest. I am a former employee of Unison and in receipt of a Unison occupational pension, and the union principally affected by my amendment would be Unison.
The amendment is about modernising staff consultation arrangements to keep pace with changes to public services. The Government propose the extension and formalisation of local area agreements, which do indeed have the potential to become powerful tools for transforming local services and are a welcome step towards a more joined-up approach. However, the change from single to multi-agency planning means that current arrangements for consultation of the work force will become outdated. The existing arrangements giving a voice to employees are based on the Employment Relations Act 1999, which introduced statutory trade union recognition, and the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004the ICE regulationswhich followed the private Members Bill that I introduced after the Vauxhall closure in Luton, and which called for consultation and information rights. I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised the value of that suggestion, although at the time they were unhappy about it and did not wish to support my Bill.
All the social partners, including the TUC and the CBI, signed up to the ICE regulations, recognising that consulting the work force was vital in order to achieve high-performance workplaces. However, both pieces of legislation apply only at the level of the individual employer. A consequence of introducing planning using local area agreements is that by the time consultation occurs at individual employer level, key decisions will already have been taken and staff will be faced with a fait accompli. Their contribution to the process will be hollow and meaningless.
To maintain the current level of consultation in practice, it is essential that the Bill require that recognised trade unionsthe voice of the work forcebe consulted when a local area agreement is
being formulated. It already requires that local authorities consult partner authorities and
such other persons as appear to be appropriate.
However, that is inadequate, as trade unions are clearly not partner authorities, and it is possible that some councilsno doubt particularly Conservative councilswill not deem the work force appropriate to consult, especially if their plans are controversial, and will not consult trade unions unless they are compelled by law to do so. Nor is it sufficient for the matter to be covered in statutory guidance, which could be revoked or altered if another party came to power. The provision should be on the face of the Bill.
The amendment would require recognised trade unions to be consulted as of right, and would maintain the good practice already in place. I urge my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to accept it and include it in the Bill.
Mr. Hancock: Let me start by dealing with some of the comments of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who claimed to speak on behalf of his party as the party of local government. I have served in local authorities for 37 years, and the Labour and Conservative parties have made that claim many times. When in opposition, they claim to be the voice of reason and supporters of local government. Sadly, when they are in government, they spend the next four or five years doing all they can to harm local government.
The Conservatives ended their time in office by not being the party of local government. Their councillors and the number of councils that they controlled had been reduced dramatically. The cycle is there for all to see. If we were unfortunate enough to have another Conservative Government, I hope that they would live up to their promise to be the voice of local government, to defend and enhance it and give it the support that it deserves.
I also remind the hon. Gentleman that his party did not have anywhere near the success that it predicted in the city of Portsmouth. Indeed, the Conservatives barely held on to what they had. He should not be too quick to gloat and praise his colleagues, because the picture that he painted does not apply universally.
Alistair Burt: It is difficult for the hon. Gentleman, try as he might, from a position of having lost 246 councillors on the night of the elections, to pick the odd hole in our performance. Yes, we might have gained one or two more seats than the 911 that we won. However, if I were him, I would accept that I had had a bad night and leave it at that.
Mr. Hancock: Fine. I only hope that that will translate into wholehearted support for local government and what it stands forand I hope that Conservatives will start to relate to that when in office. For too long, I have seen Conservatives take office in local authorities, claiming that they will deliver all the benefits of reform at no cost, only to be disappointed in their own efforts at the end of their term, when they are wiped out at the following election.
I wholeheartedly support the thrust of amendment No. 255. It is nonsense not to include social landlords in the consultation in local area agreements. Without them, many of the plans are pointless. There is not an area in the country that does not perceive the benefits of close involvement with social landlords, of working with them and including them. Registered social landlords should be part of the family that plans the future of our country. I hope that the Government will recognise the essential part that they play.
I understand, as did the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) when he presented the amendment, that the Government have a get-out clause, and could say, Theyre not an authority, as such. However, in most areas, registered social landlords constitute the housing authority and will deliver the sort of houses that the Chancellorthe future leader of the Labour party and future Prime Ministeradvocates now. Without their playing an active part in the planning process, we will lose out considerably. I hope that the Minister for Local Government sees merit in that argument. If the amendment were pushed to a Division, I would support it.
Again, I support the thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), who tabled amendment No. 253. He talked a lot of sense about the way in which the planning system is in denial. One authority is saying one thing and another authority is saying another, and the planning inspectorate comes up with bizarre contradictions of policy and no clear thrust about how it should operate. I am unclear whether there is any mechanism to give the planning inspectorate some sort of direction on such issues. How can their decisions be so contrary, as they are, when in some instances neighbouring local authorities with very similar applications can end up being diametrically opposed to each other? It is a bizarre situation that needs to be tackled. I, for one, will be very disappointed if that amendment is not pressed to a vote.
I now come to the key debates about the main provision in the groupnew clause 29. I have always been sceptical and reluctant to accept that targets are likely to enhance the relationship between central Government and local authorities. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was right to suggest that there was an element of distrust built into these targets, and that Governments of all persuasions were not prepared to give local authorities the necessary trust. I
am at a loss to know whether Ministers seriously understand the cost to some local authorities of having to carry out the work necessary to meet those targetsparticularly the cost of the central internal workings required for authorities to deliver. It is not untrue to say that some local authorities have had to reduce services in one area in order to pay the costs of producing the sort of data that Governments require them to produce to satisfy their targets. That is bizarre, to say the least, and the problem needs to be recognised.
Every time we set a target, a price is associated not just with delivering the target itself, but with having to prepare the data for the target to be properly assessed. How many targets are understood by the public? Could the Minister enlighten us about what his Department received in the way of public feedback on the targets set for local authorities and the costs to those authoritiesultimately, to the public themselvesin meeting them? What is the benefit to the individual when these targets are met in any one local authority, and what are the disadvantages? There is no clarity there at all.
If we must have a system of target setting, I believe that the Government must be far more transparent about how they arrive at the initial stages. As I said in my earlier intervention, they should clearly indicate to local authorities what the prizein the sense of added power and added resourcefor meeting the target will be. My knowledge of local authorities leads me to believe that even if the target is met, few additional resources will ever come along. There are plenty more responsibilities directed at authorities, but few of the necessary resources are ever made availableand if they are, they apply for a very limited period, after which the authority is expected to continue to pick up the tab. Targets are fine, but they have to be clearly recognised as delivering something worthwhile to the community. Far too many targets that have been, and continue to be, directed at local authorities have no clear purpose at all, least of all to the people who are supposed to benefit from them.
David Howarth: I rise briefly to speak in favour of amendment No. 253, mainly to put on the public record my thanks to the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) for his sterling work on this issue, seen both in todays amendment and in the private Members Bill that he is promoting. The need for that amendment and that Bill arose originally from instances in my own constituency of Cambridge, which the hon. Gentleman accurately described in his speech.
I have heard only two arguments against the proposal. The first, put forward by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is that it is better to act at national level than at local level. The second is the argument put forward by the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), which is that what really matters is building houses, that to build houses requires one to think about the supply chain, and that house builders need a guarantee of volume in order to bring down the cost of housing. Both those arguments are incorrect.
The argument about national standards misses the point about how we set good national standards. Central Government are often not in a position to
decide the best standard without first taking into account the experience of local government. The role of local government in putting forward new ideas and allowing experimentation in policy is crucial, and we should value that role. If local authorities are prepared to go further than the national standards to see what the effects might be, I believe that that is a good thing.
The argument about the supply chain misses the important point that there is a difference between what happens in the public sector and what happens in the private sector. In the public sector, very high standardsmuch higher than in the planning systemare already being set. All housing financed by the Housing Corporation has to follow environmental standards much higher than those that are standard in the planning system. That means that there are already two standards being used. If the argument about the need for a single standard were true, the Government would have a problem, because there are already two standards. My view is that it is perfectly plausible to have two standards.
Mr. Gummer: Is it not in ignorance of the way in which housing is built that the former Minister puts forward his view? Any house builder decides on what will be done in a particular area, usually within one local authority. It is perfectly easy for that builder to build to the higher standard that the hon. Gentleman is advocating.
The hon. Gentlemans argument fails to take into account the fact that there is a difference between operating to two standardsa national standard adopted by the building regulations and another set by the Housing Corporation for all registered social landlordsand the possibility of some 400 different standards being set by individual local authorities, which would create uncertainty about the long-term supply of materials that are critical to the ratcheting up of standards. If the hon. Gentleman talks to people who know what is required, they will tell him that the increase in standards necessary to achieve the very high targets at level 6 in the code for sustainable homes will not be achieved unless there is absolute commitment by the entire supply chain, including the producers of the materials. If those producers are uncertain about particular elements as a result of a plethora of different requirements in different areas, there is a risk that the higher standards will not be met. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that?
David Howarth: I am afraid that I do not. That would be an argument against having different standardslevel 6, level 5, level 4 and so onin the first place. Furthermore, everyone in the industry knows in which direction this is going. We are not talking about standards that will be lower than the national standards. We are talking about standards that will be higher, and aiming towards a point at which everyone knows we will arrive in the end. I do not see how the right hon. Gentlemans proposal would work in terms of the reality of the industry.
My final point is about the Chancellor of the Exchequers proposal for eco-cities. It has been mentioned before, and I support it. An interesting aspect of the proposal for Oakington, near Cambridge, is that the site is in public ownership. It is partly owned by the Ministry of Defence. It is also out of town, several miles from Cambridge. Were one to choose an ideal site for an eco-city experiment, it would not be there; it would be much closer to the existing built-up area. An important part of making a zero-carbon community is transport, especially public transport, and although there are proposals for public transport links between Oakington and Cambridge, they are not of the highest possible quality; they would get people from Oakington to the edge of Cambridge but no further. In contrast, Cambridge city council was attempting to apply higher standards, similar to those in the Chancellors eco-city proposal, to developments within the city, which would have been better, environmentally, than those at the Oakington site. One of the anomalies of the present situation is that central Government can randomly decide to go forward with such proposals at sites that may not be the best, while at the same time denying local government the right to do exactly the same at much better sites.
I hope that the Government will reconsider their view of the proposal, which has all-party support, and on which the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) has done a great deal of sterling work. It deserves support today.
Mr. David Anderson: I support the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). The whole agenda is about the modernisation of public services, and it concentrates on structures. The truth, however, is that people, not structures, make changes. Whatever we decide in the next few days, we will be reliant on ordinary working people to implement the changes and make them work for the people who send us here. We hear regularly from the Government the mantra, What matters is what works. It will not work if the work force is not consulted and does not have ownership of what is going on. If we ignore the work force, it will not support what we try to do.
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