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Some issues remain in relation to the restructuring of local government that was attempted by means of the Minister’s cunningly worded invitations to local authorities up and down the country. Some of those invitations were accepted by certain of our colleagues, but we did not see the total meltdown of Conservative authorities that might have been anticipated, and we are grateful to those colleagues who worked hard to prevent it. However, we still feel strongly about the fact
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that we did not have an opportunity last week to debate whether there should be a referendum in local areas to give the public a say.

As we have pointed out before, although the Bill refers to a broad measure of support—or words to that effect—we are not told exactly what that means. I must tell the Minister that I see trouble ahead. When it is a question of how decisions have been made and how a broad measure of support is defined, he will be presented with alternative broad measures of support by competing parties, and contradictory broad measures of support at that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow presented a strong case on the referendums held by district councils in Shropshire, and contrasted that with the decision that had been made here. As I say, I see trouble ahead, because the issue of support has not been properly dealt with.

That is, of course, a subject for the judicial review which is still in progress. I noted that the Secretary of State clung to that judicial review a few hours ago, when she was sitting where the Minister is sitting now. Perhaps there is still time for the Government to cling to it again, and to make amendments clarifying how the public commitment will be judged in relation to the restructuring. We shall have to wait and see what happens.

We had an extensive discussion in Committee about the executive arrangements. It was repeated tonight, so I will not return to it now. However, I maintain that it might have been better to give local authorities a chance to choose their leadership models rather than having to accept the Minister’s restrictive models, and we still believe that local area agreements could do with a limitation on the number of targets. We listened carefully to the Minister’s argument about flexibility, but local authorities continue to feel edgy about the lack of an upper limit. We would have liked to table an amendment to bring together the police and local government aspects of the community call for action, but I believe it will be raised in the other place, and I hope that the Minister will consider it further.

Perhaps the worst part of the Bill is the tagging on of the public health aspects. We will all recall the strength of feeling of witnesses on the abolition of patients forums. The Minister has provided the best defence that he could this evening and in previous discussions. However, it was noticeable that he said a few moments ago that what patients require is the bringing together of local government and health. Well, it was not what they asked for, and it is not what they want. They want a distinctive patient voice, and they think that they have lost that. I still think that the Government have not effectively heard that voice, and this matter will be raised in the Lords.

There was criticism: concerns were raised that the local involvement networks will not work. That rings bells: the Government have been warned before that changes might not work—and sometimes those warnings turn out to be accurate. I hope that those LINks are looked at again in another place, and that account is taken of the strength of feeling of patients that they are losing a distinctive voice, because the LINks are too big and they might be dominated by health professionals. The Minister might be gaining from the relationship between local government and
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health, but patients are losing. There might be another way to address these matters, and if there is I urge the Minister to adopt it.

Robert Neill: Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not an either/or situation? It would be perfectly possible to strengthen links between local government and health in the way that we discussed in Committee without abolishing the patients forums. In fact, it would in many respects have made good sense and have strengthened the entire arrangement if the patients forums had been able to continue with their work while at the same time scrutiny and overview were improved and the role of the ward councillor in local health service provision were enhanced and strengthened. It need not be an either/or situation.

Alistair Burt: There we are: right at the death, my hon. Friend provides yet another useful contribution, as he has consistently done. It is perfectly sensible to suggest that this might not be an either/or situation. He is right to argue for the keeping of the patient voice. The matter should be looked at again. The Minister must acknowledge that there is some disquiet on Labour Benches. The Bill would be markedly strengthened if changes were made.

Finally, let me mention the extraordinary story of the amendment signed by 51 Labour Members asking for greater local control over energy efficiency in new developments in their areas which, mysteriously, was not moved—and then not voted on—by any of those 51 Labour Members, some of whom then voted against their own amendment just last week. People have noted that, and it was particularly ironic as only the previous day the Minister for Housing and Planning had made much of the Government’s commitment to energy efficiency as the reason for continuing with the home improvement packs. She said how outraged she was that the Opposition were urging caution on HIPs, and that energy was an important issue. However, when there was an opportunity for the Government to vote on an amendment to make sure that energy efficiency was recognised at local level and that standards were driven still higher, they did not take it.

Having said that, and having pointed out where measures are deficient, I acknowledge that there has been genuine progress. The Local Government Association and councillors agree. We hope that we have made the Bill better through our deliberations and our work. We are sure that the other place will continue to do the same, and when amendments return to the House we hope that the Bill will be further strengthened in the manners that I have suggested.

9.33 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby: Listening to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), it is hard to recall now how much scepticism the Opposition expressed about the Bill when it first came before the House. I recall Opposition Members failing to find anything of merit in it. It is interesting and encouraging to hear the difference in tone of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution this evening.

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As the Bill progressed, particularly in Committee, many of the sceptics about the Bill—Opposition Members who were sceptical perhaps expressed their scepticism more clearly than the Labour sceptics—were converted to its considerable merits. As the Minister has said, it is undoubtedly devolutionary in its intent. It was indeed very encouraging to hear the support that was given to many of the proposals in the Bill from those who gave evidence to the Committee, and I join others in saying how useful those sittings were. Such evidence sessions are an important innovation.

For those of us who have been involved in local government over many years, the Bill does not yet go far enough. Of course, the major issue of restoring to local government the power that comes with greater control over raising its own revenue is yet to come, but—to use the mantra that the Minister has used on several occasions—such reform is a marathon, not a sprint. We look forward to some of the later stages in progress towards that goal of a continued increase in the powers and responsibilities of local government and the local democratic institutions of which it is a part.

I welcome the elements in the Bill that strengthen the scrutiny role of front-line councillors, as we now call those who used to be back benchers. The Bill will do much to give them a genuine role of scrutiny and enable them not only to look at the work that their local authority is doing, but to have a wider scrutiny role over what is happening across the whole of their community and all the bodies that affect the lives of those who elected them. I also welcome the elements of the Bill that seek to empower local government to provide wider community leadership beyond just the services that it provides, and I welcome the lifting and rationalisation of the heavy burdens of targets and inspections that local government of all political persuasion has suffered in recent years.

The Bill has to be seen in the context of the work that the Government are doing to seek to provide incentives for and remove barriers to serving on local councils. If the Bill is to achieve its full effect it needs councillors from all parties of sufficient calibre to enable them to serve their local communities and take full advantage of what is being given to them as part of this Bill. I also wish to set in a wider context the work that the Government are doing with local authorities to develop multi-area agreements, especially the work—of vital importance for cities such as mine, which have very constrained boundaries—to enable them to work across boundaries to develop city development companies. Such companies will be able to help solve the problems of tightly constrained urban areas in a wider context.

The Bill, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will acknowledge, is an important step forward. It is only one step forward, but it is especially welcome that it has been brought forward with such a high level of engagement with local government itself in the shaping of the legislation. I look forward to more steps being taken in the marathon that lies ahead.

9.38 pm

Andrew Stunell: I start by offering my thanks to the ministerial team, who were as obliging as they could be
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within the constraints they set themselves. They have at all times been as helpful and courteous as they could be.

We all found the evidence session interesting and stimulating. There are lessons to be learned about the organisation of such sessions, but that point leads me to offer thanks to a part of the organisation that is often not mentioned—the Government Whip for the Committee. From that point onwards, he did his best to be helpful and allow the Opposition the chances we needed to test the Government and set out our case, in Committee and on Report. My colleagues who supported me on the Bill also did stout work, and I thank them.

The broader context of the Bill is that it was preceded by a White Paper and a lot of talk by Secretaries of State about direction and speed of travel that has now been mostly forgotten. We believe that the Bill that was published was a wasted opportunity. It was not well timed, it being out of sync with the Lyons report. As a result, it does not deal with some very fundamental questions of finance and structure.

It has been claimed that the tone of Opposition criticism has moderated during the Bill’s passage through the House, but any Bill that is 192 pages long will contain at least one bit that is acceptable to us, and so it has proved. I have never denied that it has some good bits, but it does not provide the fundamental devolution of power, financial resources or freedom to organise that we consider essential. On the contrary, the Bill seems to offer a narrower frame in those respects than what we had previously.

We have gained some important new jargon, of course. We no longer talk about back-bench councillors, but about front-line councillors. They are the ones who get sent over the top and shot first, and many of them think that life might be a bit cosier on the back benches. The phrase “place shaping” suggests a degree of proactivity on the part of councils, even though—despite what Ministers have said at various stages—the capacity to place-shape will still be dramatically confined, controlled and limited.

In some areas, such as the executive arrangements, the Bill represents an increase in centralised grasp. The Minister heard Opposition Members go on about that frequently in Committee, and he knows that he has taken away one of the available models. I accept that he might argue that it was non-functional, but he has put in place another model that looks likely to be demonstrably non-functional and that only Stockton appears to want. It will not give local authorities the freedom to organise themselves as they think best and as would suit them best.

The same point can be made about the changes to the monitoring of health. I suppose that I should declare a long lapsed interest, as some 20 years ago I was a member of a community health council. I know that many Labour Members regret the loss of community health councils; the establishment of patients forums was very much a second-best alternative. They were introduced only because of the pressure that the Government experienced in their struggle to get community health councils out of the way. Now, patients forums are being taken away too, and we have taken a step further backwards. There are clear signs of centralisation lurking behind the face of devolution about which the Minister has spoken.

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The Bill does have some good bits, however, and we have made favourable comments about some of them. The reform of the Standards Board, the enhanced role for local members and the greater freedom to make electoral arrangements that suit a local community are all to be welcomed. If the local area partnerships and the multi-area agreements can develop, they could represent two very useful steps forward.

However, there is still plenty more to be done. I said earlier on Report that we had got the Minister out of the front door on his journey, but we still have not got him far enough down the path and along the street in the direction that we believe he should take. As a result, we shall not support the Bill on Third Reading.

9.44 pm

Andrew Gwynne: As the Minister knows, I come from a local government background and am proud to have served 11 years on Tameside council, where we can really make a difference locally every day in a way that MPs can only dream about. The sad thing is that people do not recognise what local government does and how its functions directly affect their lives on a day-to-day basis.

The Bill is a good one, and we have made it better. We have answered the now infamous Tameside question—the people of Dukinfield and Audenshaw will sleep tonight—and we have won the battle for thirds, too. The Bill is devolutionary in nature and the changes that we made in Committee and on Report show that Ministers listened, and I congratulate my hon. Friends on the Front Bench on their listening role.

I hope that the changes we have made will improve the operation of our councils, bring about more accountability and better co-ordination with our partners through local area agreements and strategic partnerships, and improve the scrutiny functions. There will be a real role for councillors to hold to account the NHS, the partners, local trusts, such as Stockport Sports Trust, as well as council departments. The most important part of councillors’ new role, and a point that we have skated over, is that they will hold to account their cabinet colleagues.

I hope, too, that the changes will increase people’s recognition of the hard work of all councillors, whether executive or front-line members, and of the work of local authorities more generally. As a consequence, I hope there will be increased participation at local elections.

I am ever the optimist—I live in hope—and I wish the Bill a safe passage to the other place.

9.46 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Many of us did not serve on the Committee but nevertheless retain a strong interest in the Bill’s passage. We have had all the debates and all the votes—except one. There were not as many debates or votes as we wanted; in fact, because of the guillotine—sorry, programme motion—I was deprived of making on Report the only speech I wanted to make about the Bill.

Many of us know that the Bill represents a substantial shift. For local government veterans in Parliament such as me, who served as a local government finance Minister in the days when I had to propose that shocking thing,
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compulsory competitive tendering, things have moved a lot. We are nowhere near the continental model of local government—giving people carte blanche at local level—nevertheless we are going in the right direction, although I wholly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and his team that the localisation agenda is still only an agenda and will have to be made a reality by a future Conservative Government.

The only reason I shall vote against the Bill is that I find one aspect of it completely contradictory. With an agenda for turning government around, towards more power to local government, there is none the less a power that will deprive my constituents of their rights and their local democratic representation. No Member of the House should be indifferent to local government. I pay tribute to councillors of all parties who give up hours of their time and effort for local government. What an irony that in my constituency of Salisbury in the county of Wiltshire the county is making a bid for unitary status, to take democracy away from local people and move it way up-county to somewhere completely remote. Decisions on local issues will be made by councillors 50 miles away who know nothing about them. That is good enough reason for me to vote against the Bill. Yes, it contains some good things, but many of us think that there will be a lot of work to be done by an incoming Conservative Government.

9.48 pm

Tom Levitt: I am grateful to be called to speak on Third Reading. I agree with many of the other speakers that we have passed a thoroughly enjoyable four months—indeed, four months today—since Second Reading. The Committee proceedings were stimulating and certainly fun; we cannot always say that of the some of the Bills that go through this place. I look forward to cashing in some of the champagne moments that have been only theoretical so far—Ministers and Opposition spokesmen will be held to account if those moments do not become reality within a reasonable period.

My colleagues on the Labour Benches who have already spoken on Third Reading have rightly concentrated on the local government aspect of the Bill—it is after all a local government Bill and many of my colleagues are well versed and experienced in local government. But I want for a moment to think about what the Bill does from the point of view of the governed and the communities that we and our local government colleagues serve. Those communities have the potential to take great steps forward—in terms of participative democracy in particular—as a result of the Bill.

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