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The Bill is now intended to apply to English local authority areas only.
Mr. Woolas: Let me revert to that point later so that I can give precise guidance. [Laughter.] Hon. Members should not get over-confident. I am not dealing with that aspect of the Bill at the moment. There is a serious point that relates to the power-making orders under the new procedures for Wales, not to what is going on in Cardiff, in case the hon. Gentleman is worried. However, I shall shortly spell out the exact process that we wish to follow.
Let me comment on hon. Members points before dealing with the substance of new clause 6. If you will give me leeway, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should also like to mention the objective of new clauses 1 and 2 and amendment No. 25, which would delete clause 5, because, although I appreciate that we are debating new clause 6, there is a direct interrelationship between those amendments. I shall be as strict as I can.
Let me repeat my praise for the Bills promoter. When I had been elected for as long as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, I did not have the knowledge, gumption or courage to pilot a Bill and engage in the way in which he has done. Indeed, I spent
most of my first two years in this place trying to find my locker, which I had been allocated on the first day. Even now, I cannot remember where it is. However, I sincerely congratulate the hon. Gentleman and I believe that he has a distinguished career ahead.
I hope that my hon. Friends will not report me to the Whips Office, but I also wanted to praise the hon. Member for Shipley, who is a proper Tory and a proper Yorkshireman. I genuinely believed that he would say that the law should be different in Yorkshire. However, I then realised that he was probably more interested in Shipley than in those strange people in places such as
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about parishes. I assure him that not only the Bill but the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and other measures give more power to parishes. Parishes will be given the right to pass byelaws. At the moment, the Secretary of State, acting on the advice of a Minister, passes byelaws for parishes. That is an example of a power that we do not want. I did not join the Labour party at 16 to determine whether the civic hall in Fleet in Hampshire should have a new front door, yet I have been asked to make that decision. It is wrong; we should devolve those powers.
Secondly, there is the power of well-being for parish councils. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, the size of parish councils can vary significantly. However, when they have the power of well-being, which principal local authorities have, it will significantly increase what they can do locally, because they will be given a statutory right to look after the well-being of their area and make proposals to improve matters. That turns upside down the legislative framework in which they operate. At the moment, they can do only what we tell them, but in future they will be able to do what the heck they want, as long as it is not against the law.
Mr. Knight: The Minister is rightly identifying the vital role that parish councils could play in the process. I understand that this country is unique in the European Union in having parish councils. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have not entered into discussions with any of our European partners to abolish parish councils?
Mr. Woolas: I hear my hon. Friend telling me not to go there. It must have been confusion between the word commune and communist that led me to speculate on which of my colleagues might have had those leanings earlier in their lives.
Over a number of years, Government policy has been to improve the powers of parishes, because quality parish council schemes, village plans and now the new measures are all important. Parishesnot just for rural and semi-rural areas, but wherever they are wantedare part of our policy. I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. In fact, we have a lot to learn from France and its system of communes, but I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman would not want local council leaders to be appointed by the central Government.
The hon. Member for Shipley, as well as informing us about the parishes in his area, was fearful that, in asking the House not to adopt new clause 6, I would be attempting to water down the provisions. My central purpose this morning, however, is to convince the House by argument and by my policy proposals that, far from watering down the Bill, I am trying to strengthen it. The Bill has an important interrelationship with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, and indeed will strengthen it. That is my evidence that, far from watering down the provisions, I am laying down some cement.
Mr. Hollobone: On that interesting point, did the Minister give any consideration to including the contents of this Bill within the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and then using Government time to advance the cause?
Mr. Woolas: Yes, but of course the success of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood in gaining first place in the ballot was not known when the Queens Speech was compiled. Throughout the process, however, my and the Governments objective has been to use the Bill in a positive and constructive way. Given the widespread support either for the Bill or for the idea behind it, I have wanted to useuse in the best sense, not abusethe momentum to draw attention to some of our policies.
Clause 108, which is now clause 139, of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is, in my view, one of the most important statutory measures for local government since the second world war. However, nobody other than me had even heard of it before the Local Works campaign put full-page adverts in the papers to draw attention to the significance of clause 108, so there has been a coming together. I must move on now.
The hon. Member for Shipley also talked about devolution, arguing that political parties argue for it in opposition, but keep power centrally when in government. To be fair, the Government have a reasonable record on devolving powers. This Bill does not apply to Scotland because we have devolved power to Scotland. Some of my colleagues may well think that in the light of recent changes there we should not have done so, but that is devolutionwe have to trust the people. Our framework for local government has sometimes been criticised for being over-centralised,
but it has improved the position and we are now in a genuine period of devolution. That is not beginning with the legislation before the other place, as other measures have preceded it. We have devolved powers and, as I have said, I believe that English councils should be the next part of the country to which significant powers should be devolved.
On a lighter note, the hon. Member for Shipley said that he feared that my Secretary of State might act on a whim. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly) never acts on a whim. She has given me full support in respect of this Bill. Given the processes of decision making in government, it would not have been possible to have acted as quickly without it. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that he thought that progress on his Bill had been very slow at times and apologised for it, but believe me, in comparison with Government decision making, this has been quick. As to the argument that progress requires a Secretary of State who is genuinely devolutionary, it is important to note that history often reveals different views on different Secretaries of State, but in any event, this Bill locks in the devolutionary powers, which is one of the reasons why we welcome it.
The hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) was concerned about what many of us are concerned about in the modern world: the involvement of local people and the feelings of frustration over the absence of it. All the evidence is that giving more information, providing greater transparency and facilitating a greater degree of participation are positive developments, but whether or not the public then choose to use that is, in democratic politics, a matter for them. We politicians would like everyone to vote and everyone to turn out at meetings and be as interested in politics as we are, but I am really not sure whether I would like to live in a country where that happened. I want people to have the opportunity to take part; I do not want to compel them. I recognise, of course, the frustration that the hon. Lady described. A little later, I shall point out some of the contradictions in what she said, but may I assure her that I strongly believe that clause 139 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Billwhich provides for a duty to inform, consult and involve people and organisationswill, along with this Bill, help to change the situation.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) rightly keeps reminding us about raised expectations. I am sure that the hon. Member for St. Albans would agree that part of the frustration she describes comes from the fact that if people attend a meeting and think that they have taken a decision that subsequently does not materialiseeither because it was a false promise, because the power to do it was not available or for disingenuous reasonsthey will not turn out to meetings again. We all have to try to change that.
On that very point about the frustration felt when a decision taken does not materialise, I am sure that the Minister will agree that part of the problem comes from the fact that the decision is often moved higher up into government through an appeals system. That is often where the decision is overturned,
which is why local people have such a huge sense of frustration. If we could move the power lower down, that is where happiness would lie in my constituency.
Mr. Woolas: On the whole, I agree with the hon. Lady, but as a planning Minister I have to act within the law and within the independent advice that I am given from the planning authorities in order to be fair to everyone. I can give the hon. Lady some encouragement in that the changes made to the code of conduct take away some of the fetters on local councillors that prevent them from speaking about planning. The restriction of the activity of local councillors came about more through case law than through planning law. The code of conduct is addressing that point. Some of the issues dealt with in the planning White Paper will also help towards meeting the hon. Ladys point.
I cannot comment on the hon. Ladys particular example, but I am more than willing to look further into it for her. On the face of it, it seems that it could fall outside the planning guidance, but I should not give any commitments. However, she cannot say on the one hand that we all want an environmentally sustainable future and then say on the other that we want more car parks. We need a policy that recognises that difficulty [Interruption.] I was going to ask for your help there, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Lady has seen sense.
The issue of road noise and the need for tarmac was also raised. I presume that that is a county matter. It is also a matter of money, and the issue of who pays is relevant. We all know, as elected politicians, that the public want to have their cake and eat it. They want low taxes and improved services, and I understand that
Justine Greening: The Minister appears to suggest that spending more is the only way to improve services. Anyone who has spent any time in business will know that when things are run better they tend to cost less.
Mr. Woolas: I did not mean any slight by saying that I had opened up a can of worms. I have also invited an accountant into the debate. I agree with the hon. Lady. The Gershon policy of recycling money to the front line through efficiency savings proves her point again, if it needed it. If one does things more efficiently, one gets better value for money, achieving both objectives of improved public services and taxes that are as low as possible. A devolutionary policy, in which joining up is done locallybecause it cannot be done perfectly from the centrewill give us better value for money.
I would add a third point, on which I am sure we will all agree, that better information and transparency will also lead to improvement in public services. The research evidence from the Audit Commission and elsewhere backs up that point.
I do not wish to get into a philosophical debate, much less an accountancy one, but I was trying to make the point that sometimes, as an elected politician, one has to say that money does not grow on trees and that we cannot afford to do everything.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood and the right hon. Member for West Dorset have asked substantial questions about the Governments attitude towards new clause 6 and new clauses 1 and 2. It may be helpful to the House if I briefly deal with amendments Nos. 22, 23 and 24. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) asked why we wished to put in the 18 months limit. My intention is to provide the reassurance that the Committee requested of a set timetable for implementation. That time limit is workable, and it gives the assurance to the Committee and now the House. The purpose of amendment No. 22 is to provide a timetable to ensure that arrangements for the production of local spending reports are made in a timely fashion.
Mr. Greg Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. In the spirit of the speech that he is making, will he confirm that he will regard 18 months as the latest possible date, rather than the date that he intends to use? In other words, if he can do it more quickly, will he do so?
Mr. Woolas: That depends on what happens in 12 days time [ Laughter. ] Let us get the legislation through before then. The answer is yes, because we want the arrangements in place before then. That will also ensure that the relevant provisions of both Billsthis Bill and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, if it meets the approval of the other placeinclude a sensible timetable for coming into force, so that we get the best of both worlds. That will also avoid confusion. Local authorities often make the point that different commencement dates cause confusion and can be self-defeating. By taking that date, I can introduce a package of measures from both Bills, and I am grateful for the support of the members of the Committee on that point. Amendments Nos. 23 and 24 are consequential on amendment No. 22.
I was also asked why provision for accountability to Parliament was not included in new clause 6. The accountability to Parliament and the measures that flow from that are included in new clause 3(3) and I hope that that is to the satisfaction of the members of the Committee. If Parliament is not informed, the accountability does not follow.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to refer to new clauses 1, 2 and 3. The point has been made about what was described in Committee as the narrative. There must be something that flows from the local spending reports and the other measures. Unfortunately for me, my proposals come in the Bill before new clause 5, but my argument is that coherent legislation is more important than my ability to understand my speaking notesas the right hon. Member for West Dorset teased me in Committee. I hope that I can convince the House that the narrative is fully in place.
The Government have proposed measures as a replacement for the existing clause 5, which itself replaced the original clause 5 that we debated on Second Reading. Oppositions often accuse Governments of giving the not invented here reason for opposing amendments. New clauses 1 and 2 were invented by the Committee, in that the policy and the sentiment were taken from the Committee, translated by me into instructions to parliamentary counsel and given back to me. Although those new clauses are in my name, I see them as the proposals from the Committees deliberations. My reason for asking the House to agree those clauses rather than new clause 6 is not, I assure the right hon. Member for West Dorset, because I did not invent it.
New clauses 1, 2 and 3 will strengthen the core measures in the Bill by encouraging local people to make proposals that go to central Government, about what the Government can do to help them sustain their local community. They will codify and set out that process, so that in the same way that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill codifies the right of the citizen and the local councillor to have a process by which the council and its partners must respond, this Bill will provide the right of local people, through the local authority, to have a process by which the Government must respond. The role of the selector will assist that enormously. Tasking the Local Government Association with that role will add transparency and order to that process.
The provisions also require local authorities to consult representatives of local people, including under-represented groups, if they choose to make proposals. I have included that point in the Bill at the request of the Committee to provide reassurance that that is the case. The provisions also introduced what I have described as new consultation plus, which will require the local authority to try to reach agreement with the representatives. Concern was expressed in Committee that what is now clause 139it was clause 108 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Billwas not strong enough, so we have tried to strengthen that.
The provisions also require the Government to appoint a bodyin practice, the Local Government Associationto present them with a shortlist of proposals, also with the new consultation plus to require the Government to consult, co-operate and reach agreement with the LGA. That will provide accountability and transparency by requiring the Government to publish their responses to all proposals; to publish an action plan; to lay reports on progress annually before Parliament, which meets the point raised by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire; and to enable local authorities, for the first time, to request a transfer of function from one body to another if they believe that it will better promote the sustainability of their local community. I will give the reassurances that were asked for regarding the transfer of functions and money, based on the advice and definitions that I have been given.
Mr. Letwin: Before the Minister does that, I hope that he is not under the illusion that new clause 3(3) has the effect that I think he was just describing. It does indeed mandate a report to Parliament, but only on the action plan, not on the transfer of functions and money.
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