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15 Jun 2007 : Column 1011

Amendment No. 29, page 4, line 36, clause 5, leave out ‘principal council’ and insert ‘local authority’.

Amendment No. 30, page 4, line 41, clause 5, leave out ‘council’ and insert ‘authority’.

Amendment No. 31, page 4, line 42, clause 5, leave out ‘principal council’ and insert ‘local authority’.

Amendment No. 32, page 5, line 4, clause 5, leave out ‘principal council’ and insert ‘local authority’.

Amendment No. 33, page 5, line 7, clause 5, leave out ‘council’ and insert ‘authority’.

Amendment No. 34, page 5, line 12, clause 5, leave out ‘principal council’ and insert ‘local authority’.

Amendment No. 35, page 5, line 20, clause 6, leave out from ‘means’ to end of line 21 and insert

Amendment No. 36, page 5, clause 6, leave out lines 22 to 27.

Amendment No. 37, page 5, clause 6, leave out lines 30 to 34.

Amendment No. 39, page 7, line 3 of the schedule, leave out ‘indicators’ and insert ‘matters’.

Amendment No. 40, page 7, line 3 of the schedule, leave out ‘indicators referred to in section 2’ and insert

Amendment No. 41, page 7, line 10 of the schedule, leave out ‘principal council’ and insert ‘local authority’.

Amendment No. 43, page 7, line 28 of the schedule, leave out paragraph (j).

Amendment No. 42, in title, line 1, leave out from ‘provision’ to ‘and’ in line 8 and insert

Mr. Woolas: I will not repeat myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you would not allow me to anyway. I am grateful to you for allowing such latitude in the debate on the new clause 6, which is the other side of the coin to new clauses 1 and 2. I shall just take the opportunity to put on the record some information that I hope will be beneficial to the House.

First, I will talk about the words, “if any”, which would be omitted by amendment (a) to new clause 2, which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood tabled. I will not make a big fuss about the issue. The formal situation is that the original drafting included the words “if any”, which presented the Government with a problem because it meant that there was compulsion on the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman may argue that that is a jolly good thing, and in some circumstances I could see myself arguing that. However, as I asked my colleagues for their views on the matter, there has been a change, namely the insertion in new clause 2 of “co-operation”.

I have listened to the argument, and do not want to make a big thing about the issue. I would prefer that the amendment not be made, because it is not necessary, and it ties the Secretary of State down. The
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argument has moved on and I would be interested to hear what the intention behind the amendment is. I hope that that helps.

I give the assurance that the Government are not looking for a get-out. We want the process to work, and we want the proposals that come from the action plan and the selector to be workable. Including a requirement for co-operation in the production of the shortlist would make it most likely that the proposals made were workable. It is difficult to envisage a situation in which any Government presented with a shortlist of high-quality consensual proposals would simply turn them all down. There may be circumstances in which that would happen, but it would be a foolish Government who did that. From time to time, we have had foolish Governments, but that is not the case at the moment, of course.

The clause is drafted as it is simply to ensure that if at any point the selector produces a shortlist that does not contain proposals that could be implemented, the Secretary of State would not be required to implement them. As I say, the change made by introducing the word “co-operation” is important. Hon. Members will be aware that the Bill places little restriction on the selector in terms of how they arrive at a shortlist, what is on it, and how proposals are presented to the Secretary of State. There could be a shortlist of one, although I do not imagine that that would be the case, or the shortlist could contain only proposals that would be very expensive to implement or that conflicted in a significant way with a Government’s manifesto policy. However, I cannot foresee that situation occurring, because of the relationships that exist between central and local government, which are broadly good at the moment. We have a very good working relationship with the Local Government Association—it might in time break down, but I hope not. The arguments are valid, but on balance I would not go to the wall on them, particularly, as I say, because of that co-operation.

I have explained to the House my objectives in new clause 1 and how I think they will strengthen the Bill. The requirement on the Secretary of State—the word used is “must”—to invite local authorities to make proposals is covered by new clause1. I do not intend to go into the detail of the proposal, as we have already discussed it at great length. I draw the attention of the House to new clause 1 to show how it fits into the narrative.

Just as local people and councillors are being given new rights and new powers, so too should local authorities be given new rights and new powers to make proposals. The clause provides the reassurances that local partners will need. A local body—the highways authority has been used as an example—has a right to be consulted about a proposal to change its function. As I have said before, that right to be consulted is more likely to lead to the outcome that we seek. Subsection (5) sets a timetable of one year, and I have explained why that is the case.

There is no limit on the number of proposals on the shortlist. The proposals from local authorities would go to the selector. I shall repeat an assurance, for the avoidance of doubt and for the benefit of the House and those listening—I am reminded that obscure though the debates on a Friday often are, on this
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occasion my words are being listened to and read very carefully. Last night my answering machine was full of messages of encouragement, such as, “Don’t back down, you so-and-so.” It is amazing how cynical some people can be. The industrial language used by some of them was fluent, and those were just the members of the Labour party. I paid particular attention to the 100-plus letters that I received from the fine people of Oldham, East and Saddleworth, who are the finest in the nation, and the most important newspaper on planet Earth, the Oldham Evening Chronicle , is watching and listening closely. I repeat: there is no intention to water down the measure.

The provision in new clause 2 for us to appoint a selector gives reassurance and establishes a sensible process. We are talking to the Local Government Association about the matter. Letters of support have no doubt been received by hon. Members across the House. We want the proposals to be workable, and it is desirable that we help to strengthen the LGA as well.

New clause 2 as drafted states:

She or he

That is enshrined in the proposals. The narrative of the Bill is built on that.

Mr. Greg Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. May I ask him a small favour? Between now and the Bill reaching completion in another place, will he give further thought to the name that he has chosen—the selector? It is an awful description. Would not community secretary or community officer be better?

Mr. Woolas: I am sorry, but I did not hear the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. If he has one, I invite him to put it forward.

Mr. Knight: Community officer or community secretary.

12.30 pm

Mr. Woolas: I have carried out extensive and comprehensive consultation across the Houses of Parliament in the past five seconds, and although early indications show that the right hon. Gentleman has a point about the word “selector”, I am not sure whether his suggestion is better. We debated that point in Committee, where there some concern was expressed about the word “selector”. We had a fascinating conversation about early 1980s pop music and, indeed, rock music.

Something tumultuous is happening in this House—my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is sitting opposite me. I assure television viewers that it is not a change in ideology.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I sat here too often to do it deliberately.

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Mr. Woolas: My right hon. Friend has made his point well.

The word “selector” is not ideal, but it describes the role. Because it is clear that the LGA is the obvious body to undertake the role, “selector” will disappear into statute. In practice, one will refer to the LGA. Because the LGA is a voluntary body, one cannot compel it to act through statute, but we hope that the agreement will provide for the selector role. I still have an open mind on the name, but I will not repeat the musical preferences of members of the Committee.

Although this group contains a number of other amendments, new clauses 1 to 4 plus the consequential arrangements provide for a simple process in legislative terms. There should be identification of and transparency in local spending. People should have the ability to get involved and to be consulted and informed. I had great difficulty in drafting the proposals for the panel relating to clause 139 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which does not exist in law so legislation cannot refer to it. Hence the perhaps obscure wording, which builds on clause 139.

I think that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) will take comfort from this and take it back to her local meetings. It is desirable that there should be involvement, consultation and so on. Generally speaking, how that is done will be determined locally, but a local authority must be able to show that what is done satisfies the requirements of the legislation and the detailed guidance that flows from it, which will be consulted on. If an authority cannot do that, we will tell it how it must consult. The Bill sponsors have chosen the panel as the proper method, and there is strength in that idea in terms of public reassurance. People are cynical about elected politicians—by goodness, they are—so consultation on proposals with a panel of 12 good men and true, 12 good men and women true or 12 good youngsters will strengthen the Bill. That process—that building block—is put in place and it strengthens the ability to take the financial decisions sought by the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) and for Ruislip-Northwood.

I think that I have covered all the points raised by the new clauses and amendments. I commend our proposals to the House.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) on getting the Bill this far and offer him my warm support. I am beginning to understand the patience required by those who served on the Committee and the lengths to which people sometimes have to go to support the causes in which they believe.

I am concerned by the tone of some of the Government amendments, including new clauses 4 and 2. I welcome amendment (a)—a cheeky little amendment that makes an important point—but amendment No. 39 is an example of the way in which some of the language of the Bill is beginning to change, threatening its sense and purpose. Reflecting earlier Government amendments to other parts of the Bill, it changes the word “indicators” to the word “matters”, but that implies that the various matters listed in the schedule are simply issues for discussion and not, as they are really intended to be, indicators of the health of a local community.

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Let me illustrate that by reference to my own constituency. To outsiders, Cheltenham often seems like a very affluent place, and it is indeed doing well by many conventional economic indicators. However, a list of indicators such as that in the schedule would probably reveal a rather different picture. For instance, it might reveal the loss of local NHS services, including in-patient children’s services and some local mental health services, and the imminent downgrading of our local maternity ward. It might reveal that the opening of five large supermarkets, while obviously delivering benefits to constituents as consumers, has occurred at some cost, in the most recent case almost immediately resulting in the loss of a series of local shops, in turn resulting in a loss of choice for consumers. The second indicator would reveal whether that was at some cost to the local economy.

The list of indicators might reveal the loss of local post offices, which have been reduced from 19 to 14 to 10 and will soon be reduced to nine or even fewer. It might highlight the risk to our green spaces, which seem to be continually threatened by over-development, or the threat to local railway services, which, it has been suggested, might move out of town and thereby make the town less, not more, sustainable. It might reveal the difficulty faced by local businesses such as Battledown brewery, which is struggling to get Cheltenham’s only local beers into the large local supermarkets. That is a cause that I am sure that many hon. Members would happily support.

Mr. Woolas: I am outraged to hear that, and I will take up the cudgels on that matter if the hon. Gentleman wants me to.

My intention in amendments Nos. 39 and 40 is to avoid confusion. The local government White Paper refers to national indicators, and the targets in the new comprehensive area assessment will be referred to as indicators. I am trying to avoid confusion in the public mind—that is my only intent—but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Martin Horwood: I am grateful to the Minister for that response, particularly support for Battledown brewery and getting Cheltenham SPA into local supermarkets. I shall take him up on that. His comments were instructive in relation to the use of the word “indicators”. The point is that they should be treated as genuine indicators of the health of a community locally. I appreciate that he is trying not to cause confusion, but I fear that we may be losing the sense of an important part of the Bill.

The amendments are important in relation to how consultations are dealt with. In many of the cases that I cited, certainly those relating to local services, there has been a strong sense locally either that consultations have not happened or that they have been granted grudgingly and that the wishes of local people have been ignored—in some cases, such as that of in-patient children’s services at Cheltenham general hospital, spectacularly ignored.

If the Bill would still achieve what those who campaigned for it intended—namely, delivering not only consultation but participation—it has my continued enthusiastic support. Participation is not the
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same as consultation, which can be ignored. We are considering a genuine shift in power to local people that cannot easily be ignored.

Mr. Woolas: We agree with the hon. Gentleman’s intention. The Bill, clause 139 of the Local Government and Involvement in Public Health Bill and the accompanying statutory guidance, will make participation and involvement more accessible and more likely. Crucially, the duty will be to inform, consult and involve. That is important for communities and for the third sector, which the hon. Gentleman supports.

Martin Horwood: I am grateful for the Minister’s comments and I welcome the intention behind them but, again, the language is a little revealing. We are considering not only involvement but building into the Bill a presumption that the measures that communities and local people suggest will be adopted unless there are good reasons not to do that. I should like that important presumption to survive the Bill’s later stages. If it passes that test, it remains one of the most important and radical measures that we have considered in this Parliament. It sets an important precedent for Government as a whole and continues to have my enthusiastic support.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) for his support for the Bill and the small amendments in my name, which I shall explain briefly.

Amendment (a) to new clause 2 would remove the words “if any” from subsection (3). I believe that the Minister understands our point: someone who read the new clause might be encouraged to believe that we were passing a measure under which nothing need happen. Although we understand the Minister’s possible need for safeguards, we encourage him to take comfort from the inclusion in the process of the selector, which we all hope will be the Local Government Association. We all agree that that is a highly credible body in which we should have some trust. The Minister already has a safeguard in the duty of co-operation in drawing up the short list. Clearly, the Secretary of State would not co-operate in including absurd proposals that are impossible to implement. I therefore hope that the Minister will consider our amendment reasonable and not divide the House on it.

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