House of Commons
|Session 2006 - 07|
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General Committee Debates
Sustainable Communities Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Wednesday 9 May 2007
[John Cummings in the Chair]
That remaining proceedings on the Bill be taken in the following order: Clauses 2 and 3; Clauses 5 to 13; the Schedule; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill. [Mr. Hurd.]<++++>
Plan published by the Secretary of State
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
(1) The Secretary of State shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, consult all principal councils in accordance with this section
(a) on the matters set out in the Schedule to this Act, which specifies matters which affect the sustainability of local communities, and
(b) on any other matters which in the opinion of the Secretary of State affect the sustainability of local communities.
Consultation under this subsection shall be by notice in writing (a consultation notice).
(2) The Secretary of State may, if he thinks fit, require the consultation under subsection (1) to be carried out by the Local Government Association.
(3) Arrangements made under subsection (2) may
(a) require the Local Government Association to comply with the requirements of this section relating to consultation by the Secretary of State, and
(b) contain provisions not specified in this section provided they do not conflict with any requirement of this Act.
(4) A district council or county borough council shall, within six weeks of the date it receives a consultation notice, send a copy of the notice to all parish or community councils in its area.
(5) Subject to section 3, any principal council may, in response to a consultation notice make recommendations to the Secretary of State for measures which the council reasonably believes would promote the sustainability of local communities in its area.
(6) Any recommendation under subsection (5) must be made by a council within a period of nine months of the date on which it received the consultation notice.
(7) The Secretary of State must co-operate with the Local Government Association in drawing up an action plan to promote the sustainability of local communities which shall
(a) be based primarily on those recommendations that have been identified by the Association as having cross-party support; and
(b) include such other recommendations made by principal councils as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(8) Before drawing up the action plan, the Secretary of State must
(a) consolidate the recommendations or arrange for the Local Government Association to consolidate them; and
(b) obtain from the Local Government Association
(i) their views as to the order in which the recommendations should be implemented,
(ii) a list of those recommendations which in the opinion of the Association should be given the greatest priority, and
(iii) a separate list of those which received cross-party support in the Association.
(9) Before drawing up the action plan, the Secretary of State shall consider the views of the Local Government Association and shall determine which recommendations are not appropriate to be implemented immediately or at all, on the grounds that
(a) the direct or indirect costs likely to be involved in their immediate implementation are excessive, or
(b) their implementation in whole or in part is likely to conflict, to a significant extent, with a specific government objective.
(10) The Secretary of State shall lay the action plan before each House of Parliament for approval by each House.
(11) The Secretary of State shall have a duty to implement the action plan and for that purpose shall keep under review the progress made from time to time in the implementation of the action plan.
(12) The Secretary of State shall ensure that every regional office of government cooperates with principal councils and panels established under section 3(1)(a) for the relevant region in the promotion of the sustainability of local communities.
(13) The Secretary of State shall in each Session of Parliament beginning after the enactment of this act lay an annual report before each House of Parliament containing the action plan, if completed, and detailing the progress made to the date of the report in producing the action plan if not completed, and in implementing the recommendations contained in the action plan in pursuance of subsection (7).
(14) The Secretary of State shall be taken not to have complied with subsection (10) unless the plan is approved by resolution of each House of Parliament..
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): May I be the first to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings? You are our third Chairman and, I trust, the last.
I want to propose new clause 2, but first it might be beneficial for the Committee to revisit some of the objectives and key principles underlining old clause 2. It required the Government to produce a long-term national action plan to combat the real social problems associated with community decline, which were well aired on Second Reading. The clause is non-prescriptive about what should be in the national action plan, but it makes it clear that it must have a difference and be a genuinely bottom-up action plan driven by recommendations of local communities. While emphasising that principle, we were going very much with the grain of the Governments rhetoric about devolution.
There is no shortage of helpful quotes from past and future leaders of the Labour party and the Government in support of the principle. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said:
Most of the solutions will be rooted in local communities.
The Minister has said:
It is for local people and their elected representatives to determine how best to ensure that their community is sustainable and thriving.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is on record as saying that people and communities must now take power from the state and that that
means a reinvention of the way we govern.
The proposals in clause 2 go very much with the grain of the Governments policy. It was specific in setting out some mechanics for that local engagement, because we felt that the outside world viewing the Billwe are very aware of how much interest there is outside the Housewants comfort that the talk about local engagement and community involvement is actually real and backed up with some mechanics to give it credibility.
The original clause framed the deliberations of the Secretary of State by requiring him or her to have regard to the list of
indicators set out in the Schedule
on page 8 of the Bill. There was a presumption that the Secretary of State would include in the plan the recommendations submitted by councils, unless she felt that they were incompatible with the objectives or that they were unnecessary for the promotion of the sustainability of local communities. That was the original clause, and I have referred to some of the key principles and philosophy driving it.
The Government signalled quickly in both the debate and subsequent negotiations that their problems with the Bill centred around their concerns about the workability of the process that we had set out and the freedom of manoeuvre for a Secretary of State trying to implement national policy, as well as managing the process of devolution. Those reservations were expressed, although it was extremely disappointing for most members of the Committee that, when it came to showing their hand, the Governments first set of amendments were clearly wrecking in nature.
Mr. Hurd: I am not one to disagree with the Minister. It was a disappointing start but, in tabling new clause 2, we have tried to be constructive and respond to those concerns. New clause 2 is softer in terms of timetable, but firm in the requirement on the Secretary of State to get the ball rolling on the consultation process some six months after the Bill is passed. It introduces the concept of the Local Government Association operating as a conduit or a filter to help the Secretary of State and her Department to consolidate and prioritise some of the recommendations coming from the local authorities that are prepared to participate in the process. The new clause imposes on the Secretary of State a duty to co-operate with the LGA. We feel that that requirement strikes the right balance and follows the grain of initiatives and language in the chain of devolution that is gradually being stitched together by the Government in their own legislation.
We have limited the presumption on the Secretary of State to include in the national action plan recommendations that come through the LGA with cross-party support. The new clause gives the Secretary of State more helpful opt-outs when it comes to dismissing recommendations on the grounds of excessive cost or conflict with specific Government policy. The new clause
I want to make a passing reference to the Governments second response to clause 2, which I believe is called new clause 4. The response is disappointing, because it shows that the Government still want to be able to do what they like, when they like. That will be unacceptable to the supporters of the Bill. There is no timetable in the Governments proposal. Instead of a clear and positive signal about the potential role of the LGA as the most logical conduit to convey recommendations to the Department, we get this very vague and sinister concept of the selector. Perhaps in deference to the Ministers well known enjoyment of 1980s pop music, we will get another band from that era called The Selector. We do not know who or what it isit is a completely nebulous concept. All reference to the schedule of indicators that I referred to earlier has been removed, and there is no clarity in the selectors terms of reference. Instead of imposing a duty to co-operate on the Secretary of State, there is merely a requirement to consult with the selector. Effectively, the Secretary of State will be free to take any decision that they like at any time of their choosing.
All provisions in relation to accountability to Parliament have been removed. That is a disappointing response from the Government, who have said that they want to work with us to construct a Bill that works and put it on the statute book. I hope that the Minister in his response will take a more constructive tone. I feel that we are on the same dance floor, but possibly at other ends of it. We have done our best to change the music and change the lighting, but we are not dancing as closely as we would like. I hope that the Ministers remarks will bring us a little closer on the dance floor.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): It is delightful to serve under you, Mr. Cummings. You are our third Chairman. The Bill is becoming a bit like War and Peace in the sense that we think that we know where we are going, but an awful lot of pages remain unturned. I hope that we make some progress today because some of us have a life, and we may have to move on to other things in due course.
I hope that the Minister recognises that this is a sensible way forward. If he has problems with any aspects of clause 2, it would be good to hear them. Unless we get the new clauses into the Bill, we will have just a skeleton. There seems to be unanimity that the Bill is a good thing and everyone wants to move it forward, but we have to be certain what we are moving forward and we have to know what guidance will be given to people who try to make sense of the Bill, which involves not only the people who write the Bill but those who try to implement it.
At the moment the Committee has a lot of good intentions and a lot of good will, but progress is slow. Keeping to the music idiom, the whole point of the Bill is to try to eliminate Ghost Town Britain, which was a rather good song by The Specials. It came from a different era. I hope that we move the Bill on in this era rather than the next, although it seems that time is slipping away.
I will be ruled out of order if I do not get a move on. New clause 2 is the crux of the Bill. It tries to lay down how we make the changes that we want to make. There may be issues about exactly how this will work and, sad though it may seem, the people who will try to implement this Bill will not sit down and look at every last word of it. They will look at the intentions behind it and at the powers that they will now be given to be able to make a difference. That is why it is so important that we get on with this, and I hope that today we can push on with new clauses 2 and 3 and replace the existing clauses. We accept that they were not as well worded as they might have been and that the intentions were not as clear as they should have been.
I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I think that he has[ Interruption. ] I am out of time already. He has tabled the new clauses with every good intention. This is a mushy compromise, and a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes, but that does not mean that it is a bad thing, because the key is what people read into it. If we can get unanimity, it can make a difference. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I hope that we can now move forward with this, because there is a restlessness in the Committee to get on to the later clauses, which may not be as easy as I expected them to be.
Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am equally delighted to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings, and to get to my feet to speak about the Bill. Until now, proceedings have been curtailed in order to move us forward. I want to say how pleased I am that we are discussing the clause which lies at the heart of what the Bill can do. It gives local authorities and local communities the power to put forward simple measures that could make a real difference to their area, which is the most powerful concept within the Bill.
There are a few changes that could be made in regulation which would not be applicable across the entire country. They would not make sense in all areas of the country. An example from my own area is the problems caused by the proliferation of second homes and their impact on coastal communities. In a meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) and I had with the Ministers colleague on that issue, we suggested some proposals that we think could help to address those problems. Indeed, they were proposals supported by Elinor Goodman in the report by her Affordable Rural Housing Commission.
It was clear that that matter is not necessarily at the top of the housing agenda for the Government, who have to consider things across the whole country. They may be looking at different priorities in terms of increasing numbers of new affordable housing units across the board and so on. However, if through this Bill local authorities in areas where the proliferation of second homes is a problem can come forward with such proposals and show how small changes in planning regulations or whatever could effect change, it will make it easier for the Government. That is not something that they have to bring forward in separate legislation, and it can be dealt with under the provisions of this Bill. That is why I am delighted that the matter is being discussed today, and I hope that the Minister will accept the new clause in that light.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): You are the third Chairman on the Committee, Mr. Cummings, and I fear that you will not be the last. I have to express some frustration and slight confusion, because at every Committee sitting there seems to be a consensus among all Committee members, including the Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, who, it should be recognised, have been very supportive and helpful. However, I am slightly frustrated and bemused that after our sittings we go away to what used to be called smoke-filled roomsalthough I am sure that there is now a smoking ban to prevent thatand what emerges does not particularly correspond with the consensus that was reached by the elected element in the process. I wonder where the road block is that causes that.
I note that some hon. Members have referred to bands of their youth. One of the bands of my own youth was Humble Pie, and many a brain cell was smashed out of my head while I rocked to the talents of that band when I was young. It might be about time that some of the advisers to the non-elected element in the process ate a bit of humble pie and accepted that, if there is a consensus among the elected element that element should be listened to. If we continue taking steps forwards and backwards, the whole process will take on another dimension in which the principle that elected members should determine the outcomea principle to which we should adhere stronglybecomes critical. I too want to get my life back again and return to my other duties as an MP, but I am determined to keep turning up at the Committee to make sure that the Bill is delivered in the form that hon. Members really want, even if it means a war of attrition.
Elements in new clause 2 are commendable, and would set a framework in which local authorities could work more closely with our local communities. I can think of a number of bodies in my constituency that are already working on behalf of the local community and would engage very neatly with the proposed process. They would dovetail with it well, and benefit from it, and local government and public service delivery, too, would benefit from the proposed network of co-operation, consultation and development. It is time to start working on the basis of the consensus that exists in the Committee and make some progress, and I commend new clause 2 to other hon. Members.
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I first of all echo the comments of Labour Members that we should move on, although they have said it so eloquently that I need not go further. However, I want to add a point for the Minister to consider. Although I believe that clause 5 is the centrepiece of the Bill, clause 2 is important as well. The Minister has spoken eloquently in my hearing about the need for a shift to a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach, and we can achieve what the hon. Member for Stroud described as soggy compromises.
Mr. Letwin: I am sorrymushy. We are all in the mood for that, and it is fine; the wording can change in all sorts of ways. However, what has actually happened
I would like to take one element that makes that point very clear. I suspect that, in a moment, the Minister will explain to us why the LGA is not the ideal conduit for assimilating this information and bringing it to the Department. I suspect that the Minister will explain that the LGA cannot be required to do things; it is not a body that is under the control of the Department. That is perfectly true; it is not. However, that is the whole pointit is not under the control of the Department. It is bottom-up. The LGA is ultimately controlled by its members.
I can completely understand how, sitting in an office in Whitehall, officials have looked with dismay at this proposition and said to themselves, We cannot allow the Minister to get into such dangerous territory. Let us protect him. Let us assemble the howitzers, the gun placements and the tanks that are necessary to ensure that he does not compromise his power in this way. Heaven forfend. I understand the motive. I can gesture towards all the manifold ghastly consequences that the officials predict if somebody else is actually allowed to do something that could subsequently induce a Minister, on some appalling timetable, to do something that somebody else wanted, instead of what he or she wanted. I can see that the whole formation of our great civil service training militates against such a conception. Incidentally, I know that deeply because my wife is a senior civil servantI understand these things.
However, the Bill is about undoing and changing that mentality. Therefore, I urge the Minister to pluck up his courage, consider himself as a politician and as a Member of Parliament and not as a denizen of a large aspect of the Kremlinmuch as he may admire the Kremlin. In the end, there are greater things in Britain than Kremlinology.
If the Minister plucks up his courage, we will be able to achieve a compromise, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, with his typical eloquence, everything that we are trying to do is in tune with the declared intentions of the Government. So the test for the Ministerthis is the point that I want to leave him withis whether those declared intentions are real. If they are, they will translate into a compromise that we can all accept. If they do not translate into such a compromise, they are not real and they are just rhetoric. I am sure that that is not the position that the Minister wants to be in.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I will be brief. It is clear that there is widespread consensus here. As the example that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall gave about second homes shows, these issues are not necessarily ones with a massive political drive behind them; they are just problems that communities are encountering, and there is cross-party consensus about how we need to resolve them. There is just a problem concerning the mechanism for doing so.
Other hon. Members have referred to drawing inspiration from particular songs or bands. Perhaps
That is why the LGA is a really interesting organisation to take this matter forward, not least because it has been incredibly helpful in giving perspectives on how it thinks the Bill will operate at a local level, and in giving advice on how those mechanisms should work. It has done so on an entirely consensual, cross-party basis. Given that contribution, it seems entirely sensible to give the LGA the task of rolling out the consultation process that new clause 2 would establish.
We have had very useful meetings with the LGA. If I was to highlight anything from new clause 2, it would be subsection (7), which says:
The Secretary of State must co-operate with the Local Government Association in drawing up an action plan to promote the sustainability of local communities.
It must be based on
recommendations that have been identified by the Association as having cross-party support; and...include such other recommendations made by principal councils.
That measure would differentiate such consultation from the usual consultation by creating a duty to co-operate and try to come to some solution. We have not seen that in any of the Government amendments. It is the key thing that makes our amendment different.
Although it might be slightly uncomfortable for the Secretary of Stateit raises the issue of letting go, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset saidit is not actually that new. There are precedents. Other bodies have the sense of a duty to co-operate. We have seen it in the Government themselves in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. Clause 82 requires councils to co-operate with a large number of bodies when setting local targets. If local government bodies can be required to do that, why cannot that principle be consistently applied in clause 2 of this Bill to require the Secretary of State to co-operate with other bodies in delivering what they feel they need? That seems to make sense. I am sure that we will hear the Ministers perspective.
As for the language used by Ministers and the Secretary of State, the Minister himself said:
We firmly believe that it is for local people and their elected representatives to determine how best to ensure that their community is sustainable and thriving,
and that is what the new clause would allow. The Secretary of State herself said that
most of the solutions will be rooted in local communities,
and we have heard what the Chancellor said. If that is what the Government say, we need a mechanism to deliver it, and that is what new clause 2 would do. It is based on consensus and would deliver what local people feel they need to make their communities more sustainable.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Obviously, the Minister is aware of the feeling in all parties today, and we keep hearing that he will take it on board. We hear a lot of fine words, but we want to see some action and some endorsement of what is being said. The time has come to get off the fence, or he will be known as a mugwumpa person who will sit on the fence all day. We have got to get him off that fence, havent we? Is he really hoping that there will be a reshuffle and that he will not have to take the Bill through if he holds out long enough?
I hope that the Minister is not thinking that, because we want to adopt new clause 2. We want to try to empower local people and make a difference to their lives. Is that so bad? I do not think so, and I am sure that he does not. Will he please get off the fence and work with us all, so that we can move on with unanimity in the Committee?
Mr. Woolas: I am delving deep into my Lancastrian background for the definition of mugwump. [ Interruption. ] We have inspiration in some advice. I always wanted to be a panellist on Call My Bluff. I shall not read this out; it relates to the schedule.
Mr. Cummings, it is a delight to welcome you to the Chair. It has been said that you are the third Chair, and we welcome you. I enjoy serving under you, and I hope and expect that we can make progress. A number of accusations have been made about the Governments stance, and I shall give the Committee some reassurances and pointers to the fact that I believe that the Government collectively, and I myself, are engaging constructively with the Bill and its objectives. I shall try to answer some of the scepticisms regarding the Bill.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, whose Bill it is, should be commended for tabling the new clauses and moving the process forward. I am grateful to him for his constructive approach. He referred to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is before the House, and the local government White Paper. He suggested that I am stitching together a devolutionary regime; I believe that I am embroidering a devolutionary regime. I am not stitching anything together.
The Government policy is laid out clearly in the Government party manifesto, although I suspect that it is not often read. The financial and statutory framework that we are creating better to empower local communities is a serious and substantial part of Government strategy. In pushing forward that strategy, we have been careful to build consensus inside, as well as with, the Local Government Association. It is important, as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne have said, for the LGA to engage as the selector, the body to take forward proposals on a consensual basis, which I support. I should like to explain to the Committee how we can achieve that desirable objective and to point out some of the problems, which are not insurmountable, with new clause 2.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has described the new clause as a mushy compromise. I do not think that it is a mushy compromise; we are engaged in a pragmatic process, and I regret that Committee members may feel that progress is slow. There are a number of
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne said that at the end of the day, the Government can make requirements. However, Parliament makes requirements, and the Government can make requirements only with Parliaments mandate, so there is an onus on members of the Committee to ensure that the legislation is workableI know that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood and the backers of the Bill want that to be the case. I face two difficulties outside the normal legislative process by Government proposal. First, I am obliged to take forward the proposals made by members of the Committee and to subject them to the tests that are rightly required. Secondly, I must ensure, with the advice of officials and parliamentary counsel, that those proposals are consistent and workable.
I regret the impressionmy hon. Friend the. Member for Chorley put this most bluntly, as is his Lancastrian wontthat I am hanging on for a reshuffle, because the thought had never occurred to me. I am determined, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to ensure that we get a Sustainable Communities Bill and a statutory framework in place whatever happens in the next six or seven weeks. My intention is to use the timetable that my right hon. Friend has outlined for positive implementation, not delay. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley of that, and I shall give him evidence of it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham referred to Humble Pie. As I approach middle age, I am more with the Humble Pie than The Spice Girls. Some would unkindly say that I am not approaching middle age, but that I am well into it. I want to speak up on behalf of my officials, who have given advice and guidance. Officials in government work to Government policies, which is their job and constitutional duty. They are not allowed to speak for themselves, and they advise on how policy objectives can be achieved. However, there are strictures on that. Good legislation must be consistent, and hon. Members should bear in mind that bad legislation can be and is challenged by judicial review. The Government, in my Department, are currently defending a judicial review over the process of local authority reorganisation, about which I am not allowed to speak for fear of prejudicing that legal action. However, legislation that is not consistent is challenged, and people who wish to see the implementation of a sustainable communities strategy, policies and legislation need to ensure that such legislation is robust.
Mr. Woolas: May I make a point in defence of the process? If I am advised that legislation is not consistent
Mr. Letwin: Who does the Minister think is going to challenge new clause 2, if it appears on the statute book?
Mr. Woolas: My experience of Government, limited though it is, and of pressure group work, which is more extensive, is that if something can be challenged in this country, it will be. We live in a country where judicial reviews are frequent and where legal challenges come forward from all quarters. Local authorities that do not like Government policies and processes often take judicial review. Four local authorities are currently challenging the local authority business growth initiatives, even though those authorities are supportive of the principles behind them. The democratic process has pushed them into that action.
Mr. Woolas: I see that the right hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with the response, so I give way again.
Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. It is important to tease out this point. There is no provision in English law for challenge by judicial review of statute. The only party that can be challenged is the Government in acting under statute. In order to mount such a challenge, the litigant would have to show either that it was, in the Wednesbury sense, unreasonable, or that the Government had acted ultra vires. Such a party would have to have a locus. I cannot see here either the grounds on which the Minister could be expected to be acting unreasonably, or the grounds on which he could be acting ultra vires, because new clause 2 gives him the vires. I cannot see who would have a locus that would want to mount a challenge in the first place. The Minister is on a hiding to nothing with his argument.
Mr. Woolas: I am not going to be tempted into legal debate with the right hon. Gentleman. That is a trap that he is setting for me, and I am not going to walk into it. However, what I can tell the Committee is that if a law is not drafted coherently and consistentlyconsistent within its own proposalsthat will be an argument used by lawyers who launch judicial reviews on behalf of interested parties. There is a list as long as an arm of such challenges to the law. The right hon. Gentleman is feigning puzzlement, but it is an argument that he has used on the Floor of the House in opposition to Government Bills that he has found inconsistent. He has argued that we need to save us from ourselves by not putting forward inconsistent legislation. It is tautological that it is desirable, from the point of the view of the objectives of the Bill, that a Bill should be consistent.
Let me move on, because I shall meet the second point made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, which was crucial to his argument. The right hon. Member for West Dorset said that I would argue that the Government could not possibly have the LGA
The argument made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset, who said that I do not wish to see the LGA in the legislation, is not correct. However, we cannot legislate to instruct a voluntary body, which is why my preference, as outlined in new clause 4, would be to ensure that the LGA is the selector. That would ensure that it has the enhanced credibility that it might need in the years ahead as it does its work, and we can do that using the regulation under the new clause.
I have not as yet engaged in formal consultation with the LGA as to its attitude on the matter, but I have engaged in informal consultation. That initial and unofficial consultation is supportive. However, we will need to engage with the LGA to ensure that it is comfortable with the process.
Mr. Letwin: It is obviously constructive that the Minister has said that the person described in subsection (2)(a) of new clause 4 would in practice be the LGA. Presumably, he would be willing to accept amendments to new clause 4 that made it clear that a person whothat should be whom
the Secretary of State thinks represents the interests of principal councils
is so defined as to make it improper for the Secretary of State to appoint somebody such as, say, the Minister.
The Chairman: Order. New clause 4 has not been selected. However, in order to assist the Committee, I am prepared to allow a small amount of latitude this morning in permitting references to new clause 4 on the understanding that I do not anticipate permitting further debate on it when the time comes for taking decisions on new clauses.
Mr. Letwin: That is the judgment of Solomon, if I may say so. I hope that we follow your guidance, Mr. Cummings, because it makes sense to discuss these things together rather than debate them a second time later.
The important point is that it is about providing a level of assurance that prevents the drafting allowing a Secretary of State to define away the whole purpose of the new clause by appointing somebody who manifestly does not represent local authorities, but who instead represents the Government. That is our concern on this issue. If we could achieve a change to such an effect, it might smooth over the problem.
Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Mr. Cummings. I will reserve my conclusion on whether it is the judgment of Solomon until we come to that point, when I fear that I may wish to say something that you will not allow, Mr. Cummings, for understandable reasons.
The answer to the right hon. Gentlemans question is yes. I agree with him, and so do the Government. There is a very important reason for that. The Government are trying to develop a social consensus to replace the failed corporatism of the past, which was based on a tripartite model, particularly in relation to industry and employment, in which the right relationship between trade unions, employee representatives and businesses was struck by problems. It is revealing, and curious that in this country social consensus has never included the local council side of the equation. There has never been a social contract as there is in other European countriesalthough one could argue that in Germany we foisted it on them in the post-war settlement. In France, however, it developed from about 218 years of social history.
I strongly believe that this Bill and the measures that the Government propose can help to establish the idea that national Governments and the state should build local representatives into the body politic and the social consensus. At a philosophical level, that is what we are trying to do. It is for that reason, as well as for pragmatic reasons, that the Local Government Association is included. I want to ensure that LGA membership is as strong as it can be in all areas, and on that basis, I vigorously challenge those within my party who question membership of the LGA.
I want to put some more meat on the bones, because I can see scepticism rising in the minds of hon. Members, especially on the Government side of the Committee. New clause 4(4)(a) states that regulations may
authorise the person appointed under subsection 2(a)(the selector) to specify steps to be taken by a principal council.
The provision refers to matters specified in the schedule. I intend to ensure that following discussion with the LGA, the regulation would allow for the process that the Committee clearly wants to be expressed in that format. I was conscious of that point when drafting the proposal.
Julia Goldsworthy: I am reassured by the Ministers comments about how new clause 4 will enable the Local Government Association to contribute. My concern is that new clause 4 does not contain a duty to co-operate, which is a critical part of new clause 2. Can the Minister assure me that the presumption is that there will be an attempt to seek consensus and to implement the recommendations of the body, which we assume will be the Local Government Association?
Mr. Woolas: It might be useful now to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, who gave the good example of second homes in his constituencythere are other such examples throughout the country. Yesterday, I met Charnwood district council, the local Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), and representatives of Loughboroughs residents association and student
On behalf of the residents, the council is asking the Government to change definitions on housing in multiple occupancy. Whether that is required or whether the necessary powers already exist is one of the matters waiting in my in-tray. The situation in Loughborough is a good example of an important point: the change that is required to help to sustain that community has no relevance whatsoever to, for example, the good people of Oldhamit will do in future, when we get our university, thanks to this Government. Any decision that is taken will affect not only Loughborough, as there could be unintended consequencessuch as changes to housing in multiple occupancy or second homes, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned, that would have an adverse effector deliberate abuse. The right balance has to be struck.
My conclusion is the same as that of the hon. Member for North Cornwall. A process should be set out that in many ways copies the community call for action model that is in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill in relation to community police. That allows the citizen to insist that his or her elected local councillor undertake a process that triggers actions by scrutiny committees and public bodies covered by the duty to co-operate. It is entirely consistent that local authoritiesand any partners that they have that deliver services and policiesshould be able to trigger a process with the Government. That is entirely reasonable, because it helps with re-engagement. In that regard, it is clear that just as the elected local councillor should be the selector at local level, so the local council and the Local Government Association should be at national level.
Mr. Rogerson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Although I might want to take issue with some of his earlier comments about judicial review, and with the musical metaphor that we have been extending, I am a fan of the late, great McKinley Morganfield, whom others might remember as Muddy Waters. I feel that the Minister might have been seeking to muddy the waters a little on that issue. I am reassured that he has said that different communities have different problems and that through this Bill we can seek solutions to each of them. He has said that he wishes to embroider something, and it looks as though we might be moving towards a patchwork, which is what communities around the country will want.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having introduced some class into our musical analogies[Interruption.] I do not wish to denigrate Humble Pie, but I cannot recall any of its records.
The hon. Gentleman tabled new clause 2. I have described some of the problems that I have with it, but let me respond to his points. He is concerned that there is no timetable in the alternative proposal. I am more than happy to have a timetable. It would be desirable to discuss that with the LGA, but let me give the reassurance that, of course, it would be sensible to have
I hope that I have reassured the Committee on the point about the LGA and why I have a problem with its inclusion in the Bill but none at all with its being in practice the selector. In fact, it is difficult to think of another person or body to undertake the role, particularly given the point about consensus.
Mr. Hurd: I thank the Minister for the frank way in which he set out some of the Governments difficulties with new clause 2. He has talked about his concern about leaving the Government open to charges of inconsistency and incoherence and therefore vulnerable to judicial review, but does he agree that the more detail that is in the Bill, and the more explicit and clearer we are in communicating what we intend, the less vulnerable we will be to such charges? To argue the opposite position to the one that he is putting, the more we put in regulation, the more we expose ourselves to charges of incoherence.
Mr. Woolas: Such things are a matter of balance, and consistency of legislation is desirable. The intent of Parliament is what matters ultimately; that is the test. Committee members are expressing the intent of Parliament. I simply seek quickly to guide us through the next six to eight weeks to ensure that we have our legislation in place. It is a question of balance. The substantial point is that one cannot legislate for a voluntary body. It is much better to do so by setting out the process, defining the objectives and then using the regulations and the schedule, referred to in subsection (4)(a) of new clause 4, as the way forward.
Mr. Hurd: Can we be clear that the Minister intends to return to the definitions in new clause 4 to see whether they can be tightened up and to make it clear that the Secretary of State is required to choose a body that is representative of local councils?
Mr. Woolas: Yes. The objective is to ensure that no other body or persons could be appointed. I wish this to be a helpful link with the LGA, with which we have regular meetings. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister established the central local partnership, which meets regularly to discuss matters not only to do with local councils, but to do with many policies and services.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne have mentioned the duty to co-operate, which is a reasonable point. It is for Parliament to place that duty, not the Government, which is why I sought that measure through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, clause 82 of which places a duty to co-operate on named authorities in setting goals for the local area agreement on the spending of public money in the area. It is intended that they will agree, but the duty does not require them to do soit requires them to co-operate in setting that target. Such a duty would require ourselves and the LGA to work towards those goals in the same way. There is a good symmetry in what is being proposed.
Mr. Letwin: We are glad that we seem to have established that when the new version of new clause 4 returns to the Committee, it will contain a tighter definition of the person who is to be the selector. Does the Minister intend his remarks to convey that when the new clause returns, it will also contain a duty for the Government to co-operate with that person, thereby reinstating the idea that is present in new clause 2, but currently omitted from new clause 4? Does he intend new clause 4, on its return, to contain a timetable? If those three things can be achieved, we do not need to detain the Committee much further with argument, because we would then have consensus. None of us wishes to stick by the drafting of new clause 2. We want only to achieve these three points: clarity that the LGA, or whatever it is at any given time, will be the representative body that everyone recognises; clarity that the Bill includes a timetable; and clarity that there is a duty to co-operate. Once we have those three things, we will have a workable new clause 2.
Mr. Woolas: I am conscious of what hon. Members said in their opening remarks. I do not want to place myself in a position of giving commitments on which I cannot deliver as a result of either legal advice or my need to consult colleagues. I do not want to give a false impression or to be accused of doing so.
I can say on the record to the right hon. Gentleman that a timetable and a duty to co-operate are desirable. Whether that will be achievedwith your permission, Mr. Cummings, as you provide the strictures on the debatethrough a new clause, in the schedule or by regulation, I do not know, but I can give right hon. Gentleman the commitment that he seeks. That seems perfectly sensible. To give more reassurance, a reading of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and the debates in that Bill Committee will show that that Bill has the same policy objectives as this one. As I have said in previous sittings, the Government see this Bill as a strengthening supplement to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and the local government White Paper, rather than as isolated legislation. In that regard, there was cross-party consensus on the duty to involve in clauses 82 and 102I will correct that if the clause numbers have changedof the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which represented a desirable change.
Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of how some of the proposals in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill are already being taken up. The Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Newcastle proposes to use that Bill to create a city region executive of executivesa cabal of cabalsrather than to devolve as the Minister would have hoped. Would not new clause 2 provide him with a mechanism to ensure proper democratic dealings in neighbourhoods?
Mr. Woolas: First, to clarify my last point, I am informed that it is clause 108 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill that creates the duty to involve.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The example of the multi-area agreements that are being developed in the Tyne and Wear region illustrates the core of the dilemma. Should the Government in future use powers to compel a form of governance in a local area? Is not that centralisation? I may not like what the Newcastle leaders are doing, but they are doing it, so what do I do? Do I tell them that they cannot do it?
Mr. Woolas: I think that my hon. Friend will like my next sentence, if he did not like my minor premise. My conclusion is that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and this Bill, including new clause 2, are intended to say that if communities are to be sustainable in the way that is now defined, devolution must not stop at local authority level but must be passed down to communities, to neighbourhoods, to community groups and so on.
The caveat that the Government place on that is that the locally elected councillor, not the council, is the ultimate arbitrator. He is the conduit. If a local authority and its partners are not engaging in consultation in the way that clause 108 and the back-up schedules describe, which new clause 2 describes imperfectly and new clause 4 describes nearly perfectly, we would have legitimate levers and powers to say that the actions in the example that my hon. Friend has given are not acceptable. That is not devolution from Whitehall to city hall, but centralisation from community to city hall, which is the opposite of what everyone intends.
The difficulty, like the argument about subsidiarity, is that there is always disagreement about the level at which a decision should be taken. The knowing smile from the right hon. Member for West Dorset reminds me of his point on Second Reading that money is power and it is where the money is that counts. The framework that I am trying to set up is designed to ensure that the desirable objective is realised.
Jim Cousins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am warming to the second part of his answernot that I want to put him off by that. I sometimes have that effect. The guidance suggested in new clause 2 could provide a meaningful code of conduct to which the Local Government Association would sign up and it would provide the very framework of guidance that could deliver true devolution to neighbourhoods.
Mr. Woolas: I certainly agree that that is desirable and that it is the intent. I want to see myself and I want the Committee to see me not as someone who is putting objections in the way of the proposals, but as someone who is trying to help to get them implemented. That is what I am genuinely trying to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley is reserving judgmentthe jury is out. He is waiting to see what happens. That is his job. I do not criticise him for that.
Let me try to make some progress. The fundamental intention of the clause is to ensure that central Government are responsive to local authorities and the people they represent and take action to help them to promote the sustainability of their local community. There is agreement that that is what we are trying to achieve. We are debating how that is done. It is obvious, and there is consensus in the Committee, that there should be a transparent and accountable mechanism by which recommendations for action are brought to the Secretary of State in the first instance. The Secretary of State would have to consider each selected proposal and make a response in public. The intent would clearly be to identify good ideas and for the Secretary of State to take them forward. That again is what we have agreed and what new clause 4 does. The mechanism reflects the strong consensus that has built up around the idea of strong and prosperous communities.
During the Bills passage through Committee in this House at least, there has been strong consensus on that approach. That consensus is developed through a new settlement between central and local governmentone built on the recognition that it is local people and their representatives who are best placed to decide what they need to promote the sustainability of their communities. The example has been given of second homes in north Cornwall. The Government believe that it is right to be flexible and to empower support for local government in the new relationship. That is the reason for the central-local partnership, which I hope will continue and grow. It is why we have established the local government sounding board to help to implement the White Paper, and why we enjoy such a strong day-to-day relationship with the Local Government Association.
I do not want to go through my list of difficulties with the original clause 2; I give the Committee notice of my intention to withdraw the brutal wrecking amendment that I tabled at the beginning. It is always better to start here and end up there than to start there. For the benefit of Hansard, that is a negotiating tactic from when I worked in trade unions.
Mr. Woolas: Step back and look at the membership of this Committee, Mr. Cummings. If I can achieve a consensus, I shall be very proud of it.
Mr. Woolas: If I am still here, as my hon. Friend kindly says. My real fear is promotion. I can imagine what Committee members might say then.
It is my intention not to move Government amendments Nos. 6 to 15 when we get to them. The proposed mechanisms, as I hope I have made clear, were unworkable, and I have given reasons why. New clause 2 also describes the process by which the Secretary of State would be required to publish a 10-year action plan to promote the sustainability of local communities. In the original clause 2, any individual group or council could make any recommendation and, subject to some limited exceptions, the Secretary of State would have had a duty to implement it.
New clause 2 is in line with Government policy. It gives the Secretary of State a duty to establish a transparent and accountable mechanism, which I have said is desirable. The Secretary of State would be required to consider proposals from principal councils selected by the LGA, but not to implement all of them. That is an important change, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood for it.
I do not think that my difficulties with new clause 2 are insurmountable. I hope that I have convinced the Committee of that and that I will have the opportunity to develop the arguments about the how rather than the why of my proposals during debate on new clause 4. I hope that we can move forward and that hon. Members will accept that progress has been made in this Committee. We have agreed clauses in previous sittings, and I hope that we can do so in this one.
Mr. Hurd: I thank the Minister again for his frank and constructive response. I am sure that he picked up on concerns expressed by colleagues on the Government Benches about how his good words might be lost in translation when the amendments are drafted. I hope that he will take the time to ensure that they comply with his words before they are tabled.
Before the Minister winds up his remarks, I would like to draw out his views on provisions at the end of new clause 2 and the need for greater accountability to Parliament in preparing the action plan and reporting regularly on its implementation. I mention also the duty on local Government offices to co-operate. Effectively, his new clause 4 ignores all of those provisions. Given the emphasis that he placed on the need for transparency and accountability, what are his views on ensuring that the national action plan is debated in this place with the full involvement of Members of Parliament, and on the Secretary of State having an ongoing duty to report to the House on its implementation?
Mr. Woolas: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about co-operation. The Government have given powers of well-being to local authorities. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras referred to that in a previous sitting.
On accountability, Parliament is the ultimate arbitratorand quite right too. The Governments mindset is that we are the champions of a sustainable communities strategy. We build that into our policies. My Departments slogan relates to it. We are delighted that others share that strategy. The first debates on sustainable communities in this place were met with mockery, particularly, I think, from the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). A definition of sustainable communities was requested and then mocked. The Government are therefore delighted that the whole of the body politic has now accepted the idea of sustainable communities, which is why I say that if I can build a consensus in Committee and the House, I shall retire with a great achievement under my belt.
The hon. Gentleman made a specific pointhe wants the action plan to be brought before Parliament. I can see why that would be desirable. It is important that citizens and communities see that Government, whether local or national, are responding to what is happening.
It is important that we have that process of accountability. Parliament must have the right to question the action plan and to ask why some decisions have not been implemented but others have. However, that process is difficult to provide for in legislationthe right hon. Member for West Dorset shakes his head before I have finished. He keeps drawing conclusions displaying that his attitude borders on scepticism or cynicism. I was going to go on to say that it is important that the reasons should be set out and that Parliament should have the opportunity for scrutinyhowever, it is difficult to include those matters in legislation, given nature of the process of considering a private Members Bill, which is inevitable and understandable. The Government respond to proposals in that process, rather than bring them forward.
I wish that there had been five parliamentary days this week, because I would have had more time to table alternative proposals, which, I believe, with more discussion, would have been acceptable to the Bills backers on both sides of the Committee. That would include making clear our wish that Parliament should have the opportunity to hold to account those responsible for the proposals. That will strengthen the partnership with the Local Government Association and make real the social consensus that I have talked about.
Given the desirable caveat, to which we have all agreed, that the proposals should be a matter of consensus within the LGA, there is nothing for any Government to fear in considering the matter. As for the caveat about expenditure, perhaps I may refer to one real example with reference to the process of consultation implied in new clause 2. Under the new burdens procedure, and with consultation across Government about cost, I have been given the figure of £42 million, which is a huge sum of money. I do not commit the Government to spending it at this point, but I think that it would be money well spent. Nevertheless, I should have difficulty going to Saddleworth parish council and justifying an extra expenditure of £42 million to implement new clause 2. I am not making a debating point, but simply pointing out that that is my advice about the new burdens implication. We all vote for new burdens when proposals are made. It is only when the money to support our own proposals is not there that we do not like the new burdens procedures.
To return to the point that I was making, accountability to Parliament is desirable, and I shall seek to meet the relevant objectives as we proceed.
Mr. Letwin: I want to make three points only. First, I am delighted to hear that he will try to find a way to restore accountability to Parliament. We regard that as
My second point is that the Minister, whose hesitation about making commitments without consulting his colleagues I understand, was nevertheless coy about whether the points about timetabling and the duty to co-operate would be in the Bill, in the schedule or in regulations. I do not care whether they would be in the clauses or the schedule, because it would amount to the same thing, but it would not do for them to be in regulations, because we all know, first, that regulations get, if that, a 90-minute debate
Mr. Letwin: I am so sorry, Mr. Cummings. To conclude, if the points are set out in regulations, that will not do.
Mr. Woolas: I agree that provisions on accountability to Parliament are necessary and not just desirable. To counter some of the right hon. Gentlemans scepticism, let me say that the Government are accountable to Parliament anyway for their actions. My Department published a detailed annual report on how we had been implementing our sustainable communities strategy. To bring a partisan point into the proceedings and perhaps break the consensus, the considered, comprehensive and intellectual response from the Conservative party to our showing accountability by publishing our annual report was to call it Prezzas disaster. I hope that the accountability to Parliament is reciprocated. [Interruption.] It was many years ago.
I am indeed being coy on the right hon. Gentlemans second point.
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven oclock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at Two oclock.
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