Sustainable Communities Bill

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Clause 13

Short title, commencement and extent
Mr. Woolas: I beg to move amendment No. 37, in clause 13, page 6, line 36, leave out
‘Subject to subsections (3) and (4) below’.
The Chairman: With this we will discuss the following Government amendments: No. 38, in clause 13, page 6, line 38, leave out subsections (3) and (4).
No. 39, in clause 13, page 7, line 1, leave out subsection (5) and insert—
‘(5) This Act comes into force on such day as the Secretary of State may appoint by order made by statutory instrument.
(6) An order under this section—
(a) may appoint different days for different purposes;
(b) may include transitional, saving or transitory provision.’.
2.15 pm
Mr. Woolas: We have shown that with discussion and consideration we can move from clause 6 to 13 in a matter of seconds, whereas it took a matter of months, if not years, to get to clause 5.
In the spirit of devolution, Government amendments Nos. 37 and 38 relate to the remit of the Bill in Scotland and Northern Ireland. To be fair, ours is a devolutionary Government, although, in respect of Scotland, we might be regretting that; in respect of Wales, that is yet to be the case. I suspect that in the long run we will be the beneficiaries, but I shall not go there, Mr. Cummings, because you will not let me.
Government amendment No. 39 relates to the commencement date, on which there is a disagreement between the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, whose Bill this is and who wants to get it into legislation straight away, and the Government, who want to have time to ensure that we do it properly.For the benefit of hon. Members who might readour deliberations in Hansard, I shall explain the amendments.
Straying from my speaking notes, I would like to add, however, that that does not mean that we think that the intention of the Bill should not apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I do not want people there to think that the UK Parliament believes that they should not be involved, consulted and informed on decisions, that there should not be appropriate methods for influencing policy and decisions, or that there should not be locally based decisions in those nations and regions. However, it is not for us to say how they should do that—it is a matter for them. I wanted to make that clear. I am hoping that the transcriber from Local Works, whose publicity extends to those nations and regions, has noted that point, which I have made very clearly. Given the tartan margin in Scotland, I am confident that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and the Liberal Democrats would want to make that clear as well. I see nods of assent, and so make that point on their behalf—although, the fact that I said it first might give me a slight advantage.
Amendment No. 39 would replace the provision for the Bill to come into force on the day on which it is passed. This is a very difficult argument for any Minister to pursue because the proposition that a Bill should come into force when the Secretary of State deems so sounds, to the cynical, if not the sceptical, like weasel words. I can reassure the Committee that the statement has been normal practice for legislation across Governments through the ages. There are good reasons for that, and I hope to use them to persuade the Committee.
Mr. Letwin indicated dissent.
Mr. Woolas: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has done his arithmetic and knows that he is in a strong position. However, that does not invalidate my argument—
Mr. Letwin: The argument is wrong anyway.
Mr. Woolas: It is not. It is backed up by a powerful argument.
Under amendment No. 39, commencement would take place through commencement orders made by the Secretary of State. The justification for that is simply that the Secretary of State has duties under the Bill, including duties to consult. These come under new clause 1 in particular, which I would imagine is likely to be accepted in some form. It is important that the Secretary of State is not placed under duties that he cannot meet, to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. If provisions could be commenced by way of commencement order, that would ensure that that did not occur, since the Secretary of State will not commence a provision until she can comply with it. Commencing provisions by way of a commencement order is in no way unusual and it is usual in situations where the Secretary of State has duties such as those that the Bill would impose on her, or on him or her in the future. I hope that my argument is finding agreement on amendments Nos. 37 and 38.
On amendment No. 39, I ask the Committee to consider seriously that we should not have a commencement date if that date renders it likely—probable, in my view—that the Secretary of State would not be able to comply with the duties. One further point, which is more than a debating point, is that if the Bill is to succeed it will rely on its ability to strengthen the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. The commencement date of the latter Bill is not known, because it is subject to debate in the House and the other place, and so Iask the Committee not to push the issue of a commencement date and to trust the Government in their good intent. Parliament has many powers to ensure that commencement takes place at a date that is agreeable to it, should the Secretary of State be unable to comply with the duties.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): We all know that the Government are about to change. Although none of us doubt the personal integrity of the Minister, in a few weeks there is every likelihood that he will not be in his post and we will be at the mercy of officials, however well intentioned, who are not directly accountable to the House. That is why, I suspect, most of the Committee would want something from the Minister other than a vague assurance that it will happen “some date in the future.” We would want it to be more specific and on the face of the Bill either when it is passed or at some specified date when other legislation will come into effect. The Minister will probably not be able to answer our questions in two months’ time.
Mr. Woolas: Mr. Cummings, if the hon. Gentleman has intelligence or information to which I am not privy, I am more than willing to buy him a glass of wine on the Terrace later. For my part, I just carry on.
Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): With the wine?
Mr. Woolas: If necessary.
I pray in aid my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, who is a more experienced Minister than I, who will testify—as will all right hon. and hon. Members who have experience of bringing legislation to the House—that that process is not unusual. Of course, Parliament has sufficient powers to ensure that commencement dates are implemented. The idea that Parliament would pass a Bill that the Secretary of State would not wish to commence is unprecedented, unlikely and impossible. Parliament would, rightly, insist on that. It is important that the Secretary of State has the time to consult organisations to ensure that she can fulfil the duties implied bythe Bill.
Mr. Woolas: I would be willing to do that if the hon. Lady agreed not to issue press releases on the day that that might happen. I suspect that she cannot give me that guarantee and so I cannot give her the guarantee that she seeks.
Mr. Letwin: Is the Minister aware of the date of implementation of the Easter Act 1928?
Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman—I am looking to you, Mr Cummings, to protect me from his sorties—is going to solicit a straightforward answer. No, I am not aware of it, but he may wish to inform the Committee of it.
Mr. Letwin: I think the Minister will agree that1928 is some while ago. The Act has never been implemented.
Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman forgets the point that the Easter Act 1928 was not trying to bring about a sustainable community. He has made a good debating point, but, as ever, it is better in rhetoric than content. My point is serious. I ask the Committee to consider it seriously.
Mr. Letwin: In the spirit of trying to engage in a serious discussion of the topic, rather than the amusements to which the Minister has subjected us,the important point is the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. Of course the Opposition accept—I imagine that the whole Committee accepts—that the Minister feels that he needs a considerable period in which to implement all the things that will be necessary to make the Bill workable. That is not a problem, but he clearly cannot maintain that this is the same as a Government Bill.
When a Government Bill is introduced it is clear that the Government want to implement it—[ Interruption. ] I make that generous assumption. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable that the Government should ensure that they have all the time that they want to do so, but that is not the case for this Bill. They will either accept it or not in the long run.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that a considerable amount of time and effort has been put in on this and the work by the Department shows a tremendous commitment?It would be most inappropriate to suggest that that commitment does not exist. Would he not like to respond to that by giving some sort of trust in return?
Mr. Letwin: My short answer to that is no. I accept that the Minister, his officials, his PPS and Labour Members of the Committee have all engaged actively in this. This is a multi-party Bill. It is not a partisan Bill. I accept that the Minister’s general trend of thought is sympathetic to it. I accept all of that. The truth is, however, that it is not part of the Government’s legislative programme. There is not any particular reason why we think that it will rise to the top of the in-tray.
Mr. Woolas: Oh!
Mr. Letwin: I have a personal experience of this. About eight years ago I began a small, personal crusade to rearrange matters so that builders skips, which currently have to be lighted with lights that often get flat batteries and are hence a danger to the public, should instead be allowed to have reflective or luminous markings. I have exchanged rather morethan 200 pieces of correspondence and numerous parliamentary questions with successive Ministers about this. There is good will on the part of the Government who have gone to the trouble—to take the hon. Lady’s point—of involving the British Standards Institute and consulting on many fronts.
2.30 pm
Considerable progress has been made. Unfortunately, eight years later, the Government have not quite managed to find the legislative time to engage in what they now say are the appropriate actions to achieve a result that they accept would be desirable. The reason is that there are more pressing matters. I can understand that—I do not claim that builders’ skips are the most important thing in the world. More pressing matters every year seem to demand legislative time from the committeesof Cabinet, and I fear that the same fate might befall this Bill.
That would be an easy matter to solve, as the Minister will have an idea, from discussions within Government and with his officials, of how long it could reasonably take. If he would like to add six months or a year to his estimate of the time it would reasonably take to implement, so that there was an estimate of one year, but a period of two years in the Bill, I do not think that any of us would cry deeply about that. We accept that the Minister needs time, but let it be a date certain, so that we know where we are.
Mr. Hollobone: I take my right hon. Friend’s point absolutely, about a Government Bill perhaps having a different level of importance in a Minister’s mind than a private Member’s Bill. If the Minister were not minded to accept the Sustainable Communities Bill as currently drafted, one way forward might be for it to come into force on the same date as the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.
Mr. Letwin: What a splendidly constructive thought. In any event, whether by that mechanism or by a date, let us find a route through the process so that, rather than having to trust good intentions, which I am sure exist, we can trust the Bill to achieve a result that weall seek.
My second point, in a long intervention, is that the right hon. Gentleman says that this is a private Member’s Bill, which it is, but let me again remind and reassure him that I have Government authority to support the Bill. There are problems with it, with regard to its remit, but I am acting on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, not as a freelancer.
Mr. Letwin: I am immensely reassured that the Minister is not freelancing, from the point of view not, of course, of his immediate further posting, but of his long-term career in Government. I have to admit that I am not surprised, as I know that the Minister operates in proper ways. We are all grateful for the assurance that the Government back the Bill.
I return to the point that if we, in this Committee, continue to insist on the position written in the Bill, we do not do so with the intention of continuing in that same spirit on Report. I hope that I speak for the whole Committee in saying that, if the Minister wants to table a considered version of amendment No. 39 before then, to set a date or a mechanism for setting one with which he feels comfortable, we would accept that.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that, and I will do so.
Mr. Letwin: And I am grateful to the Minister.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 38, in clause 13, page 6,line 38, leave out subsections (3) and (4).—[Mr. Woolas.]
The Chairman: Does the Minister wish to move amendment No. 39?
Mr. Woolas: In light of what I have just said, I donot need to. If I did, I would be going back on my commitment to the right hon. Gentleman.
Clause 13, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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