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9 July 2008 : Column 1411

Communities in Control

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about “Communities in control—Real people, real power”, a White Paper that sets out the Government’s proposals to pass more influence, power and control to local communities and citizens.

As we reflect on the founding of the national health service this week and celebrate the achievements of this most civilised of British institutions, it is worth reminding ourselves that the NHS came about because of democratic politics. It is as much a testament to the powerful potential of politics as it is a testament to our common bonds of humanity. Like most noble achievements, the NHS was not a product of a cosy consensus; it was the product of a titanic political struggle.

Those of us elected to this House would do well to remind ourselves from time to time of the great struggles for democracy in this country. We should remember the ordinary soldiers who stood and debated with their generals at St Mary’s church in Putney during the English civil war, the families who gathered at St. Peter’s field in Manchester in 1819 to support parliamentary reform and were trampled and killed by the cavalry, the textile workers and miners who met on Kersal moor in my own constituency in 1838, the women who faced prison and even death to win the right to vote in the early part of the last century, and the men and women who fought and defeated fascism 60 years ago.

Whenever we risk taking our democracy for granted, we should recall the brave men and women on whose shoulders we stand, and give thanks for their fortitude and courage. When we look around the world, from Burma to Zimbabwe, we should recognise that the struggle for democracy is universal and that the drive for people to want to control their own lives is part of human nature.

This White Paper represents some significant steps forward towards giving local people a greater say over their lives and greater control over the forces and decisions that shape their neighbourhoods. I am convinced that in the coming decades, people will expect and demand much greater power within the political system. There is a tide of history flowing in the direction of greater democracy, and all of us who are part of the political system would do well to understand it, anticipate it and adapt our system to take account of the change that is coming. We are building on the devolution and decentralisation already enacted by this Labour Government—devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, more powers and resources for councils, and more ways for citizens to play an active role—but we need to move further and go faster.

The White Paper has two broad aims. The first is to rehabilitate local political activity as a worthwhile activity, conducted by decent people in pursuit of noble aims. We cannot function as a democracy without strong local democratic institutions and vibrant political parties in every area. Local authorities have a vital role. There are now many excellent examples of councils being at the heart of local democracy, and that should be the case everywhere.

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Secondly, we must pass more power to local people so that they feel that if they get involved, it will be worth their time and effort. People are perfectly rational. They will get involved if they can see the change that they make, and if they do not, they will soon fall away. People are not apathetic: almost 70 per cent say that they want a bigger say in how the country is run. People want to be involved, but the structures and cultures of politics sometimes alienate them. They are disengaging themselves from the political process because they feel that they lack power. It is also crucial for young people to become involved, because our democracy rests on future generations being part of the process.

The White Paper will contain measures to enhance local democracy, but the Government are also committed to offering the public more opportunities to influence national decisions. Today the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), will publish a discussion paper providing a national framework for greater citizen engagement and suggesting mechanisms for involving the public in debates and decision making on national issues.

So what do we propose at local level? First, we want to place a new duty on councils to promote democracy. They will have to run campaigns to register voters, explain voting to local people, work with schools to explain local councillors’ roles, and train staff to be able to say which group controls the council, how to register to vote and when the next elections are. Councils should be vibrant hubs of local democracy, not units of local administration. We will allow councils to provide incentives to encourage more people to vote, perhaps entering voters in a prize draw.

Alongside the White Paper, we are publishing our response to the report by Jane Roberts’s Councillors Commission on the barriers and incentives to becoming and remaining a councillor. Many of Jane’s ideas are incorporated in the White Paper.

There will be a range of measures to increase visibility and accountability in local services. We will raise the profile of overview and scrutiny systems, which should be analogous to the Select Committee system at national level. Local public officials will need to appear before regular public hearings, and there will be a new right to petition to

hold local officers to account at public meetings. There will be a consultation on making it easier to demand a referendum on whether to have a directly elected local mayor—[Hon. Members: “We’ve had enough of them!”] We shall see. The consultation will be about making it easier to demand a referendum on whether to have a directly elected local mayor, for instance by accepting electronic petitions.

We are also announcing a review of redress when things go wrong in council services. The review will consider the way in which redress is being used across the public and private sectors, and will make recommendations on how it can be used better in local public services to improve satisfaction and service delivery.

We support the provision of more councils at community level, such as parish and neighbourhood councils, and will introduce a new right for local people to appeal to the Secretary of State if their council denies them the opportunity to establish a community council. We will
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introduce a national system to recognise the contribution of councillors who have served two full terms, by giving them the title “Alderman” or “Alderwoman”. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That is fine. Some Members of Parliament would be entitled to use that title— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must allow the Minister to speak.

Hazel Blears: We will revise the so-called Widdicombe rules, which restrict council officers from political activity, and allow more council officers to engage in political activity if they choose to do so. We will also consult on extending the right to time off for public duties to a broader range of public service roles.

The Government support the vital democratic contribution of the voluntary sector. We will launch a £70 million communitybuilders scheme to support community organisations. We will also remove some of the barriers preventing faith-based organisations from supplying goods and services to local authorities. There will be a £7.5 million empowerment fund for national third sector organisations to establish innovative schemes, particularly for young people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to gain vital community leadership skills and become involved in planning and social enterprise. My Department's social enterprise unit will be launched in the autumn.

Petitions have been a well-understood part of our public life for centuries. They represent a recognised method of aggregating views into a single collective voice. They are so simple that even young people and children can take part. Many local authorities handle petitions very well. However, we want all of them to do so at the level of the best, so we will place a duty on councils to respond to all petitions, and if a petition has the support of more than 5 per cent. of the local population there will have to be a debate in full council.

Petitions will help local people to direct their council to clear away abandoned cars, build a new road crossing, introduce traffic calming measures or deal with an empty property. Councils will also act as community advocates, for example for petitions relating to NHS primary care trusts.

I am convinced that there is no conflict between representative and participatory forms of democracy. They are mutually reinforcing, and the best councillors are the ones who are in touch with the views of their community. We want to build on the success of participatory budgeting schemes, which allow local people to have a real say over how local investment is made, including in youth, community safety and health budgets.

We hear many negative things about young people today, and we are told that they have rejected mainstream politics. We need to do far more to harness their energy and their desire for social action and involvement. We will open up Government to young people and support a range of innovative programmes to help them become effective leaders of tomorrow.

We all understand that not everyone wants to become an active citizen, but none the less there are millions of people in Britain who want to do more for their communities but lack the platform on which to stand.
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We will transfer more assets—such as community centres, street markets, swimming pools, parks and land—to local community ownership. We want to see more local co-ops and mutually owned groups running local services. A new asset transfer unit will be established to speed this up. We also want to see more social businesses, and we will encourage councils to ensure that social enterprises are able to compete fairly for contracts.

This White Paper takes us further on our democratic journey, but this is not the last word. We are changing here the terms of the debate. We will continue to strive for greater reform, devolution and accountability, because that is what people increasingly want and demand, and because it is the right thing to do. I commend this White Paper to the House.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving me advance sight both of her statement and of this essentially harmless White Paper. Until her statement, I thought I was the one who was advocating “Just say no” to the right hon. Lady, but it appears that her colleagues in the Home Office and the Department of Health have taken the very life out of these proposals, and have found it remarkably easy just to say no to Hazel.

May I rise to the right hon. Lady’s defence and support a number of the measures in this document? We agree that there is a strong case for more city mayors where they are supported by local people. The hurdle for a community to get one is far too restrictive, but as the people of Bury decided last week, local choice must be paramount. However, why is the right hon. Lady so timid in allowing mayors just to join police and crime reduction partnerships? Why does she not go all the way and give them real control over policing?

The right hon. Lady calls for online petitions, but if she is such a supporter of e-democracy, why is her Department axing all funding for the International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy? Does she not appreciate that that centre has been instrumental in helping local community groups and parish councils establish and publish community websites, and that it is the only organisation offering impartial advice?

We support devolving the management of services to local groups, and the strengthening of social enterprise is very welcome. However, a rag-bag of proposals is no substitute for policy. Does the right hon. Lady not understand that there is a contradiction in stripping local authorities of real powers in planning, housing and waste and transferring them to an unaccountable quango, and in replacing them with a few toys, few of which will see the light of day? It is less than a year since the last local government Act received Royal Assent. How many of the community provisions from that Act have commenced, and why has the community call for action introduced way back in the Police and Justice Act 2006 never been implemented?

The right hon. Lady mentioned that in order to encourage people to vote, their names will be entered into a prize draw. Will she confirm that the booby prize for such a draw would be a Labour councillor, especially when, under a scheme announced on page 137 of the White Paper, she suggests that councillors should be allowed to vote in meetings from the comfort of their armchairs, without being put to the inconvenience of meeting a voter? That is hardly an inducement for people to vote.

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The Secretary of State calls for residents to be given a £10 rebate on their rubbish if it is not collected on the right day, but that pales in comparison with the £75 fines issued by Government bin bullies for putting out rubbish the evening before collection or—heaven forbid—not shutting the bin lid correctly. What is the point of a £10 rebate on a missed bin when families face £200 charges on top of their council tax?

I know that the Labour party is having difficulty finding candidates, but allowing staff to become councillors is partisan. It would be a return to the sweetheart deals in which officers and councillors swapped roles on a tit-for-tat basis. Such examples of jobs for the boys brought so much corruption to local government. This is jobs for the boys masquerading as human rights. We believe that it is in the public interest for the roles of officer and councillor to be separated, and we will make reversing the Secretary of State’s policy a high priority after a change of Government. Will she ensure that any officer who takes advantage of this arrangement understands that after the law is reversed, they will have to either find alternative employment or create a by-election by the next annual round? We will also oppose her desire to reintroduce propaganda on the rates.

If petitions are to play a more important role, does the Secretary of State realise that listening to them will be all the more important? The Government have ignored petitions on post office closures, polyclinics, a referendum on the European treaty and the congestion charge. What is the point in a council having a duty to respond to petitions if it has been stripped of its powers to make any difference? The Government have stripped away local accountability in planning, housing and waste. They have created a democratic deficit that this White Paper is inadequate to fix.

The Secretary of State started with a reference to the Putney debates and the Peterloo massacre, and ended by offering the inducements of a scratchcard for voting and the title of alderman for ex-councillors. That the Government should come to this is genuinely and truly sad.

Hazel Blears: I welcome the damascene conversion of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) to having more city mayors. I can only presume that he has been under intense pressure from the leader of his party, who has been a champion of having more mayors. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has seen the light and decided that that form of leadership is the right approach.

I also welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for some of the powers for the voluntary sector, but it is this Government who are providing resources, back-up and support to the sector in partnership, instead of seeking to push services on to the voluntary sector as an abdication of local and central Government responsibility to provide services for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of police and crime. My White Paper contains a reference to an increased role for mayors in addressing crime and community safety. He will see much more detail in the police Green Paper, which is likely to be published shortly. We mean to ensure that local people have much more say on crime, and on health, in which they also have a significant interest.

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The hon. Gentleman will also see that the White Paper contains models for increasing primary care trust accountability. Those are very interesting and will be welcomed by local people who are keen to see commissioning in the health service take place at local level, so that they can influence it more.

The hon. Gentleman also welcomed the development of social enterprise and asset transfer. Again, he talks the talk, but it is this Government who are turning that into reality, with massive programmes in the health sector to encourage social enterprise. GP practices are increasingly adopting a social enterprise model. A GP practice close to me now provides appointments first thing in the morning at 7.15, and late night appointments at 8.30. That is what the public want to see, and that is why we have to be more adventurous in the models that we adopt.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of councillors being able to vote remotely. This is a consultation, but all our parties desperately need better, higher-quality people to come forward as candidates. People often have responsibilities to manage in their homes and family lives. If someone represents a rural area, it often takes them a tremendous amount of time to get to meetings. We have to be braver. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to have a little courage, a bit of imagination and a little creativity. His recipe is simply for more of the same, but the turnout in the last set of local elections was 35 per cent. Even in the London mayoral election it was only 45 per cent. Unless we are prepared to have courage and convictions and to do things differently, we will see this disaffection and disengagement from local politics continue, to the detriment of all our political parties and of democracy in this country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Widdicombe changes. I do not think that it is fair for a highways engineer who does not advise the council and has no role on policy, but earns £33,000 a year, to be barred from any democratic political activity because of that. It sends out the wrong message. It is right to correct that situation, which was caused by the previous Government.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that we had stripped powers away from local government, and that if we gave it more powers, that would be the answer. [ Interruption. ] Let me just say this to the hon. Gentleman: he seems to have had a bout of amnesia. In the past 12 months, we have reduced the number of national targets from 1,200 to fewer than 200. We have negotiated local area agreements and there are £5 billion-worth of un-ring-fenced funds. We have given local authorities the right, through the duty to co-operate, to draw together health, police, local councils and Jobcentre Plus, and we have given them excellent new tools to tackle antisocial behaviour. That is one area where local councils can make a difference, and that is where they need to put their efforts.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on her proposals but on her energy, commitment and advocacy, her bottom-up approach and her drive to empower local people. I reassure her that the shadow Secretary of State was entirely wrong when he proclaimed that it was easy to say no to Hazel; I have never found it easy to say no to her. I hope that my colleagues will not, either.

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