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I welcome the new money and resources to empower local people through capacity building at local level and through community leadership. Will she say a little more about whether that could be used to reinforce the experiment of guide communities, so that those who have been so successful in neighbourhood renewal could spread their best practice to other parts of the country and ensure that in reality people can take control of their lives and futures, from the bottom up?
Hazel Blears: My right hon. Friend has a lot of previous history on this agenda, from as long ago as when he was a local councillor in Sheffield seeking to empower local people. I can certainly assure him that the £70 million communitybuilders fund and the £7.5 million empowerment fund will be about increasing peoples capacity to participate in decisions and shape their own future.
He knows, as I do, of the excellent work at Perry Common in Birmingham, in Balsall Heath, in the Goodwin Development Trust in Hull and in our communities where local people are striving, sometimes against the odds. It is about time that national Government got behind those local people and gave them the ability to reach the potential that they undoubtedly have.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of the White Paper and of her statement this morning, and also for the advance notice of the proposals, which have been trailed for the past six months. Although a lot is already in the public domain, I am not sure whether all her Back Benchers feel involved in the process and empowered as a result of the policies.
This is something that has been hyped for quite a long time, and it is difficult to see what the fuss is about. There is little to disagree with, because the proposals are so limited in scope, ambition and vision. The fact that the Secretary of State drew parallels with historic struggles for democracy was quite tasteless, and threw into relief the timidity of her proposals. How can she compare e-petitions with people who made the ultimate sacrifice to try to achieve democracy?
Can the Secretary of State confirm that many local councils, many of which are Liberal Democrat, are many steps ahead in this process? For example, Newcastle is already undertaking participatory budgeting involving people as young as three. Kingston council has a petition power, whereby petitions lead to debates in the chamber. When will the Government make proposals to do the same in this place? Councils already transfer assets to different community groups, but that is often used as a way of palming off white elephants and getting rid of financial liability. How is that innovative and new?
Does the Secretary of State accept that there is nothing in the proposals to undo the damage inflicted on local authorities and communities by this centralising Government? Is not the introduction of a duty to promote democracy in councils an admission that the withdrawal of power and resources from local government has disempowered communities and reduced voter turnout? Todays proposals are trying to treat the symptom, not the cause. Many of my constituents have been more
than happy to participate in the parish planning process, but they have been turned off by the inability to turn any of their proposals into reality.
Of course it is important that councils share best practice so that all members of the community are involved in decision making. That should happen not just through endless, fruitless consultation but through getting people involved in setting priorities and making decisions. Today seems to me to be about adding a new buzz word, involvement, to the local government lexicon, alongside consultation, engagement and empowerment. It will not be enough to convince people that their views will have an impact on centrally imposed Government decisions on subjects from eco-towns to post offices.
Have the Government learned their lesson? If so, why are there no measures to close the accountability gap in so many unaccountable regional and powerful quangos, such as regional development agencies, strategic health authorities, learning and skills councils and primary care trusts? Should not other Departments have a duty to be involved in putting communities in control?
Why is no duty to devolve placed on the Government? There is endless scope for resources and decisions to be pushed away from Whitehall. The statement would have been an opportunity to do that, but it has been missed. Finally, why was there nothing in the statement about implementing the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which was the result of a grass-roots campaign to put bottom-up decisions in control? Why is there nothing about giving councils control over their finances so that they are not dependent on Whitehall handouts? If the Government believed in devolution, they would put their money where their mouth is.
The test will be whether people wake up tomorrow, or next year, and suddenly feel that their world has been revolutionised by todays White Paper. Does the Secretary of State think that she has achieved that? Unfortunately, I think not.
Hazel Blears: If the real test of any announcement was that people would wake up within 24 hours and feel that their world had been revolutionised, that would be a fairly high test for anybody. I entirely accept that this is part of a journey, as I said in my statement. It is not the last word. Over the next few decades, the tide of politics will mean that people will want more involvement, control and power. It is up to us to try to facilitate that process.
I agree with the hon. Lady that many local authorities are doing excellent work on this agenda, with a lot of support and back-up from the Department, whether through participatory budgeting or the transfer of assets. That is confounding peoples scepticism about the agenda, as it is shown to work in practice. I want to try to ensure that the rest of the local authorities learn from that practice, adopt it and get that tide, swell and critical mass of people who can make a difference. Then we will see the change. We will see that peoples lives are very different once everybody is doing that as a matter of course.
The hon. Lady talked about putting our money where our mouth is, but there are significant funds in this White Paper, particularly for the voluntary and community sector, to encourage sustainability. One of the sectors
biggest complaints is that it has to go round every 12 months looking for funding from local authorities, and is in a supplicant position, going round with a begging bowl. If we can get the sector to stand independently with community land trusts, with co-operatives, with social enterprises, and with independent income streams, that will be a prize for our communities. The hon. Lady talked about the assets being transferred as a white elephantbut I have made it clear that this is about the jewels in the crown, not simply about things that are failing, because I want people to succeed with this agenda.
Finally, the hon. Lady said that there was little to disagree with in the White Paper. I am not surprised. This is the right thing to do, because people want to see it happen. Our responsibility is to try to ensure that it happens across the country. I draw her attention to page 28. When she gets to read the document, she will see that that extends the duty to involve to a range of organisations, including the police, the regional development agencies, which spend billions of pounds of public money, Jobcentre Plus and a range of other organisations.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): The Secretary of State has talked about local democracy, but I remind her what happened in Northumberland. We had a referendum on introducing a two-tier unitary authority, a proposal which gained about 57 per cent. of the vote. Unfortunately, the Department in which she was then a Minister forced a single unitary authority on us. Where is the democracy in that?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend will accept that the unitary authority proposals came from communities and local authorities. They were not imposed from the top, with central Government saying, You must have unitary authorities. Communities were asked whether they wanted to put forward proposals on local governance, so that the proposals could be tested to see which would be the most effective. Obviously, decisions were made in respect of the local authorities to which he has referred, but the process was from the bottom up.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The statement resembles an extremely cheap cup of cappuccino, with a huge amount of froth but no detectable coffeeI suppose that the next proposal will give people air miles for voting. Leaving that aside, will the Secretary of State assert very clearly that local democracy depends on people being representative? It does not matter how low down an organisation is, or how small the assets that it is managing, the line of accountability to representative bodies must be very clear. Will she assert that principle, as waste is waste, whether it involves £20 billion, which is what the Government specialise in, or tuppence-hapenny?
I absolutely confirm that the White Paper places an emphasis on the representative democracy that is at the heart of our democratic system. Over the past 12 months, I have been trying to establish that involving more people in more decisions is not a threat to representative democracy, but a chance to strengthen it. I am worried that political systems are becoming remote from ordinary people, who feel that it is difficult to break into them. I want to make sure that people feel more connected and that politicians in their communities
are listening to what they say and acting accordingly. That is vital, if we are to rebuild the bonds of trust, which the right hon. Gentleman, like me, considers to be extremely important to our democracy.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): In the past, battles were fought and blood was spilled to get the vote and for collective responsibility, but I know of no evidence that people have quarrelled even once in any high street in Britain about having a lord mayor. People did not fight for something that is the very opposite of collective responsibilityit is nothing more than an example of the development of the cult of personality. If my right hon. Friend wants to help local government and get more people to participate, she should ensure that some of the power taken from local authorities over about 35 years is handed back to people who are elected. As for e-petitions, may I caution her that they do not amount to collective responsibility? They are more like instant gratification, which, sadly, pervades every element of our society.
Hazel Blears: As ever, my hon. Friend makes some important and considered points. The proposal on e-petitioning will be subject to consultation, as I am conscious that we do not want a one-click democracy. It is important that issues are debated as well. He has said that there has been no debate about lord mayors, but we are talking about elected mayors with executive authority
Hazel Blears: There are only 12 in the whole country at present, so it is difficult to draw broad lessons. However, on Tuesday I was in Lewisham with young people and their directly elected mayor, whom they see as our mayor and with whom they have a personal relationship. I know that this area is controversial, but people who want a bigger say want a directly elected representative. Accountability must be very transparent indeed, and people need to know that the person turning the vision for their community into action is someone for whom they voted at the ballot box. They must be able to call that person to account. That is the inevitable tide of politics.
Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): The Government are right to recognise the need for more direct democracy and radically to devolve power to local people. However, does the White Paper contain measures to devolve control over local government finance to local people or to ensure locally accountable police chiefs? Does it contain a right of initiative, rather than merely a right to petition and trigger town hall talk? Without such steps, the White Paper just pays lip service to localismit does not have the Levellers behind it, so much as Sir Humphrey Appleby.
The hon. Gentleman is on the enthusiastic wing of his party when it comes to local democracy, but I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Brentwood
and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) necessarily agrees with all his proposals. As I said earlier on police accountability, the White Paper contains a commitment to establishing a directly elected element in the police system. The details will be spelled out in the police Green Paper. Where there is a mayor, they will assume the role of the directly elected person in the police system, which is a significant step forward towards greater transparency and accountability.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be more local influence on local government finance, and that debate will no doubt run and run. We recently signed a concordat with the Local Government Association that for the first time sets out the rights and responsibilities of central Government and local government. Again, that is a significant step forward. As I said earlier, in the past 12 months there has been a significant move towards giving people at the local level more space to do what they really want and freeing up local councils to respond accordingly.
As for local initiatives and referendums, local people can petition for participatory budgeting. That is a big step forward in the devolution of power, and the White Paper contains details about the community justice initiatives that we want to pursue. Under them, local people will get the right to vote on high-visibility community punishments. That approach is being piloted in Liverpool and Salford, and it is proving a great success.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and the White Paper. The ideas on empowerment and holding councillors and officers to account will be welcomed in Stourbridge, where Tory-controlled Dudley council has closed leisure centres, schools and libraries with no consultation. This week, the council has cut services to the elderly and doubled the price of meals on wheels, also without consultation. Will she undertake to come to my constituency to see the damage done by the Tory-controlled council and to show Dudley how to clean up its act?
Hazel Blears: I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friends area to discuss what action can be taken on those very serious matters. The White Papers ideas on petitioning and calling for action from councillors will increase local peoples ability to force matters to be debated in public and to secure a proper response. They will empower her local community in a way that is markedly different from what happens at present.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): When the right hon. Lady spoke about the NHS and consensus, she seemed to overlook the point that the proposals carried through by the Labour Government were originally put forward by my Liberal predecessor as MP for Berwick, Sir William Beveridge. Why is todays statement mainly about rules for the conduct of council business and not about transferring power from central Government to local government? Is her Department still dominated by the attitude described by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell)? He pointed out that, when Northumberland people voted for what they wanted, the Government gave them the opposite.
Hazel Blears: This White Paper is about transferring power to citizens and communities. It does not profess to be about transferring power to local authorities. In 2006-07, the White Paper and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 amounted to a dramatic shift, with local area agreements freeing up councils through grants that are not ring-fenced. The council thus became the central, democratically elected organisation co-ordinating the whole range of public services, which represented a significant degree of devolution from the centre to the locality. The focus of the White Paper is to ensure that part of the deal is completed, meaning that if there is to be more devolution to local authorities, which there should be, they have a responsibility to devolve power more and more to local people and communities, so that they, too, absolutely feel part of our revived and more vibrant democracy.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Apart from the proposals for referendums on directly elected mayors, does my right hon. Friend think that there is a role for the greater use of local referendums in respect of putting people in control?
Hazel Blears: Yes; there is a provision for neighbourhood councils to hold local polls, and I want to do more work to find out the appropriate area in which to exercise those powers. The powers are a bit arcanethe polls have to take place before 4 pm for some very ancient reasonand it is time that we looked at the rules. The polls should also be about relatively local issues, on which people will clearly hold strong views, but there is room for the consideration of how we might develop more techniques, so that people can have a say. The issue is not only about participation, but about voting on the priorities and issues that matter to people.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I commend the Secretary of State on planting in an otherwise slightly disappointing statement a pearl of great value, namely the removal of barriers in local communities to faith-based organisations providing goods and services. Does she agree that, if properly implemented, it will unleash a great well of energy, passion and love for people, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society? I encourage her to implement the proposals as quickly as possible.
Hazel Blears: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that welcome. The issue is controversial for some people, but I personally feel that many people are motivated by faith of all kinds to do great acts of social good, and if we miss out on that, we will miss out on a lot of talent and energy. However, I am concerned to ensure that if faith groups become involved, they do so on a proper footingnot by evangelising or proselytising, but by providing services in a non-discriminatory way to the whole community. I intend to work on a charter. Faithworks has a similar one, which is very simple and straightforward, but which makes those points very clearly.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab):
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her statement and on the White Paper, because the measures in it are probably the most important steps towards strengthening local democracy and communities for a considerable period. Does she agree that it is particularly important to
strengthen and value both the work of locally elected councillors and their scrutiny role? For far too long, the role has been seen as a job that is done by those who do not make it into the councils cabinet or executive, but that work needs to be properly supported, valued and rewarded.
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend Leicester city council on some of the steps that it has taken in respect of the agenda, which have been very impressive indeed. He will find in the White Paper a section on overview and scrutiny, setting out how I want to ensure that the role is strengthened and regarded almost as a Select Committee, with similar powers to take evidence, to call people to account and to ensure proper scrutiny and accountability. Councillors who take on the role also need more training and support, because it is still relatively new, and some of them would benefit from sharing the experience that we have gained in the House. I am absolutely determined to ensure that the overview and scrutiny role is seen not as a second-best option, but as one of the most important jobs on any local authority.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The Secretary of State has said that local government is vital, and I am sure that we all agree. However, the Government removed planning powers from local authorities in my constituency and set up a quango that paid little attention to local opinion. Is she now saying that she will scrap that quango and restore those powers to local authorities? If she is not, this White Paper will not be worth the paper it is printed on.
Hazel Blears: I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to our debate just last week about the independent planning commission. He will know that during the debate, it was made very clear that local authorities would retain their powers over the vast majority of planning applications, and that the commission would deal with those major infrastructure projects that are important for the future of this country as a whole.
Hazel Blears: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to sustainable communities and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, he will find that, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has said, there is a reference in the White Paper to the Acts implementation, which will obviously form part of the framework for the future.
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