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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): We all understand the desire and need to promote greater involvement, but I am puzzled by the concept of the duty. It implies that something will happen if an authority does not live up to it. What exactly would happen to an authority that was seen to be in breach of its duty? How would such a duty be determined? Would it not be better not to have that concept of duty but to keep the promotion of greater involvement, with which the right hon. Lady would find the House in full agreement?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Getting the balance right between powers and duties always exercises us in local government. It is important that there should be a duty because, unfortunately, although many local authorities are doing excellent work on that agenda, not all of them are. We want to try to bring everyone up to the standard of the best. Embedding the issue in the local performance framework, so that that the comprehensive area assessment will measure and assess how well local authorities are promoting democracy in their areas, will be important in ensuring that the issue becomes part of the normal core business of local authorities, rather than the icing on the cake. How far we go with duties as opposed to powers is always a matter of judgment. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue, because democracy is fundamental.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend understand that one of the mistakes we made on this side was to prevent many local authorities from maintaining a committee system? That system was healthy for democracy; it was a form of power sharing that involved all councils of all political parties. When we come to the appropriate stage, will my right hon. Friend accept an amendment that would permit local authorities to have a committee system once more? That system endured and was successful for more than 110 years.
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend will table amendments at the appropriate time. I do not accept that simply having a committee system will ensure better local democracy. I have seen many committee systems in which peoples service on committees has prevented them from being out and about in the community as front-line champions and local representatives. [Interruption.] It is clear that my hon. Friend does not agree with me on the issue, and he is perfectly entitled to his view.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I am looking at clauses 3 and 4. Could the Secretary of State explain what business it is of a local authority to promote matters to do with the criminal justice system? In clause 3, for example, she requires local authorities to promote independent monitoring boards to do with prisons, courts boards and youth offending teams. Clause 4 states:
A principal local authority has a duty to promote understanding among local people of...the functions of a lay justice.
Hazel Blears: I am surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise that the implications of the criminal justice system have a real impact on local communities. These bodies are not separate entities. To follow through his point, he is saying that the local authority should have nothing to do with the police system or the health system. People live in communities, and all these bodies have an impact on their quality of life. It is very important that local authorities should seek to help to recruit people to become magistrates and school governorsto take on all those civic roles in life. If he feels that these things are entirely separate, independent and not interrelated, he is not living in the kind of community that most of us live in.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): With regard to a duty, will my right hon. Friend say explicitly that there is a role for parish and town councils? I declare an interest as a continuing town councillor of some 23 years. They are the first level of government, not the lowest level, and they have a key role to play in all manner of different areas. It is important that principal authorities consult them, use them as a layer of democracy, and do not try to shut them out. I hope there will be a provision in the Bill to make that formally the case.
Hazel Blears: I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am absolutely committed to ensuring that parish councils, town councils and all these local organisations play a full role in our democracy. I have had several meetings with the National Association of Local Councils; its members are an extremely constructive group of people, and I am keen to involve them at every single level during the passage of this legislation.
Hazel Blears: I am more than happy to give my hon. Friend that undertaking. Increasing numbers of town councils, parish councils and neighbourhood councils are being established in urban areas. As we have moved towards the new unitary authorities, which are quite large organisations, it has become very important to get them underpinned by local democratic bodies. I do not see parish councils as simply a matter for rural areas: wherever people live, they should have the right to have local representation in their community and neighbourhood.
Following up the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the Bill is just one element of a wider Government drive to try to ensure that local people have every opportunity to get involved in local decision making, not merely within their local authorities.
Mr. Garnier: We are in danger of having a fairly sterile argument, because the Secretary of State clearly does not understand the point that I made to her. If she thinks that it should be the duty of a local authority
to promote understanding among local people of...the functions of a lay justice,
why should it not promote understanding among local people of the functions of the Church of England or, in her particular area, the Methodist Church? Why does
she draw a distinction between what is a proper function of a local authority and all the things that she refers to in the Bill?
Hazel Blears: People who commit offences or get involved with the criminal justice system live in places and communities, they interact with families, and they have an impact on neighbourhoods. That is why it is important to try, for example, to encourage people to get involved in youth referral panels, and it is entirely proper for the local authority to encourage that to happen. Far from my not understanding the hon. and learned Gentlemans point, I would say he does not understand how modern communities work in this day and age the length and breadth of this country.
The progress that we have made in implementing the proposals in Communities in control has just been set out in our progress report, which, together with the evidence base, is published to coincide with Second Reading. I have been heartened by the fact that the evaluation of the proposals that we have made so far indicates that we are beginning to make some progress in making people feel more able to influence things that happen in their neighbourhoods.
The second theme of our Bill is economic development, both promoting recovery in the short termreal help now for communitiesand, crucially, promoting growth and prosperity in the longer term. Over the past year we have been working with local government, regional development agencies and local community groups to try to determine the best arrangements for driving economic growth in future and to identify how the relevant powers and responsibilities should be distributed among the local, regional and national levels. The results of our consultations have been largely welcomed and endorsed, and the Bill will now put the arrangements in place.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Alongside the imperative to improve economic performance, should we not give equal weight to social and environmental concerns? Should there not therefore be a much bolder, stronger duty in the Bill relating to sustainable development as a whole, rather than a big assessment of economics and little reference to sustainable development in regional planning?
Hazel Blears: I hope to be able to reassure my hon. Friend, because I know that he is a champion of this issue. The whole purpose of the single integrated regional strategy is to balance economic growth with the environment and social justice. Those are the three pivotal issues that we need to get right in our integrated planning. Something that has not been as well managed as it might have been is the fact that spatial planning has gone in one direction and economic planning has gone in another. Using the same evidence base for both in drawing up the single regional strategy will be a significant improvement. I give him the undertaking that sustainable development is at the heart of the Bill.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): That being the case, would it not be far more appropriate for the regional development agencies to be overseen by the Department for Communities and Local Government rather than the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform?
Hazel Blears: With great respect, I shall make a similar point to the hon. Lady to the one I made to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Increasingly, the way in which services are organised will require more integration at both Whitehall and local level. The mere fact that the RDAs sit in another Government Department should not militate against joint work, integrated services and balancing economic and environmental sustainability. The days when the Department that bodies were in determined the framework within which they operated, to the exclusion of such broader thematic considerations, are long goneor they ought to be gone, very quickly indeed.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the RDAs are accountable to the communities they serve, and that that is much more important than the Department to which they are responsible?
Hazel Blears: It is important that all our organisations are accountable, and when I come to the single regional strategy, I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that the RDAs, working with the leaders boards and signing off plans jointly, will give us some of that accountability. I would also make the point that in the current recession, the RDAs have played a significant role by acting quickly, nimbly and flexibly to promote jobs, and particularly to help small businesses during this tough economic time. That is an important part of their role.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I am intrigued by the fact that, although my right hon. Friend rightly says we ought to encourage greater participation and local democracy, we are now talking about the RDAs. In the case of the Liverpool city region, the RDA is channelling all the European structural funding to the Mersey Partnership, which started off as an unelected, glorified tourism operation and is accountable to nobody. How can we get practical politics with accountability when we are using quangos of one sort or another, at not just regional but local level, to dispose of the funding in a given area?
Hazel Blears: I hope my hon. Friend will see that the proposals in the Bill are designed to address the issue that he raises. The single regional strategy will be a joint document prepared by the local authorities and the RDA, and it will need to be signed off by the leaders board. In many cases the local authority will be the delivery agent for implementing that strategy, and the RDA funds will therefore be channelled through the local authorities to deliver the priorities that local people say are important to them. I hope that at the end of the debate he will be convinced that those are steps in the direction in which he wishes us to travel.
Joan Walley: Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), will the Secretary of State give some indication of whether the Campaign to Protect Rural England could be consulted on sustainable economic development, so that we have safeguards for protecting and enhancing biodiversity and landscape? Will there be scope for the Bill to include something more specific on that?
Hazel Blears: I appreciate that my hon. Friend is an advocate of environmental issues, especially biodiversity. I reassure her that we intend to draw on the knowledge, expertise and experience of organisations such as the CPRE when forming our strategies. I have no doubt that, when the Bill proceeds through Committee, questions will be asked about the next stage, the guidance that we issue and the consultees we draw into our process. We want to ensure that the environment is at the heart of our proposals.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): May I press the Secretary of State a little harder on community involvement in the regional strategy? She gave my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) reassuring answers about community involvement. Indeed, clause 72 provides that a statement on community involvement should be prepared and published. However, can it be right to leave the decision about who should be consulted to the RDAs and the local authority leaders boards? How can we ensure that those who have economic, social or environmental stakeholding responsibilities are genuinely and actively involved with the communities in which they are rooted? That is a significant concern that people in North-West Leicestershire have about the Bill. They are worried that community involvement is not spelled out, but left to the discretion of unelected bodies, which will perhaps fulfil the responsibility in a rather token way.
Hazel Blears: I understand my hon. Friends concerns and those of other hon. Members to ensure that we maximise community involvement. Hon. Members know that that cause is close to my heart and that I have campaigned on it for many years. I am trying to ensure in the Bill that the elected authorities, which are members of the leaders boards, take responsibility for that. [Interruption.] They are elected by people in the community.
I take the point that the social, economic and environmental partners need to be fully involved, but we have not prescribed that in the Bill because that needs to be flexible. The clause that my hon. Friend highlighted provides for community involvement on a statutory basis. That is a huge step forward; in the past, it was simply taken for granted. If my hon. Friend wants to make that involvement even firmer, I am sure that there will be opportunities to do that during the Bills passage through the House. However, I give him an undertakingI have given many undertakings todaythat community involvement should be at the heart of the strategy. If it is not, the issues that people feel are a priority for them will not be addressed.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am interested in the Secretary of States comments about taking cognisance of the desire for RDAs in particular to reflect community interests more. How would she effect that desire when Advantage West Midlands, the RDA in my area, is on the point of cutting substantial funding to each local authority in its area without proper consultation?
The hon. Gentleman knows that RDAs throughout the country, including in the west midlands, have played a significant role during the economic downturn in doing the opposite of what he claims. They have provided support, particularly for small businesses, through advice, information and deferring tax for more
than 100,000 business organisations. They have also played a significant role in bringing inward investment to our regions. Of course, the community needs to be involved in drawing up single strategies, but we should not underestimate the role of the RDAs in providing real help to people and communities now. I know it is the Conservative partys policy to abolish the RDAs, but I think that would be unpopular with businesses that are trying to provide employment opportunities for people in their areas.
The first clauses introduce a new duty for councils to promote democracy. Many hon. Members have asked me what that means practically. It is a novel duty, which has not been considered previously, but the Bill sets out in some detail what it means. Councils must explain their functions: what they do and how they reach decisions; and how other bodies, such as the police, the health service and the criminal justice system, make decisions. Ordinary people have a legitimate interest in knowing how those organisations, which have a significant influence over their lives, conduct their business, and how they can get involved, influence their decisions and make them more accountable and responsive to them and their community.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in promoting democracy in our areas, it would be useful if local authorities such as Bradford got back to the idea of canvassing to get people on the electoral register, which is a basic ingredient of democracy?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously we have important elections later this week, but if people are not registered to vote in the first place, trying to get them out to vote is very difficult indeed. However, she will know that the Secretary of State for Justice and I are trying to put extra funds into electoral registration and provide a more rigorous performance framework for electoral registration, which will, we hope, maximise an accurate and comprehensive register. It is essential that people are registered to exercise their democratic rights.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Now that we have a Youth Parliament, would it not be a good idea to encourage all councils, not just one or two, to have youth councils shadowing the work of the senior council and meeting in the council chambers?
Hazel Blears: That is an excellent idea. I am delighted that we managed, after three or four debates in the House, to establish the principle that the Youth Parliament should be able to sit and hold a debate in this Chamber, despite opposition from some Opposition Members. I am also delighted to tell my hon. Friend that we recently launched a programme to establish at least another 20 youth mayors, with budgets, across the country. We will also launch a programme shortly to allow young people to shadow Ministers and councillors in their areas and give them an understanding of what exactly their work entails.
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