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7.26 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I just wish that the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) had stopped a little earlier, as all my friends in my county and district councils would have been very pleased with much of what he had to say. I hope that his speech will elicit a positive response from those sitting a few Benches in front of him.

This Second Reading debate has been quite curious. The debate has been pretty severely crippled by comments on the Bill’s inadequacy and questions about why it
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should be here—I exempt, of course, the Secretary of State. Much of the debate has been on what could and should have been, but is not, in the Bill.

I thought that the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), particularly what he said at the beginning and end of his speech, were most apposite. He pointed out that the Select Committee, of which I am a member, has just produced a report. It is interesting to think of the Government ploughing the Bill through—to the detriment, I believe, of local government—while answering the Select Committee’s recommendations for local government to have more powers devolved down to it. His last point, which was interesting and intriguing, was that the Committee stage would be very much shorter if a lot of the irrelevant stuff had been taken out of the Bill and if the Bill had been pared down to two or three of the Government’s most important points. On that basis, the Committee stage might be dealt with in about a week.

My first reaction to the Bill was, like that of many others, why is it here and what is it going to do? Perhaps the Secretary of State explained that with her mantra, “places a duty”, which she kept saying. Yet again, local government will be loaded with more and more duties and costs. Most competent local authorities are already doing much of what is in the Bill, so one wonders whether it was concocted and put together by Ministers who looked at local government and its co-operation with local communities and themselves and decided that because it is working quite well and to the benefit of local communities, they would legislate and put in yet more Government restrictions and more duties.

When I asked the chief executive and the leader of a big unitary authority for their first reaction, they both pointed out that if the Bill had to exist, it should be revised to take away many of the plans that local authorities were currently required to produce by the Government. I am adding to some of the thoughts already expressed about what should be in the Bill, but with a slightly different slant. Their authority, like many local authorities, is overloaded with reviews and requirements for plans, checks and so forth.

That particular local authority—a unitary authority—estimates that the Government require approximately 80 major reviews and plans regularly from it. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is not in his place. When he was Minister for Local Government, he genuinely promised dramatically to reduce, and perhaps even to halve, the number of plans and reviews that this local authority, among others, had to produce for the Government. I understand that nominally there has been—or was at that stage—a large reduction in the overall number of plans. However, since then, more have been added and where there were two plans, they have often been combined into one or one has been made a sub-plan to another. In effect, then, there are more plans and more reviews than there were when the then Minister for Local Government asked for reductions.

Most of those plans and reviews require the input and expertise of senior local government officials, who must produce detailed plans, often with ludicrous parameters. Let me give just one example. Local authorities with an influence on housing have been required to present a 30-year housing plan. Given that the Treasury
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seems to be unable to predict year on year—especially at the moment—the idea that local authorities could spend time and money guessing 30 years ahead with any reliability overstretches the imagination.

It is hard to get to grips with this vague Bill. Some of the plans have the distinct appearance of old-fashioned, socialist “great leaps forward”. It is a mongrel Bill. Apparently it is partly about “economic development”, but, flicking through it, I failed to find any link to, for example, the business community. If we must have all these quangos and boards, which I severely doubt, it is critical for the business community to have a strong input on policy that affects economic development. After all, even under this Government the private sector must have the biggest role in generating wealth in any locality. As I have said, the Bill reeks of the Government’s desire to produce old-time socialist plans, and one waits for the phrase “great leap forward” to appear.

Many of the proposed changes, especially those involving local authorities directly, are best left for local authorities to make without rules, without regulations, and without Government overview. That haVE been the theme of many of the speeches that we have heard today, and of one key, noisy, slightly long and emphatic intervention from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). I found his intervention intriguing, because we had discussions in the past when he was a union leader.

Given that English local authorities have probably accepted petitions for more than 100 years, we should pay attention to chapter 2 of the Bill, which deals with petitions to authorities. Over time they have responded to various kinds of petition, and have responded more emphatically and effectively. Petitions are received in many forms—some are received electronically. Currently authorities acknowledge and respond to all of them, with the possible exception of the utterly ridiculous. I remember a few of those. I am tempted to suspect, however, that even the utterly ridiculous receive a formal response after consideration.

The Bill contains a clause entitled “Democratic arrangements of principal local authorities”. How can the Secretary of State possibly think that local authorities do not promote democracy and explain the roles of councillors, how to become a councillor, the support available to councillors to assist them in their role, how to approach councillors, and when their meetings and surgeries take place? That is common practice. It is done by all local authorities, and there is no need for legislation. Local authorities and indeed councillors, political or otherwise, naturally try to persuade other competent individuals, in particular, to become councillors and to take part on the democratic process. We do not need this legislation.

Let me take up a similar theme. I am astonished that the Government feel the need to dictate to local authorities that senior officers are liable to be called to account. Local authority meetings are almost always—indeed, perhaps without exception—held in public. The appropriate senior officers are present, and they are held to account by the elected councillors. That arrangement has been the norm for decades, and it has been developed as local authorities have adopted more openness. I find it amazing that the Government require the central diktat that runs through the Bill and, perhaps even worse, will run through the secondary legislation that follows it.

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Perhaps the biggest opportunity that has been lost is the chance to return RDA functions to local authorities. The system worked very well before. The responsibility should be left to elected authorities, even if they work in groups—perhaps not dissimilar to the leaders’ board, but without the need for legislative diktat.

The Bill talks of—yet again—reviews, of further examination in public, of what is to be reviewed, and of even more approval of revision by the Secretary of State, who, of course, has reserved powers to revise and make further regulations. The same seems to apply to the economic prosperity boards: there are constitutions, rules and regulations on membership and voting, costs to be met by constituent councils and still further reviews of the boards and the various schemes. As I observed earlier, the business community does not seem to be involved.

In the middle of this hotch-potch of a Bill is clause 29, which has not been mentioned so far. It removes the restriction on senior local authority employees undertaking political activities such as standing for election or speaking publicly in support of a particular political party. I believe that that restriction has worked well in the past. I understand from senior local authority officials—local government officers—that it has strengthened their impartiality and standing and has actually given them more authority. Although clause 29 is small, I think that we shall come to regret that retrograde step.

I believe that most tenants—certainly those whom I know on many of the estates that I have visited—will be bemused to find that yet another new national body is being set up supposedly on their behalf. It is likely to be no more than a remote talking shop at taxpayers’, or perhaps tenants’, expense.

I have flicked through a few of my concerns about a Bill which proclaims that it sets out to increase local democracy but which will, in my view—like all the Government’s local democracy Bills—do exactly the opposite. I remain absolutely opposed to it.

7.36 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Because I agree with a great deal of what many Members have said, I will not repeat it but will try to have my own take on the Bill. I must, however, comment on what was said by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who, although his constituency is not contiguous with mine, is a near neighbour. I think of Bedfordshire as well as Hertfordshire, because the expansion might take place there, too.

I believe that urban local authorities that run out of land for house building and that have house building needs should be able to expand around their borders, and I believe that conurbations present the most efficient way for human beings to live. We do not want to see strings of houses and little settlements scattered across the countryside; it is much better for them to be situated around large towns. Sometimes towns have to expand.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating the policy of urban extension that has been a feature of regional spatial strategies. Does he think that such policies should be pursued, even if every
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community and elected representative at every level, from parish council to European Parliament, opposes them?

Kelvin Hopkins: Obviously each case should be viewed on its merits, but something must be done to help people who desperately need housing and cannot be rehoused because there is no available land or housing in their local authority area. We need sensitive extension of urban boundaries that takes account of the need for some green belt or green wedges. It should also be borne in mind that cities and towns over a certain size—with a critical mass—are more capable of providing better services because they have more resources.

A town the size of Luton, with a population of nearly 200,000, is less able to provide services than larger places, such as Nottingham or Leicester. Light rail systems, for example, are not viable in towns with populations below about 400,000. It would be difficult to argue the case for a light rail system in Luton. I think that light rail systems are very attractive, and I would like to see one in Luton, but unfortunately we do not appear to have the necessary critical mass. However, we must find some way of housing people. Ideally, we would have slightly smaller populations, in which case we would not have the problem of housing crowding.

My constituency has the youngest age structure of any in the country; it has more children at school than any other constituency. Those children will grow up, they will want to be housed and they will want somewhere to live that is close to where their families live, so we will need more houses. I understand the concerns of those who represent the areas bordering big cities and big towns such as Luton, but we have to do something about housing.

When it comes to local democracy, we have lost a great deal. Local authorities used to have responsibility for business rates; many more powers over raising local finance; large historical equity in local authority housing, which they could use to build more houses and provide housing at reasonable rents for local people; and so many direct services that have now been outsourced or put into trusts. That was a much better way of organising things.

I also regret the move from committee systems to the cabinet and back bencher arrangements that now exist. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about that, although I would not put my case in quite such a robust way—he has his characteristic, charismatic way of speaking, which I would like to emulate but am unable to. I know councillors who now sit as back benchers and are not cabinet members or portfolio holders. They sometimes think, “What am I doing here?”

I was also astonished to find—I obviously voted for the legislation without realising what I was doing—that a decision made by the whole council can be overturned by the cabinet. I know that because it has happened twice in Luton. The council, which was Liberal Democrat and Conservative-controlled for a period—only just; it is now Labour-controlled—made a decision about school travel with a one or two vote majority, but the cabinet, which was controlled by the Liberal Democrats and one or two Conservative members, overturned the decision twice. I find it astonishing that a legislature could be overturned by an executive, but that happened and it is
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profoundly undemocratic. I would like to see much greater involvement of back benchers, the traditional system of committees with strong chairs, a great deal of openness and the full discussion, in party groups, of all policies. That used to happen in my time as a councillor. Sometimes the meetings would last five or six hours, but every detail of policy was discussed, voted upon by all members and taken to the council. That was a much more democratic way of carrying on.

I do not think that it has been desirable that government has tried to force local authorities to get rid of their local authority housing, via arm’s length management organisations or privatisation, as has happened in some cases, and handing over to housing associations. Council housing was a tremendous success for perhaps a century or so, and the best council housing—much of my constituency’s has been sold off—was built during that time. Millions of people grew up in good homes, with comfortable gardens and all the usual facilities one should expect in council housing, because of successive Governments, Conservative as well as Labour. That has been lost and I want to see it restored.

Sir Paul Beresford: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the finances that one would think local authorities would keep—the capital receipts—are taken away too?

Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed, I would like capital receipts and, indeed, business rates and the borrowing powers that local authorities used to have, to be handed back to local authorities. I would like them to have the degree of independence that they had in the past. That was largely taken away by Conservative Governments, but the approach has been continued by Labour Governments ever since. I do not wish to look back to a golden age, but at times in the 1970s we did wonderful things with our local authorities; we built regional sports centres, swimming pools and thousands of houses—we housed a complete waiting list. We did great things, and they were decided at the local level. Of course, this was counter-cyclical and helped to keep people employed too. That is the sort of local government that I want.

Recently, some of our Ministers have talked about reviving or reinvigorating pluralism, which is a system of democracy whereby there are different centres of power. It is not just centred in government, because there is also strong local government, strong trade unions, a strong legislature balancing the Executive, lobbying, business representation and so on. Those different centres of power rub against each other and ensure that power does not become over-centralised in government and at the highest levels of government, as has been the case in Britain in recent years. I strongly believe that we must restore local democracy, much more independence for trade unions and a strong, independent and non-politicised civil service. All those things were valuable parts of our democracy, and I want them to be rebuilt in the future.

In a sense, those things were not what I came here to talk about. I wished to make some points that might appear rather trivial, but are none the less important. The Bill is about promoting democracy and democratic arrangements. One of my concerns, which is a very real one, is that turnouts in elections are low and have been getting lower. There are all sorts of reasons for that, one of which, as I have found on the doorsteps in my
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constituency—this is not true of everyone, but it is the case with a good number of people—is that people have a poor understanding of the process of voting; they do not actually know how to vote. Many people say that they have voted Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat for years, but we have records showing that they have never voted or have not done so for the past decade. They clearly think that they are voting when they are not voting or they are forgetting what they have done.

Just last week, I spent 20 minutes explaining politics to a lady in my constituency—I explained what the European Parliament, the national Parliament and the council were all about—at the end of which she was very grateful. She had her card with her, so I told her that she should take it down to her local polling station—to the school next door—and put her cross against her preferred party, whatever it might be. She said, “I never knew all this before. Thank you for telling me.” She was a sensible person, but she just did not know about this.

I regularly speak in schools—our schools have civics taught in them—and I find that children often understand much more than their parents do about voting. When I explain to schoolchildren how the House of Commons works, I find that they know how it works, but their parents are often unaware of how it works. I have also had experiences where people have referred to me as a councillor, and when I tell them that I am not a councillor they ask me, “What are you?” When I then tell them that I am an MP, they ask, “What is an MP?”. I then have to explain, at length, what an MP is and what the difference is between an MP and a councillor. I was once introduced as Councillor Hopkins, so I said that I was not a councillor. I was then introduced as the mayor of Luton, to which I replied that I was not the mayor. I was then asked what I was, so I said, “I am a Member of Parliament.”

The level of misunderstanding about politics and simple basics remains quite high among a good number of people. If we are to have a meaningful democracy, we ought at least to have explained to every person how to vote. Some people would think that this is patronising and that I am being unkind about a lot of our citizens, but what I am saying is true. I encounter all this on the doorstep and I am sure that other hon. Members do too.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the merits of the first-past-the post system is that it helps to make democracy more meaningful, because people know who they are voting for and they can put a specific person into power, whereas proportional representation would end that valuable constituency-MP link?

Kelvin Hopkins: I did not realise that my hon. Friend was sitting behind me, but I agree entirely with her. I made exactly the point that she did when I was on “The World at One” last week, having a debate with a colleague from the other place.

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