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Another factor in elections is even more worrying; the Moser report of some 10 years ago concluded that some 20 per cent. of our people are functionally not literatefor some it may be a language problem. Such people make excuses on the doorstep for not voting. They say, I think you are all the same, You are all
crooks and so on, but what they are really saying is that they do not want to be embarrassed by the fact that they cannot read.
That situation is worrying, but other democracies, where the majority of the population cannot read, find of ways of helping people to vote. India, the largest democracy in the world, had its election in the past few days. The majority of its population cannot read, yet millions who cannot read vote. We must examine that example and try to find ways to help the 20 per cent. who perhaps want to vote but cannot deal with the literacy involved to make progress.
I lived in India during a general election period some years ago, and I was impressed by the many steps taken there to increase turnout. They are very low-tech and would be achievable in this country; they include keeping the polls open for many days, moving security around from place to place and taking a more flexible approach to the opening of polling stations. One of the main contributors to people not voting these days is that we always vote on a Thursday. People come home from work and are too tired, they flop in front of Britains Got Talent and they never get around to voting. If we could make it easier we might increase turnout without any clever fixes.
Kelvin Hopkins: I have thought for a long time that we should have two-day voting over a weekend, which would solve that problem. The Indians also use symbols, and we already have party symbols that we could make greater use of. Public service broadcasting should be used sympathetically and carefully to show people how to vote. Children in schools know how to vote, but many of their parents still do not quite get it, and I come across that problem too often.
In the 1970s, in one local election ward in my constituency, one polling district was very affluent, with large houses occupied by sophisticated professional people, and another district was very poor. The turnout in the affluent area was 96 per cent., but in the poorer area it was 22 per cent. That differential turnout makes a mockery of democracy. I do not agree with compulsory voting, but I do want to even up those differences so that everyone who wants to vote can have their say. If we had some sort of legislation to help that happen, we would enhance our democracy greatly.
There is a degree of alienation from politics. Voter turnout has fallen not just because people do not understand how to vote but because they have lost faith in politics. The turnouts in our general elections are rather lower than they are in other countries, and recent statistics from academic research show that optimism about political outcomes in Britain is much lower than in continental countries.
The only thing that correlates with that declining interest in politics is the diminishing difference between the major parties. The two Front Benches are united in agreeing on a particular economic model with which many of us do not agree. Many people outside this
place do not agree with it either. That modelglobalised neo-liberalismhas brought us to the brink of economic disaster. We should return to a more sensible economic model that actually works. After Bretton Woods, for 25 to 30 years after the second world war, we had stability as well as economic growth that was much better than anything that we have had since. Recently we have had high instability.
People say that we are all the same, and the major parties all support privatisation and outsourcing. Every now and then, there is a tactical retreat by one party or another, but by and large they are united. I do not agree with that. For example, as I have said many times, railway privatisation has been an economic catastrophe. That claim is rejected on both sides in this place, but the great majority of the population knows that it is true and would be happy to see the recreation of a state railway system, as exists on the continent of Europe. The Conservatives are grinning at that idea, but it is true.
The Bill also includes provisions on construction contracts. I was on a housing committee in the 1970s and on one occasion I was told informally that a building worker had said in a pub somewhere that Luton borough council had been charged 15 per cent. over the odds for a housing contract. It was clear that a cartel was being operated by the building companies, and they were allocating contracts between themselves and making excess profits out of the local authorities. I made a speech in the council chamber accusing the builders of those practices. It was reported in the press and received no response, not even a denial. There was something profoundly wrong with that arrangement.
The borough surveyor and the chief executive said that the council had to accept the lowest bid. I suggested then, as I do now, that we should recreate substantial direct labour organisations to be employed by local authorities to build and repair houses. We could use such DLOs as comparators. Local DLOs would do such work on a cost basis and they would not make a profit, so they would provide good competition for private builders. Indeed, I would go further and allow DLOs to work in the private sector. I remember the Lib-Lab pact that was formed in 1978 to keep the Labour Government going until the 1979 election. The one requirement of the Liberals was that the then Government drop a Bill that would have given DLOs the right to work in the private sector. That was a socialist step too far for the Liberals. We are now far removed from such interventionist and direct provision of services, although it was a fine socialist idea that DLOswhich were run by local authorities, democratically controlled and accountableshould have had that ability. I want us to move back in that direction and have DLOs that can not only build houses for the local authority, but provide good competition for the private sector. They would also provide good, secure, well-paid and trade unionised employment for thousands of building workers.
Mr. Lilley: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that it was wrong that councils were required to accept the lowest bid and that we should have direct labour organisations as a comparator. Is he saying that councils should not accept any bidder that would undercut the DLO or anyone that would be more expensive? He left it unclear which direction they were supposed to go.
Kelvin Hopkins: There would still be a private sector. Although I am a fan of DLOs, I do remember that some were not good. I was actively involved with the Association of Direct Labour Organisations, so I used to visit them. Manchester and Sheffield had first class DLOs, but some of those in the London boroughs were, frankly, corrupt. When the cost charged for work by some of the London DLOs was compared with the cost for those in the north-east and north-west, it was found to be four times higher. It is fine to have good private sector builders, but good DLOs should also be allowed, if local authorities want them. Public sector comparators would contribute to ensuring that building took place at reasonable cost.
I have touched on areas that are not yet in the Bill, and I hope that they will be put into the Bill or other legislation later. In any event, I hope that my contribution has been of interest to my right hon. Friend the Minister.
Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). I agreed with some of his remarks about democracy, but I found his later comments about direct labour organisations a little more difficult to accept. I canvassed in the streets of Camden in the 1987 election and I remember trying to work out why it was that my prospective constituents could not get any repairs done on their council flats in the daytime, but only in the evenings and at weekends. It quickly dawned on me that the DLO staff were sitting around all day doing nothing and doing all the work on overtime. I am afraid that the hon. Gentlemans recollections of DLOs are rose-tinted, although he did admit some problems existed in urban DLOs. I think his solution would create more problems than it would solve.
I am sorry not to be able to follow the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), because his speech followed the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) who talked, appropriately enough, about Lilley Bottom. That reminded me of the link between the right hon. Member for Streatham and me, which is the happily named village of Wyre Piddle, around which he had constructed a bypass, for which I am very grateful. When it comes to local democracy, it is such matters that drive us all forward. Wyre Piddle has cause to be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.
I shall concentrate my remarks on parts 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill, which are dealt with in my Committees report, published in March. I have to say to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), that it is a great shame that this report, which was published on 13 March, still has not had a response from the Government. It would have been helpful to have had that response in time for Second Reading. I understand that the reason for that is that the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, whose responsibility it is to reply, is on paternity leave, but the House is ill-served when a response to a major report from a Committee, dealing directly with legislation to be debated on the Floor of the House, is not available in time for us to know what the Governments judgments are.
When I intervened on the Secretary of State on the subject of the ability of local authorities to opt out of economic prosperity boards, I was disturbed to discover
that her reply was simply, Well, we can discuss this in Committee. The issue was raised by my Committee in its report, the House should have the Governments position before it for this debate, and there will not be time in Committee to cover these matters because of the scandalously short timetable available for such a complex Bill.
It is a complex Bill. It runs to 138 pages and has 146 clauses, seven schedules and nine parts. It is not easy reading. It was subject to extensive amendment in the Lords, more amendments will be required in this place, and I predict confidently that, on Report, we will wade through scores of amendments that will be completely undebated, which is extremely unsatisfactory. I hope that my colleagues on the Front Bench will divide the House on the timetable motion, which is scandalously inadequate for such an important Bill. For a Bill that purports to be about democracy to be railroaded through this House without adequate discussion is profoundly undemocratic. One of the many reasons that we in this place are all in trouble at present is the contempt for the Houses procedures that we will see again with this Bill, and that we have seen so often in the past. That is one of the reasons why this place is held in contempt by voters outsideit is not just about our expenses, but about issues such as this, too.
It is also a shame that no Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Minister is in his place on the Bench to hear the debate. The subject of the Billlocal democracyis primarily a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, but economic development and construction are primarily matters for BERR and a BERR Minister should have been here. Of course, we know that the problem is that there are only three BERR Ministers in the Commons, two of whom are shared with other Departments and one of whom is on paternity leave. There is not a BERR Minister spare, but it is a great shame on matters of economic development. I like the DCLG team. The Under-Secretary has been kind to me. We tried to sort something out in respect of automatic rate relief for small businesses, although we failed. I say nothing against the DCLG team, but a BERR Minister should be here too and should be replying to the debate.
Today, we mourn the death of a great comic. Danny La Rue died earlier today. The question about Danny La Rue was whether he was a woman or a man. He did not like the term drag artisthe preferred to call himself a comic in a frock. What Danny La Rue was or was not is an interesting matter, and what this Bill is or is not is an interesting matter too. It purports to be about democracy, but it is actually something very different. I am tempted to say that the Secretary of State, when she opened this debate, was wearing a frock. Whether that makes her a comic or not, I am not entirely sure, but I do not think she understood the irony of bringing forward a Bill on democracy in an undemocratic way and with measures that are contrary to the best interests of democracy.
I have recently been embroiled in the row over expensesI do not want to go down that path at presentas we all have. When I was out canvassing in my constituency with my constituents full knowledge of my alleged involvement in the scandal, I was struck by the fact that that issue was not raised with me. The issue raised on the doorstep by many of my constituents
was their sense of powerlessness in the face of an over-mighty Executive and their sense that they do not control their own lives any more. They so often resent us and they resent the apparent abuses of our expenses because they feel we are telling them what to do all the time and to do things they do not want to do all the time while we have our snouts in the trough. There is growing resentment of the political class that seeks to control what happens at a local level far too intensely.
The Bill, in so many respects, makes that problem worse, not better. A Bill about local democracy could have done so much, sweeping away the duties and obligations on local authorities, rather than adding to them. That is the root of true democracy. That is what we should be seeking to do and that is the dreadful wasted opportunity that the Bill represents.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), in his excellent and very thoughtful speech, was in danger of getting into a contradiction, which was explored by I cannot remember who. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Streatham back in his placehe must read my earlier remarks, but I thank him again for the Wyre Piddle bypass.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon got into an interesting debate about the apparent contradiction between representative and direct democracy. It was a debate I would have loved to continue, because it was very important and goes to the heart of what we should be discussing tonight. What struck me is that what touches my constituents in their day-to-day lives in relation to democracy and control of their lives is planning policy. Planning affects people most directly, and the sense of outrage in my constituency about the South Worcestershire joint core strategy is palpable. We have three councils coming together. Worcester city faces the same problem as Luton, and does not have space within its boundaries to expand [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Luton, North thinks it has, but we have to face the fact: there is not room in Worcester for extra housing in significant numbers.
Worcester has been designated a sub-regional growth centre in the regional spatial strategy, so the two councils around itWychavon district council, which covers my constituency, and Malvern Hills district councilhave come together with Worcester city council to consider how they can find that housing. Trying to explain to people that the South Worcestershire joint core strategy, driven by three local district councils, is actually the creature of a regional spatial strategy whose parameters have effectively been set by central Government is very difficult indeed. I see my councils being blamed for decisions that the regional assembly was obliged to take because it knew that otherwise the Government would intervene and demand still higher housing numbers.
We are in the bizarre, Alice in Wonderland position of conducting a consultation on the South Worcestershire joint core strategy, knowing that the regional spatial strategy plan revision that has been imposed on the region by the Government is likely to increase the housing demands still further. When we have the joint core strategy in place, we will almost certainly have to revisit it immediately and increase the numbers. There is no local democracy in this process whatsoever. [ Interruption. ] I sense that my right hon. Friend the
Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), a former distinguished Minister in this field, is seeking to catch my eye. I will happily give way to him.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Is my hon. Friend not being too kind to the Government? They have just passed the Planning Act 2008, which means that when the Sizewell C and D proposals in my constituency are put forward, local people will not even be able to discuss the road situation, whether stuff should come in by sea, what will happen to the legacy buildings and the like. Those things will be excluded because some fatuous commissioner will appear from London, take soundings and then go back, and her or his word will be law. That is the worst kind of change, and this Bill does not make it any betterin fact, it makes it worse.
Peter Luff: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful and important point, as he usually does. The sense of powerlessness that local communities feel in the face of the juggernaut of central Government will not do. The answer is that we should have national policy statements, as allowed for in that Act, and that they should be voted for in this Housethe Government are resisting thatso that they have the force of law. We should then have the normal, local planning processno Infrastructure Planning Commissionfor the next Sizewell reactor on the strictly local issues. With Sizewell B, how much time did the strictly local issues take out of the process? A couple of weeks?
Peter Luff: That would be entirely acceptable out of the 300 days. We could have an entirely local process. The local community would have its say on the issues that mattered and the Government would rightly be setting down the national parameters for nuclear power that we actually need. The Government have once againas in this Billtaken a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and the nut that they are breaking is local accountability and local democracy.
On the subject of local democracy, another thing that is not in this Bill that I hope will be in an early Bill from a new Conservative Government is the abolition of the Standards Board for England. Again, it significantly inhibits local democracy. I have an extraordinary situation in my constituency, where a major wind farm is being proposed. It falls in the ward of two members of the development control committee, which means that they are unable to express any view whatsoever about the wind farms merits, whether they are for or against it. I do not know whether they want to stand up to people opposing it or join the opposition, but they cannot express a view, because as soon as they do so, they lose their vote on the development control committee. The situation is utterly bewildering to constituents.
I am trying to resist pressure to express a view on the wind farm because I do not want to trump my two able colleagues on the district council who are being thrown out of the process, with their voices stripped from them. Local councillors exist to express the views of local people, but the Government have put in place mechanisms that take their voice away. There is nothing more undemocratic than removing the voice of a district councillor on a major and sensitive local planning decision. The Bill thus represents another missed opportunity.
Mr. Raynsford: Would the hon. Gentleman like to ask the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) how many times he took decisions regarding planning obligations that took away power from local councils and imposed central Government diktat when he was Secretary of State for the Environment?
Peter Luff: I think that would be procedurally tricky, but my right hon. Friend might try to catch my eye later. I share the concern of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) about the power of the Secretary of State and the lack of appeal for aggrieved residents in respect of decisions made by the Planning Inspectorate through the Secretary of State.
Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that that issue is totally different from institutionalising a mechanism whereby people are excluded from having any view on local matters? If a Secretary of State intervenes, that is because there is a national concern that requires a national input. However, a system that says that no local body or person may take any part whatever in decisions about what happens to their localitylet alone what might happen afterwards with the Secretary of Stateis a disgrace.
The subject of accountability goes to the heart of many of my Committees concerns about the Bill. Paragraph 119 of our report talks about the accountability gap that has been created with regional development agencies. It says:
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