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2.37 pm

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): At the start of the debate, there was talk about consensus on this issue, but the consensus has clearly broken down-although it may have started to return towards the end of the Secretary of State's remarks. I have been struck by the extent to which the debate has descended into a process-driven discussion. One reason why it is such a privilege for me to have another opportunity to discuss the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which is dear to my heart, is that the matter is much more fundamental than that.

The Sustainable Communities Bill was the first Bill that I presented to Parliament after being elected. It carried on the work of Sue Doughty, a former Member for Guildford, who initially took the Bill forward. Ultimately, this legislation is on the statute book because of people power alone-the power of grassroots campaigning and local organisations in being able to vocalise the barriers to delivering what they consider to be the priority measures in their area. That is what the legislation is about.

I looked back at the remarks made by the Minister with responsibility for the matter in the final stages of the passage of the 2007 Act. He said that the 2007 Act would not necessarily catch the public's eye as had some private Member's Bills, such as one presented by David Steel, but that it was about fundamentally changing relationships and that it had the potential truly to affect the balance of power between central and local government. That is of particular importance to me, and it is the reason why I got involved in politics-I was frustrated that the voice of people living in my local community was not being heard, and I wanted to change that. What I have heard today from the Secretary of State is an argument that central Government know best, and from the Conservative Benches that local authorities know best. In fact, this is all about people knowing best and giving them the right channels to communicate that and to take control themselves.

I wonder whether the Government are slightly uncomfortable about dealing with this issue, because it is about a fundamental shift in power. It is for that reason that so many people had such high hopes for this legislation. It is important to remember that the local spending reports issue is about not only providing information, but enabling participation. We can put all the information that we like on the internet, but it is completely pointless if it is not a platform for allowing people to engage, to have input and to make a difference. That is the fundamental point to remember, and it is why so many people are so frustrated and disappointed with what we have seen so far.

Local spending reports are at the heart of the 2007 Act. They are based on the principle that people have a right to know not only what money is being spent, but how it is being spent, because once they have that information, they will have a view on how the money could be better spent addressing their priorities. From that flows the
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whole process of enabling communities to make proposals to remove the barriers that have been preventing them from having a say in the process until now.

I was slightly bemused by the Secretary of State's characterisation that what is preventing local spending reports from being published at the moment is the fact that all the information has to be reported all the way up the line and back in order to be published in some kind of tabulated format, because that is not the case. My understanding of what is happening in the Total Place pilots is that the role of central Government is in twisting the arm of the local side of public service delivery-the agencies do not want to produce the information, which they have locally-to make the information available. There is no reason why local spending reports cannot be produced on exactly the basis that I am outlining.

Mr. Denham: I hope that the hon. Lady will deal with a point that I made. Government publication of statistics is now governed by procedures and rules, which have broadly been agreed with this House, about independent assessment by the Office for National Statistics. Most of the data that are made available in the Total Place pilots are perfectly good and usable at local level, but they are not of sufficient quality to enable the Government to publish them in the official form of spending reports. That is a frustration-it is not something that I welcome-but the House will understand the general concern about government use of public data, which led to the procedures. That is why we need to examine how more information could be made directly available locally.

Julia Goldsworthy: The Secretary of State makes a valid point. I am simply trying to say that although central Government have a role to play in enabling this information to be made available, they do not have to be the ultimate publisher of it all.

Mr. Letwin: That was an interesting exchange. We would be delighted if the Secretary of State were to make the next phase the universal publication of data on the same basis as occurs in the Total Place pilots. We would regard that as a sizeable step forward, regardless of whether the data did or did not meet ONS standards.

Julia Goldsworthy: I do not want this to be a debate about the best process for making this information available; the debate needs to be about agreeing that people have the right to see this information and then to have an impact on any decisions flowing from its being made available. I do not see any need for the Government to be the ultimate national publisher; they just need to unlock the information being made available locally, and nothing in the 2007 Act prevents that from being the case.

We need this information because of the complete lack of transparency in public spending at the moment, nowhere more so than in local government matters, as can be seen even if one looks simply at how money is raised and spent locally through council tax-about 80 per cent. of what councils spend is not raised through council tax. That confuses everybody, because people cannot understand why their council tax increases by more than inflation every year, yet it appears that council services are being cut. This is all to do with the confusion created by the system, which multiplies out to all aspects of local public service delivery.

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Anything that provides greater transparency is important. The issue is about more than just councils, because the most interesting thing is that the information provided at the moment through the local spending reports, which covers a large number of big-spending organisations locally, deals with so little spending; the reports do not cover the majority of public spending locally. Some 65 per cent. of the money spent locally is not included in the public spending reports, and that constitutes very large sums. If taxpayers' money is being provided to deliver these services, taxpayers have a right to know this information.

This is not just about some of the big quangos. Part of the frustration with quangos is their lack of accountability and transparency; the argument is not necessarily about whether they are the correct delivery vehicle, but about the fact that they are remote and unaccountable, and that nobody understands how they work. The same can be said of local arrangements-one of the most confusing things in Cornwall is the number of area-based initiatives. It is not just about what the regional development agency or the primary care trust spends; it is about the fact that lots of small initiatives are funded in a targeted way, each having their own administration. They probably have competing, conflicting and overlapping aims and objectives, and the situation results in a fragmented approach. Delivering local spending reports in a way that is meaningful to people could help to overcome that.

Local spending reports are intended to get all this information out into the open in a public format with which people can engage. They are about starting the process of breaking down silos. One of my concerns about the Total Place pilots, as they are at the moment, is that they are very much an internal process-they are about taking the lead with the local strategic partnership. This should be about trying to engage people, not about just getting the relevant civil servants at the local level sitting around a table discussing how their budgets could be better spent. This is about getting the consumers of public services to have a say in how the money could be better spent.

We are in different economic circumstances from the time when the 2007 Act was initially proposed, but all these issues are more important now, not less. I have heard several people say that producing this information will be expensive, but everything I have read about the Total Place pilots suggests that what is exciting Ministers so much about the pilots is their ability to reduce waste caused by duplication and to focus on priorities. I am confident that if the process is properly rolled out, it will more than pay its own way, as well as encouraging more participation locally, and it will also protect some of the multi-agency working that is done locally. My greatest fear is that as public services budgets get squeezed, as I am already seeing happen locally, the first thing to go will be cross-agency working, which delivers some of the most innovative projects that make the biggest difference to people's lives.

My concern is that when budgets are squeezed, public services retreat to their core; everything that is not considered to be core to the service is got rid of, and so the silos get reinforced again. Producing this kind of
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information will be key to preventing that invidious move, which undermines the delivery of local public services. This speaks for itself-it is a no-brainer. Even the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who was the Minister when we debated that Bill, gave very good examples of how the least obvious thing could help to make a massive improvement to people's lives. I believe that he referred to the example of the Blackburn slipper, whereby a group of organisations locally agreed to buy every pensioner a pair of slippers. That saved the health service locally a fortune, because it prevented falls, and that would not have been achieved in any other way-other than by sitting down at a table and discussing it. It is exactly that principle that we should be following through.

It is because of all these potential benefits that people have been so disappointed. Let us consider the initial responses to the consultation. One response stated:

Another respondent said that they were

There is real frustration that those expectations were not being met and that some key areas of local public spending were not being included.

The Secretary of State spoke about the challenges of trying to decide which information to include and which not to include, and he mentioned prisons and universities. I reiterate that the people who live in our areas have brains and are perfectly capable of deciding whether or not university spending will probably have an immediate, beneficial knock-on effect on the local economy, on jobs and on other public services. People need to be able to make their own judgments. It may well be that some local spending will be ring-fenced and people will say, "That was on a strategic transport route, so that is investment that you cannot have a say on, because it is part of the national infrastructure." However, that does not mean that people should not have the right to see that that money has been spent in that way. No conflict is involved here, so we do not need to get worked up and have any angst about what we should include or exclude. The presumption should be to include everything but, if necessary, to add a caveat saying, "This can be a subject of scrutiny and debate, but not of reallocation."

The fact that all this is so self-evident and obvious is why I feel so frustrated and mystified at the Government's response so far, and it seems to be the same at every stage of the process when we try to deal with the matter. It was frustrating when we tried to raise these issues in our debate on the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill the other week-one would think that that was the most appropriate place to raise precisely these issues-that the Government seemed intent that they were the last thing that they wanted to discuss.

We have had a written statement today that was not on the Order Paper and that so far still has not materialised. It would have been very helpful to the debate. We still do not have a clear timetable-we do not know whether we will have any kind of local spending report next year, and we will now have to wait until December. The Sustainable Communities Bill became an Act in 2007. It
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is amazing that we have seen such progress on Total Place in such a short time, but such slow progress in the implementation of the 2007 Act.

What has been most frustrating is the complete failure of the Department to try to communicate with the thousands of people who have made a personal investment in the implementation of the 2007 Act. Ultimately, everyone in this Chamber wants to address the fundamental disconnect with politics and politicians, and people and organisations have put themselves forward and said, "This is something that we think can address this disconnect." The way in which they have been treated has made matters worse rather than improved them.

Those people feel that they are being treated in a way that borders on contempt-contempt for the legislation, for the campaigners and for the councils that have invested in this process to such a great extent so far. Let us consider the levels of participation from the councils that have put forward proposals at this date: 28 per cent. of English authorities are taking part in this process, which I think is amazing in such a short period of time for something that is not statutory. Some 42 per cent. of Lib Dem-led authorities are taking part, and there have been more than 100 proposals from different councils. The Government should be heartened by that and should be using it as a springboard to try to take things further, rather than saying, "That process was not invented here, so we will now come up with a parallel process that we like more, because we invented it rather than somebody else."

We also have to remember that a lot of councils will be waiting to see what will happen next. I remember speaking to one of my local councillors when the 2007 Act was being debated. A real paradigm shift is needed not just for central Government but for local government to understand the potential offered by the legislation. My local councillors could not get their head round the fact that they were entitled to have a view on aspects of public services that were not already their responsibility. An awful lot of councillors will be waiting to see what happens to the proposals that have been put forward, and that will spark off other ideas that will enable them to take more responsibility and to innovate in a way that has not been possible until now.

None of that will be possible unless we have local spending reports, in whatever shape or form-whether they look more like the Total Place pilots or are along the lines envisaged by the Secretary of State-and unless we have that financial information. Power cannot be transferred down if the opportunity to have a say about what happens to the money is not transferred down, too.

My greatest fear, which has unfortunately been reinforced by what I have heard today, is that the Government's attitude will remain that they have a problem with proposals because they were not invented here and because we cannot put them into a nice, simple, one-size-fits-all approach. There are real issues about relinquishing power and control, and I am not sure whether the Government are up for dealing with them. That was reinforced by the debate that we had and the debate that we did not have on the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.

Ultimately, it seems that the Government's perception of participation is to set out in primary legislation how councils should respond to petitions, to create more
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bureaucracy, quangos and unaccountable organisations, such as economic prosperity boards, to give more powers to regional development agencies and not to introduce devolution but, at best, to delegate more powers. That is not the same as devolution. It does not give communities greater decision-making powers but ensures that central Government decisions are implemented at a more local level. That is fundamentally different, and it is not localism. I hope that the rest of this debate will be an opportunity for the Government to prove me wrong for making these assumptions. I hope that they do, because the 2007 Act is really important to me, and it is really important to restoring people's faith in democracy more widely.

Will the Minister or the Secretary of State confirm that the December 2009 deadline for the next stages will be debated and voted on in this House, and that we will not simply get a statement? Will we get a timetable for action? Will they confirm that we will get local spending reports and details of their format annually? Will they confirm in December 2009 the ongoing implementation of the 2007 Act? Will the Minister be able to confirm that the benefits of the Total Place pilots will be opened up to other authorities-perhaps those adjacent to those which are taking part-that might want to participate and benefit? Will the Minister also commit to extending this process to the local authorities that are closest to their communities-that is, our town and parish councils?

Given that this has been a grass-roots campaign from the start, it is really important that anybody watching the debate-I am sure that many people who have supported the campaign will be watching it-is convinced that their voice counts. It is very important that the Government do that this afternoon, in order to restore faith in our democratic process.

2.55 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful that you have called me to speak in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Obviously, given the massed ranks of Labour Back Benchers, it has been difficult to find a slot in which I can deliver my speech. I notice that my two co-conspirators on the 2007 Act both sit on the Front Bench, whereas I sit in a lofty position on the Back Benches.

I feel some responsibility for the Act. I cannot pretend that I was its parent-that was the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd)-but I like to think of myself as its uncle. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) could be its auntie. I enjoyed the process so much that I tried to become a parent in my own right, by promoting the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. Sadly, I was not a very successful parent-it seems to have been stillborn-but I hope that if and when we move the 2007 Act forward, the Bill, which, importantly, would clarify the spending reports, try to bring parish councils in and roll forward how future programmes can operate, can be introduced.

I think that we have been a bit churlish. As someone who is not necessarily known as the most loyal Labour Back Bencher, I think that the Government have listened. The Department for Communities and Local Government, in particular, has made some moves. Obviously, it needs to go further and we will prompt and prod it to ensure
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that it does. However, it has made some moves, and although the Government's amendment to the motion is a bit overlong-it took me a long time to read it last night-the most important part of it is the last line, which states that the Government will produce their response by December. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has said, we will hold the Government to that.

It would be nice to know how the Government- [ Interruption. ] Have I said something that I should not have? All the officials are going already. When the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), sums up, she must make it clear how the Government intend to respond by December. It would be worthy of a debate, and perhaps even a vote-that would be revolutionary, would it not? We need to be clear about what stance the Government are taking and how they intend to inform us appropriately. I hope that my hon. Friend explains exactly how we can trust that the Government have moved, that they are listening and that they want to get away from an entirely process-driven arrangement to one that has some meat on the bones. I say that as a vegetarian; we all have to be vegetarians now, of course.

We need to be a bit more altruistic and to recognise that the arrangement has been a good one. Cross-party work is greatly underestimated. We were only the forebears, as the Local Works campaign was relentless in driving the legislation forward. I give credit where it is due: the campaign has made sure that we did not slip and it is reasonably happy with the compromises that are being made. However, it is up to all of us to make sure that those compromises do not become soggy and that they have some real bite. That is what I intend to do, and I shall continue to play that part in negotiations outside the Chamber.

I want to say a few words about the local spending reports, which have not really been mentioned so far. We have spent a lot of time talking about what we are trying to do, but the reports are the basis for this debate and for the implementation of the legislation- [ Interruption. ] I am getting worried now, as I see my friendly Whip has come to look at me.

I have gone through the reports, and the reality is that they range from the dotty, undeliverable and downright unfair on the one hand to the utterly inspiring and really exciting on the other. It is important that we do not lose track of they fact that the Local Government Association must do a good job as the selector, and that is a task that it needs to get on with. Those of us who have been engaged in the process, and the people in the Local Works campaign, have had to knock the door down from time to time, but I hope that the Minister summing up the debate will say something about how we can be used as a source of knowledge for making sure that selection is as transparent and meaningful as possible.

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