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Andrew Selous: I am delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman as a fellow localist. My party does not have a preserve of interest in localism. I understand what he is saying but there is a different way to achieve what we both seek: partly through the ballot box and partly through measurement by results that are made public. We will come on to data sets and measuring when we reach our stand part debate. However, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the way in which to achieve the outcome that he wants is not to be over-prescriptive, but to judge by published results. Any council that was doing badly could then experience an element of shame, and there would also be local elections and the local ballot box.
Mr. Reed: The method that the hon. Gentleman is outlining is helpful to us, and it would be helpful to the local authorities in question. However, I cannot help but think that it would not be helpful to the people and the children whom we are trying to help, and helping them is the purpose of the Bill.
Andrew Selous: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but to be honest I think that there is a straightforward disagreement about the best approach. I believe in accountability and people being judged by results. I believe that the approach that I have outlined is preferable, so I commend amendments 4 and 5 to the Committee.
Helen Goodman: I shall speak to amendments 4 and 5 at the same time as they are so clearly linked. I point out to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire that, on its own, amendment 5 is ambiguous, as it proposes that authorities should be replaced
“as the authority thinks fit”.
That would mean that the amended line of the clause—line 45—would read “each of its partner authorities, as the authority thinks fit”. That has no clear meaning.
Taken in conjunction with amendment 4, however, the effect of amendment 5 would be to change line 45 from stating “each of its partner authorities, as the authority thinks fit” to “those of its partner authorities, as the authority thinks fit”. That would mean that responsible authorities would not have to promote co-operation with all the named partner authorities, which would certainly weaken the impact of these partnership arrangements.
The consultations that we undertook while preparing the Bill made it clear that local partners thought that tackling child poverty must be a shared responsibility of all key partners, rather than there being an opt-in system. It is clear that the local authority has a lead role, but other local partners must also play their part. The importance of partnership working was clearly demonstrated by the evidence that we heard from witnesses on 20 October.
Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): Amendment 5 is not saying that there should be no partner working at all. It proposes that the local authority should decide which of the potential partner authorities it should work with. Why is the local authority not in a position to make that judgment?
Helen Goodman: As we discussed earlier in the sitting, we are trying to reproduce the arrangements for the local strategic partnership, because we believe that that will be a less bureaucratic approach. Consequently, we are giving local authorities the flexibility to co-opt further partners, should they wish to do so.
The Bill specifically states that partnership arrangements involve all partners but it is not prescriptive, as the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire seemed to believe, about the form that those arrangements should take. For example, the Bill does not specify attendance at a particular number of meetings. I believe that we have got the balance right in the Bill.
Only by requiring local authorities to make arrangements that will make co-operation between the authority and “each” of its named partner authorities can we be confident that the full range of individuals, organisations and bodies that can make a real and lasting difference to the lives of children in this country will be fully engaged in the task. That is why the clause is worded as it is.
Amendment 5 proposes that it would be up to the local authority to determine which local partners should be involved. Although I appreciate the need for flexibility to suit local needs, the amendment would raise questions about who should be involved. Therefore, it would weaken the local authority’s ability to involve all the necessary partners.
As it stands, the duty proposed in the clause will ensure that all local authorities and their named partners can share their knowledge and understanding, their interests and influence, and the resources that they have available to tackle the issues that affect child poverty in their local areas. That process is not about imposing new systems and structures that will divert attention and resource away from action, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—quite the opposite. The requirement is to create an impetus across the country that those who are already collaborating can take further and so that those who could do more will have the stimulus to do so.
Mr. Stuart: The Minister is makes some interesting points. Let us say that a local authority sets up a child poverty group and decides not to have a partner authority on that group. Would she consider that appropriate? It might be useful if local authorities do not start out thinking that each time they meet under the child poverty banner, they must have all the partner authorities around the table or they will in some way be failing to deliver under the Bill.
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Helen Goodman: When the Bill is passed into statute, the local authorities and partner authorities should fulfil their duties and responsibilities. It is for the leader authority to take the initiative and for all the partners to co-operate in the needs assessment and the strategy. If subsets of institutions want to concentrate on particular aspects, that seems to be perfectly sensible. However, it would not obviate the need for all the named partners under the Bill to fulfil their statutory responsibilities.
Mr. Stuart: I imagine that there would be a local area child poverty steering group. Is the hon. Lady saying, on the basis that we are considering not a subset but the overall position, that the police would need to send a representative each time, regardless of whether what was on the agenda seemed directly relevant?
Helen Goodman: No. That was precisely what I was not saying. All those identified under clause 19 have a part to play—individually and collectively. We will work with them to ensure that their respective contributions are properly articulated, acted on and maximised.
Having had an opportunity to reflect further, I hope that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire will withdraw amendments 4 and 5.
Andrew Selous: I listened carefully to the Minister. Notwithstanding her remarks, there is a danger that the partner authorities, knowing that they have legal responsibilities under the Bill, will feel an onus to go along to meetings when perhaps their input would not be relevant on that occasion. There is a basic difference between us, in that Conservative Members trust local authorities to achieve the results that we all want to see in the way in which they think is best and that fits in with the particular circumstances of their local area. All that we are asking for is that degree of flexibility and discretion for local authorities, so I shall press the amendment to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.
Division No. 9]
Baron, Mr. John
Barrett, John
Gauke, Mr. David
Howell, John
Selous, Andrew
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Webb, Steve
Blackman, Liz
Buck, Ms Karen
Goodman, Helen
Keeble, Ms Sally
Mallaber, Judy
Mudie, Mr. George
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Question accordingly negatived.
Andrew Selous: I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 20, page 12, line 5, leave out subsection (4).
The amendment would delete subsection (4), which refers to the Secretary of State giving guidance and requires local authorities to “have regard to” any such guidance. That phrase might appear entirely innocuous, but from my experience as a local school governor, guidance often assumes almost the status of holy writ and is virtually indistinguishable from statutory obligation. In the spirit of my previous remarks, therefore, I would like to give local authorities greater flexibility to pursue their local child poverty agendas and strategies in their own way.
As I said earlier, there is a good case for saying that all poverty is local. Depending on where in the country it occurs, different sets of circumstances trap families and communities in poverty. I have difficulty seeing how guidance given by the Secretary of State can usefully be applied in the same way from Cornwall to Dundee and from Cumbria down to Kent. I call only for local discretion and local flexibility. Local authorities will be judged on the basis of their results. They will be judged, as they should be, on how successful they are in reducing the number of children living in poverty in their area. That should be the accountability framework. We should judge by results and use comparative tables to see which councils have made progress and which have not. There is always the ballot box.
Steve Webb: This might pre-empt discussion on the next clause slightly, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is impossible to measure which local authorities are making progress on any of the targets in the Bill, as none of them is measured at local authority level?
Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When we come to a stand part debate on clause 21, I would love to engage on that subject, as I tabled a written question to the Minister a couple of days ago that he very helpfully answered and that is entirely relevant to that point. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will park that issue for one moment. As so often, he is absolutely right to raise it, but the appropriate time to debate it, as I think you would agree, Mr. Caton, is later. The thrust of my remarks is similar to that of the points that I made on amendments 4 and 5. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Ms Keeble: I do not agree with the amendment. Guidance is important. Will my hon. Friend the Minister set out what the guidance would say? Some factors that are particularly relevant to child poverty might not always be immediately evident locally, although that might sound like a contradiction in terms. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but if, for example, one sits the national statistics on poverty or low birth weight in babies—a high risk factor resulting partly from poverty—over the national profile of ethnicity, one finds a near-perfect fit. That might not always be immediately evident from local statistics.
Unfortunately, black and minority ethnic communities are not always engaged fully in either political parties or the democratic process. One need only look around the Committee to see evidence of that. Although black and minority ethnic communities are disproportionately affected by poverty, we do not have MPs from any of those communities in the Committee. Guidance from the Government to local authorities to point out what the national statistics show, and to suggest that they find ways to look at the matter, might be relevant. Of course some local authorities are particularly good at engaging with diverse communities and many can teach the Government a great deal on that. There is also flux in such communities: different communities are affected in different ways and therefore guidance can act as an important prompt—I put it no stronger—to ensure that lessons are learned.
The guidance might also raise issues about the involvement of faith communities, bearing in mind that a wide variety can engage with the issue. That might be a good way of dealing with some of the local black and minority ethnic communities. In the Bangladeshi community in Northampton, child poverty is a major issue, and there is a real need to engage. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tell us whether the guidance will touch on those factors, or is there some other way in which black and minority ethnic communities and diverse faith communities might need to be involved in tackling child poverty?
John Howell: It is difficult to see what guidance central Government can provide when, as we heard in the evidence sessions, local government is already actively participating in this area and is doing so in a diverse way. One of the impressive things we heard, which is mirrored, I hope, by our own experiences in our constituencies, is that local councils are tackling child poverty in a very diverse way. I hope that Ministers heard and read the comments of Kevan Collins, one of our witnesses who represented local government, who said in response to question 124 that guidance could easily be unhelpful.
That is a crucial issue. Will guidance be helpful or unhelpful? There is a huge potential for it to be unhelpful in that it runs the risk of harming and distracting from what is already being done. A good example of that is the distinction that is made between approaching child poverty on the basis of child poverty or family poverty. There is a completely different approach on the ground, and the guidance might distract from that.
I disagree with guidance as an automatic part of the Bill. There are three references to guidance in this Bill, as well as to additional regulations. It is typical of the master-servant relationship that has characterised this Government’s attitude towards local government. Will the Minister clarify what she means by guidance? Earlier in the debate she referred to statutory guidance. In my book there is no such thing as statutory guidance. It is an obligation. That is what the statutory part of it means. We need to know, as the hon. Member for Northampton, North said, what the guidance will cover. I believe that the term “light touch” has been thrown about in relation to the guidance. That is a nice term of art, but we need to bring that down to something more specific.
Finally, I refer the Committee to the evidence of Colin Green, whose words sum up many of my feelings for this clause:
“The Bill is an enabler: we do not need more micro-management.”——[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 53, Q124.]
The Government have to show why this is not micro-management.
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