The amendment relates to measures that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) expressed concerns about on Second Reading. From the Front Bench, my hon. Friend expressed concern on behalf of the Local Government Association about the proposed measures to allow the Secretary of State to publish regulations on the procedure for making proposals. He said that such regulations were likely to lead to increased prescription governing consultation and engagement with parish councils and petitioners, as well as confusion over the form, content and timing of
the proposals. According to the LGA, the resource implications for local authorities of participating under the Act were considerable and should not be underestimated.
My hon. Friend cautioned against being too prescriptive on establishing a national template for what is best for everyone in terms of consultation and engagement with local community groups. He said that we should trust local authorities to be responsive and not to prescribe too much for them. Nothing was done to table an amendment along those lines to reflect my hon. Friend's concerns in the short time-
Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I said that passes were issued in the usual way. The ultimate responsibility for the issue of those passes lies with the Serjeant at Arms, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. She will look into the circumstances of the issue of the pass. I hope that that is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.
Mr. Chope: It is certainly helpful to me and I hope that the Serjeant at Arms will do so with great expedition. Obviously time is running short for a further ruling that might come as a result of those inquiries.
I have tried to articulate our concerns in the form of a group of amendments to which I shall refer shortly. I tabled amendment 1 because clause 1 is effectively a retrospective provision. It changes the rules of the game after the event. Local authorities, with community groups, were encouraged to participate in a bidding process under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. That process was always being delayed by the Government. For example, the Act came into law in October 2007. Under its terms, the Government had to invite bids within one year. Instead of inviting bids over a short period, they invited them over a nine-month period, so that the bids had to be in by the end of July last year. Those bids-there were more than 300 from 100 different local authorities-had then to be considered extensively by a panel, which had as its chairman Councillor Keith Mitchell of the LGA. The panel worked extremely hard to go through all the bids and assess them by using the criteria set down in the original Bill. It then presented them to the Secretary of State, whom I saw fleetingly for about a minute on the Front Bench just now, but he has obviously decided that this matter is beneath his dignity, which is a great pity. I know from experience how marginal the seat of Southampton, Itchen is, so I imagine he is heading off there to participate in a closely fought general election campaign.
Order. Before the hon. Lady intervenes, I will helpfully say-I know the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) always likes to be helped-that we are focusing on the narrow terms of the amendment. Consideration of election campaigns either in
Southampton, Itchen or elsewhere is quite out of the scope of the amendments. Being the very fastidious and committed parliamentarian that he is, I know he would want to be in order.
Mr. Chope: I certainly would like to be in order, Mr. Speaker. I was expressing my disappointment that the Secretary of State, who is responsible for the Bill and the activities under it, was in his place momentarily but did not stay. Indeed, he was the person to whom the open letter to which I referred from Councillor Keith Mitchell was addressed. I admit that I went beyond the bounds by speculating about the reason why the Secretary of State may have left so soon.
Barbara Follett: I would just like to explain on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that he came in to check progress and, having already heard the hon. Gentleman's contribution several times, he decided to come back later.
Mr. Chope: I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with the long sparring game that I have had with the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). It goes back to when he was selected for Southampton, Itchen for the Labour party, before I was even selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate back in 1983. So I would not be surprised if he is fed up of listening to my voice. The hon. Lady is retiring at the general election and I have always regarded her as one of the more courteous Members of the House, but I am disappointed with the explanation she has given.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): May I just say to my hon. Friend that I was sitting in the Tea Room just now and as soon as his name appeared on the annunciator, people immediately started rushing back to the Chamber to hear him? He is one of our finest commentators and this is a gross slur on the part of the Minister.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was trying to make an orderly intervention, but unfortunately he failed in the attempt. I know that when the hon. Member for Christchurch gets to his feet, he will not spend time dilating on those matters, but will focus his remarks very narrowly on the specific terms of the amendment, because time is being taken that might otherwise be taken by other hon. or right hon. Members.
Mr. Chope: I have never been one for dilating. On subject of time, it is important to recognise that it is only because some of us have insisted on having the matter debated, rather than letting it go through on the nod, that we are discussing it at all. I am conscious of the fact that it is important that we have a chance to explain the amendments and get a response about them from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the promoter of the Bill. I am not sure that the way things are timed out means that we will have long for a discussion on Third Reading. We will have to rest the matter there.
Amendment 1 relates to the primary Act-the Sustainable Communities Act 2007-under which local authorities were invited to submit bids. I have gone through the process that the local authorities went through and I know that they are expecting to get a decision from the Government on those bids. Indeed, the open letter that Mr. Mitchell sent to the Secretary of State at the turn of the year, when the short list was put forward, states:
"We hope that the process"-
"will be completed before the Easter recess so that councils can get on with the job of delivering for their local residents."
He asked the Secretary of State to set up a series of meetings in January and February to that end. On Second Reading on 26 February, the Minister expressed lots of hope and expectation that progress was going to be made on delivering a response to the bids by this time-the last day of this Session. However, nothing has happened. In a sense, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is giving an excuse to the Government for further delay because clause 1 changes the applicable rules. By doing so, officialdom is given an excuse to say, "Well, we've now got to go back and look at the bids again using different criteria." The Secretary of State previously had to say whether a proposal should be implemented, but now if clause 1 remains unamended, he can decide whether it should be implemented in whole or in part. That is a completely different concept. It is one thing to say that future bids should be assessed on that basis-indeed, that is covered in clause 2-but it is wrong in principle to change the rules at this stage of the game because such an alteration is retrospective and will be counter-productive. That change will cause a lot of disappointment to local authorities and those who are engaged in the bidding process with good will, as they had hoped something would be achieved.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who drove through the original Bill-I am pleased to see him in his place-were being frank, I think he would have expected to see some results from his efforts by the end of this Parliament. However, there have been no results. As with all these things, I suppose there may be a silver lining, which is that an incoming Conservative Government will be able to assess the bids de novo and come up with more sensible conclusions that might otherwise have not been reached. That does not alter my concern about the retrospective nature of clause 1, which is why I have tabled my amendment.
Amendments 5 to 15 relate to regulations. Amendment 5 states that if we are going to be prescriptive, we should be prescriptive in respect of the Secretary of State's timetable. That amendment, which applies to page 2, line 15 of the Bill, would require the Secretary of State to consider each proposal and to decide
"within six months of receiving such a proposal."
That seems to be a sensible element of prescription, because it puts the pressure on the Secretary of State to respond in a timely fashion. At the moment, the proposals are sitting on desks in the Department and nothing much is happening to them. We should at least learn from the past and ensure that, when we have future rounds of bidding, the Secretary of State has to respond quicker to the proposals.
We should pay tribute to the LGA for working so hard to go through all the original proposals and come up with a short list that sets out in detail the merits and demerits of each proposal and links them together in convenient categories-in other words, for doing a lot of the Secretary of State's work. It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not respond in a timely fashion to such a proposal, but amendment 5 would ensure that in future the Secretary of State would have to so respond.
"a local authority to take specified steps before making a proposal (which may, in particular, include a requirement to consult or otherwise involve the council of any parish which is wholly or partly within the local authority's area, or to consult local persons".
Surely we should trust local authorities to decide such matters. Obviously, if they do not consult and they do not demonstrate quite a lot of local support for their proposals, those proposals are less likely to succeed. Why do we need regulations to require them to consult? It just seems to be bureaucracy going too far.
"the way in which consultation...is to be carried out."
"a local authority to try to reach agreement with persons consulted under the regulations."
It is far from clear to me what that means. As we know from dealings in this House, it is possible to get agreement between people with good will, but it is not always so. If local authorities want to put forward a proposal that has a lot of consensus, they should be able to do so. How can we require them to reach a particular type of agreement with people who have been consulted under the regulations?
"the local authority to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State"-
Absolutely. The great thing about local authorities is that they are elected and, therefore, accountable. Later, we will come to my amendment that relates to the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire to widen the definition of a local authority to beyond that of a local authority with elected members. If we wish to empower local authorities and democracy, we should ensure that we trust local authorities to get on and do the job for which they have a statutory duty. Subsection (3)(d) of proposed new section 5B, which would be removed by amendment 9, is, in any event, contradictory. Local authorities should either have regard to the guidance, or they should be
required to comply with the guidance. I do not think that we can have it both ways. In any event, the provision is far too prescriptive.
"the Secretary of State to specify one or more persons who must be consulted, and with whom the Secretary of State must try to reach agreement, before making a decision in relation to a proposal".
In other words, we are talking about the Secretary of State requiring himself to consult with somebody to try to reach an agreement, which is not at all clear. I know that this is, essentially, a Government handout Bill that my hon. Friend has been promoting with Government support.
Mr. Chope: If I am wrong about that, my hon. Friend should accept responsibility for the wording of paragraph (h) and explain it to us. I was trying to be generous to him. Given that this Bill has been given Government time today, I assumed that the Government were supporting it. Perhaps they are supporting it because they are embarrassed about their own failure to deliver on the original Act, and think that this will allow them to paper over the cracks.
"the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament a report describing the progress which has been made in relation to implementation of the proposals."
That is redundant because it is open to any Member of this House to put down a question to the Secretary of State and obtain an answer. We know from the way in which the Secretary of State and his Ministers have been responding that they have not been exactly precise in setting out the progress, but that will not be remedied by putting into regulations a requirement that they must publish a report describing progress. It would be much better to set a deadline, which is what amendment 5 proposes, of six months to sort everything out.
"A reference in this section to a local authority is to be treated, where an order has been made under section 5C specifying persons or classes of person who may make proposals under this Act, as including a reference to those persons or classes of person."
In other words, we are extending the definition of a local authority to include people who are not elected. My time in local government began in an era in which there were people called aldermen. I won my first election on Wandsworth council in 1974, and the first thing that happened was that the person whom I defeated was appointed alderman, which was not very good for democracy. I congratulated him and said that it was because of me that he was an alderman rather than a mere councillor. What we are doing in this Bill is extending the definition of a local authority, thereby effectively undermining the elected local authority members because we are, by implication, giving an equal or similar status to people who are not elected or accountable through the ballot box. That is a most unfortunate part
of this Bill. It follows, therefore, that I am very much against proposed new section 5C, so my amendment 13 would leave it out. That brings me on to consequential amendments 14 and 15, which would follow as a result of removing proposed new section 5C. I know that you take a keen interest in such matters, Mr. Speaker, so I hope that you will appreciate that, in my submission, this Bill falls far short of the ideal. It is a pity that it is now being pushed through at the last minute without the chance of proper considered debate. I suppose that we still have time to divide the House on one or more of these amendments.
Mr. Chope: I look forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). It may be that such Divisions would be a sensible way to proceed. In any event, if this Bill goes through and gets its Third Reading today, are we expecting the other place to allow this Bill to have a Second Reading, a Committee stage, a Report stage and Third Reading all before the end of this Sitting?
If debating the amendments today achieves nothing else, I hope that it will draw their lordships' attention to the fact that the Bill is far from perfect. If it has the support of those on both Front Benches, there is no reason why its contents could not be brought forward in a fresh piece of legislation in the next Parliament, if indeed anything is needed. All it really needs is an expression of intent. The Bill is really asking the Government to express an intent of good will towards the original Act. In all such respects, actions speak louder than words. We have seen the delaying tactics that the Government adopted in the implementation of the original Act and the proposals put forward under it.
I do not think that the world will be a better place for having the Bill on the statute book, but I will not go so far as to say that the ceiling would fall in as a result, because in the context of what we have to do in the House this is all relatively trivial. However, underlying it all is the fact that we have raised the expectations of hundreds, if not thousands, of people and organisations up and down the country who have put in bids under the original Act. Those bids have been shortlisted and the people are waiting for them to be resolved. Why do not we wait for those bids to be resolved before deciding on further legislation?
Barbara Follett: I am pleased to be here today because I thought that after the events of a couple of weeks ago we would not get the Bill before the House again. It is thanks to the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we have once again returned to this most welcome Bill.