Amendment 1 would remove the useful flexibility that the Bill introduces. In other words, instead of being able to make decisions on each of the 242 distinct requests contained in the 199 separate proposals that we have received under the Sustainable Communities Act, the Secretary of State would be obliged to decide on all requests contained in each proposal. Given that Oxford city council, for instance, submitted a proposal with 25 individual requests for action, amendment 1 would require us to take a blanket approach to all of them, which would mean that we could lose some good
proposals. Also, instead of being able to introduce some proposals immediately and some a little later, we would not have the flexibility that the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) gives us. Clause 1 is a common-sense clause. It will speed up and enable decisions rather than slow them down.
Amendment 5 would get in the way of flexibility in the process for inviting, considering and deciding upon proposals. It would remove the flexibility that the Bill gives us and make the process for deciding upon proposals much less flexible. The amendment and a deadline fixed by primary legislation would give less opportunity for organisations such as the Local Government Association to influence the Secretary of State's decision, and it could result in him deciding not to implement a complex proposal because he did not have the time to consider it in detail.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) mentioned extending invitations to unelected bodies. Parish councils might be on the lowest rung of local democracy, but in the areas I know well they are by no means the least important. We wish to see them included.
Mr. Chope: Parish councils are probably the perfect example of democracy in local government because they have to raise all the money they spend from local people and account for it. Would the Minister accept that the proposed new section 5C goes much wider than giving a power to include parish councils? It states that any
"other persons who represent the interests of local authorities as the Secretary of State thinks fit"
Barbara Follett: No, I must make some progress. Given the lack of knowledge of the number and complexity of proposals, it is not reasonable to set a deadline, because it would mean that the Secretary of State could go into default or would have to decide on proposals, which are extraordinary complex and affect many Departments, in a very short time.
We hope to issue the next invitation for proposals by the summer of 2011. Placing a date in primary legislation now would unduly restrict the Government and all those who want a say in how we move forward. The Secretary of State will inform the House by the end of the year of the latest date by which the invitation can be made.
The provisions within the proposed regulations, which would be affected by amendments 6 to 11, were the result of submissions of many of those who took part in the consultation on the first round. The provisions in the Bill are not prescriptive. They are a reminder to the Government of what local authorities and parishes feel are important in that process.
Amendments 12 to 15, and especially amendments 13 to 15, would deny the Government the opportunity to listen to the wishes of parish councils, which, as I have said, are an important part of local democracy. Denying the Government the power to invite anyone other than local authorities in any situation imaginable is neither an appropriate way forward, nor in the spirit of the Bill. With that in mind, I urge the hon. Member for Christchurch not to push his amendments.
Alistair Burt: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and, I hope, to see the Bill through to a conclusion. I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to deal briefly with the amendments in detail and say one or two words of thanks.
I am grateful to the Minister and her colleagues for finding time to bring the Bill back at this late stage. However, I know, as she does, that that is no Government handout. The time and effort that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) puts into scrutiny is much appreciated by the House. Although it is not always the easiest thing to listen to, the House would be much the poorer without colleagues like him, as what he tries to do is important. However, he rather unkindly suggested that the Bill was a handout and I am sure he is aware of the grass-roots movement that inspired the original Sustainable Communities Act. The Bill has been inspired by the same movement, rather than the Government. The Government were not happy with the original Act and had to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do by colleagues from across the House and in a series of public meetings. The Government then embraced the idea and took it on. The idea for an amendment to the Act has come from the same grass-roots movement, as it saw one or two deficiencies in the original Act, which is what this small, amending Bill is designed to put right. It is not a handout.
My hon. Friend might well be correct that an element of embarrassment, perhaps about the time it has taken for the proposals to come through, has enabled the Government to be more generous in their interactions with me and with those Members supporting the Bill so that the current amendments could be brought forward today, but there is a distinction between that and a handout.
Mr. Chope: I apologise to my hon. Friend for having inadvertently slurred him by suggesting that the Bill is a Government handout. However, I am concerned about clause 1. The Government are already charged with reaching a decision on the proposals before them, and clause 1 would introduce more flexibility, as the Minister said. Are the Government themselves asking for this flexibility, or is it something that has come from my hon. Friend and his friends?
The Bill and the amendments reflect interest outside the House in trying to do something different in terms of local activity. I briefly pay tribute to those who have put so much work into the Bill: Local Works, which is so often represented in the Palace establishment by Ron Bailey, who made considerable efforts to move this project forward; the LGA, which has worked so hard on it; the Minister and her officials; and, in particular,
colleagues in the House, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) who introduced the original Bill, and friends such as the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who put so much into this Bill. Its success is shown in the 100 local authorities who submitted proposals. There were 301 proposals submitted to the Government for consideration, 199 ultimately by the LGA.
The Bill has a sweep of support both in the House and beyond. If we can believe that, in these times, this kind of grass-roots activity can make an impression on Government, we are acknowledging that times are indeed moving on and that the new politics has a place.
One thing I share firmly with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is the wish that, in a few weeks' time, it will be our colleagues on the Front Bench who will be charged with the onerous responsibility of dealing with delivery of the proposals that are currently with the Department-a wish that he and I share most fervently. I believe that at that time I will be able to encourage my colleagues on the Front Bench to take forward some of the ideas contained in the amendments. I shall return to that in a moment.
Mr. Cash: I am not universally hostile to the proposals by any means, but I am concerned about the definition of "local authorities". Could my hon. Friend explain, as I believe he more or less did just now, the reference to those who
"represent the interests of local authorities as the Secretary of State thinks fit"?
Alistair Burt: I do not think that the reference is exclusively to local government representative associations. The definition can be taken quite widely, and there are several representative bodies, not least the LGA and others, which might be covered by it.
I shall run briefly through the amendments. On the amendments to clause 1, I take the Minister's view that the clause gives necessary flexibility in respect of decisions on proposals already submitted. I would like as many of those proposals as possible to be given the opportunity to come to pass. If that means that by being able to look at them in detail and decide that parts of some proposals are simply unworkable but other parts are workable, I do not think that it is a bad thing to have the flexibility that is in the Bill. That would have been wished for if the issue had been thought through when we considered the original Sustainable Communities Act. I am perfectly content that the clause gives that flexibility.
I am not completely hostile to the idea of a timetable. It is not in the Bill because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch knows, we have to take what we can get in the wash-up. I heard what the Minister said about including a timetable in the Bill possibly constraining the flexibility of the Department, but I am not so sure that it would not be helpful to have some final deadline. Otherwise, there is a risk that it could take a long time for proposals to come through, and there could be much frustration outside. I would have been quite amenable to a timetable clause being added
to the Bill to provide a final stop line to ensure that things come forward. In the meantime, I accept the assurances given by the Minister that there is a sensible timetable.
One thing I would like to urge on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is that when he sits in a different office in a few weeks' time, one of the first things he should do is look at the proposals that are being submitted to the Department, and produce an early timetable so that the public may know when decisions will be made, and so that friends in Local Works and others will know that an answer has been arrived at.
It would have been nice to have seen a timetable in the Bill, but I am not prepared to press the amendment, bearing in mind the circumstances today. I am not hostile to the idea and I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is cautious about allowing the Government too much leeway: they have used the present leeway to allow things to pile up and have not yet produced any answers, despite their good intent.
The rest of my hon. Friend's amendments were, I fear, designed to unseat the Bill, and I agree and support the arguments made by the Minister. There are aspects of the guidelines on how local authorities might consult that are not too onerous on them, and one or two are very important.
A specific aim of those who brought the idea of the Bill to me, when I was drawn sufficiently high up in the Members' ballot, was to include a reference to parish councils in the Bill, and, through that definition of parish councils, a reference to town councils. I have five town councils in my constituency, and some 54 parish councils. They are of immense importance in rural or semi-rural constituencies such as mine, and, as my hon. Friend was generous enough to acknowledge, parish councils are a firm part of the bedrock of our democracy. They very much wanted to be included formally in the Bill because, although we would like to think that local authorities always work as we would want them to-another regulation deals with how consultation might be carried out-it is not always the case.
My hon. Friend made a fair point about over-regulation. It is a point that he makes often, and his concerns are shared by many colleagues on this side of the House. However, at one and the same time, he wants a regulation to ensure that the Minister and the Department deal with things by a particular time, yet seeks to deny a regulation that would encourage authorities to consult in a particular way. My argument is that, occasionally, one wants regulation to do a particular job. In this case, encouraging active involvement with parish and town councils is exceptionally important, and I am pleased to see it in the Bill. Another regulation that is very important is getting authorities to try to find agreement with those who make proposals.
My final point on the amendments as a whole and on the Bill, in case there is no time for Third Reading, is that we have learned much in the past few years about the sense of unease and dissatisfaction outside this House with how the process of governance occasionally works. I believe that we in this place have all learned that we need to be as flexible as possible in responding to an ever better informed public. The inspiration for the original Act was the sense of frustration that people
felt as they saw their immediate environment change around them. They felt that they had no say over what was happening. Their concerns included worries about a ghost-town Britain in which the high street would change and local and rural facilities would be lost. It seemed that no one in power would accept responsibility, and that nothing could be done.
The Sustainable Communities Act arose out of that sense of frustration. Now that it has been passed, that sense of frustration has eased. People see that the different ways in which to engage the Government, their local authority and the community around them are good things that will not go away. Those of us on both sides of the House will have to learn to engage with that kind of community involvement far more than we used to in the past.
Yes, the bottom line for local authorities is a good, well-run Conservative local authority that will deliver better for the people than anything else. However, under the auspices of such authorities, close working with communities and the inspiration that has been triggered by the Sustainable Communities Act and by this little amendment Bill will do the process no harm.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will withdraw the amendment. His concerns are legitimate, but perhaps they have been eased by what the Minister and I have said. I hope that the amendment are either withdrawn or rejected by the House, because I believe that the Bill as it stands will do its job and be effective for communities for many years to come.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I echo that concluding passage because it encapsulates why the official Opposition support the Bill and hope that it will pass today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), having given the matter his usual, diligent scrutiny, will withdraw the amendment. I endorse the support for the outside bodies that gave rise to the Bill and for Ron Bailey and his colleagues in particular.
My hon. Friend raised legitimate points, but it is not necessary that the regulations under the Bill be interpreted by the Government in a prescriptive or onerous way. The Local Government Association's warning against that is legitimate. I assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that a Conservative Government would ensure that the regulations were interpreted in a proportionate and light-touch way and would put in place the timetable that he sought-whether it is in the Bill or not-because the principle behind it is important.
Mr. Cash: As an eminent lawyer, does my hon. Friend have doubts about the attempt to exclude the jurisdiction of the courts in judicial review with respect to the definition of who represents the interests of local authorities? It is very broad. Furthermore, apart from the exclusion point, proposed new section 5D provides extraordinarily wide powers for the Secretary of State or anybody else to add, subtract, alter and
"make different provision for different cases or for different purposes."
Robert Neill: Like my hon. Friend, I might have drafted those provisions slightly differently, and I will make two points about that. First, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is right that one must be pragmatic about what can be achieved in the wash-up. My principal objective on behalf of the official Opposition is to see the Bill on the statute book. Secondly, even if that risk stands in the Bill, sensible approaches by Ministers can alleviate it. Were I and my hon. Friends in the shadow Communities and Local Government team in Government, we would listen carefully to the legitimate warning of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) about how the legislation should be interpreted. It may be that there will be further legislative opportunities in due course to tighten areas of ambiguity. In that spirit, I hope he accepts that I would prefer to have the Bill on the statute book as it stands so that we have something to work with and can think about those details.
Time is short so I will trespass no longer on the details of the amendments. They have raised issues that have been responded to sensibly and pragmatically by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I share his view that it is regrettable that the Government did not seize as fully as they might have done the opportunities in the original Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). None the less, this Bill is a step in the right direction and I am grateful that the Government have recognised that and supported it.
Lest we do not have time for a Third Reading debate, perhaps I can trespass upon your time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish the Minister, as I did in Committee, every good fortune for the future. I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so on the Floor of the House. I have enjoyed being her shadow and hope that I am able to enjoy being a substance in due course. Whatever happens, we wish her well for the future because she has dealt with this and other matters with unfailing courtesy.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): The Liberal Democrats fully support this modest but important Bill, as we supported the original Act. Twenty-six years ago, I was elected to a district council. We would not have needed such proposals then, but times have changed. In the intervening 26 years, not only has the way in which the electorate engages changed, but there has been over-centralisation of this place under both Labour and Conservative Administrations. That must now be addressed and the Bill does so partially.
I am leaving the House today but hope that, whatever Administration are elected, they take local government issues seriously. The life of people's towns and parishes in urban and rural areas is one of the most important things to them. The way in which they can engage will be assisted considerably by the original Act and the Bill. We want them to engage in the process and should not put up barriers to that by passing these amendments. There is a great deal of licence and flexibility, but the more that people can engage in the process and shape their own communities, and the more they recognise that they have a part to play and that things will not be directed by Government and Parliament, the more sustainable will be the communities in which we all live. I fully support the Bill and hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) will withdraw the amendment.