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Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I welcome this important debate and look forward greatly to hearing from the three maiden speakers. I wish them well. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for giving me the opportunity to let off steam.

In our party's recent manifesto, we laid great emphasis on the importance of regenerating local civic pride and rebuilding local control and local responsibility. Twenty years ago, a Conservative government made mistakes in increasing central control over local councils. We accept that as a party and we have learnt from it. However, nothing compares with the manic centralisation of the past few years—the explosion of regulation; the proliferating regimes of inspection; the march of central targets; and the mushrooming of guidance notes, codes of practice, risk assessments and duties to comply with the effluent of the legislative sausage machine that has been, and still is, working overtime.

There is not a doctor's surgery, school governing body, hospital trust board, chief constable, magistrate or local authority chief executive not looking with
 
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dread at the daily in-tray for the next piece of dictation to arrive from Whitehall or its numberless phalanx of quangos. Up and down the land, head teachers are battling with Whitehall paperwork; village hall committees with mindless bureaucracy; sports clubs with health and safety advisers; and universities with politically correct commissars telling them whom they should admit. Words were the making of this Government, and I have no doubt that they will be their epitaph.

Local variety, enterprise and initiative are being stifled. We are losing colour, common sense and our sense of community. We are losing much of what made it distinctive to be British. Are we a better country because a centrally imposed system of licensing has extinguished the old right of Cambridge University to run licensing in its precincts? Will we be a better country if centrally imposed standards on school days and hours lead to the closure of a private nursery school with which parents are well satisfied? It is way beyond time to call a halt to it all, and the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, would be a good place to start.

The basic difficulty with the way in which the Government approach so many things is that they still believe that the men in Whitehall know better and, as Mr Austin Mitchell so brilliantly put it on Tuesday in another place, the "cherub geniuses" in Downing Street know best of all.

I welcome the affirmation in the gracious Speech—a promise that, I hope, will be kept—that there should be less regulation. If any regulation is reduced, the irony will be that the Government reducing it will be the same people who introduced it in the first place. It is a real Grand Old Duke of York promise: they regulated up to the top of the hill, and they are deregulating them down again—we hope.

I do not claim that the Government alone are guilty of centralising. What an error it was, for example, for banks to take responsibility away from local branches and local managers who knew their patch and hand decisions over to remote automatic computers. It is no wonder that the reputation of banking is plummeting. We now hear cases of people being charged loan-shark rates of interest for the stopping of a tiny direct debit that an old-style manager might never have stopped in the first place. Now, most people cannot even telephone their bank branch, and, as I know from experience, if a mother is asked to help her son or a husband his wife, they are told by someone—in India as likely as not—that they cannot do so because of the Data Protection Act 1984.

Can the Minister tell the House—if she cannot, will she please write to me—what will happen with the computerisation of the NHS and the rolling out of the ID card with regard to access to public services, especially if the system ever becomes compulsory? If, as is said, it may in time be necessary to provide a biometric card to gain access to a library or to make a doctor's appointment, how will it be possible, given
 
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the Data Protection Act, for a friend to pick up a library book for an elderly person or for a wife to make a medical appointment for her husband?

Are not central computer systems in danger of breaking up family cohesion and making it harder for one person to help another? I worry about that and would appreciate specific advice from the Minister on how it will be avoided. People do not want to be numbers on a card or a computer. They want to be treated as individuals by individuals. Surely, that is the right of every person born into this free country. British people are not servants of the state. The institutions of government are there to serve them.

To give another example, how is it that the unelected head of a quango, the Passport Agency, can suddenly give an interview to a newspaper—naturally, he did not deign to tell Parliament—announcing that to be allowed to travel abroad, British citizens will henceforth have to go cap in hand to an interrogation centre to ask for the right to a passport. I ask: at what cost in time, in inconvenience, in bureaucracy and why? Who authorised that? Currently, we have a perfectly effective localised service where people can have passports delivered to them in their homes. Who decreed that to be free to travel English people should go to government centres to be interrogated? I worry about that.

We need to build up personal choice; we need to protect family cohesion; and we need to increase local diversity and accountability. I was a strong supporter of a policy in our manifesto to allow local people to elect their local police chief directly so that policing would reflect local priorities—not targets handed down by Whitehall. Do the Government have any intention of pinching that Conservative policy?

I strongly supported the abolition of unelected regional assemblies that suck power and money away from local councils. Following its rebuff by people in the north-east, will the Government consider abolishing those? I strongly back plans to restore authority to local councils over planning. It is surely intolerable that Mr Prescott can order perfectly good terraced housing to be demolished in the north or suburban gardens and green countryside to be built over in the south. It is an affront to local accountability. Will the Government think again about that?

I strongly supported the plans we had to scrap whole swathes of pointless bureaucracy imposed on local authorities from the centre, going under appalling acronyms such as CPA, BVPIs, AMPs and so on. Senior local authority executives have counted the cost of this in possibly billions of pounds. I find a certain irony in the Government talking about localism, but imposing a national straitjacket on local authorities through inspection regimes—and a straitjacket it is.

A local council may have been elected on a platform that appeals to its residents. But it is a brave authority that says it is prepared to do badly in the inspection process because those things are not as important to its electorate as other issues and because they consume scarce resources. Far too much time and emotional energy—the greatest drain of all—are spent by senior
 
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local authority managers and members feeding the inspection beasts. Surely all that time and energy could be put to so much better use, like service improvement.

So perhaps I may address my concluding remarks to the Audit Commission. What could be more demoralising than for local authorities to jump through the hoops and then find someone changing the rules? That is what the Audit Commission is doing. I ask the Minister to look into this for it is causing wide concern at local level. After peddling one model of comprehensive performance assessment, the commission has now produced another. The new model claims to be strategic regulation, but it is not. A tremendous amount of work is asked for from local authorities in preparing self-assessments and position statements—all time that will not be spent on providing local services.

Just as scores of local councils have proved their improvement, the Audit Commission arbitrarily moves the goalposts and introduces a new, self-proclaimed "harder test". What is the consequence of a council suddenly being marked down to a low score on tests it was never set before? What does that mean for the morale of members and the residents of the area?

I used to hold the Audit Commission in very high regard, but its behaviour here is arbitrary by any measure and some of the indicators it is proposing are, frankly, absurd. It represents a serious disappointment by its high standards and makes a strong case for aspects of its own role to be reviewed. For if we do, as we all say we do, really believe in localism, why not leave the local electorate to be the judge of performance, effectiveness and value for money? That surely must be what localism really means. If only the Government and their agencies could understand the importance of that, this country would be a far, far better place.

11.56 am

The Lord Bishop of Southwell: My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for raising this very important subject for our discussion today. The Church of England and, I believe, all faith groups in the United Kingdom are uniquely placed to make a positive contribution to any discussion on decentralisation and the importance for citizenship of the healthy and diverse local provision of public and other services and better ongoing community engagement in all aspects of modern life.

It might seem a rather hackneyed truism, but in the life of the Church, as in the community more widely, local is often what matters most—certainly to individuals and families seeking to make sense of, and the most of, their lives. George Orwell's threat of an end to diversity and the establishment of Big Brother, graphically exhibited in 1984, is not a thing of the past and community vitality, as underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, requires constantly to be nurtured and affirmed.

The General Synod of the Church of England, a body as richly diverse as your Lordships' House, meets shortly in York. The location is important and
 
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relevant to our discussion today. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, referred to the geographic or perceived distance from the centre. Apart from acknowledging the northern province of the Church, it also acknowledges that the Church as an institution is rooted throughout England—parish by parish, urban, rural and suburban. And in terms of history and contemporary understanding, the Church is neither London-centred nor top-down in its approach to ministry and community engagement. I believe that this helps us in an appreciation of some of the issues before us today.

Way back in 1985, the Church of England published Faith in the City. The report was prepared by the then Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Urban Priority Areas. It was set up by the late Archbishop Robert Runcie and it was a call for action to the Church and to the nation. The report highlighted the growing number of people and places that were experiencing disadvantage and exclusion at a time when others were experiencing economic boom. Although the focus was on urban matters, the message was, and to a great extent remains, universal, and the Church has promoted similar work looking at such problems in rural areas.

The latter work enabled, for example, parish-based ministry, working with others in local communities, to respond quickly and by all accounts effectively when many such communities were traumatised by blows such as BSE, foot and mouth disease and swine fever.

The local parish-based structures of the Church and their often longstanding relationships with secular and charitable organisations working locally provides a rich source of evidence, I believe, suggesting that there is a lot to celebrate in terms of healthy communities working and living together throughout these islands. But they must be supported. Those charged with the responsibility of government, at every level, need to keep the health of local communities and all who constitute them constantly in mind, certainly in a manner in which much and such public administration is delivered to them.

The substantial body of evidence and commentary drawn together 20 years ago in the Faith in the City report, to which I referred, continue to be the subject of work and engagement right up to the present day. The Church is being invited into many new partnerships and patterns of engagement alongside other faith communities. That needs to be underpinned by both resourcing and, of course, theological thinking.

The Government say that their vision is of an "urban renaissance", one which depends on individuals and communities playing their full part. We need to think differently in the light of the changes that are affecting our urban and, increasingly, our rural communities.

In many ways these changes become apparent in the events that make our news headlines: the eruption of violence back in 2001 in northern cities; the low turnouts, already referred to, in general and local elections; the crisis—or at least the severe and real dislocation—in the relationship between urban and rural populations. All point to a time of critical
 
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opportunity and challenge for all of us—for faith groups, tiers of government and, importantly, within and around the diverse communities we are all trying to serve.

A greater awareness of regional identity and relationships has, of course, been fostered through the creation of the regional development agencies and an enhancement of the role of regional government offices. The former is now expected to take the lead in the allocation of resources for area-based regeneration. Regional performance is considered vital in the context of Europe, where many nations have cohesive regional economies and more regular distribution of resources and population. But, as a Bishop, I remain concerned about increasing regional disparities in economic performance, employment, house prices and, indeed, media profile, as well as the treatment and inclusion of faith communities in regional strategies.

London, of course, continues to stake out its place as a global city in a context that places other British cities in a completely different league. Significant questions exist concerning London's ability to develop appropriate strategies for regeneration and redistribution within itself and its relationship with other places in the United Kingdom and abroad.

We are all increasingly aware of the European and global dimensions to issues of employment, corporate culture, migration and notions of belonging as well as identity and home.

The Church is uniquely placed to provide an overview of regions from outside the business and local government perspectives. The interests of rural and urban communities, and often the poorest members of those communities, can be advocated by the Churches and other faith communities. There is, however, a need for greater liaison between those engaging with regional government bodies within and across the regions. It is vital that this level of engagement is undertaken in an ecumenical context which acknowledges the interfaith dimension.

Twenty years on from Faith in the City, the Church of England, working closely with other United Kingdom faith groups, continues to celebrate the local and national partnerships that must succeed so that citizenship is enhanced and community vitality affirmed, and, indeed, Big Brother kept at bay.

The Commission on Urban Life and Faith was launched at a meeting in this House in February last year. The Commission on Urban Life and Faith is a group of experienced practitioners on urban issues drawn from different communities around the country, all of whom have a commitment to improve life in disadvantaged urban areas. The commission's aim is to promote a realistic and positive vision of urban life and the contribution of people of faith, based on an analysis of tension, delights, injustices and the needs of contemporary city and urban living. As a key part of that work, the commission has rightly spent time looking at issues of concern to young people—the local communities not just of today but also of tomorrow.
 
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In conclusion, I pay tribute to the reverend noble Baroness, Lady Richardson of Calow, for her work as chair of the commission and to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for initiating this interesting and vital debate. Like other noble Lords, I look forward to the maiden speeches of the three new distinguished Members of the House.

12.5 pm


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