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On the first day of Report, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, evoked French local government as a wonderful model. I am glad to see the Opposition Front Bench putting that into practice, as this is something that happens in French local authorities. The advantages are many-fold. In addition to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said about how local authorities can tackle worklessness and deprivation, we know that it is often intergenerational. People are on benefits; and their children and grandchildren get on benefits. We could begin to tackle this in a much more coherent way than is currently done by the agencies. There would be greater public contact with the town hall. People will go there and understand what local government is about. One of the things one notices in France is how people going about their ordinary business have to go regularly to the town hall. We do not want to repeat the number of forms that you have to get in France, but it is quite a good system that involves people.
As the noble Baroness said, local authorities already administer important national benefits, such as housing benefits and council tax benefits. We could avoid much of the duplication; we are collecting the same information twice. We could do it more
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I know that the Department for Work and Pensions has conducted studies on whether some of the administration could transfer to local authorities. I hope that in response my noble friend can give us encouragement that the Government will seriously consider this.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, which I am sorry we are having rather late in the evening. Some interesting issues have been raised. The noble Baroness will not be surprised that I cannot accept her amendment, although the case was presented wellcertainly on what my noble friend has just said about the role of local authorities and the focus that we have to put into disadvantaged areas, such as worklessness, in particular. I refer to all the work that we have done through the neighbourhood renewal fund, for example, new deal for communities, and so on. We were making great progress in reducing comparative levels of crime and in education scores, and so on. The most difficult thing to drive down is worklessness. There are a number of important local strategies and some of the work being done by the DWP is very innovative.
We are not turning our face against the amendments for frivolous reasons. There is a lot happening, which I shall address briefly, suggesting that there is a direction of travel, but there is also some tension in the frameworks that we need. Essentially, if the amendments were adopted, Amendment No. 219B would leave it to the discretion of the Secretary of State on whether to devolve these functions to individual local authorities. In contrast, Amendment No. 222B would automatically result in local authorities taking on the same set of functions through a modification of their community strategy.
It is worth looking briefly at the legislative framework in which they operate. My first argument is that it already provides many of the tools they need to secure the well-being of their population. Part I of the Local Government Act 2000 sets out a framework for local authorities, their partners and wider communities to improve economic, social and environmental well-being. In that framework, prior to the 2000 Act, local authorities could only do what legislation expressly permitted them to do. There was little flexibility to do anything discretionary. That was changed by Section 2 of the 2000 Act, which reversed it and gave the power to these authorities to do anything they considered likely to improve or promote social or environmental well-being, subject to express legislative restrictions which I will come back to. The well-being power was a power of first resort.
It is interesting that we are already aware of councils using the power specifically to deal with employment issues. The London Borough of Greenwich, for example, has set up a recruitment company using the well-being
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On the specific amendments, if we look only at the role of the local authority in taking forward the employment agenda, we come up against the first problem which is that this goes in the opposite direction of travel to where we are going with partnerships, local area agreements and the revised performance frameworks. All of those are a result of looking at ways of bringing functions together with a smaller number of shared objectives which, in some of these local areas, can particularly address worklessness or skills.
Secondly, I put on the record the fundamental point that we have a national framework and national standards for income benefits, and for good reasons. That obviously goes back to Beveridge and the first post-war National Insurance Act. If we are going to debate overturning national standards, we must do so seriously. It is hardly something we could do late at night in this Bill, but it is a live issue and there is a lot of interest in how you can achieve a balance of powers and responsibilities. Indeed, we have moved in that direction, first, through the Sustainable Communities Bill which provides a means for taking this debate forward. Under that Bill, the Secretary of State would invite proposals from local authorities which they consider would help them promote the sustainability of local communities.
More recent, and even more exciting in a way, is the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration which looked precisely at the right level for different functions to be delivered: national, regional, sub-regional or local. It threw down the challenge to local authorities to come to the Government with proposals for multi-area agreements. They would essentially be sub-regional. You could have some serious innovation there. We know that economic realities do not respect administrative boundaries.
We have also devolved some of these elements, such as the learning and skills funding and functions, and I am sympathetic to the intention behind this. We have already announced that funding for the delivery of Connexions services will pass to all local authorities from April 2008. Subject to consultation and necessary legislation, funding for school sixth forms, sixth form colleges and the contribution of FE colleges to the 14-19 phase will also transfer to local authorities ring-fenced education budgets. That is important, because it is very much a local function.
In conclusion, we have provided a great deal of freedom to local authorities in this regardthrough the 2000 Act and clauses in this Billto introduce
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Lord Smith of Leigh: My Lords, I was not advocating that we should get away from national standards on benefits as, for example, with housing benefit every local authority administers a national scheme. I am sure that we could handle applications for benefits a lot better, more effectively and more efficiently than the sometimes faceless officers of DWP who people have to demean themselves to. I am glad that my noble friend said that the Government will not be deaf to innovation because if that is the case we will get a bid from Wigan.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, at half-past nine, I am grateful to have had even a smidgen of an interesting debate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for supporting me. I did not really expect the Minister to throw up her hands and say that the Government will take this on board, but it is part of the debate about the Bill, in which we have been looking at bringing greater devolution to local government and making things better for local people. It may not be possible to take this on board in the Bill, but I was glad to hear the Minister say that some thought is being given to at least part of it. Most local authorities are now running one-stop shops where people are able to discuss most aspects of their problems and get help. Most local authorities are labouring with the problems of worklessness, people not in education and people who are not benefiting from jobseekers allowance because they are doing training, coming out and then not doing anything. There is a host of problems that can be dealt with if someone is there at a local level to do it. I am on a working party in my local authority to understand why people do not take up benefits. That is of immediate local interest because of council tax benefit and housing benefit. There are rafts of reasons why people are not claiming, but we need to know them because there is a deficit between what can be claimed and what is claimed.
I hope that this debate will continue. I accept that it may not be possible tonight and that this amendment is not appropriate tonight but I hope that as time goes on and local authorities are given more responsibility the reasoning behind it will become more apparent and we may perhaps be able to make some progress on it. I thank the Minister for her reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(5) The council or charter trustees for the areas listed in subsection (5A) may, by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the members of charter trustees voting thereon at a meeting of the council or charter trustees specially convened for the purpose with notice of the object, admit to be honorary freemen of the City, borough, royal borough, parish, community or area (as appropriate) persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council or charter trustees, rendered eminent services to the City, borough, royal borough, parish, community or area, but the admission of a person to be an honorary freeman shall not confer on him any such rights as are referred to in section 248(4) above.
(6) The council or charter trustees for an area to which this section applies may spend such reasonable sum as they think fit for the purpose of presenting an address or a casket containing an address to a person upon whom they have conferred the title of honorary alderman or admitted to be an honorary freeman of the city, borough, royal borough, parish, community or area.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I declare an interest because many years ago I represented Faversham, an associate Cinque Port, in the other place and my arms contain part of the arms of the Cinque Ports.
At Second Reading, I said that I would table an amendment to rectify an anomaly in existence since 1980 that discriminates against some of the very local authorities whose role the Bill seeks, very properly, to enhance for the benefit of their communities. I refer to the Cinque Port towns of Kent and East Sussex. Until 1974, all but one of the 14 towns were municipal boroughs with civic traditions dating back almost 1,000 years. As boroughs, they had the ancient right to confer the freedom of their towns on distinguished national figures and those who had given a lifetime of voluntary service to their communities. The Local Government Act 1972, which came into force in 1974, abolished all the ancient municipal boroughs. Many, including 12 of the Cinque Ports, were too small to become local government districts in their own right. The majority became successor parishes that exercised the rights to be called town councils and for their chairmen to be known as the town major. Some of the larger towns did not meet the Government's criteria to become successor parishes, and from 1974 they were represented by charter trustees. A number of these later became town councils, leaving only Margate and Ramsgate represented by charter trustees.
In the case of the 12 Cinque Ports which were reduced to the status of town councils or charter trustees, the legislation which gave effect to the 1974 reorganisation recognised their long service to the nation by making express provision for the successor town councils and charter trustees to continue to
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to their community. Although the former boroughs which had been reduced to the status of town councils or charter trustees resented the loss of their power to recognise conspicuous public service, they acknowledged that the new power to admit honorary freemen was confined to a logically coherent class of principal local authorities. However, that changed in 1980 when the Local Government, Planning and Land Act extended the power to admit honorary freemen to parish councils granted the status of cities or royal towns. The Cinque Port towns, whose service to the nation goes back to the time of the Norman Conquest, do not acceptand I do not acceptthat they are any less worthy of being able to admit honorary freemen than some smaller and less ancient towns which happen now to have the purely honorary title of city or royal town.
The Confederation of the Cinque Ports, representing all 14 Cinque Port towns, has been pressing the Government to rectify this anomaly and injustice, as it is, for several years. The Government indicated that they will bear its representations in mind should a suitable legislative opportunity arise. This Bill presents just such an opportunity. This small addition would be entirely consistent with the broad principles and objects of the Bill and would put right an anomaly which has caused much resentment and frustration over the past 27 years. The Confederation of the Cinque Ports and others, including all seven Members of another place for the Cinque Port towns and a number of distinguished Members of your Lordships' House, asked the Government to include this provision in the Bill when it was first introduced in another place. The Government said that they were not unsympathetic to the idea, but because of the pressures on the Bill and the number of amendments tabled in another place they felt able to include only provisions which would play a key role in delivering their public service reform agenda.
I hope that the Government can be persuaded that this Bill is an imminently suitable vehicle for the change we seek. The Bill rightly seeks to harness the potential of well run town and parish councils which are rooted firmly in their local communitiesin some ways they are more representative of those communities than larger, more remote district and county councilsby extending their powers to promote the well-being of their local areas. The Cinque Port town councils are just such authorities. Most have achieved or are actively working towards formal accreditation as quality parish councils. How fitting it would be if this opportunity were taken to allow them to confer the modest accolade of an honorary freedom on those who have striven over many years to promote the well-being of their fellow citizens?
I am immensely grateful to your Lordships Public Bill Office for the invaluable advice and guidance given in drafting the amendment. I am advised, too, that there is no doubt that it is well within the scope of the Bill. The wording of the relevant subsections of Section 249 of the Local Government Act 1972 became rather convoluted with the amendments introduced by the 1980 Act. That effect would have been exacerbated had the Cinque Port towns merely been added to the classes of local authority empowered to admit honorary freemen as contained in those subsections. Instead, the Public Bill Office has advised, and I have readily agreed, that the existing wording could be simplified and improved by including those classes of authority in a separate subsection (5A) to which the Cinque Port towns can easily be added.
I also thank the noble Lords who have indicated support for the proposal, including the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, my noble friend Lord Imbert, and, not least, my noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He is very sorry indeed not to be able to be here tonight. I spoke to him earlier today, and he has an inescapable commitment. However, he has authorised me to say that he has spoken to many Cinque Ports people. They are deeply keen to have this power. I would also like to thank the Registrar and Seneschal of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, Mr Ian Russell, for his tremendous help in briefing me on these matters.
Finally, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her response at Second Reading, when, although unable to accept an amendment on these lines, she confirmed that she was not unsympathetic to the idea. I hope that she will be able to be even more positive tonight. I beg to move.
I am a resident of one of the Cinque PortsHastingsand I have a particular interest since my political career started there, so many years ago that it was then a county borough, before the great changes brought about by the 1972 Act. I remember then the immense pride that the town and the other towns took in belonging to the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, and it is important that we recognise these historical traditions and do our utmost to ensure that such an attractive, simple proposition as the ability to admit as honorary freemen those who have given distinguished service should be returned.
I hope that the Government will not make too much of a meal of this. It is very easy to find all kinds of reasons why things should not be done. May I hope that the Minister will find ways of bringing this about in this particular Bill? I warmly support the amendment.
Lord Imbert: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, in his proposed amendment, particularly in so far as it concerns the Cinque Ports and member towns of the Confederation
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Some noble Lords may wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, they might say, In the end, its only words. Why should the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, feel so passionate about what, to the uninitiated, may sound a bit unnecessary? But my noble friend Lord Boston is endeavouring to right a grievous wrong. It may be that the civil servant who drafted Clause 249 of the Local Government Bill 1972he or she was no doubt legally qualified, like all our civil servants, for whom I have the highest regard; I have been fortunate enough to work with many of them over the yearsdid so in impeccable English. Unwittingly, howeverI cannot believe that even the most careless drafter could have meant to be so destructivehe or she drew a red-pencil line through some of the proudest and bravest times in this country's history.
Trust me, I am a policemanand this seems to be a job for the police. It is a case of theft, whether deliberate or in ignorance, of certain rights and privileges granted in particular to the Cinque Ports over many hundreds of years for their contribution and devotion to duty in the forefront of the defence of this kingdom. Their provision of ships and the manpower to sail and operate them as fighting units against this countrys enemies, particularly the French and Spanish navies, has long been recognised by a succession of monarchs.
There is evidence of charters to individual ports from the 11th century. By the middle of the 13th century, charters were granted to the five ports, to the two ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea and to their members collectively. There is even credible speculation of long-lost charters which pre-date the Norman Conquest. But, in my view, the most important was that of Queen Elizabeth 1, in 1563, at the time of threatened invasion by the French and Spanish fleets. Throughout the centuries proud young men of the ancient boroughs and towns have been quick to acknowledge any call to arms, and the Cinque Ports, by granting the most outstanding the honorary freedom of the town, had a way of publicly acknowledging that tradition of duty.
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