It is a pleasure to open this section of the debate on the Gracious Speech. At the heart of the Government’s programme is action to create strong, stable and secure communities, and action to tackle terrorism. My Department has a role in both. We want to create communities in which there is economic opportunity, social justice and a strong sense of civic pride, communities in which people come together to make a difference to their own and other people’s lives, and communities in which people feel secure and able to stand up for our shared values—rights combined with responsibilities.
In 1997 we inherited a legacy of run-down public services starved of cash, and a demoralised local government drained of resources. The Leader of the Opposition confessed this summer:
“it is true to say that the last Conservative Government was not always kind to local democracy”.
We on the Labour Benches agree with him. In their last four years, the Tory Government presided over a 7 per cent. real-terms cut in local services. Since 1997 we have increased spending by almost 40 per cent. in real terms. That investment, together with a strong national direction and the hard work of local authorities, has brought about real improvements in the quality of local public services.
The challenge now is to give local people more control over their lives and to make local services more responsive to local needs. Last month, I published a local government White Paper setting out our proposals for the next phase of reform. People have the right to a decent neighbourhood. When they see graffiti on walls or drug dealers hanging around on their street corners, they need to know that they can get something done. We are thus strengthening the ability of local people, through their local councillors, to hold to account those who deliver local services. At that time, I also set out measures to ensure that all communities benefited from strong, accountable and visible leadership.
We will introduce a Bill in the coming Session to give effect to those proposals. Even the Tory chair of the Local Government Association has described that Bill as taking
“significant steps on local leadership, deregulation and cutting red tape”.
I hope that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and her Front-Bench colleagues will take the opportunity to welcome the proposals, which she signally failed to do when we debated them last month, and that she will back the Bill on Second Reading.
We want our cities to compete with the best in the world and to be good places in which to do business, live, work and travel. We are working with our towns and cities to support economic development, to strengthen public services and to improve the quality of public spaces. I pay tribute to Ken Livingstone for having the courage to take the tough decisions needed to maintain London as a world-class city. Building on the success of devolution in London, we will introduce a Bill to strengthen the powers of the Mayor and the assembly. Is the hon. Member for Meriden any clearer about whether she will support the Greater London authority Bill during its passage through the Commons? But perhaps I should not expect too much, given that the Tories do not yet have a candidate for Mayor. As Tony Travers of the London School of Economics pointed out recently, it is not easy for the Tories. They need a candidate who is
“Populist, capable of giving as good as they get and willing to mix it—not many leading Conservatives fit that description”.
May I say, for the record, that this is not remotely a leadership bid on my part, although there is a vacancy? My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of our greatest investigative journalists, the divine Nick Ferrari of LBC, is now the bookies favourite. Can she share any views with the House about the fact that Mr. Ferrari has said that it is not so much the X factor as the yuck factor? Where can we find a candidate? Is it not our duty to help Conservative Members and suggest a name?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is not really my job to add even more yuck to the yuck factor—but how can the Conservative party seriously expect Londoners to believe that it could run a world city, when it cannot even run a process to select its candidate?
As a progressive Government, we want to give more people the chance to realise their aspirations, and to extend opportunity and prosperity to all. Because we have given people a greater opportunity to own their own homes, thanks to low and stable inflation and interest rates, the number of home owners has risen by 1.8 million since 1997. As was promised in our election manifesto, by 2010 we will have helped 100,000 extra households, including key workers such as nurses and teachers, into low-cost home ownership—and I am keen that we should go further.
We are doubling investment in affordable housing and we will be delivering an extra 10,000 social homes a year by 2007-08. However, we face significant challenges. Too many first-time buyers and young families remain unable to get a foot on the housing ladder. As Kate Barker made clear in her report two years ago, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of households over the past three decades and a 50 per cent. drop in house building. That is clearly unsustainable, so we are taking decisive action. The building of new houses has increased, and in 2005 it hit its highest rate since 1990.
Has my right hon. Friend received any indication of where Her Majesty’s official Opposition want houses to be built? They do not want them in people’s back gardens or on brownfield sites—or anywhere, it seems. I hope that the Conservatives do not want to build houses in my constituency, because it is already grossly overcrowded.
I hope that the hon. Member for Meriden will use this debate to clarify her party’s position. I also hope that she will not only support the Barker proposals to build an extra 200,000 homes a year, which will have a significant impact on affordability, but back the position that the Leader of the Opposition expressed earlier this year when he said:
“the failure to provide an adequate number of new homes in Britain has contributed to the affordability problem…This situation is bananas.”
What my right hon. Friend says is good news, but is she aware that in constituencies such as Huddersfield, the real problem is the lack of social housing, and getting young people into the housing market? The financial services industry now offers a mortgage of five times a person’s salary, and that is helping to push up house prices. Surely young people will never be able to afford a house unless something is done about that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have to tackle the issue of investment in new social homes, and we are committed to making that a priority in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. In addition, we must provide access to low-cost affordable homes for young couples who want to get on the housing ladder. However, we have to commit ourselves, as a society and as a nation, to building the number of homes that people need, in order for housing to be affordable. That is why I am determined to force the hon. Member for Meriden on this point. Is she or is she not committed to providing 200,000 homes? That, as Kate Barker set out in her report, is the number of homes that we have to build to meet that pressure. Unfortunately, the hon. Lady remains silent.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for challenging our Front-Bench Members on the matter, but I recall a number of press reports about her vigorous campaigns against building proposals in her constituency. Was she wrong in her opposition to those proposals, and what does she intend to do about the subject in future?
If the hon. Lady does her research, she will find that Bolton, West has already met its housing targets and that the local authority is committed to building more homes, including more affordable homes. She and her Front-Bench team, as well as Opposition Back Benchers, oppose homes wherever they are to be built. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said, they oppose them whether they are on greenfield or brownfield sites, in fields or in the suburbs.
The hon. Member for Meriden will have an opportunity later in the debate to make her position known, and I look forward to hearing whether she sticks to the position that she recently set out, when she said:
“we need to build more homes, but not on the scale that Barker recommends”.
Does she still hold that position?
Given that new housing has to be accompanied by high-quality infrastructure if development is to be sustainable, and that my own area is expected to take another 1,000 houses a year for the next 20 years—to which, in principle, I have no objection whatever—will the Secretary of State tell the House, as an indication of the strength of her commitment on the subject, when she last spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills or the Secretary of State for Health about the provision of infrastructure for Aylesbury Vale?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that I speak to my colleagues regularly, on that matter and on others, and we are, of course, committed to investing in the necessary infrastructure. That is why, together with the Treasury, my Department is examining proposals for a planning gain supplement. We will, of course, invest in the necessary infrastructure, so that we make homes that are viable, of high quality and environmentally sustainable. The Opposition have no proposals for funding the additional infrastructure required.
The Secretary of State speaks of infrastructure investment, but although Bournemouth has been told to build 20,000 more houses over the next 15 years, we are not getting a single penny of the £900 million budget for transport in the next five years. How does she correlate the fact that we are told to build more houses with the fact that there is no more money for infrastructure?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be better off lobbying his own Front-Bench team. As far as I am aware, unless the hon. Member for Meriden is dissociating herself from the shadow Chancellor, the Opposition are committed to cutting £21 billion from the infrastructure budget. When the hon. Gentleman’s party comes up with viable propositions for investing in infrastructure, perhaps we will take it seriously on housing, too.
We are committed to social justice and to extending opportunity to the most vulnerable in society. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of “Cathy Come Home”. I had the opportunity to meet a group of homeless people involved in the “Moving in, Moving on” project in London. They were learning new painting and decorating skills in order to give them a chance of a job, raise their confidence and learn about working as a team. It was a powerful illustration of the progress that we have made in tackling the terrible legacy of homelessness left to us by the Opposition. Rough sleeping is down by nearly three quarters since 1998, there has been an end to the scandal of large numbers of families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for long periods, and new cases of homelessness are at a 23-year low.
We need to go further, however, to focus on the root causes of the problems that we face. We will increase investment to £74 million in 2007-08 to support work on preventing and tackling homelessness, and to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation. We are working with local authorities to give young people access to safe accommodation and the advice and services that they need. I have made a commitment that by 2010, 16 and 17-year-olds will not be placed in bed-and-breakfast hotels, except in an emergency.
We want tolerant and inclusive communities, in which discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Most of all, they should be safe. Our society is increasingly diverse, and we must take advantage of the enormous benefits that migration and diversity bring. We must recognise, too, that the pace of change can be unsettling for some people, especially in the communities most affected. It is important to recognise genuine concerns, and at the same time to fight at all times the lies and poison peddled by the British National party. In the summer, I established the Commission on Integration and Cohesion to take a hard look at those issues, to consider how local communities can better respond to change, and to see how we can ensure that all groups in our communities have genuine opportunities. We must recognise, too, that we face stark challenges to our values and our way of life from those who foster extremism and do not hesitate to use violence to further their own ends.
As MPs, we are good at meeting the leaders of ethnic communities. It is right that that should continue, but we are not so good at meeting young, possibly disaffected members of the community to whom radicalism and extremism may be attractive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should concentrate our efforts in that direction?
I do. My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We should listen not only to established voices in our local communities but to people whose voices have not traditionally been heard in this debate—the voices of women and young people in particular, and of the grass-roots organisations that play a genuine role in rooting out extremism and promoting our shared values as a society, spreading and enhancing economic and social justice. Last week the director general of the Security Service, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, outlined the scale of the terrorist threat—some 200 groupings or networks with a total of more than 1,600 identified individuals who are actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist acts here or overseas—so my hon. Friend is right to say that we should take action. Let no one tell us that those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam represent the vast majority of decent, law-abiding Muslims in this country. Isolating extremists is a shared problem: the Government should step up their work, all faith groups should stand up for core shared values, and Muslim leaders should actively condemn extremism. As a Government we will work in partnership with organisations that take a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values.
Did the Secretary of State note that the head of Security Service said that the Government were in danger of spending too much time talking to faith groups and not enough time engaging in a dialogue with community groups and elected councillors?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We must reach out to more people who are active at grass-roots level and connect with young people and individuals who may be susceptible to the threat of extremism. It is therefore important that we build up the Government office network and work with local authorities. In the past few weeks, I have talked with local authority leaders and chief executives about the work that they do as local leaders to combat the threat of extremism.
The quality of our environment and the steps that we take to enhance and protect it for future generations are integral to the health and strength of our communities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will say more about the national action that we are taking to address the challenges of climate change. My Department has taken action at local level, too. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds centre at Rainham marshes, which I visited last week and which will be enjoyed by thousands of local people and schoolchildren, is an example of a beautifully designed low-carbon building. Our aim is that the Thames Gateway should become an exemplar for low-carbon and zero-carbon development. We will publish a code for sustainable homes that will set agreed standards for homes’ environmental performance. We want to make it easier, too, for people to make informed choices about more sustainable lifestyles. The introduction of energy performance certificates will inform home owners about their home’s energy performance.
Strong and prosperous communities are central to the long-term health of our democracy and our country—
I sense that the right hon. Lady is close to a peroration, and I have not yet heard her mention the words “Lyons” or “local government finance”, which is curious in a speech about the Government programme in relation to local government. It is like a meal without the meat. It is reported that Sir Michael Lyons will deliver his report to Government in the week that the House goes into recess for Christmas. Will she give us the assurance that it will be published in the week that the House returns from the Christmas recess?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I thought someone might ask me about the council tax during my speech, and I am glad that he took the opportunity to do so. He will know that we published a local government Bill covering the form and function of local government, because it is right to examine these issues in a serious and orderly way before we consider finance. He is right, too, to say that Sir Michael Lyons is taking an independent view of the local government system for finance and that he will deliver his report to us when he has completed it. He has not yet given us a date for delivery of his report. It would be a little premature to comment on when it will be published, but published it will be.
No. I have given way once to the right hon. Gentleman.
Strong and prosperous communities are central to the long-term health of our democracy and our country. I believe we are well equipped to meet the challenge—sustained investment, not short-termism and cuts; supporting aspiration for everyone, not privilege for a few; social justice, not the politics of despair. It is a record that I am proud to put before the House today.
Forgive me for expressing my disappointment, but I thought the point of the debate on the Gracious Speech was for the Government to promote their legislative programme. I have therefore addressed myself to what was in the Queen’s Speech. Members of the public listening to such a presentation by a Minister will be disappointed by the level of party political point scoring and evasion of the point of the debate.
We welcome the debate and for good reason we have chosen to yoke together the subjects of local government and the environment. It makes sense to do that because it is local authorities that shoulder a great deal of responsibility for taking the steps necessary to improve the quality of our environment locally and, by extension, globally. In most cases councils are rising to that challenge with innovative ways to reduce our environmental impact. The work that they do is poorly recognised by central Government, who fail to credit local authorities for the amount of commercial waste that they collect and recycle and the amount of composting that takes place. Even the transformation of waste into energy does not count.
Local authorities tell me that these important aspects are not taken into account when a council is assessed for its green credentials. That is evidence of a lack of coherence in the approach of the two Government Departments represented in the Chamber today, a lack of coherence that stems from a party unsure of its future direction, as was laid bare in the Queen’s Speech last week. The Queen’s Speech comes not long since the publication of the local government White Paper and it allows us to compare the rhetoric of the White Paper with the reality of the legislative programme.
Let us start with the local government Bill. We will welcome any measures in the Bill that give greater freedom to local councils. Rationalising the inspection regimes, cutting Government targets, scaling back best value and the comprehensive performance assessment will not be met with opposition from us, mainly because we have been campaigning for so long to scrap those procedures, although we shall wait and see if the replacement, the comprehensive area assessment, which sounds suspiciously like “son of comprehensive performance assessment”, merely results in more red tape under a different guise.
I am sure I am not alone in seeing the irony of the Government’s present position. In order to cut the targets and directives that have hamstrung councils, the Government will have to repeal their own legislation from the Local Government Acts 1999, 2000 and 2003. But in a spirit of consensus, I shall simply say, “Better the sinner that repents” and leave it at that.
I shall be watching closely, however, to ensure that we do not have a bonfire of directives one day, only for new regulations to break out like rekindled embers from the fire on the next. I hope that taking a knife to the red tape will genuinely liberate councils in the long term, but I am sceptical that the culture that created the red tape in the first place can really be changed overnight. I find it astonishing, for example, that my local authority is being prevented by the Department for Education and Skills from fitting a sprinkler system in a brand new academy, despite four local cases of school arson in the past two years.
As Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, may I give a little more detail to the House on this issue? We are considering the issue of sustainable schools at the moment, and the evidence suggests that there is no directive on the matter. Indeed, the Department is encouraging the installation of sprinkler systems in new schools.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to a parliamentary question that I tabled in July, and I will send him a copy of the reply that I received.
We welcome measures to give parish councils more powers to pass by-laws enabling them to take action on antisocial behaviour and graffiti, but several questions remain unanswered. What calculations have been made of the cost of policing on-the-spot fines and of putting community support officers on the streets, and of the working capacity of the councils that will implement and manage those schemes? How far down the road of summary justice are we prepared to go? Of course we need to come down hard on problems such as graffiti and antisocial behaviour, but are there sufficient safeguards in place? Already, people who mix up their recycling or accidentally put their dustbins out on the wrong day are being fined. Surely we should be looking to the magistrates courts as the means of delivering prompt local justice, with the safety net of giving defendants a fair say. That was the courts’ original purpose, and the Government should be trying to restore that role.
My hon. Friend mentioned waste. Is she aware that well-intentioned policies on waste management can often lead to fly-tipping, which has become a real problem in my constituency? What does she feel that the Government should do about that? At the moment, there appears to be a complete lack of a considered, joined-up approach.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it allows me to point out that the Government’s proposals for a bin tax or rubbish tax would have exactly the unintended consequence of driving people to the unacceptable option of fly-tipping.
In reality, when considering the models of leadership that the Government propose, most councils will opt to retain the status quo—that is, a leader appointed from the controlling group who has an automatic four-year term. The Government’s proposals are a far cry from their original plans for directly elected mayors in every town. Now we have a White Paper containing a whole series of leadership options from which councils may choose. We welcome the fact that local authorities will be given that choice, but we are sceptical that we shall see anything other than the retention of the status quo.
The proposals are welcome in that they will give communities and councils the chance to decide for themselves on their leadership requirements, rather than having a model forced on them. So, in the spirit of letting councils decide for themselves on their new leadership arrangements, why will the Government not go the whole hog and allow them to decide whether they want to stick with a cabinet structure or revert back to one involving committees? A simple measure such as that would add credibility to the Government’s professed enthusiasm for localism.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that the question that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) put to the Secretary of State earlier is the key? We can fiddle around with the structures and the organisations until we are blue in the face, but unless local councils have control over the finance to do the things that local people want, we shall not get anywhere. What is the Conservative party’s position, not only on the Lyons report but on that crucial question?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to repeat that the local government White Paper had an obvious hole in that it made no mention whatsoever of local government finance. We are all waiting for the outcome of the review by Sir Michael Lyons. The hon. Gentleman’s party has experienced the damage caused by getting ahead of Lyons in promoting the local income tax, which has been deeply unpopular with the electorate. There is every good reason to await the outcome of Lyons. I reiterate the call by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)—we want the report to be published as soon as possible, preferably the day after it is given to the Government so that we, too, may benefit given the long period for which local government finance has been under review.
Does my hon. Friend agree that three dates matter—when the report is delivered to the Government, when it is published, and when the Government respond to it—and that it is crucial that all three stages should be completed well before the May local elections?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It will become increasingly difficult politically for the Government to publish the report as the date of the local elections approaches; and it will not have escaped his attention that that moment could coincide with the change in the leadership of the Labour party. I strongly suspect that the reason why the Government are seeking to withhold the report from us is that they are unsure about the direction in which the new leader of the Labour party will take them.
The proposals to reform local area agreements will make interesting reading. Like Ministers, I spent last week meeting many people involved in local government. The local area agreement reforms carry a great deal of expectation. I welcome moves to deliver greater involvement and consultation with community stakeholders. Nevertheless, there is a built-in tension, because however empowered the local authority may feel, the centralised nature of Government means that representatives from other public services are dancing to the tune of their own Department in Whitehall instead of that of their local community. The Department admits as much in a report on local area agreements from last month, which says:
“Some local areas and Government Offices felt that guidance issued by different departments sometimes contained contradictory messages about LAAs. In addition, different interpretations of key areas of policy were also thought to be hampering progress.”
As a case in point, the report even referred to the different views in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government on what a sustainable community looks like. Until the Government are unified across all Departments in delivering localism, I fear that the potential of reformed local area agreements will remain extremely limited.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s interest in local area agreements. I am sure that she agrees that local authorities, increasingly working with the voluntary sector, provide an important means of delivering local services attuned to the needs of local communities. Does she acknowledge that since the Conservatives took over London councils, grants to voluntary sectors across London have been slashed, with Tory councillors claiming that that is to reduce council tax?
The hon. Gentleman heard me state that the local area agreement has potential as a vehicle for bringing together the strategic bodies that serve a local community. However, until now the experience of those in the voluntary sector has been that they are not being treated on an equal footing, as was manifest at a conference that I attended with a Minister last week that addressed the voluntary sector’s role in the context of local area agreements. That is enshrined in the local government White Paper, which contains an obligation to consult with voluntary organisations but still does not ensure that they are treated on an equal footing. We need to recognise the important role that the voluntary sector—or third sector, to use the terminology—can play in partnership with local authorities. It has even greater potential than we have yet seen. However, I shall remain sceptical as long as the other representatives of Departments to the local area agreement are dancing to the tune of their own Whitehall Department. That is my beef with the Government.
The local government Bill will also contain a measure to provide for the restructuring of local authorities, despite the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government herself described that restructuring as a “distraction”. The reality is that there is no public appetite for restructuring. The only people for whom it holds any interest are politicians and some academics.
One academic in particular—Cambridge professor Michael Chisholm—puts the transitional costs of restructuring at £121 per person. He also asserts that in two-tier authorities it is unrealistic to suppose that the creation of a unitary authority will generate financial savings. In fact, he concludes that there is every prospect that the ongoing costs will go up. So, it is a brave person who is prepared to stand on the doorstep pledging the abolition of someone’s local council and charging them more than £100 for doing it.
The Queen’s Speech promises a Greater London authority Bill, which will extend considerably the powers of the London Mayor. We want genuine devolution of power and decision making to local communities, but this Bill will not deliver that. It will draw powers up from local communities. Local councils will no longer be able to take decisions in the interests of the communities that they serve on issues such as housing and planning.
Local opinion will effectively be steamrollered by the Mayor, and we already know what a controversial issue planning is. Rather than a London council considering the needs of its local community and agreeing a local development plan, as at present, the Mayor will produce his own housing strategy and councils will simply have to fall into line. So much for localism.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one reason that the Mayor might need those powers is the appalling record of Conservative London councils, some of which are building fewer than 10 per cent. affordable housing of all the housing built in the boroughs? An opinion survey shows that more than 80 per cent. of Londoners want the Mayor to be able to have at least 50 per cent. affordable housing built. If councils from the hon. Lady’s party got things right, maybe those powers would not be necessary.
I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman, and nor do the London electorate. He will recall that, as recently as last May, they voted in a further eight Conservative boroughs. We oppose the transfer of those powers to the Mayor because we want local people to have a strong voice in how their neighbourhood evolves.
We are not alone in opposing those changes. Council leaders have branded the transfer of planning powers
“a power grab by the Mayor, who will be able to make decisions without paying any heed to local communities.”
The City of London has spoken of its concern that the new powers will add new layers of decision making and delays with no discernable benefit to London’s economy or prosperity. The Government, in their own consultation, had to admit that most of those who were asked support no, or minimal, changes to the planning regime.
There we have it: London councils do not want this, London businesses do not want it and Londoners themselves do not want it. The only people who want those changes are Ministers who are keen to lavish powers on Labour’s prodigal son.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the real reason for the Government’s lack of action is their unwillingness to tackle the overblown Government office for London, which has grown in size and increased bureaucracy in London? Instead of achieving proper devolution and cutting GOL down, they prefer to suck up power from the boroughs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree with him, because the concept of Government offices was to provide a one-stop shop for the far-flung regions of the country to save them an unnecessary trip to the capital to engage with representatives of different Departments. That makes a lot of sense in places such as the north-west, the north-east and even where I hail from, the west midlands, but for London it is difficult to understand.
Furthermore, we learn that the Government are eager to install parish councils across the capital. There are already a host of thriving residents’ associations, properly constituted, and societies across London. They have rights to consultation with borough councils and are highly regarded by the communities they serve. Why do the Government want to bureaucratise and politicise those voluntary bodies? Is it because they are beyond the reach of the Standards Board? Alternatively, is it because, by going down the parish route, Londoners can be hit with a precept on their council tax, which is not currently the case? If so, Londoners will have to budget hard over the next few years if they are to meet the combined cost of a looming revaluation, a levy for the Olympics and now a precept for parishes.
I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you have not missed the point. Unless I am very much mistaken, in other parts of the country a parish council comes with a parish precept. Therefore, if a parish council is being proposed, surely, unless London is being treated differently, a precept would follow. I do not call that scaremongering. The Chancellor seems to be the only person who still believes that the streets of London are paved with gold.
The Queen’s Speech also contains provisions for planning reform. Despite only two years having passed since the Government’s last attempt at planning reform, we still have the worst of all worlds—a centralised planning system that pays little heed to the wishes of local government and, at the same time, delivers nothing like the number of houses needed. It was disingenuous of the Secretary of State to talk about giving more opportunity to people to own their own home at a time when the prospect of getting on the housing ladder is further and further away for a whole generation of young people. The reason for that is the top-down, centrally imposed planning system created by the Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister.
As the House will appreciate, it is difficult to comment with certainty at this stage, as any planning legislation will be informed by the Treasury-commissioned Barker review, but we have several concerns. It is reported that the Treasury wants to amend the planning regulations so that controls on out-of-town shopping centres are weakened. Those regulations were originally put in place by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) specifically to address the risk of high streets and urban communities becoming ghost towns. We are committed to retaining that protection so that truly sustainable communities, both economically and environmentally, can be delivered. The Opposition have made a firm pledge by signing up to the new sustainable communities Bill in conjunction with the pressure group Local Works. The test for the Government, however, will be whether the Department for Communities and Local Government will capitulate to the Treasury and remove that planning protection.
The Government have also made clear their determination to push ahead with a new land development tax. We have long campaigned for infrastructure to match development, but, so far, that campaign has fallen on deaf ears, leaving communities with insufficient doctors, dentists, school places and transport links. Let us take the example of Milton Keynes. The people of Milton Keynes are right when they call for more infrastructure before expansion. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on his I before E—infrastructure before expansion—campaign. That campaign is more justified than ever now that Virgin Trains has cut its commuter services to and from Milton Keynes.
The Government have treated infrastructure as an afterthought, much as they regard the environment. That is not just my opinion—I am paraphrasing what the Environmental Audit Committee said in its report in the first Session last year:
“We remain deeply concerned that ODPM is determined to build new homes first and then worry later”.
The report also refers to the Government
“sweeping aside any concerns that people may have about the environmental impact of housing plans”.
The Government see land development tax as the solution to infrastructure needs. But, if you will forgive me for being sceptical, Mr. Speaker, it will be collected centrally, and there is no guarantee that it will get back down to the local community to provide what is needed. Instead, there is every chance that it will be swallowed up in the Chancellor’s economic black hole. There is also a real danger that it will serve as a deterrent to regeneration of areas that need regeneration desperately. Ultimately, it will add to the cost of buying a new home at a time when first-time buyers are already despairing of their chances of ever being able to buy their own homes.
The hon. Lady quoted the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Many of us strongly believe in the eco-park solution to the problem of regeneration. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was very much in favour of the environmental park at Ince Marshes, but was asked to keep quiet about it by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), who, in true nimby style, did not want to see an innovative environmental solution near his constituency.
I cannot comment on the specific case, but it gives me an opportunity to make clear how strongly my party is committed to regeneration. Members expressed scepticism when I said where I would like to see the many new homes that we want to be built. I have described to the House at length the scope that I envisage for regeneration of the near-city zone around the central business districts of many of Britain’s towns and cities, and the opportunity that that presents for the provision of affordable near-city living.
No one could argue that there are no problems with the planning system, but the proposals that we have seen so far focus on raising money for the Treasury rather than ensuring that more of the right homes are built in the right places. That is because there has been no mention of giving people more say in the kind of development that takes place in their neighbourhoods. Localism goes out of the back door when the Treasury comes in at the front. That is the tragedy of this Queen's Speech. Despite calls from all parts of the House for more localism, there is virtually nothing in the proposed Bills to deliver it.
If the Government were serious about localism, they would abolish unelected regional assemblies as we have pledged to. Any talk of localism from the Government will mean very little until those unelected regional assemblies—the costly and unaccountable brainchild of the Deputy Prime Minister—are scrapped. They are unpopular and anti-democratic, and for as long as they remain in place, people will know that when it comes to localism, the Government are all talk. Similarly, if the Government were serious about reinvigorating local democracy, they would abolish the Standards Board, as we have pledged to. If they really want to be radical and devolutionary, the Government should take on board the ideas set out in our document “The Permissive State”. It proposes both total transparency in regard to the amount of central Government spending in local areas, and much more discretion for councils when it comes to how the money is used.
Therein lies the difference. Conservative Members have come up with a genuinely localist idea for how to achieve a real step change in where decisions are made. We have literally put our money where our mouth is, whereas in the Queen's Speech the Government merely pay lip service to localism. The planning legislation looks like a sell-out to the Treasury, the Greater London authority Bill looks like a sop to the Mayor, and the local government Bill looks like a watered-down compromise between the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Deputy Prime Minister.
This is the Queen's Speech of an interregnum. It is clearer than ever that the only way in which to deliver real change in local government is to start with one major change in the government of our nation.
I want to focus on climate change, which was barely mentioned by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). There are other measures that I especially welcome in the legislative programme, such as the concessionary bus travel Bill and the Northern Ireland Bills, but given that this is a local government debate, I want to say something about a specific provision in the local government Bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to guess what it is. Indeed, I thank her for listening to the representations that I and others have made and for agreeing to give councils in county areas the opportunity to bid for unitary status.
I have long been an enthusiastic advocate of unitary local government, especially in my own city of Oxford. I have never seen the point of two tiers of local government where one will do perfectly well. I believe that reform will cut unnecessary duplication, confusion and waste, but the crucial reason why I believe that single-tier local government is best is that it gives people a clear understanding of who is responsible for what, and that has to be the cornerstone of democratic accountability.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is no more obvious example of the chaos that two-tier causes than waste? We have waste disposal authorities in the counties and waste collection in the districts. That just does not work. Please may we have a unitary system as a matter of urgency?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The other thing people wonder about locally is why some neighbouring towns—Reading, Swindon and Milton Keynes—are judged fully capable of running their own affairs but places such as Oxford are not. I know that that feeling is shared in many other towns and cities, notably Exeter, Ipswich and Norwich.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Swindon. Unitary authorities are good. They are welcome, but some of them, including Swindon, had difficulties when they were set up. Swindon received £2 million of Government money to get it out of its difficulties. We need unitary authorities but they must not base themselves on the old county authority model, which is where the Swindon model went wrong in the first place. Does he agree that authorities have to find their own way through?
I look forward to Oxford having the opportunity to find its own way through. If we are to rebuild the standing of local government and to empower local people through their councils in the way my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wants, having a coherent and comprehensible structure for those councils is surely a necessary condition, so I welcome her commitment.
I will make some progress, if I may.
I look forward not only to the Secretary of State providing the opportunity to secure unitary status for Oxford and other places that want it, but to getting approval of those changes, so that the city can again run its own affairs across the board of local government responsibilities.
I am going to move on. Time is limited, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
I have commended the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for listening. May I do the same for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and say that the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of the climate change Bill is very welcome news? As he will be aware from the volume of letters and e-mails that I take up with him, there was a particularly strong demand for a climate change Bill from me and my constituents.
The Stern report, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned, is a fine and compelling work that provides strong economic arguments for the action that now needs to be taken. The challenge now is to bring forward equally strong measures to hit demanding targets, so that the United Kingdom is on track to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. Those must include demanding interim targets on emissions reduction.
The way through the argument about annual targets is to avoid confusing how small a time period we break our target down into, and the frequency with which we assess progress against it. Of course, short-term fluctuations in the weather or in economic growth reduce the value of annual targets, and it makes sense to have interim targets, whether at given intervals, or rolling forward covering given spans of time—periods when variations in emissions caused by such fluctuations are likely to be smoothed out.
We want to measure whether we are on track to hit the 60 per cent. target, not whether we happen to have had a particularly mild or cold winter, but none of that stops an assessment being made annually or even more frequently if we want it. Indeed such a report from the Secretary of State is required by law thanks to the excellent Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz).
Of course, there will be short-term fluctuations and an element of judgment involved in such an assessment. We need to concentrate not so much on the frequency of the target, but on the frequency—and, even more importantly, the objectivity and credibility—of the assessment of progress towards achieving it. What is most important is that measures are taken that succeed in reducing emissions, and that we transform our economy and society to reduce CO2 emissions to a sustainable level. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s proposal to establish an independent carbon committee to work with Government on emissions reduction and its measurement. It would also be a good idea to look at having independent assessment of the overall progress being made, perhaps by this body, or perhaps by another one with strong science credentials.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if there is to be an independent annual assessment, that will assume that there is an implicit annual target, and that it is therefore better to have that set out on the table than implied in the annual assessment?
I have just devoted quite some time to explaining—logically and persuasively, I thought—why that is not the case. Of course a judgment has to be made, and commentators, experts, the committee advising the Government and this House will make that judgment; it will be the stuff of the public debate on this important issue.
The need to combat climate change presents enormous opportunities, as well as challenges. In this country, there is terrific concern for the environment; that is the case not only among my constituents, who are assiduous in sending letters and e-mails making the case for action to me and to the Secretary of State, but across the United Kingdom. I always remember Tam Dalyell telling a Labour party conference debate on the environment that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had more members than the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties put together. We also only have to look at how people take to recycling; they do so not because the Government tell them that it is a good thing, but because they know from their own values that wanton waste—of, for example, so much plastic and glass, with all the energy and resources that go into making them—is a bad thing. Most people care about their local environment, and about the planet, too: they care about poor people in poor countries; they care about the world’s ecosystems and flora and fauna; and they are distressed that human activity could drown whole coastal regions, condemn millions to drought and destroy wonderful animal species. Therefore, there is an opportunity to tap into, and mobilise, people’s genuine concern for their planet, and to show how the action that we can take together can make a real difference.
However, anyone who is serious about tackling the threat of climate change must also address the political challenges. There is a danger that the measures taken get seen as the conspiracy of a class, and a political elite, to pull up the ladder after the better-off have climbed it; that was, I think, Crosland’s prescient worry about environmentalism. That danger is greater when the main parties are in broad agreement about the overall direction of travel. Last week, I was at a meeting where someone pointed out that, after the publication of the Stern report, he looked at the BBC website and found that the comments calling for action to save the planet were greatly outnumbered by those of people who were worried that this could all be just a ruse to squeeze more tax out of them. In the press, the contrast between the reactions of the broadsheets and the tabloids told the same story.
A number of important implications follow from that. The measures taken must be seen to be fair: only a progressive political strategy will maintain a public consensus in support of the measures needed to tackle climate change. Flat-rate taxes and duties should be used cautiously and with overall fiscal neutrality, and we should examine carefully at every turn the impact of proposals on those on low and modest incomes, and mitigate adverse effects. We should also be wary of arguments in favour of taxing bad things to pay for good ones, because people are intuitively suspicious of arguments such as, “We are implementing this tax to change behaviour, but the money will still somehow magically be there when the behaviour has changed,” and because they will lead many to suspect that the real motive for the tax is not stopping the bad things, but funding what politicians think are the good things.
We should invest heavily in measures that help people on low incomes to cut their fuel costs—as this Government have been doing—extending further and accelerating cheap or free home insulation schemes, as well as more generally raising energy conservation standards in buildings. We should make it easier for people to make their own personal contribution to tackling climate change—for example by ensuring much clearer labelling on, and explanation of, the equivalent energy-saving light bulbs, so that they know which bulbs to choose. We should have either a ban on wasteful bulbs or a tax incentive to buy energy-efficient ones.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on that very important issue.
On the real problem of aviation taxation, it would be most fair to tax proportionately more those who fly most often. We should also invest a lot more money in research to minimise emissions, and not only in the fields of energy conservation and electricity generation, but of transport, including aviation. In the whole climate change debate, behavioural change and technological advance are often presented—especially in the United States—as alternative ways of addressing the challenge, whereas the reality is that we clearly need both. The Government should continue to press very hard for action jointly with other countries. There is clearly an imperative for concerted international action, which must fulfil the requirement set out by the Chancellor that the burden of climate change should not be allowed to fall on the poorest people in the poorest countries.
The Stern report has important key messages for international collective action, including what Sir Nicholas calls “the urgent challenge” of a transparent and comparable carbon price, and building on the institutions of the Kyoto protocol. The challenge is to put in place an effective cap on greenhouse gases, while minimising the distortion and bureaucracy that the system and its policing might impose. The further development of cap-and-trade arrangements for CO2 and other greenhouse gases looks to me like the best way of doing that. One of my constituents, Mr. Oliver Tickell, has developed a scheme for combining a global cap on emissions under the United Nations framework with an ascending auction of global emission rights. He has set it out clearly on a website called Kyoto2.org, and I commend it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other colleagues.
So I greatly welcome the Government’s commitment to the climate change Bill. Along with tax measures, public spending and international initiatives, it can be a decisive step toward a sustainable environment. One striking thing about the Stern report was not just its setting out the appalling economic cost of failing to tackle climate change but the, by comparison, relatively modest cost of doing something about it, so long as we take the right action now. I look forward to a Bill with the ambition, reach and powerful measures needed to do just that.
I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State had to say as she introduced the debate today, and she painted a rosy picture of benign change by a Labour Government since 1997 with further benign change to follow. For those of us who are perhaps a little closer to the grassroots, it was not a picture that we could recognise.
Local democracy in this country is in disarray. Public participation in elections is at its lowest level ever. The scope for independence for local councils to meet the needs of their communities has been more restricted by this Government than by any previous Government. Not surprisingly, the diversity of provision and the innovation of thought that should be the hallmark of local government have been diminished in that time.
The communities that local democracy serves are under strain. The Secretary of State acknowledged that there are major problems in many different aspects of the provision of housing. We could easily add transport, pollution and the wellbeing and cohesion of communities.
I turn to the issue of the Queen’s Speech and the Bills that relate to the Secretary of State’s Department. It is disappointing that the local government Bill does not include the measures needed to plug the gaps and remedy those deficiencies. That is not to say that the White Paper and the Bill do not include some measures that the Liberal Democrats welcome and support. We favour reform of the Standards Board for England and its operation. We also support local councillors regaining the powers to stick up for local residents and communities on key issues such as planning and licensing. It is good that councillors should have further powers to hold to account other public bodies that deliver services to their communities.
However, the Secretary of State should take a careful look at the totality of her proposals for increasing powers. She wishes to increase the powers of parishes, ward councillors and council leaders. In democracies, power can be neither created nor destroyed: it can only be redistributed. If one strengthens the power of all three, the question is where the extra power will come from. The Bill singularly fails to say what extra resources will be made available to local government to deliver the enhanced power for each of those layers. Until the Secretary of State answers that question, it will be difficult to take her Bill seriously.
The antidote to voter disengagement is not to rush headlong towards the structural fetishism that seems now to besot the Government. They seem hell bent on a process of massive local government reform at a cost that they will not calculate, for a benefit that they cannot quantify and at a risk to local cohesion that they dare not admit.
I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman. In particular, I am sure that we do not want any fetishism in the Bill. However, there are plenty of measures in the Bill that are worse, and plenty that could be included to make it better.
I was about to say that a commendable feature of the Bill is that the change that the Secretary of State is permitting is based on the voluntary principle. It will be open to local authorities to apply for a change in their status in the two-tier areas. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that across the country that is triggering a huge waste of effort by local authorities with ambitions that far exceed their capacity to deliver. By 25 January, the Secretary of State will have a desk groaning with applications from completely unsuitable sources, as well—no doubt—as one or two perfect little gems that she will approve. It might have been better if she had been able to indicate to local councils that they should not waste their money on such frivolous projects.
I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s choice of language. Is he saying that the proposals that local councils have been invited to submit should be dismissed in advance, before there has been local choice about a better way forward? Is that really the position of the Liberal Democrats?
I already have on my desk a number of glossy brochures from various local authorities—not yet including Bedford, although I look forward to receiving one. I would very much prefer local authorities to have the freedom to decide their arrangements, for both internal leadership and the partnerships they choose to make with other local authorities, but when we know from reading the White Paper that only a small, limited number of councils will obtain the magic badge they seek, it makes little sense to throw open the competition. It is a bit like bidding for the lottery, where for every bid accepted 19 are rejected, but in this case money from the public purse is being wasted.
The important thing is what the Bill does not contain, and the disappointment for me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues is that there is no sign that it will deal with the issues that actually matter for local government. What will be their sources of revenue? What level of freedom will they have to take decisions on behalf of their local communities and, in particular, why does the Bill not contain a simple measure to return the national business rate to the power of local councils? Why does it not tackle the reform of the council tax? Why does it not deal with returning to the control and discretion of local authorities the huge sums of money being spent by quangos in each local authority area? Surely, that should have been in the Bill.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) had to say, which I would sum up as precisely nothing. The Conservatives introduced the poll tax and the council tax, and now they are introducing the too-early-to-say tax. The too-early-to-say policy is popular with them: whether it is housing, local government finance or Iraq, it is always too early to say.
The Liberal Democrats have made clear what we believe should be in the Bill—measures to return power and responsibility to local government. We shall follow those themes when the Bill is published and comes before the House.
The Secretary of State referred to the planning Bill. She might have spent a little more time explaining to the House in greater detail what she believes the balance should be between the protection of the environment and local communities on the one hand and the creation of wealth—sometimes for only a limited number of people—on the other. Her Bill threatens to upset that balance. As we understand it, the Bill will contain provisions to allow local decision making to be set aside in respect of major projects of so-called national importance, which might be the additional runways that are being discussed and the new terminal—terminal 7—at Heathrow. Some of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies adjacent to Heathrow are fairly well convinced that there is already a secret agreement to build a terminal 7. Will projects such as those be fast-tracked through the planning and inquiry system at the expense of local communities and the local environment?
We do not know about the new generation of nuclear power—perhaps it will be yes, perhaps no—but there is every indication that the aim is to bypass the local inquiry process.
Nuclear waste disposal is another key national strategic issue that may well bypass local communities as a result of the Bill. The Liberal Democrats believe that any change to planning legislation should increase local input, not reduce it, and we shall certainly make that clear when the Bill is published. We believe that, whatever process is put in place to deal with such major national projects, it should be objective and thorough, and it should in no way return to the half-baked proposals that were floated three or four years ago for the House to be directly involved in manning the inquiries into such projects.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the length of the inquiry into terminal 5 at Heathrow airport was, to most minds, unacceptably long? How would he try to balance the national interest to ensure that we have proper infrastructure, whether airports or roads and the like, with the public interest locally? This is a much more complicated problem than he is perhaps giving it credit for. I am not necessarily suggesting that the Government are getting it right, but there surely needs to be a more open debate about ensuring that such projects are put in place much more quickly.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. In fact, I wonder whether he has had a quick look at my notes, as I was about to say that it is crucial with such major projects that, first, we have an agreement on what are the national requirements and what constitutes a national interest. Secondly, we need properly to balance the factors that relate to the national interest with the legitimate concerns of local and regional communities. The test of any system that is introduced must be whether it is possible to get a refusal out of it. If one has a process that will produce only consent, it is not a balanced and objective process. It will simply involve consultation on a decision that has been taken already, without the opportunity for local and regional communities and others to take an active part in the decision-making process.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must consider the national interest, certainly with things such as energy and waste strategy? Is it not a fact that leaving the decisions on those two very important sectors has produced very worrying time lags in responding to real need? For example, it took 14 years to get planning permission for the Belvedere energy-from-waste scheme to serve London. Surely such a delay is nonsense. Perhaps it is also nonsense that Liberal Democrats throughout the country seem to oppose anything on a pragmatic basis, regardless of the national interest.
The hon. Gentleman was doing quite well to begin with, but obviously he veered off at the end. The important point is to acknowledge that there must be a balance, and we must consider how the planning system might be sensibly modified to retain that balance, not simply to give all the power to the central decision takers. The hon. Gentleman hinted that he believes that we should return to some centrally planned industrial and commercial strategy, without the input of either regional or local factors, or indeed the consideration of the social and environmental needs of communities.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recall that the Stern report suggested that we have about 15 years or so to get the structures in place seriously to combat climate change in this country. How does he relate that observation, particularly in respect of national energy and waste requirements, to the idea of achieving a balance between local decision making and planning for the future of energy and waste? Does he think that one trumps the other or that both are important?
It was said of Mussolini that he made the trains run on time. I have no doubt that, if we take much more centralised and dictatorial control in this country, we can deliver such projects faster. That is transparently the case. They will probably be cocked up, but they will be done faster. I fully accept that we need a balanced process. Indeed, I am simply saying that a balanced process is what we need, not one that is toppled over into central direction and control at the expense of the environment and society in which we live.
In the interests of such balance, may I inform Government Members that the Belvedere incinerator, referred to in our debate, was opposed by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative members of the local authority and by the Mayor of London? I wonder how that squares with devolution.
It does not, does it?—[Laughter.]
I have already commented on what I believe will be included in the planning Bill, so I shall say a little about what will not be in it. One obvious example is any commitment to supporting sustainable communities through the planning system. I know from my own experience in steering my Bill through the House that the London borough of Merton got what it wanted in respect of sustainable planning guidelines only when it threatened to take the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to the High Court. The reality is that the current Department for Communities and Local Government is not yet taking the sustainability of communities seriously. We believe that that matter should be included in the planning Bill.
We also believe that greater discretion should be given to local authorities on the policies that they introduce in respect of affordable housing. It has to be said that, despite the words of the Secretary of State, no commitment to tackle affordability can be seen in any of the Department’s Bills. Indeed, she kept remarkably quiet about one particular aspect of affordability—the fact that, since 1997, which seems to be her benchmark year, the Government have disposed of 500,000 social housing units bought under the right to buy. My party and I do not have a problem with that, but we do have a problem with the fact that the money raised has not been reinvested in social housing. We find that while the housing stock has been reduced by 500,000, council house waiting lists up and down the land have increased by 500,000. It is astonishing that a Labour Secretary of State, boasting of her Government’s record, could stand before the House in a Queen’s Speech debate and say that she has no proposals to deal with that problem.
I turn now to the Mayor’s powers Bill. As I said before, powers cannot be created and destroyed, only redistributed. The hon. Member for Meriden put her finger on the problem of where the powers will come from. We understand that they will come primarily from the boroughs, and perhaps some will be taken away from the Greater London assembly’s scrutiny role so that the Mayor can get on with things without having too close a look taken at what he is doing. If one thing is quite clear, it is that the powers will not come from the Government office for London. London can be regarded as the one devolved area in England, but even in London, the Government office spends £55 for every £45 that the Mayor and the assembly spend. Out of every £100, the devolved structures get only £45. We will therefore look at the Mayor’s powers Bill with an eagle eye to see how any transfer of powers from central Government to the devolved Administration can best be achieved.
I have already commented on the absence of any measures to deal with the affordability of housing. I was surprised that the Secretary of State had nothing to say about last week’s report that 40 per cent. of key worker homes built in London remain empty because the structure of the scheme makes them unaffordable and unsellable.
In passing, I simply comment that the Conservatives have a housing policy of sorts. I heard their housing spokesman speaking about the need for more bungalows and gardens that were not on green belt sites, green sites, brown sites or in back gardens. Multi-storey bungalows will presumably turn out to be the solution.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about housing need but how do his words fit with Stockport council’s crazy housing policy, which tries to prevent all new housing development in the borough of Stockport, puts up prices and shifts people out of Stockport into the neighbouring boroughs?
The hon. Gentleman and I shared a train this morning and we also share a borough. Stockport borough is currently left with 11,000 council houses and has 7,000 families on the waiting list. Regional planning policy dictates the amount of home building in Stockport and sufficient permissions have been granted to reach the regional planning target. It therefore suffers the inverse problem of local authorities in the south-east, which write to me—and doubtless other hon. Members—complaining that they are compelled to accept extra houses. Stockport cannot do that.
Let us consider the implementation of a measure that I steered through the House and is now the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, the responsibility for which rests with the Secretary of State. If sustainability and climate change are to be taken seriously, it is astonishing that there are no proposals to implement that Act. I hope that the right hon. Lady will ask someone in the Department what has happened to it and when it will come into force.
I am sure that the climate change Bill will feature in the second part of our debate today. I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who made some important points. We, too, welcome the climate change Bill but it is a pity that it will have no targets. What happens year by year needs to be monitored and matched with the intended performance for each year. One can call that setting “targets” or all sorts of different things but, unless we have them, we will be in the same position as we are with Kyoto. Year after year, the House and the Government contented themselves with saying, “We’re on track with Kyoto, but actually we are not.” We need to have targets and the policies that are likely to achieve them quickly.
I hope that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will explain why he has chosen not to proceed with the marine Bill.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, despite the Stern report and the appointment of a Minister to be specifically responsible for climate change, that Minister refuses to rule out a second runway at Birmingham international airport? That suggests that the Government will stick to their policy of predict and provide, despite Stern.
My hon. Friend has applied the point that I made earlier about the planning Bill to a local matter. I am sure that she would be dismayed if that measure allowed the second runway to go ahead, fast-tracked through the planning system and overriding the wishes of local communities and possibly local authorities.
Sustainability is the thread that should run through the work of the two Departments that we are debating. It is disappointing to witness the slow progress so far and the slender signs of progress in the coming Session. We have seen the collapse in support and funding for British Waterways and the Environment Agency and the fiasco in the farm payments scheme. While we are talking about the Environment Agency, may I ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what conversations she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about her Department’s intention to build 108,000 more houses on flood plains at a time when the funding for dealing with the problems on those flood plains is being cut? Of course, there is always a shortage of money and there always have to be priorities. We have a suggestion: let us restore some of the funding to British Waterways and the Environment Agency and save some of the £44 million spent on consultants’ fees by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the last three years.
I am sorry to say that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government produced bland words and the action that is to follow is very shallow. There is a failure to tackle environmental sustainability, to tackle climate change vigorously and to deliver affordable and accessible housing. We urge the Government to make more effort in the coming Session to match their actions to their words.
I want to focus on the climate change Bill, but it is appropriate to say a few words about the communities and local government legislation, because there are some important overlaps. I welcome some aspects, such as giving the Mayor of London more powers, which is important. For example, there is incoherence in London in relation to such things as the waste collection authorities and the waste disposal authorities. There is a role for the Mayor to have a much more co-ordinated approach—he has shown some really good leadership in trying to promote low-carbon economies and houses in London. That is a good example of what local government can do. It has been reflected in local councils across the country. The Nottingham declaration on climate change has been signed by a great many local councils, of all political control, across the country.
I would like to say to my right hon. and hon. Friends from the Department for Communities and Local Government that, among my locally elected representatives, there is sometimes a view that the Government judge local councils on the criteria of the worst. There are some good examples of what local councils do across the country. Where local councils are performing well, they should be given not just support, but additional responsibilities and powers. The Bill goes some way towards that, which I welcome because it is important.
I want to focus on climate change. First, I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on securing the parliamentary time to bring the Bill forward and on getting it in included in the Queen’s Speech. I know how difficult that is, with all the conflicting demands and priorities. It demonstrates real commitment from the Government to tackling climate change and taking these issues forward. However, I also hope that he is successful in bringing forward a marine Bill, even if it is only in draft form. That would enable us to start the discussion on that Bill. I know that the fact that Bills are not included in the Queen’s Speech does not necessarily mean that they will not be introduced, so I still think that there is an opportunity for the Bill. I want to put on record my support for that. I know that a great many organisations warmly welcome the idea of a marine Bill and look forward to its introduction.
On Kyoto, the Government have a record that they can be proud of in terms of what has been done. I must correct the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) about the Kyoto targets. The Government have already met their Kyoto target and are projected to more than double their Kyoto target to about 23 per cent. by 2010. The hon. Gentleman might have been mixing up that target and the Government’s domestic target on carbon dioxide.
On that domestic target, it is projected that the UK will be about 16.5 per cent. below its 1990 CO2 levels by 2010. The manifesto commitment was a figure of 20 per cent.—Labour was the only party to make such a commitment—and I still hope that there is every chance that we can achieve that target. Changes in the energy sector will make a big difference, and we still need to concentrate on the matter. However, our record is better than that of any other industrial country, although I am not saying that it is enough—I do not think that it is. The climate change Bill will allow us to focus on what the Government and the country need to do so that we do not just meet our Kyoto targets.
In the end, the Kyoto targets were agreed through horse-trading. They were based not on any kind of scientific assessment, but on negotiations. It is a tragedy that many countries have come nowhere near meeting their Kyoto targets. The US and Canada are about 30 per cent. above their 1990 levels, although an active debate is taking place in Canada about the measures that are needed to get things back on track. There is also enormous bottom-up pressure for action in the US. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who is in the Chamber, is a notable member of the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment—GLOBE. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has acknowledged the work of GLOBE, which is made up of members of all parties. The cross-party group is engaging with legislators from the G8 plus 5 countries to try to move the debate forward. The debate is moving forward in countries such as the US. The results of the recent mid-term elections provide an opportunity for change, so I hope that we will be able to capitalise on them in a conference that GLOBE is organising in February. The conference will be addressed by Sir Nicholas Stern, among others, and I look forward to it.
The Kyoto process itself is moving at a snail’s pace. I am afraid that the outcome of the Nairobi conference was sadly predictable. There is no real agreement or focus. There will be a real risk of failure with the UN process unless there is a step change in action and some countries take on more responsibility for their actions. For example, it is incredible that Saudi Arabia is part of the G77 group. The country is richer and has a bigger gross domestic product than many members of the European Union, so it should be an annexe 1 country. It certainly should not be arguing that because taking action to reduce hydrocarbons will affect its economy, it should receive compensation. The country should be investing its wealth in alternative technologies and it is well placed to do so.
I welcome the establishment of the carbon committee, which will provide independent assessments and will work with the Government to give independent advice. In reality, reporting has always been independent because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has had to report to the United Nations framework convention on climate change. In addition, independent consultants have carried out an analysis on each year’s emissions. However, the process should be made more open and transparent. It should be seen as independent, so I welcome the step forward in the climate change Bill. Several hon. Members and organisations have called for such a measure. The Bill itself has received a warm welcome from non-governmental organisations, which should take a great deal of credit for the way in which they have mobilised public opinion. The Stop Climate Chaos coalition, especially, has been extremely successful.
There will be—and should be—a debate about targets. However, we should not get ourselves so wrapped up in, and focused on, a specific target that we lose sight of outcomes. Outcomes are important, rather than a particular target. I welcome the enabling powers in the Bill that will help to achieve those outcomes. Such powers are essential because they will be needed across the whole economy. The Bill will have to create a step change in the way in which we consider fiscal measures, taxation, transport policy, planning and regulation. We must take a holistic approach, and every Department should play its part. We must use every lever at our disposal to reduce emissions, because the challenge is great, and we need to take industry with us.
We must make the case that there are real opportunities, and not only costs. Although there are costs involved, as the Stern report rightly pointed out, it also highlighted the fact that more costs will result from not taking action than will from taking action. That is a powerful message for our economy, the Government and other Governments around the world. I am pleased that notice has been taken of that, and that the arguments, which were put well, are of the quality that we would expect from Sir Nicholas Stern.
There is an argument for targets, but we must think about what they should be. The overall target recommended by the United Nations climate change conference is a 60 per cent. reduction by 2050. That is to be made statutory, which is welcome. That may have to be reviewed, because given the way things are going, it may not be enough. We need interim approaches, too, so that we can measure our progress. Annual targets, and deciding the level of such targets, are quite difficult. I can tell that it must be a difficult subject of debate within the Conservative party, because it has talked about rolling targets and annual rolling targets—I am not clear about what an annual rolling target is, as a matter of fact, but the phrase was on its website, which is curious. There is probably not much between our parties on the reality of trying to apply such measures in a practical way.
The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished fisheries Minister, so he will remember the rolling multi-annual guidance arrangements that existed for dealing with fish. Does he agree that those rolling programmes could perhaps give him an answer on what he has just been talking about?
That is why I do not think that our parties are too far apart on such issues. We will have a bumpy ride in relation to emission reductions; levels will go up some years, as they did recently, and down in others. They may fall quite dramatically in some years. For example, in years in which new carbon-capture power stations open—and there may be two within the next few years—there could be a big drop, so it will be a bumpy ride, and there must be realism about the targets. It might be more realistic to have five-year targets, which would give us some opportunity to deal with the rises and falls of the figures.
Surely the problem with a five-year target is that five years is outside the normal lifespan of a Parliament—it is the absolute limit. Therefore if a Government face short-term pressure to deliver on a range of other policies by the next election, the long-term action that I am sure the hon. Gentleman wants could play second fiddle to other priorities. That is why it is important to have interim targets of less than five years, and that is why annual targets are a sensible objective, even if there are difficulties in adjusting for the state of the economy or the weather, or indeed for the sort of lumpy investments to which he rightly drew attention.
Such targets are desirable, of course, but will the effect be desirable if there is an over-concentration of them? We must also consider what consequences they might have, and their effects on building consensus with industry, which is something that we must do. I am not altogether sure such targets are the right way forward. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because although we may debate in the House what those targets should be, and what measures we should apply in order to achieve them, I am convinced that there is consensus in the House that we must make progress and that climate change is a serious threat. I am convinced that we will take the kind of long-term approach that is essential for forward planning. We are looking for huge investment in clean technologies for our manufacturing and energy sectors, and those sectors want a long-term picture, so that they can make the necessary investments. There is a debate to be had on the subject, but I think that a five-year approach is more realistic. I understand that the details of the Bill will be made available at the end of the year, and that will be an opportunity for the House to debate them. That is desirable, because there is clearly a debate to be had on the issue. It should be open and inclusive, and it should involve MPs as well as industry, non-governmental organisations and civil society.
We should focus, too, on difficult issues such as aviation, and we must involve the retail sector, as well as the commercial sector, which is outside the European carbon-trading scheme. I very much hope that the enabling powers envisaged for the Bill will include categories that are not part of the European Union emissions trading scheme. They could, however, be included in the UK emissions trading scheme, for which the Government deserve credit, as it was the first national carbon trading scheme in the world. Carbon markets are the way forward. According to the World Bank, carbon trading generates about $5 billion worth of income. A levy on investments in clean development mechanisms is used to help poorer countries with adaptation, so the benefit is enormous. Market mechanisms are one of the most effective ways of driving down emissions, in parallel with measures such as regulation, innovation, technology and planning. We should not be timid about such things, so I was disappointed by the comments of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on waste collection. We should remove waste disposal from the council tax altogether. It is well worth thinking about charging for waste by volume, for example, as the technology already exists for such a measure. There will be resistance to such a concept—the Daily Mail will doubtless run a headline that it is a bin stealth tax—but we must think about what is right for sustainable development and for the environment.
No, I do not. If one has children one takes on responsibilities, one of which is to consider alternatives to disposable nappies such as reusable nappies. I commend the Women’s Environmental Network to the hon. Lady, as it can educate her about what can be done to reduce waste even when one has a family. I do not accept her argument at all, as there is a great deal that we can all do to follow more sustainable practices in our own lives.
Finally, on a related point, may I press my ministerial colleagues to look at the pre-Budget report and the Budget? If we wish to address climate change, there must be some big changes in this country, including the way in which we raise and use taxes. Recycling measures may be revenue-neutral, but we must consider how we would introduce them. We should not be afraid of making major changes or about making the case for what people can do themselves. The Government can put in place a structure that encourages people to take that power into their own hands and make a genuine difference to sustainability and to emissions reductions.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and to pay public tribute to the role that he played as an Environment Minister. He made a significant contribution in generating today’s debate, and I share entirely his concern that the Queen’s Speech does not include a marine Bill. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a clear recommendation, which the Government accepted, that such a Bill was required to deal with a vast range of issues connected with the exploitation of the marine environment, both near-shore and offshore. I share the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration that the Government should at least publish a draft Bill in this Session.
I am delighted that there is a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the Chamber again. Although I want to focus on climate change and the work that the Select Committee has undertaken, it is important to put on the record the fact that just under a year ago, the Treasury and DEFRA—I think, however, that the Treasury’s input was greater than DEFRA’s—published a document on the Government’s vision of the reform of the common agricultural policy. In nearly 12 months since that important document appeared, two things have occurred. First, the European Union has started to debate the subject, and secondly, there has been an ominous silence in the House about that important document. I hope that in the next 12 months or even sooner, the Minister might prevail upon the Leader of the House to have a debate on the subject. The contents of the document are vital if we are to examine issues such as food security, sustainability and some of the environmental challenges that a new form of agriculture for the 21st century will present.
There has also been no debate in Government time on the debacle that is the Rural Payments Agency. We have had a number of statements, some a little more reassuring latterly than formerly, but it will probably have to wait until the Select Committee produces its report on that in the early part of next year before we can have a debate on what has gone wrong.
In the debate today hon. Members have commented on the problem of waste. The Government are embarking on the development of a new waste strategy, but sadly there has been no debate in Government time on what we want done about waste and the sustainability issues that it raises. As the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plays an ever more central role in policy matters in this Parliament, I for one would like to see that Department punching at or above its weight in getting more time for us to discuss these matters.
I welcome the climate change Bill. It contents touch on a certain amount of the work that the Select Committee has done in a series of three reports on climate change issues—one on bioenergy, on which we published our findings, the second on the citizens agenda, which dealt with the question how more of our constituents and businesses can become more closely involved in that endeavour, and the third one which will start early next year on Kyoto 2012 and what comes next. There could not be more important topics than those.
In the Government’s publicity about the climate change Bill, we discover that next March we are to receive an energy White Paper. At the very time when we are talking about climate change in a national, European and international context and trying to resolve the many challenges that prevent us from finding the international consensus on the way forward that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe so correctly outlined in his remarks, I found it singularly disappointing that the Government’s response is a further White Paper on energy, following in less than nine months since the last White Paper on energy. Will the Minister change the title and its content and produce a White Paper on climate change, so that the House may consider all the factors that affect the subject in formulating our policy and putting in context the important work on which the climate change Bill will embark?
One of the issues about which the climate change Bill has caused most debate are targets. Over the weekend I settled down to watch David Attenborough’s two films once again on planet. As we come to the end of the second one, in which there are shots of the underground flooded, London under goodness knows how many metres of water and large parts of the United Kingdom disappearing, there is a note of hope and optimism. At the end the film shows what the pathway could be to enable us to stabilise our emissions by 2050. Sector by sector—transport, industry, heat, power generation, personal energy consumption—it shows what can be done to achieve that.
If we are to have a debate about targets, we need to be a little more sophisticated. We need to think about each sector of our economy, look at what can be done and at what speed we can travel in those individual sectors, and try and set targets that are meaningful. In certain cases, some of which are described as the low hanging fruits, such as the dash for gas in the generation of electricity, the gains have been accumulated. It may be much more difficult to make a great deal of progress in the energy generating sector, whereas in transport there is an enormous opportunity for progress, just as there is in respect of energy efficiency and energy saving in the home and in business.
Let us be a bit more sophisticated. I would say to right hon. and hon. Members on both Front Benches that I hope that our deliberations on the Bill will not become a party political knockabout, because the public will not tolerate something as important as this involving comments such as, “My target’s better than your target” or “My idea’s better than yours”. Let us by all means have a debate about ideas, but let us genuinely build a consensus on these matters, as my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have tried to do.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we are some way behind our target of a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. From the 1990 baseline, that works out at a reduction of roughly 1 per cent. a year, but we have dropped behind, and we shall now have to make savings of 1.9 per cent. each year. This is where target setting is useful, because it helps us to recognise when we are slowing down and where we might need to put in more effort.
I hope that we shall recognise that our debates on these matters are not only about how we generate our electricity. The one third of our emissions that come from heat, and the one third that come from transport must not be forgotten. In our bio-energy report, we have identified the tremendous opportunity for renewables in the generation of heat. Every hectare of land on which a bio-crop is grown will provide the largest carbon dioxide return in terms of the use of biomass. We have also discovered that 1.5 million tonnes of wood are thrown away in this country each year. Simply mobilising the resources that we have will make a tremendous impact on heat generation alone.
We must also examine the resources that we use to influence policy in this area. The Stern report suggests that we can afford to do something, but in the very year in which that report has appeared, Government funding for the Energy Saving Trust has dropped. For example, the Department for Transport’s contribution has gone down from £22 million to just under £10 million a year. If the Government are serious about bottoming up activity to ensure that our communities play their part in dealing with climate change in the context of the Bill, they must also be serious about the resources that they put into bodies such as the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust.
I have started an initiative in my constituency called Fylde Low Energy. I set out with the target of making the borough of Fylde the most energy efficient in the country. The first problem that I encountered when trying to mobilise 35,000 households to play an active part was one of finding the resources to employ an organiser to bring together the enormous body of interesting ideas that are already out there. Such ideas have been pioneered by local authorities such as Woking, which has shown what can be done in relation to the local authority estate, although it has not yet reached out as widely into businesses and communities.
Fylde Low Energy has had tremendous support from the Government office for the north-west, the Environment Agency, the regional development agencies, local authorities and local businesses, and some organisations have put money into the pot. However, when I look at what the Government are spending on these issues and I see how quickly the resources of the climate challenge fund were gobbled up, I have to say to the Minister that if he really wants our citizens fully to engage in the kind of initiative that I hope to pioneer in my constituency, a little more pump-priming funding would be enormously important.
There is much that Members of Parliament can do in this regard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe and other hon. Members who have been working with the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment, but let us go wider than GLOBE. Let us look at what each one of us can do, with the right direction. For example, we could write to Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives on Capitol hill and ask them why, in this new political climate, they are not doing anything to bring the United States firmly on board. Whether we like it or not, if the United States, India and China were involved in some kind of global framework, we might make some progress.
Half the Select Committee went to China recently, and the other half went to America. Anyone who has spent time with Mr. Harlan Watson, the United States negotiator on Kyoto—who finds it difficult to admit that there is even something called a climate—will understand the difficulty that the United States is having in moving forward. There is deep scepticism in its politics. Perhaps it needs to feel the heat, if that is the right term, from those of us here in Europe who are concerned and who have a track record of doing something about climate change. We should challenge it, as fellow democrats, about what it is doing.
Let us use our contacts in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and, indeed, the Commonwealth Heads of Government, who are soon to meet; in the Queen’s Speech, Her Majesty said that she was looking forward to going there. Why not ask them to make climate change the theme of their gathering this year and use the mechanisms that we have at our disposal to influence heads of state and fellow parliamentarians? Climate change is the global issue, and we must use the global mechanisms available to us.
I want to conclude with one or two observations about taxation. As a former Treasury Minister, I was most interested to hear the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) giving advice on being careful about taxation. I do not think that he did that when he was in the Treasury, but a sinner that repenteth is better than someone who continues on the same course.
Let me focus specifically on aviation, because much has been made of the possibility of some form of aviation tax. When the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee undertook its work on bioenergy, we discovered that in South Africa synthetic kerosene was being manufactured by the so-called Fischer-Tropsch process. Half of all aviation fuel in South Africa comes from that process. The same process, without, as in South Africa, using coal as a raw material to manufacture synthetic kerosene, can be used to take any cellulose raw material and convert it into bio-aviation fuel. Where is the Government’s support for that? Surely aircraft in the future should fly on the most environmentally benign fuel possible. Let us use our resources to develop that, and not merely leave it to Sir Richard Branson to invest his £1.6 billion. I applaud what he has done, but where is the European response on aviation fuel? Green aviation fuel exists. In the United States, a company called Syntroleum has already produced a synthetic aviation fuel from natural gas for the US air force. A B-52 bomber is undergoing tests to prove that such cleaner aviation fuels are a reality. If that can be done in the United States, we in Europe should be pursuing it as vigorously as we can.
The question of climate change unites people in the United Kingdom. We need to unite all the energies of our people, our businesses and our legislature; if we are able to do that, we can make meaningful sense of the climate change Bill. A White Paper that brings these policies together would be a singular contribution to debate on the subject.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on climate change. As I could not expect to be called again on Wednesday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that I might have your indulgence in speaking on foreign policy as well.
In 1995, as shadow Minister for environmental protection, I was consulted by the Prime Minister’s advisers who were nervously preparing his very first green speech. I was astonished when they asked whether I was absolutely sure about the dangers of global warming. We have come a long way since then. Once the science of climate change is accepted, it is overwhelming, and the Prime Minister is to be congratulated on his consistent role in advancing the international agenda.
In terms of global politics, the climate change Bill proposed in the Queen’s Speech could be hugely significant, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing it forward. Making a legally binding commitment to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 is truly groundbreaking. It is not only right for the UK but essential for our continued leadership of the international agenda. As we have heard, that leadership has already been advanced by the outstanding Stern report commissioned by the Chancellor. Sir Nicholas’s analysis of the economic cost of not taking action is crucial in persuading emerging economies and recalcitrant nations to act. His warning that business as usual could lead to a 5 per cent. reduction in global gross domestic product each year, and for ever, is a threat to all our future standards of living. Spending just 1 per cent. of global GDP to make the necessary changes makes obvious economic sense; the challenge is in finding the political will to do so. Our climate change Bill will be the test of the nation’s political will.
Other lessons in the Stern report apply as much to the domestic agenda as to the international. Stern sets the time frame for action within the next 10 to 15 years, and argues that the benefits of strong, early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to heed his words. British industry has more than demonstrated its innovation in this field. Of course, the Government have put vital mechanisms in place to back existing technologies and bring new ones to market, but early and urgent action requires a step change right across Government. I very much endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith).
Stern proposes a three-strand solution: pricing carbon; supporting innovation and the deployment of low-carbon technologies; and removing barriers to energy efficiency and involving individuals. Let me say a few words on each of those. On carbon pricing, there can be no doubt that we must press for urgent international agreements to include aviation and shipping. On low-carbon technologies, we must not be distracted by the promise of future new nuclear build. The Department of Trade and Industry acknowledges that it will be 2021 before there is new nuclear production, yet the imperative to tackle climate change is now and within the next decade. We need to deploy renewable energy technologies much faster and on a greater scale, and to invest in carbon capture and storage as the serious answer to continuing with medium-term fossil fuel use.
Finally, we need a dynamic campaign to engage the public. There are so many things that people can easily do that will save them money, as the Energy Saving Trust’s 10-point plan demonstrates. Replacing 30 light bulbs in the average home with low-energy bulbs would give an energy saving equivalent to the output of three 1,000 MW nuclear plants. It is astonishing what we can achieve ourselves, but we need to give much greater impetus to that idea and to bring people with us, so that the more difficult decisions, which involve more difficult changes to people’s lifestyles, will be more palatable, and the Government will be able to legislate for them.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one way to encourage citizens to engage in this issue would be the rapid removal of some of the planning barriers to and costs of installing windmills, home generators and other forms of self-generation, which are made more expensive by our planning arrangements?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I stress that people can do even easier energy effective things more rapidly.
I have supported annual targets, but I have listened to the arguments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I believe that he will accept interim targets—I also listened to the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe—but five years is too long a gap. I hope that there can be a compromise, and I think that two or three years would provide sufficient discipline over delivery while allowing the flexibility to adjust for unforeseen events.
I would like to say a lot more on that topic, which is the greatest threat to our security, but another topic increasingly distracts from it: the so-called war on terror. I have recently returned from a visit to Palestine with the International Development Committee. I shall speak personally, not on behalf of the Committee, and about the politics rather than the development issues. On the plane home, I was given a copy of The Jerusalem Post. Its editorial dealt with the loss of life in the mistaken Israeli shelling of civilians in Gaza. It said:
“all the Palestinians need to do to end Israel’s military operations is to stop attacking Israel.”
Sadly, all our conversations with the Israelis were reduced to military operations. The issue, however, is not just military operations; it is the military occupation.
Of course, Israel has an absolute right to defend itself against attacks, but it has no right to continue to build settlements deep in Palestinian territory, nor to build a barrier deep in Palestinian territory. Only 20 per cent. of that barrier now runs along the internationally recognised green line. Over half the west bank barrier, as we saw it, is now complete—42 km in concrete blocks, and 320 km in 50 m-wide wire fences with patrol roads, barbed wire tracking sands and electronic observation. It has to be seen to be believed. Most of the barrier separates Palestinians from Palestinians—people from their towns, hospitals, schools and agricultural lands. In order to cross those barriers, they need permits. In some towns, no permits at all are allowed for young men. Many roads in the west bank territories are for the use of Jewish settlers only. Where Palestinians are allowed to travel, they require a whole range of permits and more than 500 checkpoints impede their passage.
Continued settlement in defiance of the road map and the building of illegal barriers are cutting the west bank in two, jeopardising that internationally recognised and proposed solution. The Jordan valley is now entirely cut off. Since Israeli disengagement, Gaza has become effectively a fortified prison, with its three crossing points more often closed than open. The thousands of Gazans who had jobs in Israel are no longer allowed to pass. Following the disengagement, a business consortium bought over settlers’ greenhouses and successfully raised crops of fruit and vegetables. All were pre-sold for export but had to be dumped in the sea when Gaza’s only trade crossing point was closed.
Earlier this year, however, the occupation took on an even more insidious dimension when Israel stopped transferring to the Palestinian Authority the revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians from trade—worth around $60 million a month. Those revenues have not been paid to the Hamas-led Government for eight months. As a consequence, the Palestinian Authority’s health workers, teachers, police and others have gone unpaid, with direct or indirect consequences for up to a third of Palestinian families. With no resolution in sight, the health workers in Gaza stopped going to work this month, resulting in every emergency room being closed in the Gaza strip during its worst period of violence.
Time is running out for the Palestinians. Their lands are occupied and divided. The constant tightening of the occupation on millions of people cannot be the answer. Of course, Israel is under attack from the hundreds of home-made rockets launched constantly from Gaza, and Corporal Shalit is still unaccounted for. The oppression of a whole people, however, is disproportionate and cannot be sustained. The Prime Minister is right in seeking to engage Syria and Iran in tackling the problems of Iraq and recognising that returning to the road map and the two-state solution for Palestine is crucial to any wider settlement.
The Palestinians, as I know from more than one trip and many meetings with them, are among the most liberal, educated and entrepreneurial peoples in the middle east. They have chosen historically to live in a secular society with a high degree of religious tolerance. We need to ask ourselves in what direction continued oppression will drive them. It makes no sense to talk to the leaders of Syria and Iran if we cannot talk to the democratically elected leadership of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.
If Mahmoud Abbas can bring together a technocratic Government, as he has struggled to do for months, with the support of Hamas, the international community must not hesitate to embrace that Government. Without justice for the Palestinians, Israel will never be secure, and there will be no prospect of peace in Iraq or in the wider region.
I apologise for the fact that I will not be able to hear the Front Benchers sum up the debate. I will read the report tomorrow.
It is interesting to follow the “split” speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). I shall focus on the first part—the environmental part. I agree with the hon. Lady that there are simple things that we can do. The look on the face of the man who came to read the meter when, several years ago, I rewired my property and installed low-cost lighting was second only to the delight on my own face when I received a dramatically reduced bill. It can be done, easily and inexpensively.
You missed an interesting speech from the Secretary of State, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was a trip around the rose garden in which the Secretary of State looked at all the rosebuds but ignored the greenfly and the thorns. I thought I might touch on one or two of the thorns, but let me first mention one of the buds. The Secretary of State and the Government are going to reduce the number of targets considerably; at least, that is how it looks on paper. Such action constitutes a dramatic about-turn for local government, which over the past few years has been loaded with targets and Bills such as the “best value” Bill—a misnomer if there ever was one—that restricted and handcuffed it. They were followed by the comparative performance assessment, by myriad targets, and by books and books of prescriptive guidance.
Of course, the Secretary of State’s Department, in its previous guise, was not alone. All the other Departments piled in to shackle local government, or nail it to the floor. There was also the problem of the way in which the grant was redistributed and re-thought out three times, mostly to move money to northern urban areas.
We have heard before from Government that they will cut the number of targets and cut bureaucracy. What usually happens is that they take away some of the targets with one hand—we have heard talk of a reduction from 1,000 to 200—but put them back with the other. As I said in an intervention, although this Department—as part of an unjoined-up Government—is taking some of the load from local government, the others continue to pile it on.
I hope that the Secretary of State will give some thought to the fact that even in her Department there are examples of increased bureaucracy that she ought to be tackling. The new local area agreements are hyped as a new way of streamlining funding and reporting, but as far as I can see they involve an excessively bureaucratic and time-consuming performance. There are hundreds of pages of prescriptive guidance on process, format and the local public service agreements that local authorities must follow. There is minute scrutiny by Government offices, under policy directions that come straight down from central Government. There are mandatory indicators—with continued emphasis on national priorities and indicators effectively removing the so-called local aspects—six-monthly review meetings, and so on.
At the same time, local government must look over its shoulder at grossly expensive, non-elected, unwanted, interfering regional government. It is worse in London, which has a Mayor, and below him—if my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will allow me to say so—a talking shop, the London Assembly. It has no power to do anything. It can watch the Mayor, it can talk about the Mayor, but it has little or no real power to have any effect on the Mayor.
The Government say that the London Mayor is to have new powers to interfere in the running of London’s strong unitary authorities. Perhaps the worst will be his new wider planning powers. Local people in London boroughs vote for local councillors on local issues, of which planning is one of the main ones. Soon, unless the Secretary of State wakes up, the London Mayor will be able to ride roughshod over local planning decisions to an even greater degree than he does at the moment.
The Mayor is supposed to interfere only in planning issues “of strategic importance”, but he alone interprets what is of strategic importance. The whole process will take longer, as will the challenging of any decision. It will slow down even more planning programmes and planning development. There will be furious arguments between the two teams, yet there is no arbitration process. Even if the Mayor takes over a planning application, he will require the local borough to handle the application and, of course, to pay for it. This particular Mayor has a history of trying to get involved in major applications merely to squeeze section 106 money out of developers as a price for his agreement.
That brings me to one aspect of the proposed planning Bill. The Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions recently looked at the proposed planning gain supplement. It is a new name for an old tax on development. There have been four attempts by previous Governments to tax in that way: the 1947 development charge, the 1967 betterment levy, the 1973 development gains tax and the 1976 development land tax. They all failed.
We have, as the Select Committee has pointed out consistently, an opportunity to look at the existing 106 agreement process. Many local authorities make that work very successfully. It is agreed locally, it is collected locally and it is utilised locally. It has some problems in some areas, but a renovation of the 106 agreement process would be a much more sensible way of proceeding. Instead, we will have a tax that is centrally collected, at a rate set centrally, and distributed centrally. Anyone in local government with any knowledge of how this Government have worked over the past few years will cynically point to the Government’s central collection of locally achieved capital receipts and their redistribution, and to the three engineered changes in revenue grant support.
The planning gain supplement is a not so stealthy tax. Its aim is to increase public taxation on developers in excess of that already collected through 106 agreements. It is to apply to virtually every development, from major to minor, and it will not help to progress development.
I have just touched quickly on a few items in the Queen's Speech, each of which, bar the one or two rosebuds, will ultimately further shackle local councils. Our local authorities may still be local but they represent less and less government under this national Government.
It is a pleasure to be called in a debate with such high-quality contributions. I listened with rapt attention to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who got the balance between two distinct parts of the Queen’s Speech eloquently and passionately right. I was also impressed by the speeches of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), except for one small part, which I will come to later.
This, like all Queen’s Speeches, is, I hope, driven by the people we represent; otherwise, why is the Queen making such a speech? My experience in the House suggests that this place goes wrong when we cease to listen to what is happening outside, to what people are feeling, to what they care about and to what they are prioritising.
In 1989, after the Green party got nearly 15 per cent. of the vote in the European election, suddenly, every political leader said, “We would never have a party elected in this country that did not prioritise the environment as the No. 1 issue.” Over the years, we have all seen both public prioritisation and political prioritisation of the environment fade away. Three years ago, I spoke to the most senior member of the Government, urging him to give greater priority to the environment. Interestingly, even three years ago, I could not convince him but, during those three years, there has been an amazing turnaround in consciousness about the importance of the environment. Things have changed.
The Queen’s Speech is welcome. I received 350 cards urging a climate change Bill and I am pleased that many of my constituents will be happy that there is to be one. However, it must be the right climate change Bill, and it is a shame that we did not have a marine Bill as well.
Before I talk in depth about the environment, let me point out that I had lost my voice last Thursday, so I could not speak in the education day of the Queen’s Speech debate. We have the wonderful tradition of being able to speak about anything in the Queen’s Speech and I wish to say what was left out. There was talk of sustainable and viable communities, but let us look at what has happened in my constituency. It is a pretty average constituency—Huddersfield is fairly representative of the rest of the country—and, during the time that I have represented it, I have been able to see how many well-paid manufacturing jobs have gone, to be replaced by very low-paid jobs in retailing and distribution. That sometimes makes me wonder: Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and the other major supermarkets make enormous profits, as do other service sector companies, but I go into their stores and the people who run them and give tremendous service seem to be paid very little. There is something strange about a sustainable community in which we have a large and increasing number of people who are expected to live on not much more than the minimum wage. I shall return to supermarkets and the environment.
Something else missing from the Queen’s Speech debate is sufficient emphasis on housing. I intervened during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to point that out. That is not only the responsibility of the Government, because the financial sector has also been irresponsible, by, for instance, selling people mortgages on five times their average earnings. As we all know, people can self-authenticate their salary for a long time. That bodes ill for the future and, if there is a downturn in the housing market and a hike in interest rates, it bodes ill for people’s ability to maintain themselves in their accommodation, while helping to continue to fuel the rise in house prices.
House prices in Huddersfield have increased by about 100 per cent. in three years. That means that the first-time buyer, who used to be able to take their first step on the property ladder by buying a little back-to-back house or a conversion, can no longer do so. Now, we in my local authority of Kirklees have 10,000 people on what is an authentic waiting list. That especially impinges on younger people. In some parts of the country, that ladder does not exist, and I would have liked some attention to have been paid to that in the Queen’s Speech.
Prisons is another matter that worried me when I read the Queen’s Speech. I was the shadow Minister for prisons for the four years up to 1992, so I got to know the police and prison services fairly well, and one lesson I learned is that we cannot change criminality in our society by building prisons. That has been tried in the United States and it has never worked. We can keep on building prisons until an enormous percentage of the population are in prison, as in the United States, but that will not address the cause of the problem. We need much more focus on rehabilitation. About nine months ago, my Committee—the Education and Skills Committee—published a report on prison education. When prisons are as full as they currently are, there is a decline in what can be done to rehabilitate prisoners. There is something very wrong with the prison estate, and if that is considered in parallel with the undermining of the probation service, that is wrong. That should have been addressed, and I hope that it might be addressed as the Queen’s Speech progresses through the Commons and the Lords. It is not right to undermine a profession that meets all its targets and has a real reputation for delivering, despite scant resources and the backdrop of the National Offender Management Service reforms over several years that have destabilised the entire prison estate.
As the Member for Huddersfield, it would be dishonest of me to ignore immigration. There is a lot of populism associated with immigration and many dangers inherent in talking about it. My constituents are pretty fair-minded; indeed, we live in a fair and balanced society in which all the communities and faiths work and live together and get on extremely well. I have heard of no one in my constituency who does not want an effective, speedy and fair immigration system, but we do not have such a system. There are lost souls living in my constituency who cannot work or sustain life. They should have been given a decision and sent back whence they came a long time ago, rather than being tortured by long delays. There should be a guaranteed period within which all immigration cases are decided.
We must also have an immigration system in which the cheats do not prosper. In the household in which I was brought up, one of my mother’s favourite watchwords was, “Cheats never prosper.” Those who believe that should not look at immigration, because there, too many cheats do prosper. I have honest constituents waiting to be reunited with members of their family—waiting for a legitimate decision on a particular immigration question—who see people who abuse the system and jump ahead of them. That causes great discontent and unhappiness.
Returning to my education and skills brief, in looking at our immigration system, I wonder how many more unskilled people we need in this country. Yes, we need skilled people, but bearing in mind the complexion of my constituency and of our society, I am not sure how many unskilled people we need. A balance should be struck in terms of prioritising the skills of those who migrate to this country.
Turning to the subject that I normally focus on, I hope that there will not be as many surprises in the education element of this Queen’s Speech as there were in the last one. What looked like a fairly innocuous Bill gave me an enormous amount of work over the ensuing months, but we eventually put to bed a much improved Education and Inspections Bill that has now received Royal Assent. The further education Bill in this Queen’s Speech is an interesting one. I hope that its progress through this House will be influenced by my Select Committee’s recent report on the FE sector, and by our observation that a balance needs to be struck between the driver of “train to gain”—of training for a particular job—and remembering our responsibility to community education. That will be very important as we face the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford referred to: how to teach people about the environment and make them understand that they can make real changes in their lives that will make a real difference as we try to meet the climate change challenge.
In meeting the climate change challenge, too much emphasis is put on international Governments, rather than on what we as individuals can do. As I said in a speech to a school the other day, it is about the individual as well: it is about changing ingrained habits that will not be easy to change. I said, “Are you going to give up eating so much fish? We in this country eat a lot of fish—indeed, there is a fish and chip shop on almost every street corner. Are you going to give up your cheap holidays in Spain?” We went through a catalogue of such issues. Unfortunately—this was the day after the Stern report—I also said, “Are you going to give up your bonfires on bonfire night?” Of course, I have now become known in the House as “Bonfire Barry”, but this is a serious point. I would still like to know why the person at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who was telephoned about this issue said that bonfire night had a negligible impact on emissions, given that the National Society for Clean Air tells me that 14 per cent. of all dioxins are released into the air on or around 5 November. There is a lesson to be learned there.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an important announcement on education, and it is always pleasant to hear an announcement on an issue on which one has been campaigning for years. It is a disgrace that anyone under 18 should leave school and enter work or unemployment without training. It is our duty to our children—and all those under 18 are still children, despite the Liberal Democrats’ wishes—to refuse to countenance them starting work with no training at 16 or to become unemployed at that age. Every child should be in training, a job with training or education. My right hon. Friend recently made a speech about that, but the Queen’s Speech contained nothing about the delivery of it.
I finish by returning to the important issue of climate change. It will be delivered only by individuals making sacrifices. We should not kid ourselves that it will not be painful. It will not happen without some pain, and that may mean taxation. If the rumours are right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to the Chancellor saying that we may have to raise taxes to pay for tackling climate change, I welcome that. As I say, we may have to give up things that we like and make sacrifices in terms of heating our homes and so on. Other possible changes have been mentioned today.
Queen’s Speeches are marvellous. They give us a sense of direction for the rest of the Session. We hope that we end up with well-written laws and decent pieces of legislation because we have improved them, but laws also have to be administered. Sometimes, Ministers change jobs so fast—especially in education and environment, two of the areas that I hold dear—that they have moved on by the time they get a grip on the subject. That is not good for government or for any of the big issues that we face. There is also churn in senior and middle ranking civil servants, who are moved on—it is called continuous professional development—soon after they get to know the job.
Not many people in my constituency deal with £50 notes often, but this year Adam Smith will appear on them. His philosophy suggested that the benign effect of everyone pursuing their own selfish interests would add up to the greater good, but that will not work for climate change, which will need national, international and individual co-operation to achieve.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) who gave an expert speech on a range of issues. He reflected the quality of the speeches in this debate and I associate myself particularly with his comments on prison reform and rehabilitation.
As shadow Minister for young people, I went round many young offender institutions. I do not understand how we can expect a young person who is put in a 9 ft by 5 ft cell with someone else for 18 hours a day, with little access to education or reading and no chance to better themselves or learn a skill, to come out a better person. There is a disjuncture between punishment, which is a necessary part of the system, and rehabilitation, which is equally important.
We also need to address mental health issues in our prisons. It is a scandal that so little is done on the matter. That was highlighted last year by the inquest on Zahid Mubarek’s death in Feltham and the case in my constituency of Daniel Meehan, a young man who committed suicide at the age of 29 after failing to receive the right mental health support in prison, which he was entitled to expect. I hope that the Mental Health Bill can be adapted to look at the mental health needs of people in our prisons.
Turning to the issues confronting us today, there was a remarkable contrast between the speeches from those on the Front Benches. From the Secretary of State there was a sense of tiredness, of boredom perhaps, that this was another Queen’s Speech and there was not a huge amount to say. She did not seem to have a great deal of enthusiasm for her subject or indeed a sense of direction. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) gave us a sense of direction and an understanding of the issues involved and the urgency of dealing with them.
Like my hon. Friend, I very much welcome the climate change Bill but, as with so many such things, the devil will be in the detail. In just a year, there has been a huge change. A year ago, we were still debating whether action was necessary and whether there genuinely was climate change; now the whole debate is about what we can do to make changes more quickly so that we stop climate change happening at all.
I am not sure how much we can achieve by voluntary agreement. If things are left to the good will of property developers and the builders of new housing, it is doubtful that the necessary changes will happen in time. We have to recognise that new build is only 1 per cent. of the housing stock and if we truly want change much more needs to be done through building regulations to bring existing housing stock into line over time so that it, too, can make a contribution.
There are unique opportunities for the United Kingdom and its businesses. My constituency of Wealden in Sussex was a significant farming area, but farming has almost died out in the south-east and in areas such as Sussex; the value of land and farmhouses has gone up so much that people can no longer afford to buy them as farms. There are tremendous opportunities for farming to make a comeback in areas such as Sussex through growing biomass, but that will happen only if there is a structure that encourages investment in biomass activity. The cornerstone of that will be to put a price on carbon, to cap carbon emissions each year and to require people to buy certificates if they emit carbon during the generation of electricity. Over time, that will make it more attractive to invest in other forms of renewable electricity and generation.
At the same time, we must remove some of the absurdities in the system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), in his extraordinarily impressive contribution, spoke about aviation. As a north-west MP, he is a regular user of Virgin trains, which are powered by red diesel taxed at 6p a litre, yet if biomass, which is taxed at 47p, were added to the diesel, not only it but the red diesel would be taxed at 47p a litre. We have an absurd system in which the moment that people try to do the right thing environmentally, they have to pay a higher cost.
We wanted other issues to be addressed in the Queen’s Speech, but they are not covered by the Bills proposed so far. I welcome comments about devolving power to local government, but we are sceptical about how what is possibly the most centralising Government ever run things. Regional assemblies are a case in point: all the powers for the regional assemblies were taken away from district and county councils, rather than genuinely devolved from central Government.
I hope that we shall not go down the route of further reorganisation, which would be massively expensive: £3.5 billion that could be spent on local services would instead be spent on reorganisation itself. Above all, reorganisation is unloved and unwanted. It would mean getting rid of a genuinely popular tier of local government—either the county councils or the district councils—to give more power to regional assemblies. There is no demand whatever for that in our communities. The Government failed to get through their referendum in the north-east, which may be the only area in the country where there might have been popular support. In the end, there was massive feeling against that degree of change. Having failed to achieve that through democratic means, there is now a desire to try to push it through in legislation instead.
We in the south-east do not have that sense of regional identity that the Government wish to believe that we have. In the Government’s mind, the south-east spreads from Dover to Portsmouth, to the outskirts of Cheltenham and the fringes of Oxfordshire and up to Milton Keynes. No one in my constituency in East Sussex believes that someone in Oxfordshire or Buckinghamshire lives in the same region. It is an artificially created structure, and we should be considering abolishing it, rather than seeking to give it more powers.
Nothing gave greater clarity to the division of approaches between those on the two Front Benches than the issue of infrastructure and development. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government does not seem to recognise that the extent of overdevelopment that is proposed is causing a massive infrastructure deficit. Indeed, it is estimated that, to bring the infrastructure of the south-east up to the level required for the number of proposed houses will cost £45 billion—£1 billion for every local authority. Clearly, when put across the whole nation, the figure becomes astronomical.
In March 2006, the South East England Regional Assembly proposed that 28,900 new houses should be built in the south-east annually. The Government are considering a figure that may be 60 per cent. higher, but the infrastructure investment is absolutely woeful. Set against the deficit of £45 billion, the Government’s plans for the infrastructure in London and the south-east amount to just £295 million. Things will get worse if section 106 agreements are replaced by a planning gains supplement, which will become yet another aspect of the Government taking funds away from the south-east and redistributing them to other parts of the country.
The Government should require, through legislation, an infrastructure audit to be carried out on all significant new developments, so that we can ensure that the implications for the infrastructure will be met. We find great anger in our constituencies not just about the sheer number of houses that are proposed, but about the fact that the infrastructure will not exist by the time that the houses are built. When the houses are built, people will say, “Where will the children go to school? Where will people find a dentist? How will they get the water to come out of the taps?” Unless we consider the infrastructure first and foremost, we will end up with a massive imbalance.
We must therefore consider a number of different aspects, the first of which is health. It is estimated that a further 1,300 acute hospital beds and 600 general hospital beds are needed in the south-east over the next 20 years to cover new housing growth, but what are we seeing? At the three hospitals that serve my constituency—the Kent and Sussex in Tunbridge Wells, the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath and Eastbourne district general hospital—there is a massive question mark over the future of their accident and emergency units and maternity services. We are seeing the greatest ever threat to hospital provision in the south-east. We should be considering what new investment is required to ensure that those who live in the new homes that will be imposed on us have the required health care provision.
For the past 18 months, there has been a hosepipe ban in my constituency, which may be lifted this winter—after the rain over the weekend, it should be lifted pretty soon—but we cannot provide the amount of water that our existing homes already use. If hundreds and hundreds of new homes are built every year, those problems will become even worse. The great irony is that the people who do not want those new houses to be built will be the ones who have to pay for the investment in the water system to supply them with water, even though that will take many decades to carry out.
Flooding links closely with water supply. We have heard reference already in the debate to the number of houses that are planned to be built on floodplains. The Environment Agency says that 34,000 of the new houses planned will be built on floodplains. Some 30 per cent. of the houses planned for the south-east will need to be built on them. Almost exactly six years ago, Uckfield in my constituency experienced a terrible flood, yet six years later, we have not seen one penny piece spent by the Government on flood defences to stop it happening again. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), pledged that things would be done and the Prime Minister had a reception in Downing street to tell local authority leaders that he would personally ensure that flood defences would be put in place. Six years on, as I say, nothing has been done. If we are continuing to build on floodplains, it is ridiculous that steps are not first taken to prevent flooding from happening as it has in the past.
We should also consider further investment in our transport infrastructure. Road traffic is expected to increase in the south-east by 25 per cent. between 2000 and 2010. In East Sussex, we have not a single motorway and only eight miles of dual carriageway, so if the Government impose the expected volume of housing on the area, it will lead to massive pressure on our already overburdened roads. More importantly, it will lead to massive pressure on some of the most environmentally special parts of this country. The areas of outstanding natural beauty of Ashdown forest, High Weald and the south downs surely need to be preserved as special places for our children—and subsequently for their children, grandchildren and beyond—but if too little attention is paid to the infrastructure, it will be difficult to invest in those areas.
As a result of massively improved rail services provided by Southern, we have seen a significant increase in rail traffic in the south-east, but we are already seeing huge overcrowding. Without further investment in the railway lines and rolling stock, that situation will simply get worse.
There is a very clear message in all this: the south-east is expected to take all the pain of the new housing, but not to get any of the gain of investment in the infrastructure. The Government should therefore introduce an infrastructure audit Bill to assess the needs for health provision, water, sewerage and flood prevention and to ensure that there is sufficient capacity in our schools and in our road and rail services. We face a massive imbalance and the measures proposed in the Queen’s Speech will not address it adequately. I hope that the Minister will take that into account and examine what can be done to ensure that, if we must have the housing growth that he plans to force on us, the infrastructure will be in place to support it.
I would like to return to issues relating to local government and begin by warmly welcoming the positive commitment to the revitalisation of local democracy that was so evident in the Secretary of State’s introductory speech. I welcome and pay tribute to the substantial increases for the funding of local government that the Government have delivered in recent years and the considerable improvement in local services that has come about as a result of those increases. I also welcome the Government’s evident commitment in the Queen’s Speech and the previously published White Paper to rejuvenating local government.
But—and there is a “but” in all this—welcome as those steps are, we should recognise that they are unlikely of themselves to repair the centralisation of recent decades, which has so substantially undermined local democracy. They are unlikely to restore the standing of local government in the public eye and unlikely by themselves to restore the morale of demoralised elected members and officers in many parts of local government. Measures in the White Paper and Queen’s Speech are also unlikely to deal with the fundamental issue of local government finance. We shall have to wait for the Lyons review for that essential measure, and only when we get that review—[Interruption.]
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in mid sentence, but does he not believe that those two aspects are inextricably linked? Is not the lack of financial autonomy in local government one of the main reasons why morale is so low and why it is so difficult to attract high-calibre councillors to serve?
They are inextricably linked but that is not a reason for not welcoming the steps that are being taken. There are further steps to take beyond that, and fundamental among them is the reform of local government finance. I look forward to the publication of the Lyons review. I hope that measures flow from it to ensure that a far greater proportion of local government revenue is raised locally and that we thereby enable the restoration of the credibility of local democracy. I hope that its standing with local people will be increased when local elected representatives are truly accountable for all aspects of the work of the local authority, including raising revenue.
Few in local government would not acknowledge that it is in a pretty poor state. Declining turn-outs at local elections are only one of the more obvious symptoms of the poor state of local democracy. Equally disturbing is the difficulty of all parties in many parts of the country in getting credible candidates to put themselves forward as councillors. That is hardly surprising. If it is possible for someone to serve the community by being appointed to an NHS trust, being on the management committee of a local community association or sitting on the board of a regeneration partnership, why should people put themselves through the process of joining a party, getting selected, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, when all that they might expect to get is blame for inadequate services and council tax bills over which they have little or no control, and the ability to sit on under-resourced scrutiny committees that are often little regarded?
The changes in local governance that the Government introduced to give greater clarity to decision making, especially the separation of the executive from the scrutiny functions and to ensure accountability, have, in many places, made decision making more opaque and less accountable. That is largely due to the fact that the scrutiny process has been under-resourced and often perceived as an inadequate answer to the question, “Now that we’ve set up a cabinet, what are we going to do with the rest of the members?”
Similarly, I greatly regret that the Government have not been bolder before now in pressing forward with providing genuine incentives to local communities to establish directly elected mayors, as was the original intention. Of course, the experience of directly elected mayors is mixed but, in the comparatively few local authorities that have adopted the system, there are some positive examples of elected mayors making a genuine difference to their communities. I have no doubt that, at least in cities such as Leicester, which I represent, an elected mayor is the only structure of governance that provides both the possibility of dynamic leadership and a clear role for other members to whom the leader is accountable.
As I have said, I welcome many of the suggested likely proposals, which were presaged in the White Paper. I welcome the reduction in the number of national performance indicators and the perverse targets and results that they often produce. I welcome the independent review of the barriers to becoming elected members of local authorities and the prospect of empowering local authority leaders through four-year terms. However, I fear that, welcome though that step is and useful though it might be, it could prove a poor substitute for directly elected mayors.
I look forward to the Bill that will follow, but if the Government are to continue the process of restoring the credibility of local democracy, we need genuine devolution from the centre, delegation of operational policy to local government and its partners and greater accountability of local quangos to democratic local government.
My hon. Friend will be aware that, before arm’s length companies and trusts were set up to run council services, those decisions were taken by council committees and the papers were available to the public to scrutinise. Does he agree that those trusts and arm’s length companies should release the same information that the local authority was obliged to release before they were set up?
Certainly, having served for thirty years as a member of a local authority, the requirement that we had during that time to make available to the public the information and papers on which we took our decisions is one that I would like to see mirrored as a requirement on the currently significantly unaccountable local bodies and quangos that, as I said earlier, ought to be and must be made accountable to local democratic institutions and councils.
In looking to the future, above all, the level of trust in local government needs to be restored, both at a local level and in relation to trust shown by central Government. There needs to be a clear constitutional settlement that guarantees the role and the legitimacy of local government.
I want to make two final points. The first is specific to cities such as Leicester and the other is more general. Leicester and a number of other cities have tightly constrained boundaries, many of them dating back up to a century—some even longer than that. Those tightly constrained boundaries make it difficult for the urban core authorities to deal effectively with the problems of the conurbation of which they are a part. Many of the solutions to the problems—this is particularly evident in transport, but it is also true of other fields of responsibility—are outside their boundaries and therefore outside their control. It is not sufficient to hope that voluntary agreement with surrounding areas, which often have no ownership of the problems and no incentive to co-operate in finding solutions, will be enough. I hope that the Government will agree that areas such as Leicester, and other areas up and down the country where the local authority is at the heart of an urban area, need the powers to require the co-operation of their neighbours in addressing the problems of their conurbation.
My second point is more general and I touched on it earlier. In many parts of the United Kingdom, all parties face a real challenge in attracting and retaining councillors of calibre. The role of the elected councillor needs to be reformed. I am pleased by what the Government are saying about that, but they will need to go further. The role of the elected councillor needs to be more than just trying to find something to do so that those who are not in an executive position will not get in the way of decision making.
That is also a challenge for the Local Government Association and for the political parties to promote and develop the value of serving a local community through being one of its democratically elected representatives. If we are to make a reality of the regeneration of local democracy, local people need to feel that it is worth while subjecting themselves to an election and all that follows. They need to feel that it is a job worth doing at the end of the process. The White Paper and the Bill that I hope will follow it appear to be steps in the right direction, but we will still need the Lyons review, which will hopefully provide the impetus for further steps in the regeneration of local government. Even after that, there will be much more to do to restore local democratic government to its full health.
I wish to speak about the aspects of the Queen’s Speech relating to climate change and local government. I have some knowledge of local government in Essex and I suspect that my experiences are similar to those throughout the rest of the country.
The population of Essex is greater than that of some European Union member states, but in terms of its local government, the county council is increasingly sucking up powers to the county hall in Chelmsford from the districts and boroughs of the county. The historical county has been dismembered on several occasions over the past 100 years or so. We now have what was left after metropolitan Essex went into London and Southend and Thurrock got unitary status, which happened more recently. However, one only needs to read last week’s LGC Local Government Chronicle to find out Essex county council’s agenda: to take as many powers as possible for county hall and, in effect, to make local councils, districts and boroughs little more than branch offices.
The county council happens to be Conservative controlled, but most of the districts and boroughs in Essex are also Conservative controlled, so this is not a party political matter, but rather a case of the county council wanting to run everything. In the past year or so, it has taken back all highways matters. Even potholes and street lights are thus no longer dealt with locally. In the case of Colchester, they are dealt with 35 miles away in Chelmsford. The article in LGC Local Government Chronicle, which included a quote by the leader of Essex county council, made it clear that that was just the start.
As far as my town is concerned, the county council has announced the closure of the local adult education centre at Grey Friars. It is kicking the Stepping Stones special needs children’s nursery out of the Wilson Marriage community centre and shutting the purpose-built Colchester branch of the Essex records office, which opened only 20 years ago. That is happening in Britain’s oldest recorded town. I thus listened with great interest to the official Conservative Front-Bench view on localism. I supported much of what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, but then I related it to what was happening with Essex county council.
Without necessarily wishing to defend the Conservative-run county council in Chelmsford, does the hon. Gentleman not realise that there might be something of a power grab from many county councils that are worried about Government proposals for large-scale regional government? In many ways, the difficulties to which he refers could be a function of such uncertainty.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in one sense, but that could be more an excuse for a county council to grab local powers. However, he makes a valid point.
I simply feel that the affairs of my town are best looked after by locally elected borough councillors, not county councillors in Chelmsford, most of whom have no direct knowledge of Colchester. The only thing that unites the county of Essex is not the county council—as I said, it has been dismembered anyway—but the BBC Essex radio station and Essex county cricket club, when it is doing well. They unify Essex, not the make-believe county council.
I agreed with many points made by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) about the lack of accountability and democratic control of increasing numbers of quangos and arm’s length bodies. The hon. Gentleman did not mention local strategic partnerships, which are even less accountable than quangos. The Government need to address the situation. Answers received to parliamentary questions in the past Session made it clear that members of local strategic partnerships are not governed by the same rules of engagement as democratically elected councillors. I have personal knowledge of cases in which confidential information is being shared with members of a local strategic partnership—perhaps not all members, but certainly one or more—before local, democratically elected councillors hear about it, and that is of grave concern. The Government need to address the issue of where they are going with local government and democratic accountability. Essex county council has ceased to be relevant and it ought to be abolished. There should be unitary authorities in those parts of Essex where that would make sense—and if it makes sense for Southend, it makes sense for other places.
As a Member of Parliament who represents Southend, which has a unitary authority, may I ask the hon. Gentleman what he thinks the minimum size of a viable unitary authority should be, and whether he truly believes that Colchester could reach that minimum size?
Does the hon. Gentleman’s last point not sum up the precise problem? If we examine local authorities only in terms of the number of people who live there, we are taking the centralised approach of “Whitehall knows best.” Surely the real issue is whether there is a community of interest. A unitary authority could represent only a few hundred people, on that basis. It makes no difference whether Southend is bigger, smaller, or the same size as Basildon, or any other town.
I am grateful for that intervention, but it was an intervention on my answer to a question about size asked by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge). It is not size, but community of interest, that is important. Colchester, which is the principal town of Essex and certainly the most important town in north Essex, would be the focal point for Colchester and north Essex, in terms of community of interest. That is my point on local government; I shall now move on, Mr. Deputy Mayor—sorry, I meant Mr. Deputy Speaker; that was a throw-back to long ago.
On the climate change Bill, provided that the Bill has substance, it will be welcome on both sides of the Chamber, as I cannot think of anybody who will vote against the concept of preventing climate change. However, the Government and Ministers must lead by example, and should practice what they preach. Towards the end of the last parliamentary Session, I tabled a parliamentary question for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is in the Chamber, replied on behalf of his boss and acknowledged that the Secretary of State had never, in connection with his ministerial duties,
“used the London Underground, tram or light railway services or buses”.
He declined to say how many times the Secretary of State had used the train on the basis that although he uses them
“regularly in connection with his Ministerial duties…to produce a list of every time he has done so could be done only at disproportionate cost.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1601W.]
Every right hon. and hon. Member knows that the Travel Office and the Fees Office know exactly how many journeys we make. I can only assume that the Secretary of State is somewhat regal, but in the London Standard on Thursday, there is a full list of the rail journeys taken by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles. I invite the Minister to give us a list of how many times the Secretary of State has used the train in connection with his ministerial duties.
There must be greater investment in public transport, including trams and light railways. After nine years of Labour Government, in real terms, the cost of travel by public transport has gone up, and travel by motor car has gone down. I congratulate the Government on the introduction of free travel for those aged 60 and above. It is a measure that I make use of, and as my 60th birthday was the day before the free service started, I did so quickly. Why is there no similar provision for schoolchildren? Some 20 per cent. of morning and tea-time traffic is school-related. We need to encourage more mums and dads not to drive their children to school, but to use public transport, walk or cycle. I invite the Minister to work out whether the free provision of yellow school buses would not only reduce traffic congestion, but, in the long run, be cheaper and better for the environment. We need to consider flexitime working and staggered hours, as well as the need for the school run itself.
The Government should make it a requirement that all new public buildings should have a built-in energy-saving design and use energy-efficient materials. Energy-producing devices should also be provided—solar panels are an obvious example—and grey water should be gathered and stored for use in flushing toilets. I wish to praise a new building nearing completion in my constituency. At Colchester sixth-form college, grey water provision and solar panels have been installed as part of the design. By contrast, another new public building in my constituency is energy wasteful. A £16 million contemporary visual arts facility has an energy-wasteful design, as it lacks grey water provision and solar panels, even though it has one of the largest roofs to be found on any building being built in Essex.
Our debate provides an ideal opportunity to ask the Minister whether joined-up government exists on the issue of building on flood plains. In the same week that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a statement on climate change in the House, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government gave permission on appeal for 120 dwellings to be built on a flood meadow near Cowdray avenue in Colchester, just yards from the river Colne. That land is not zoned for residential development, and there was unanimous opposition from the borough council and local residents. The planning inquiry system is a farce—I described the decision as “stark staring bonkers”—because it is known that the meadow floods. The Environment Agency has altered the flood plain designation for the river Colne as it passes through Colchester, but the only thing to be said in favour of the development is the fact that anyone who moves there need not fear a hosepipe ban.
A week or two ago, I discovered that I live within feet of that flood plain. I live in an established house 400 to 500 yd from the river. It is opposite a former council highways depot, and it is built on higher land than the area where the Government have just granted planning consent. There are serious financial implications for new buildings on that land because the Environment Agency has designated it a flood plain. There is therefore a ridiculous situation, because a brownfield site on higher land and further away from the river than the other site is subject to constraints imposed by the Environment Agency designation. Within yards of that river, however, planning consent has been granted for 120 dwellings on a flood meadow.
I shall draw that lack of consistency to the attention of the Association of British Insurers, the Law Society and the Building Societies Association so that individuals who are minded to purchase or rent a house there can be advised by those professional bodies or people for whom they provide an umbrella service of the lunacy of allowing so many houses to be built on a flood meadow. Conversely, we need more affordable social housing—I still call it council housing. The demand for such housing is greater today than at any time in the past 50 years, as we have had 20 to 25 years of housing policies from successive Governments that have been detrimental to council housing. I commend to the House early-day motion 136, on the subject of funding for decent council housing, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and states that
“this House welcomes the decision of Labour’s Party conference again, to call on Government to provide the fourth option of direct investment to council housing as a matter of urgency”.
“suggests that direct investment in decent, affordable, secure and accountable council housing is now essential to provide housing needs for that rising proportion of people who are unable to get onto the ownership ladder because of escalating prices”.
It refers to the need to
“start the necessary programme of building new council houses to meet housing need”.
It is worth observing that since 1997, new Labour has built 3,500 council houses, but in the equivalent period, the Thatcher Government built 350,000 council houses.
The hon. Gentleman is talking exclusively about council houses, ignoring affordable housing schemes such as shared ownership and housing action trusts. As someone who grew up in a council house on a big council estate, and who lived in such a house until I was 25, I can assure him that council housing is not the be-all and end-all. Local authorities need to have an input in affordable housing in their area, but people were stigmatised if they grew up on a council estate. The different ways that the Government—
Order. The hon. Lady has made her point.
I was merely drawing the House’s attention to the decision by the Labour conference, but it is interesting that the hon. Lady does not support that motion. It is fair to say that other housing provision has been made, but it is inadequate.
I should like to move on to a serious subject which, however, some people find amusing. Green burials and tree planting have the twin effect of reducing the number of cremations, which require considerable energy use and pollute the atmosphere. The UK is the least tree-covered country in Europe, so we would achieve the simultaneous goals of planting more trees and reducing pollution. As we all know, trees provide a special means of helping to reduce the effects of pollution. Tackling climate change is a global challenge, but it is also a local one. The Archbishop of York, in his vigil for peace in August, said that individual drops of water cannot turn a water wheel, but that millions of drops can. The actions of many can therefore succeed. The same principle applies to climate change—every individual can contribute so that, collectively, we can tackle the consequences of the wasteful 20th century.
I wish to address the climate change, local government and draft transport Bills. As the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, they are indeed connected, as they link what we do about climate change and sustainability with the need to widen co-ordinated activity across government.
I am delighted that the Queen’s Speech includes a climate change Bill, but I hope that in our debate on the measure we will not restrict ourselves to a sterile discussion of the best targets. Targets do not exist in their own right, as we can see from the discussions that preceded the announcement of the Bill. The original early-day motion was signed by several hon. Members and was linked to a private Member’s Bill introduced in the Session before last by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). Over the past year campaigning for a climate change Bill focused on a different Bill promoted by the World Wildlife Fund. The Conservative party subsequently produced yet another Bill, and a further Bill just before the Queen’s Speech. The substantial campaigning that has taken place reflects the changed view of the urgent need for measures to tackle climate change. There is a wide consensus that the House needs to consider how serious climate change is, what we need to do about it, how little time we have to do all that is necessary to stabilise our climate, and the Government’s responsibility in that respect.
In the light of the various Bills that have been suggested, the idea of a series of annual climate change targets can be seen as a largely rhetorical device. I congratulate Friends of the Earth, WWF and other campaigning non-governmental organisations which have taken the argument forward, but I hope that when we study the detail of the climate change Bill this Session, we remember that we must concentrate not just on targets, but on the mechanisms whereby those targets can be achieved. That should be the essential element of any climate change Bill this Session.
We discussed a climate change Bill in the context of the Stern review, which recently reminded us that we have perhaps 15 years—that is probably in the parliamentary lifetime of most serving Members—to put in place mechanisms, which will be largely Government driven, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere to a level that allows us to have a sustainable low carbon economy by 2050. The aim of driving down carbon emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 as the statutory centrepiece of the Bill is both important and welcome.
My hon. Friend mentions a period of 15 years. Does he agree that the sector of the economy and of society that is likely to increase its carbon emissions most rapidly in that period is the aviation industry? Is he hopeful that in addition to the provisions of the climate change Bill, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer in May or June next year will at least and at last tackle the tax-free zone which is aviation by means of fuel taxes and other taxes that it currently escapes?
With that important point my hon. Friend anticipates, possibly by reading over my shoulder, some of my remarks. Mechanisms are central to what we do over the coming years. That underlines the sterility of the debate about whether we should have annual targets or three-year or five-year targets. We need interim targets to show the effect of the mechanisms that we put in place and, if necessary, to correct them.
Introducing and institutionalising mechanisms such as carbon trading and other devices including green taxes, regulation and various other forms of trading, are the key to how and whether a climate change Bill will have the desired effect. That is where the courage of the Government will be revealed. They must, for example, impose on those caps and trading mechanisms devices that are powerful enough to ensure that carbon levels are reduced. Targets therefore follow mechanisms and do not precede them.
The Government have already introduced a number of mechanisms which have begun to point us in the right direction—the carbon levy, the landfill tax, the beginnings of the UK carbon trading system and the push that the Government are undertaking towards Europe-wide carbon trading, the renewable transport fuel obligation, and the energy review and possible role of microgeneration. The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006—a private Member’s Bill in which I was involved to some extent last year—will introduce some of those changes.
It is important that the mechanisms which we put in place go far further to meet the challenges that the Stern review has set us and that we will have to meet to achieve a sustainable low carbon economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) observed, we must bring aviation, including business flights, into a system of carbon trading to ensure that it is a sustainable mode of transport. One of the devices that I see as a means of regulating aviation in future is a cap on who may fly where, possibly by means of a tradable air miles allocation. People would have an individual air miles allocation and if they did not use it, they could trade their allocation with others. Among other mechanisms, those are the sort of bold changes that we will have to make.
The hon. Gentleman is right that that danger exists, but capping and trading are devices that require enormous boldness from Government and great care in getting the trading mechanism and the price for carbon right. Various versions of such trading are possible. For example, there are at present versions of trading in landfill allowances, and packaging regulations are a form of trading. Sector by sector, the various versions enable capping and trading to work well. The overall principle must be that the amount of carbon emitted is inexorably drawn down by the capping and trading mechanism.
There is a huge consensus around the House on much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree that there cannot be trading without capping—the two go hand in hand? What is his opinion about going wider? The problem is not just in the UK or in Europe. A worldwide scheme is needed. What hope does he hold out for dealing with the problem on that scale?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As far as capping and trading are concerned, the UK can do certain things—an example would be landfill capping and trading—but aviation and most other major causes of carbon dioxide emissions are certainly examples of where the trading needs to take place on a wider basis than just within this country. Phase two of the EU emissions trading scheme will be crucial for getting those mechanisms right, as will be phase three. There are also signs that some states in the USA wish to sign up to these carbon trading mechanisms. I would hope that such mechanisms can be established world wide, but they must certainly be established on a Europe-wide level. Perhaps the European Commission could set the allocations for each country during phase three of the ETS, rather than our having the self-certification of allocations that occurred during phase one.
The clauses that will provide enabling powers for those further mechanisms will form an important part of the new Bill. I hope that some of those enabling powers will encourage energy companies to become energy service companies, so that they are able to sell us as little energy as possible and to make their living by sharing the proceeds of energy saving, rather than by selling us as much energy as possible. If the Bill achieves the establishment of those enabling devices, it will be a very good Bill indeed.
The idea that we should examine the sustainability of Government decisions across the board sheds light on a number of the other Bills in the Queen’s Speech, especially the local government Bill. Will local government be given far greater discretion to take action on climate change, guided by what it recognises as local concerns? Although these are global issues, most of the action that needs to be taken will take place at local level. I disagree with the hon. Member for Meriden and, I assume, the rest of the Conservative Front-Bench team, in their characterisation of variable charging for waste as a policy that would penalise certain households. Perhaps, rather than being called “variable charging for waste”, it should be called “variable reward for recycling”, because that is how it should be characterised. The idea that local authorities should have the discretion to introduce such devices to push down the levels of waste in a sustainable way is an important one. Similarly, in relation to planning and building regulations, local procurement and a number of other devices are important proposals.
The strengthening of local leadership under the proposed local government legislation in order to implement such measures, as well as devolving certain powers further and reducing targets so that local authorities have greater discretion to use their powers and budgets on a more widespread basis, will be important in relation to the front-line responsibility for sustainability that local government is increasingly taking on itself.
The draft road transport Bill will enable local transport authorities to get a much better grip on how sustainable transport can work in their areas. That will be an important cynosure of how the Government intend to join up their approach to climate change and sustainability. If local transport authorities cannot plan how their bus services are to work better, how public transport is to replace private transport wherever possible, and how those networks are to function, they will not have the important weapon in their armoury that they will need to move the process of sustainability forward.
On the planning front, we must bear in mind one caveat, however. I return to my first thoughts on what the Stern report told us about the time that we have in which to introduce mechanisms that will have an impact on climate change. If we introduce those mechanisms, their effect will not be seen in terms of a regular annual decrease. We shall see an iterative decrease as various mechanisms come into play, and we shall perhaps increase the downward trajectory of our carbon dioxide emissions over the years. Bearing in mind that we have to take this action within a certain time, we should ask ourselves whether it is a good idea to remove all the planning co-ordination at regional and national level relating to important devices such as waste management and energy strategies, and mechanisms that allow us to manage our energy and waste in a different way. Should we simply remove all planning co-ordination from those devices? My feeling is that, if we do, we shall throw away much of our ability to ensure that those changes can be made in the given time.
I am reminded of a small recent episode in which a borough council refused planning permission for a landing station for the London Array. That has resulted in the holding up of a project that is almost universally recognised as an important part of the alternative renewable energy strategy. If we can get this balance right, we shall have done ourselves a favour as far as sustainability is concerned. If we get it wrong, however, we shall have put our case back by years. This Queen’s Speech, and the mechanisms outlined in it, should be about ensuring that our progress is sustainable, joined up and in favour of combating climate change.
One immutable rule of UK governance is that local government reorganisation and restructuring are always expensive—often very expensive. Few outside the House might realise that fully 2.5 per cent. of every VAT bill levied is what we might call the poll tax or community charge memorial fund. The rise in VAT in 1991 from 15 to 17.5 per cent. was introduced to dampen the effects of the change in local government finance that took place at that time.
The transition costs associated with the Government’s new local government Bill will almost certainly exceed the £121 per person mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which has been calculated in the Cambridge university study. However, I welcome in principle the streamlining of the performance and inspection regime, especially the much loathed best value and comprehensive performance assessments, although experience suggests that the implementation of these changes will be less than straightforward.
I hope that you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I focus most of my comments on the capital, as I am a London Member. The Greater London authority Bill purports to transfer significant powers from central Government to the Mayor and the Greater London assembly. As there are two serving assemblymen sitting on the Benches behind me, I should assure the House that I intend no criticism of the Members for Bexley and Bromley and for Croydon and Sutton in that other place. However, this proposed transfer of power raises the question of why we have a Government office for London in the first place. The duplication involved is quite breathtaking, and reflects the suspicion that the Labour Government have had of the present mayoral incumbent since 2000.
Since the establishment of the Mayor and the assembly in that year, spending on the Government office for London has doubled, and the number of its employees in 2005—the last year in which a parliamentary question on this matter was tabled and answered—was higher than before the new tier of London government came into play. Yet from the moment of his election, Mayor Livingstone began what has now been a six-and-a-half-year spending splurge, with countless advisers and policy and research officers producing endless reports, few of which concern areas of policy for which he has anything other than tangential responsibility.
Naturally, none of this comes cheap. The council tax in London attributable to the Mayor and the GLA—the mayoral precept—has more than doubled in that period, from £123 in band D in 2000 to almost £300 today. Yet the Mayor of London empties not a single bin, cleans not a single street and runs not a single school, library or social services department. His budget goes on a huge public relations exercise alongside policing and the transport system, which seems scarcely fit for purpose to those who live in, work in and visit London. His failure to keep his eye on the financial ball is legendary. When not frittering away tens of thousands of pounds on abortive jaunts to Cuba or Venezuela, two countries not known for their support of the global capitalism of which London is surely the greatest exemplar, he runs a massive central bureaucracy at City Hall, which has recently been assessed in damning terms by its own internal auditor, the accounting firm Deloitte.
The GLA is big and costly, with 673 permanent staff. The chief executive earns £175,000 a year while the average salary is some £50,000 a year. It has an annual wage bill of £35 million, yet there are also spiralling costs from the use of temporary agency staff. That wasteful, financially profligate story of incompetence is now the backdrop to Mayor Livingstone’s demanding yet more powers. That will all, of course, come at significantly higher costs.
On Second Reading of the Greater London authority Bill, I hope to address some of my more specific concerns about the proposals for housing and planning that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden touched on earlier. It would be inappropriate at this juncture to rehearse a Second Reading speech on such matters, but there are some deep concerns from the 33 London boroughs about precisely which strategic powers on housing and planning are to be transferred to the Mayor. If we are to believe in localism, which seems to be the new buzz word on both sides of the House, that must mean that such matters should be kept at the most local level rather than being decided at City Hall, with its enormous bureaucracy covering 7 million people over the whole of the capital city. I have some sympathy with the view that making the mayoralty work properly requires broader strategic powers, and so I will look on some of the proposals with an open mind. However, the evidence from the current incumbent has been of a grotesque failure that risks mortgaging the future of Londoners for decades to come.
I am afraid that nowhere is that more apparent than in the funding of the 2012 Olympic games. Typically, once the bid was won the Prime Minister’s interest waned. London council tax payers, presumably alongside worthy national lottery recipients, will have to foot the fast-rising bill. I say this with great regret, because I am a keen sports fan, but I rue the day that my city won the Olympic games bid. Many of us warned before the bid was won that the financial implications were not being properly thought through, yet Ministers derided my concerns at the time. What shocks me now is only that we face financial difficulties so quickly. Less than 18 months since we won the bid, the budget has doubled. We have had confusion over VAT, disputes over land ownership and the increasing likelihood that we will not be able to rely on a fixed price construction contract after the fiasco at Wembley stadium. We have had little indication that there will be a worthwhile legacy in the lower Lea valley to justify the enormous costs.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether he wants to abolish the Mayor of London and to give the Olympics to the French, as those seem to be the logical conclusions of his speech? He seems to be against those two things that have brought a lot of good to London on the international stage.
I have made it clear that I understand the view that says that we should increase the Mayor’s powers. Clearly, we will have the Olympic games in London in 2012 and although we have seen the sorry financial situation, it is quite clear that the games will go ahead. They will be a success and a great spectacle, but I am addressing the issues of the long-term cost. I fear that the London Olympics will prove financially to be every bit as much of a disaster as the Montreal Olympics exactly 30 years ago, which are still being paid for by council tax payers in that Canadian city. Now, the Government say that they want to give more prudential borrowing power to the man who gave us this. We will need to give close consideration to the proposals in the Greater London authority Bill.
I also want to say a few words on nuclear power, which will be an important consideration this year for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agenda. Like many Conservatives of a sceptical disposition, I am not entirely convinced by some of the more apocalyptic predictions made by the environmental lobby on climate change and, more particularly, about the man-made elements of recent fluctuations in global temperature. All too often, that has been used as a stick with which to beat global capitalism. Although I do not doubt the sincerity of some in this House who wish to parade their green credentials far and wide, the conversion of many others smacks of an ill-thought-through tactical manoeuvre.
I am reluctant to intervene on my own constituency MP between noon on Monday and 9 pm on Thursday, but when he refers in a rather stinging aside to those who parade their green credentials, does he have in mind those who use wind turbines of such a power that they have been assessed as creating hardly the energy for a hairdryer in the Notting Hill area?
Nothing of the sort. I think we all realise the importance of making certain contributions. In many ways, that has to come from the bottom down, whether it involves recycling household waste or having a green turbine on one’s home. I am certainly not making the point that the hon. Gentleman suggests in any way whatsoever. I am glad that he is a council tax payer for those four days a week; he will no doubt be looking forward to paying for Mr. Livingstone’s folly in the years to come.
I am old enough to remember the time when expert scientific opinion, whatever that might mean, was resolute in predicting that we were entering a new ice age. That was only 30 years ago, and past centuries of statistical evidence were said to make the case. The same weight of statistical evidence, going back beyond the middle ages, apparently makes precisely the opposite case today, and we have global warming of an epidemic scale. In all this we need to remember that no scientist, especially one paid for by the Government, should be regarded as entirely independent. Scientific studies sponsored by BP or Shell should be treated with caution, but equally, a Government-funded study in this area is carried out by people who know that their future funding will be enhanced by a more definitive conclusion to their research.
All I am saying is that expert opinion must inform the debate on global warming and in a number of other areas, but ultimately what we do in going forward must be a political judgment. Politicians must make decisions after weighing up the evidence along with broader considerations about the importance of maintaining economic growth. Our role is not simply to abrogate responsibility in the face of a highly organised environmental lobby that is never reluctant to distort the facts to make its case.
I am not saying that the Stern Report is wrong; I have not read enough of it to make a definitive judgment. I suspect that the same could be said for most of the other 645 Members of this House who would none the less still want to jump to that conclusion. My point is clear—there needs to be a political judgment and a political balance. It is not just a matter of giving a outside adviser or an expert in whatever field the opportunity to make his or her case. There must be a political judgment about what we do as we go forward. Clearly, some of the proposals in the Stern report are extremely worrying as regards what the future will bring. There is little doubt that there has been some global warming. The question is this: how much is man-made, how much is avoidable and how much is down to natural circumstances with the ebb and flow over time?
There needs to be a sensible debate about how we should go forward. As part and parcel of that, it is prudent to consider renewables, and I support the significant investment in solar and wind energy that will take place over the decades ahead. However, unless technology develops beyond our expectations, there is little doubt that such sources will not be able to make more than a small contribution to energy needs in the near future. In my view, we need to upgrade our nuclear energy capacity and we need to do so with great urgency, not only to reduce carbon fuel emissions and thereby counter global warming, but in recognition of the fact that this country needs to maintain a significant independent energy supply.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even if that were to happen from tomorrow, not one kilowatt of new nuclear power would come on stream before 2021 and that by that point, the investment in alternative forms of energy would probably mean that the system did not require a great deal more capacity, as the most recent study on the subject published by the Department of Trade and Industry states?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that we need to make decisions now, because there is a run-in of about a decade and a half, as he rightly points out. Obviously, many of our nuclear power stations will be leading up to decommissioning before 2021 comes into play.
We need to invest in other non-renewables, but I am highly sceptical as to whether that will be sufficient considering our energy needs, which are not simply economic. There is also a rather important political issue at stake: it would be most unwise for this country to be overwhelmingly reliant for energy supplies on either oil and liquefied natural gas from an increasingly unstable middle east or gas from a Russian state that is fashioning a post-cold war place in the international community with what might be some uncertain political consequences.
I support the programme of updating our nuclear power stations and building anew. The Government have dithered for far too long on this, as in so many other areas. The legacy that they will pass on to their successors is one of delay and administrative failure. I hope that, in this area, they will now have the courage to act, and act soon.
I very much welcome the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of a climate change Bill. Like many hon. Members, I have received many representations from constituents for the inclusion of that Bill. One thing I would say is that I have not yet been convinced by the argument that we should have annual targets. I listened with great interest to the comments made in a thoughtful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who clearly has a great deal of experience in this field. His idea that we could move towards some accommodation, and perhaps some agreement across the House, is very constructive.
Many Members of the House know more about the details of this matter than I do, so I shall concentrate on one element of it, which is related to housing. There is an issue of energy conservation, which can be addressed quickly by the Government. I see on the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. I hope that we are now making progress on new building regulations for housing in particular, but for other buildings as well, to try to ensure that the new homes that we build are energy efficient to the greatest extent possible.
I welcome the fact that, with home information packs coming in next year, there will be an energy audit for every home that is sold and the introduction of a star rating of some kind, so that everyone can clearly see the energy conservation related to the home that they are buying, as well as suggestions on how with additional work the house might be improved.
There are other very simple things that we could do. We have a successful initiative to make improvements to our social housing through the decent homes programme, although one element that the Communities and Local Government Committee highlighted as in need of further improvement was energy conservation. Current standards do not meet building regulations standards, and we clearly need an energy homes-plus initiative to deal with a number of measures, particularly the energy conservation of social rented housing.
We should perhaps gain a bit of experience and consider what happened with the clean air programme, which as a child in Sheffield I remember. We identified a major problem of industrial and domestic pollution from burning coal, but within a few years, a Government initiative at national level, which was carried through with local council support, led to the replacement almost overnight in most homes of coal fires with gas fires. That was done with a measure not only of prescription, but of grant and encouragement. Perhaps we could consider such a programme to improve energy conservation, particularly in the homes of people on limited incomes, who might not be able to afford the measures.
I remember when I was leader of Sheffield council in the late ’80s and early ’90s going to Denmark and Sweden to look at combined heat and power schemes and being impressed even then by the information on conservation that was available to people from the state and from local government. They could trust that advice because it was independent. For example, people could go into a local shop to see on display the products that could be put into their homes to improve energy efficiency. They could also get independent advice on what products might or might not be worth trying.
Confusingly, many householders who instinctively feel that they ought to be doing something about energy conservation and improving the energy efficiency of their home are not sure what to do or where to go for independent advice on which initiatives they should be taking and which are perhaps not worth the money involved. Perhaps the Government will consider how that might be improved.
I welcome other elements of the Queen’s Speech such as the local government Bill. I do not want to go into the detailed proposals that I expect will be made, because I have already welcomed the White Paper, which sets out most of those initiatives. Rather than concentrate on the details, I shall just say that I believe that the Bill will probably mark a sea change in the relationships between central and local government.
Ministers and the Government are talking in a different language about local government and are, I hope, building up a relationship of trust with local government, which has been absent from Governments almost from time immemorial. The other day, I went to a Local Government Association briefing and heard representatives from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties all say that they welcome the Bill and want to work with central Government on the proposals. That is a very positive development.
Nevertheless, if we are to build on that we must address some other issues. We await the Lyons report. Frankly, unless we get a significant change and bold proposals on financial devolution in local government, we will not make much progress with the whole devolution agenda. I want some radical measures to emerge from Lyons, but in particular we must address the nonsense that local government collects directly in council tax only 25 per cent. of the money that it spends overall.
If we are to give local government some more real powers, we must loosen the string that it is so attached to—central Government, the financial string. That has to mean giving control of the business rate back to local authorities. Unless we make that change, we will not be able to alter fundamentally the relationship whereby local government is so dependent on central Government.
We must also address the demands for capital infrastructure spending in our urban areas, particularly our major cities. Earlier this afternoon, I chaired a meeting of the all-party urban development group. We had an inquiry on infrastructure funding in our urban areas and the problems in getting funding up to levels similar to those in cities on the continent. What came forward over and over again was the fact that so many decisions in this country have to be referred to the centre. So many decisions are fragmented across Departments, as are so many of the funding streams, and there are no genuine abilities for local authorities to borrow against future revenue funding streams to make capital improvements, which will eventually create added value in the community and probably largely pay for themselves. That is a challenge, and I hope that when Lyons reports he will address it and the Government will pick up proposals that he makes.
Tied into that is the need to see our local authorities in a slightly wider context. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) made that point earlier. So many of our local authorities relate to an administrative area, but not to the economic footprint of the communities in which they sit. I look forward to the Government making proposals on moving towards city regions and giving them more powers, particularly over transport, skills and wider planning issues. That was not in the White Paper, but negotiations are going on between the Departments for Transport and for Communities and Local Government in particular, and, again, it could be another bold and radical initiative for the Government to take within the spirit and the policy of devolution.
The hon. Gentleman and I serve on the same Select Committee. Would he like to expand on his comments, as we are still in quite a fog as to the value of a city region? As he is well aware, the Committee was told that a city region without a city may be possible. If we are to discuss city regions, does he agree that we need to hammer out exactly to what we are referring?
When I refer to a city region, I mean a region that surrounds a city. That is probably not rocket science, but I think that the hon. Lady is trying to make the point that if powers are given to certain cities with a sub-region around them, the needs of some areas in between, such as the central Lancashire towns, which have been arguing this point, should still be addressed. Such areas may need aspects of devolution, albeit that they may not be rightly classified as a city region. We will have to pick up that issue as part of the process.
I also say to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning that some elements of devolution still need to be addressed. One of those is giving the right and ability to local authorities and arm’s length management organisations to build houses for social renting. Certainly, that is now one of the most pressing issues in my constituency. As house prices have trebled in the past seven years, people simply cannot afford to buy a home, and there are no houses to rent. I know that Ministers are willing to address the problem, and I hope that they press on with that as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend referred to the ability of local authorities to borrow against revenue funding streams. With regard to council housing, is not that the case a fortiori? Should not that be the trigger to allow local authorities once more some ability to build houses to meet local needs?
My hon. Friend is right, and the Government have accepted in principle that the prudential borrowing rules should be extended to housing. I understand that the housing revenue account has some real complications, and that the prudential borrowing rules could have some perverse implications, including losses of grant, if houses are built as part of the process. That is why Ministers have now accepted that there should be six pilot authorities on housing—one is my authority in Sheffield—which will consider the workings of the housing revenue account and see whether changes are needed to allow those rules to be used so that houses can be built. I welcome the Minister’s pilot scheme, but, clearly, some end results are needed as quickly as possible.
In addition, it is slightly perverse that many services in Sheffield are rightly run by an elected local authority, but as much money is spent by the primary care trust, for which there is no accountability whatever. That body is appointed by an appointments commission, which is itself appointed, so it is two stages removed from political influence or control or even advice and assistance. It is so remote from those whom it serves that we must start to question why we cannot be radical and make the PCT part of the local authority. It is exactly the same size—in most cases, PCTs have been reformed to be contiguous with local authority boundaries. I know that the Prime Minister is always in favour of being even more radical than we are, so perhaps that suggestion can be put to him for a future occasion.
On transport, I obviously welcome the Bill on nationwide concessionary bus fares for pensioners. Many of those benefits are already available to my constituents, because South Yorkshire has an extremely good system, with links with West Yorkshire providing free travel across the boundaries, and links with some services into north Derbyshire because of agreement between the authorities. We have extended the concessions to Supertram to apply for a greater number of hours in the day.
I welcome the proposals for a draft Bill to give powers back to local transport authorities to ensure that bus services meet the needs of our constituents. I understand that I am not supposed to use the word “reregulation”, but giving powers back to transport authorities will do for me. It is nonsense that South Yorkshire now has only a third of the number of passengers riding buses as it had in 1986, and that fares have gone up by more than 100 per cent. in real terms. The year before last, we saw four fare increases in one year. Routes have been cut. The excellent concessionary fares scheme running in South Yorkshire could have a perverse impact because of challenges mounted by bus companies to the way in which they are compensated for the introduction of that scheme. If those challenges are successful, the money will have to be found by the passenger transport authority and executive, which will mean more cuts to bus and other transport services next year. We need to monitor that.
It is welcome that consideration will be given in the draft Bill to a menu of solutions from which passenger transport authorities can select, so that we have the right solutions for the right areas. It is also welcome that passenger transport executives will be able to give their expert advice to us publicly about how to design a scheme that will work on the ground. Clearly, all the major bus companies have a vested interest in making sure that the legislation does not work. It is therefore important to listen to those who will have to implement it. I also welcome the proposals because of their impact on the environment. For the same reasons, I welcome the consideration to be given to the introduction of congestion charging in our cities and eventually on our motorways.
As for the proposed planning legislation, I presume that that refers to the Government’s planning gain supplement proposals. We are not sure, however, what the eventual Bill will contain. The Select Committee has considered planning gain supplement. Our initial response, which was right, was to ask whether it needed to be introduced, and whether we should not first examine in detail the possibility of reforming or enhancing section 106 arrangements. That seems to me to be the starting point, and such analysis has never been done. I am not in principle opposed to planning gain supplement, but it is worth while considering whether the existing system can be improved first.
When a public policy decision means that a private individual or organisation makes considerable gains, it is absolutely right that a percentage of those gains should go back to benefit the public purse. We are going in the right direction on that, but we should analyse whether there is an easier and simpler way of doing it. As part of that approach, whether we move to planning gain supplement or enhanced section 106 powers, we should give local authorities clear advice that, although we instinctively believe, as I hope we all do, in devolution to local authorities in relation to section 106 decisions for certain schemes, there are some good examples of local authorities being proactive in that field, and some bad examples of local authorities doing nothing at all. If local authorities want those enhanced powers, the best thing that they can do is to start learning from each other about how best to use them.
Generally, I welcome the Queen’s Speech, and especially those measures that I have identified. I welcome in principle the climate change Bill, the local government Bill and the proposed transport legislation. I look forward to seeing the details of those proposals in due course.
I greatly enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), as he quoted several aspects of Liberal Democrat policy. I welcome his conversion with regard to some of the debates that I have had with him over the years, especially when he was leader of Sheffield city council.
Most of my contribution will not be on the main element of tonight’s debate, as it is customary that Back Benchers may speak on other aspects of the Queen’s Speech. I shall confine most of my comments to the human tissue and embryo proposals in the Queen’s Speech, which did not get much attention on Thursday. I compliment the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on his contribution, because, without such debate, and without such an element of scepticism, we simply walk straight forward.
What I liked most about the Stern report was the way in which it tried to analyse the economic situation and how it would develop. If the hon. Gentleman reads nothing else, I suggest that he read chapter 1, in which Stern assesses the available scientific evidence about climate change. Stern does not say “I am a scientist: I know the answers.” He says, “I have looked at all the evidence that is available, and have reached the following conclusion.” Whether the earth heats up by 2°, 3° or 5°—Stern’s worst-case scenario—we must have a starting point.
We have had a superb debate today. The right hon. Members for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), and, in particular, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), demonstrated what the debate should be about. At the end of the day it is not about targets, no matter how wedded each of our parties may be to them; it is about the larger objective of doing something about what many of us regard as the greatest threat to our planet.
We have heard some interesting speeches about the local government Bill, but it was disappointing to note the consuming interest of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) in organisation. Although it criticises various elements of reorganisation, the Tory party itself seems to have a consuming interest in yet another reorganisation. I smiled at the new title “The Permissive State”, which struck me as an interesting concept—as did “structural fetishism”, which I also quite liked.
As I have lived through four attempted reorganisations in North Yorkshire over the past years, the thought of yet more reorganisation of local government fills me with dread. I hope that the Bill will allow local authorities to make those decisions, and I hope that at the end of the debate the Minister will reassure us that unitary authorities will not be forced on communities that do not want them.
My main purpose is to discuss the human tissue and embryos Bill, to which the Queen's Speech refers. I understand that there is to be a draft Bill, but that it will not be tabled until March. I can say on behalf of the Select Committee on Science and Technology that we would like very much to play a part in the process. Although on Thursday the draft Bill received little more than a cursory mention from the Secretary of State for Health, and indeed all Front Benchers, it is enormously significant to the House and our communities—not simply childless couples but the thousands of would-be parents who are carriers of defective genes—and to the hugely promising research programmes that are linked to therapeutic and cloning and embryonic stem cell lines.
The House will know that the Select Committee, led by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and me, has been involved in the Bill’s progress from the beginning. It has been a long time coming. Indeed, it was the Government’s failure to review the legislation on human reproductive technologies that led to the last Committee’s announcement in 2003 of an inquiry into the subject, and subsequently to the Government’s review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Our Committee’s report appeared in March 2005, just before the general election, and the Department of Health then issued its own consultation paper in August. The current Committee has continued to keep a watching brief, and we have had a debate on the subject in the Chamber. The Committee took further evidence from the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—the Minister responsible for public health—in July this year. We urged the Government to produce firm proposals, and we are pleased that at last we have been listened to.
Given the current controversy and wildly inaccurate reporting of proposals by researchers from King’s College London and the North-East England Stem Cell Institute in Newcastle to create hybrid embryos using human cells and animal eggs to develop new treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s, stroke and Alzheimer’s, I hope that the draft Bill will help to bolster confidence in that ground-breaking field of research.
The Bill is necessary to facilitate the replacement of the two existing regulators, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority, with one new authority, the regulatory authority for tissue and embryos. However, I hope that the Government will reconsider their decision not to include the work of the Human Genetics Commission in that of the new organisation. If public confidence in our scientists is to be maintained, there must be a transparent mechanism to provide advice on issues with ethical or societal implications, and that should not be the role of the regulator. Equally, Parliament should have a greater role in outlining the ethical parameters for the regulator. The public health Minister has indicated that she is exploring new ways in which Parliament can have a greater say when science changes. I hope that she will examine seriously our proposals for a Standing Committee on bio-ethics. It will be interesting to see how we can draw the line between parliamentary oversight and parliamentary interference.
The draft Bill, however, is intended to go beyond the establishment of a new regulatory structure. The Leader of the House’s website tells us that its key objectives are to
“ensure that the law that regulates human reproductive technologies is updated to reflect new technologies”,
“promote public confidence in human reproductive technologies through effective regulatory controls”,
“to ensure that the law takes account of changes in public attitude since the current legislation was formulated in the 1980s”.
That sign that the Government are prepared to use the Bill to take on some of the concerns expressed in our report and in public consultation is welcome.
One essential area in which the parameters need to be established more clearly in the legislation involves the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, the technique that allows parents to reduce the risk of passing on serious hereditary conditions and diseases by screening embryos. Abnormal embryos are then not implanted. Developed in the 1980s, computer techniques allow screening for virtually all known genetic disorders, including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia. Yet there is significant controversy over the technique, and some, such as the pressure group “Comment On Ethics”, fear that it will lead to designer babies.
The question for Parliament is: how do we allow researchers to respond quickly to new developments while retaining public confidence? There are also issues surrounding sex selection of embryos, which is not subject to an explicit statutory ban. The HFEA permits it only for serious gender-related genetic conditions when the selection is carried out by means of PGD; but sex selection can be achieved by other means, such as sperm sorting, which fall outside the remit of the HFEA. Strong views have been expressed on that practice as well.
The Minister told us that her Department was
“minded to pursue a clear and explicit ban in the law which covers all assisted reproductive treatments in relation to sex selection, where it is not for serious medical conditions”.
We will be interested to see how that is framed in the legislation, and how the ban can be implemented in the internet age.
The most recent issue to hit the press has been the creation of human-cow hybrids for research purposes, or indeed the creation of embryos from stem cells for research purposes. I believe that there is clear evidence that the legislative framework needs to catch up both with the developments in technology and with public opinion. There are many—including Lord Winston and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris)—who say that further clarification is not necessary when the resulting hybrid is 99.9 per cent. human. I beg to differ. Medical research in the United Kingdom in this field is ahead of that in the rest of the world, because we have always taken public opinion with us. We do not wish to hold back scientific advances, but the public must retain confidence in the system.
There are one or two other issues that appear not to be in the draft Bill, but could justifiably be included. The first is the question of donor anonymity, a hugely important issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) in a speech on 16 November. The fact that the number of sperm donors has dropped alarmingly following the abolition of anonymity in April 2005 must be revisited.
Secondly, there is the matter of abortion time limits, which the Government understandably seem less than keen to reopen. I wholeheartedly support the view of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) that it should not be dealt with in the draft Bill. Indeed, it was a mistake to include amendments to the Abortion Act 1967 in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. Nor should we attempt to change the law via the somewhat naive ten-minute rule, under the Termination of Pregnancy Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries). What is required is a review of the scientific, medical and social changes in the evidence on abortion since the last legislation 16 years ago. While a private Member’s Bill would need to be introduced to change the law, without a detailed examination of the evidence, the debate will generate more heat than light.
I am sorry for interrupting the proceedings to introduce another issue, but I think that the human tissue and embryos Bill is incredibly important and I hope that, when it comes before the House, it will receive the consideration that it deserves.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who made a thought-provoking speech on an issue that we should all be interested in and that will be before Parliament soon.
Creating economic security should always be at the centre of the social democratic agenda because it is essential to its success and long-term political health. The people who Labour was created to represent often rely on the security and opportunity engendered by empowering Government action to enhance their prospects in life. After all, it is those at the bottom end of the income distribution who are usually the first to suffer from the cold winds of political philosophies that seek to shrink the role of the state and advocate tax cuts and lower public expenditure.
This legislative programme contains some welcome further additions to Labour’s economic opportunity agenda, which will spread the advances that we have already made as a Government even further. Ten years ago, we inherited a laissez-faire mantra of despair from the previous Thatcherite Tory Government. According to their philosophy, poverty did not exist in the UK and the state was part of the problem, not ever any part of the solution. If someone was struggling, tough luck. If they had to use public transport, they were a failure. If they needed to claim benefits, they were a scrounger, the subject of sneering ministerial verse at Tory party conference. Worse still, if they were a single mother, they were to blame for virtually all society’s ills. Contemptuous, mocking, uncaring: it was the nasty party in the prime of its political dominance.
Times have changed and the public have realised that there is another way. The state can be enabling and the Government can become a force for good. We have seen in the past 10 years that reducing child and pensioner poverty is not only compatible with a stronger economy, but enhances our ability as a society to harness all our talents. The minimum wage does not destroy jobs. In fact, it protects the weakest from exploitation at work. The political choice is not between social justice and economic success. The fact is that achieving a fairer, more equal society in which security and opportunity are available to all, enhances our economic success.
Those positive advances in social justice did not happen by accident. They came about because a Labour Government initiated them after the electorate supported them. Those advances were not inevitable, and they should not be taken for granted. They are unlikely to endure if the political weather changes and the Conservative party returns to power.
Here are just a few highlights of a substantial and serious legislative programme that I am particularly pleased to see included in Labour’s plans for this parliamentary Session. The pensions Bill will enable women to have easier access to the state pension for the first time since it was created. That will assist in closing the gender pension gap, which stands at an unacceptable 43 per cent. The Bill will set out a framework that will enable all our citizens to have access to simplified provision and a low-cost national system of personal saving accounts.
At the other end of the age range, the further education and training Bill will restructure the further education sector to make it more effective in its delivery of opportunities for many who do not wish to go to university. The Leitch review highlighted the real challenges that persist in the UK to deliver higher levels of skills in our work force. If we are to continue competing successfully in a globalising economy, we must get this right and quickly. Allowing further education institutions to acquire powers to award foundation degrees should create ladders of opportunity in the vocational sector that have been absent for far too long.
I particularly welcome the two transport Bills in the Government’s legislative programme. They have the potential to transform the lives of many of my constituents in Wallasey for the better. The concessionary bus travel Bill will enable everyone over 60 and all people with disabilities to take advantage of free travel on all local buses anywhere in England by April 2008. That £600 million package will improve the lives of 11 million people, many of whom have been denied the chance to travel, often on the ground of the prohibitive cost.
The draft road transport Bill offers an even more important and long overdue re-regulation of local bus services. That will enable locally accountable bodies to get proper value for money for the huge public subsidies that are paid to private bus companies. In Merseyside alone, that amounts to £1 million a week, with no control over routes or timetables and no stability in local bus services. The result has been a halving of passenger use and a 30 per cent. increase in fares. It is high time that the disastrous Tory deregulation of our bus services outside London was reversed and I look forward to seeing the Bill in draft when it is published.
Like many other hon. Members, I wish to make some observations on the major challenges we face in tacking climate change in the aftermath of the Stern review. I also wish to comment on the discrimination law review that is being undertaken by the Government and which I believe should lead to a radical single equality Bill, ideally in this legislative Session rather than the next.
The Stern review will be seen in retrospect as a ground-breaking report of global importance. I agree with its conclusion that the effect of human activity on emissions of greenhouse gases presents us with a very serious global risk that will require an urgent global response. I agree also with Stern’s observation that only international collective action can drive an effective and equitable response on the scale required to affect the currently disastrous likely outcome and to give us a chance of staving off the serious risks of calamity that we are now running.
The report makes sobering reading for those sceptics who advocate a business-as-usual approach. It plausibly demonstrates that, with no action to tackle the danger of greenhouse gas emissions, one in six of the world’s population would be threatened by water shortages in this century, while 200 million people would be displaced by rising sea levels. Declining crop yields would increase death by malnutrition and we would face the extinction of up to 40 per cent. of our world’s biodiversity. Unlike the disruption of the two world wars, with which the economic costs of this are comparable, climate change would be irreversible and could become uncontrollable.
The Treasury Committee has been taking evidence on globalisation and, like the Stern report, I have been struck by an emerging consensus among non-governmental organisations and normally right-wing economists alike that Governments have to do something. As an eminent economist, Stern is correct to identify climate change as
“the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen”.
That presents a significant challenge to orthodox economic theory. Creating the analytical tools to help us understand these potentially catastrophic processes will require the incorporation of some of the more radical economic theories into the mainstream. The current analytical framework that excludes externalities such as pollution and fails to identify environmental sustainability at all, will simply not be fit for purpose as we confront the challenges of climate change.
Stern is correct to emphasise the role of the economics of risk and uncertainty, the long time horizons necessary to price the environmental cost of human activity appropriately, and the need to drive a dramatic and rapid switch to less damaging activity over a relatively short time scale. He concludes that we must develop major non-marginal change at a global level. The move to a “significantly lower carbon trajectory” must be seen as an investment rather than a cost, as it would be seen traditionally, and it has to be globally co-ordinated if it is to be effective.
Happily, the Stern review also charts realistic ways forward and emphasises that there is not a choice between economic growth and irreversible climate change. We can continue with economic development, but only alongside carbon pricing, rapid technological development and technology transfer, as well as significant behavioural change among both individuals and corporations. All of that is challenging, but possible and we must now build the global framework agreements and institutions that will make it a reality. The climate change Bill is one small part of what must be a huge international effort.
One major issue that works against both security and opportunity in our society as it is currently constructed is the stubborn persistence of significant discrimination and unfairness in Britain. The lives of far too many of our fellow citizens are still blighted by bigotry and narrowed by unlawful discrimination that simply goes unpunished by ineffective legal protection or inadequate enforcement. People with disabilities are at only the start of their long fight for access to adequate educational and employment opportunities. Illegal discrimination against pregnant women is rife and mostly unchecked. Only 58 per cent. of people from ethnic minorities are in work, whereas the proportion for the population as a whole is 75 per cent. Both the gender and the race pay gaps persist and are widening in many areas, especially in the private sector. The part-time gender pay gap now stands at a massive 40 per cent. Despite 30 years of legislative effort, much still needs to be done. This Government have made great strides and have introduced important new protections, but now is the right time for a step change in this crucial area.
Ministers have recognised the need to look again at the nature of the equality law by appointing the head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights to undertake the discrimination law review. That is expected to result in conclusions that will feed into a single equality Act in the lifetime of this Parliament. That is an exciting once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver the step change that we need.
We must create a radically simplified but more comprehensive and effective legislative framework for equality and opportunity than the one that we have. To tackle the pay gaps, we need to have compulsory pay audits and annual monitoring of the situation in the private sector. That works well in Northern Ireland, where the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, which requires such monitoring and publishes the results, has had a big impact. We also need to allow class actions, to make a reality of the legal requirement for equal pay for work of equal value. It is completely unacceptable that equal pay claims currently take up to 12 years to resolve and, even if they are successful, they only apply to the individuals who were brave enough to take them up.
A single equality Act should extend the duty to promote equality from the public sector to the private sector, where the pay gaps are much larger and are growing. It should also allow the use of public sector procurement to require compliance with those standards. The current word in Whitehall is that the discrimination law review is turning into a missed opportunity—or, to put it another way, a damp squib. It appears to be narrowing its vision and scaling down its ambition. That must not be allowed to happen.
I appeal to Ministers to seize the opportunity that they have to turn our under-inclusive but over-complex equality law into a real instrument for change. We need it to help us achieve the improvement in life chances that the original law was put on the statute book to produce. It must be simpler to understand, focused on outputs and much more effectively enforced. Such a Bill should be included in this legislative programme and not have to wait for the next, because it is at the centre of Labour’s values and philosophy.
I wholeheartedly welcome the measures contained in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope that we can work on a cross-party basis to improve our prospects of dealing with the global challenge of climate change. I also hope that Ministers will heed the following words: be bold, be ambitious and give us an equality law that we can work with.
The debate has been wide-ranging and all the more interesting for that. However, I wish to focus on environmental issues.
I welcome the fact that I can talk about a climate change Bill that will actually be introduced. Climate change was debated in this House only a few weeks ago and we were unsure whether we would get a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is no longer present, said that Queen’s Speeches are all the better when they follow strong public opinion. Certainly, the work of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and a number of Front-Bench Members of both the Government and the Opposition has led to this Bill being rapidly brought forward.
I have some concerns about the Bill’s contents. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) alluded to targeting issues. We have to meet our target of reducing carbon emissions by 60 per cent. of their 1990 levels by 2050. I do not believe that a five-year target will, on its own, suffice. The Stern report alludes to the necessity of doing something within 15 years, and the World Wide Fund for Nature says that 10 years is the point of no return, in terms of our activity. If we simply go for one five-year target and the WWF is correct that there is a 10-year window of opportunity, that means that we will have an interim target—a one-point review. That is not so much a target as a simple checkpoint.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe said that there was a broad consensus in terms of desired outcomes, but that there was confusion over targets. We in this House have to grow up. The Government must be bold and set clear targets and the Conservative party and other Opposition parties must be courageous in not criticising the Government if they occasionally do not meet those targets. The concept of a rolling average seems sensible, although I was confused by some points made in this debate and by people outside the House. Commentators have asked, “What will happen if we have a cold winter? We would use more electricity and climate change would get more acute.” That misses the point: the whole climate-change problem means that, over time, it will be increasingly unlikely that we will have cold winters. There should be more of a fear that the targets will not be met, and that the Government will be punished not only by the public, but by Members of all parties in this House. We need to take a much more mature approach on this matter.
It is right to have an expert commission that is independent, although I have concerns about how that commission will be appointed; it needs to be at arm’s length from the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is not the point on targets that, if or when a Government miss a target—for example, because of a cold winter—we will need to know about that immediately so that corrective action can be taken, rather than waiting until the end of a five or 10-year period? There will be times when we miss a target for reasons outside Government control—such as climatic or economic reasons—and we shall need to know about that, so that we can take action.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right that the sooner we know about any shortfall, the sooner we shall be able to remedy the problem. If we cannot measure our activities regularly, we will not be able to deploy our Government’s limited financial resources.
An annual carbon budget report will be needed, alongside the activities on climate change. That will focus our progress specifically on the issue of carbon, rather than simply on global warming in general. There should be a single dedicated Cabinet Minister responsible for climate change. I welcome the move towards having a single Minister with responsibility for that, but if we are serious about taking longer term action on the environment, one of the seats at the Cabinet table should be taken by someone focusing entirely on the issue. The Stern report says that climate change should be made our highest priority. so having one member dedicated to it out of a Cabinet of 20-odd Ministers does not seem inappropriate.
I support the move to an office of climate change. The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who has just left his place, explained in a written answer to me that that office
“will support Ministers as they develop future UK strategy and policy on domestic and international climate change.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 275W.]
In answer to other questions, he explained that there will be both a ministerial board and an officials board, but I was disappointed that that group will not produce ongoing reports; we will see the effect of that group only on broader Government policy and how it is presented to the House and the public. If the office is to have any teeth, it is worth sharing with us what it is doing in greater detail.
I am also cognisant of the changes in the roles of successive Deputy Prime Ministers. Each Deputy Prime Minister—be they Conservative or Labour—defines the job in a very different and special way, as we have certainly seen recently. If Labour Members do not support having a single Minister entirely responsible for climate change, perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister could take on a greater role in advocating dealing with the issue.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, of which I am a member, could play an important part in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the climate change Bill. In no way do I want to prevent the Bill from being considered more generally on the Floor of the House, because there is an urgent need for it, but there might be some merit in having a detailed cross-party discussion of how we set targets, so that we can depoliticise to some degree the issue before the Bill reaches the Floor.
The Select Committee is working on a series of climate change inquiries, the first of which concerns bioenergy, an issue to which I shall return. First, I want to discuss the Committee’s trip to China, to which our Chairman referred earlier. While there, we visited the Jilin province, where we were told that the aspiration was to put a car on the driveway of every Chinese family. The Committee found that enormously worrying, and our concerns were amplified throughout the visit. Several Chinese politicians told us of their distrust of capitalism, and they extended that distrust to our comments on climate change. They felt that what the western world was saying about climate change was potentially a capitalist conspiracy in order to stop—
As we all know, China is having a major impact in this regard. I am concerned about the possibility that China will dam the Brahmaputra river, which would affect Bangladesh enormously. We should all be very aware—as the Chinese must be—of the impact of such an action on the environment, and particularly on countries downstream that will lose the benefits of the water if the river is so dammed. China must take that point on board. Does my hon. Friend agree that we all need to listen to each other in this debate?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that water is a key issue in the climate change debate; indeed, I shall discuss flooding and the scarcity of water. The impact of the issue on international relations is certainly critical.
In expressing their distrust of what was being said about climate change, Chinese politicians were saying, “You’ve had your industrial revolution. You’ve developed and you’ve polluted. Now, it’s our turn.” They were talking about economic growth but, from an environmental perspective, if China’s economy continues to grow at its current rate, there is a strong chance that they will kill the planet, and we are culpable.
When the Treasury Committee visited Shanghai some 18 months ago, we were encouraged to discover that one of the five main themes of the next five-year economic growth plan—that is how they do things in China—is environmental sustainability. The Chinese seemed to be extremely interested in having the latest clean technology as they develop.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and hope that her assessment is correct. I cannot speak for the rest of the Committee, but my assessment was that there was insufficient focus on environmental issues––specifically climate change––despite heavy activity from a non-governmental organisation perspective. I saw lots of evidence of ongoing damage to the environment by factories, but little was being done to ameliorate the situation.
Bioenergy has a greater role to play in dealing with climate change. The Select Committee found the Government’s approach to bioenergy somewhat piecemeal and felt that a lot more could be done to use biofuels and biomass technology. For example, perhaps there could be fewer electric Priuses on the road and more Ford Focuses using bioethanol. Given that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), comes from Essex, she will perhaps support Ford in that regard. It is important to encourage the use of bioethanol.
During this debate, we keep returning to tax, which is all too often used as a stick in dealing with environmental issues when it can also be a carrot. Some countries have promoted bioethanol simply by not taxing such fuels, which is an approach that we could consider. More broadly, we have to develop a common carbon pricing system. A number of contributors—from all parts of the House—have described the inequity of aviation being treated differently from car, bus and train travel. Unless we establish a level playing field, politicians will make inappropriate transport decisions for individuals and communities. If we put in place a proper carbon pricing system that uses a market economy, we can allow the citizen to decide.
In discussing flooding, I was going to give a local example, but I am minded first to note the situation in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia over the weekend. It has clearly demonstrated that global warming and flooding are not just long-term problems but with us now and shown how closely intertwined environmental issues are with broader international development issues. The Association of British Insurers produced a report two weeks ago that covered a number of areas on the eastern side of the United Kingdom, including Southend, and which highlighted the extensive flood risk there. I am concerned that the DEFRA budget has been cut in terms of revenue spend on flooding. I understand from the Secretary of State that the capital element, although probably inadequate, is at least fixed. We in Southend were very badly affected by floods in 1953, when 68 people died. The circumstances were truly horrific, yet little has been done since then to mitigate the risk.
There is a proposal to build more than 120,000 houses in Thames Gateway. The Secretary of State said earlier that they will be green, environmentally friendly houses, but I contend that the Thames Gateway, which is subject to flooding, is a wholly inappropriate area in which to build more houses. Given the shortage of water—Essex’s water comes from much further north—this is not a particularly sustainable proposal. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is no longer in his place, mentioned that houses are being built on flood plains in his constituency, and there are similar problems in my constituency. The ABI report raises a number of issues, and today I shall seek an Adjournment debate on that subject.
I want to touch on the absence of a marine Bill. I was sorry not to hear explicit mention of it in the Queen’s Speech, particularly given that 246 Members, 115 of whom were Labour Members, signed an early-day motion on the issue in the last Session. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but the hon. Member for Scunthorpe did say that not all the Bills that will be enacted during this Session are necessarily in the Queen’s Speech. Given his connections with the current Prime Minister, I hope that he knows something that has yet to be shared fully with the House, and that we will indeed get a draft marine Bill, for which there is cross-party support.
This year’s Queen’s Speech has left me with some hope, but what was included and what was omitted has also given me cause for concern. I look forward to the substantive debate on climate change going forward in this Session.
I found it difficult to choose a debate to which to contribute this week. The Queen’s Speech included Bills on issues such as child support, concessionary bus travel, consumer advocacy, estate agents and redress, digital switchover, further education and training, mental health, offender management and pension reform, to name but a few, that all have their supporters in my mailbag. Some correspondents have suggestions, others want change and others are concerned about the effects of changes. In the end, I chose to speak in this debate on the environment and climate change, for reasons that will become obvious.
I welcome the local government Bill, which will build on work done in previous legislation. It will strengthen and enhance the role and powers of councillors, especially in overview and scrutiny. It will also strengthen their links with the local community.
Plymouth has been named as one of the growth areas and I welcome multi-area agreements, and we look forward to building our relationships with surrounding authorities without them feeling that we are empire-building. Mackey, the international planner, has developed a vision plan for Plymouth that envisages that its population will grow from some 250,000 to 300,000 in the next 20 years. Unlike some parts of the country, we welcome such growth and believe that we have much to gain from it in terms of developing a sustainable community.
Last week, we launched our local economic development strategy to complement the strategy that Mackey has developed for us for our built environment. One of the key sectors of the growth strategy is marine sciences. The oceans make up some 80 to 90 per cent. of the earth’s surface and, at their deepest, are three times as deep as the highest mountain. They have absorbed more than half of the carbon dioxide that has been added to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. There has been much talk of carbon capture and sequestration, and the oceans provide one of the key buffers. Plymouth has hidden its light under a bushel with regard to the scientific and economic activity involved in marine research, and we are set to develop that area. We have some excellent science that is being developed through the Plymouth marine sciences partnership, which is at the heart of the potential marine science cluster in the area.
The PMSP was formed in 1999 to collaborate on research projects and develop the profile of marine science in Plymouth. It consists of five organisations, including the University of Plymouth’s marine institute, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science. Several of those organisations are involved in research that has a bearing on climate change.
The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom is a charitable company as well as a leading professional body for 1,200 marine scientists. It also conducts research, consultancy work and short-course teaching, which is classed as charitable trading. I visited the association and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science when I shadowed a Royal Society scientist, Richard Kirby, a couple of years ago. I looked at the work he was doing through the foundation, which runs the continuous plankton recorder survey. That internationally renowned longitudinal survey of plankton levels in the north Atlantic and North sea, originally designed to predict where fish might be located, was started more than 70 years ago in 1931. Recently, the global warming agenda has driven the continued need for the survey as the incidence of warm-water plankton can be used as a proxy for climate change. Plankton are the basis of the food chain and the survey has shown how fish stocks have moved further north as a result of the effects of climate change on the oceans. Plymouth has one of the biggest and fastest growing fish markets in Europe and the fisheries in the English channel are very important to it. There has been much talk in recent years about the exhaustion of fish stocks, but in fact they have moved with the plankton, which are at the bottom of their food chain.
The Plymouth Marine Laboratory is the second largest dedicated marine institute in the UK after the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton. The PML was formed in the 1970s and was formerly under the ownership of the Natural Environment Research Council. It was privatised in 2002 and is a registered charity that includes Plymouth Marine Applications Ltd. When I first knew the laboratory it was considering the problems caused by carbon sequestration in the oceans, but it is now considering innovative approaches to marine solutions to climate change.
Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I visited the laboratory and saw a project in which algae is grown in culture and processed and developed to capture carbon. It will be used with the new Langage gas-fired power station that is being built. The process also produces materials that can be used in sunscreens and skin care products and added to biofuels. That is a virtuous circle that shows that the science of the oceans, which has been little explored, could be very valuable. I am told by the scientists that there are as many as 60 million microbes—equivalent to the population of the United Kingdom—in a third of a glass of water. They have been little explored, but it is thought that they can make a huge contribution to solving some of the problems we face.
Although I am disappointed that there was no marine Bill in the Queen’s Speech, I will take a keen interest in much of the climate change Bill. I hope that, following its successful passage we will see a marine Bill, in draft if not in its final form.
We have had much debate about target setting, and I am sure that there will be more. We should not get into a battle on the issue, because our constituents take climate change seriously and want solutions, not arguments. I signed the recent early-day motion on target setting, but—as I told those constituents who urged me to sign it—I have some reservations about how far annual targets will get us. However, I agree that we need some form of measurement. We need a deep debate about that to come up with the right answers so that we are not tied down by an unhelpful bureaucracy; we need one that helps us in the process towards the ends we all want to achieve.
A related point is the role of the carbon committee. At the weekend, some commentators suggested that the committee should be made independent, like the Bank of England. We could draw on that experience to some extent, but we should also look at the role played by the Low Pay Commission in helping us to bring the minimum wage on stream, without all the repercussions that the Opposition warned about, such as the high level of unemployment that did not happen. That comparison is relevant when we consider some of the controversial matters about which we shall have to encourage our constituents to come on board. They are certainly controversial in my constituency. Road congestion and charging is one such matter. The draft Bill will take us a bit further forward, but we shall need to encourage people out of their cars and on to public transport. Other Members have referred to aviation and so on.
As chair of the all-party group on water, I want to touch on that subject in the closing moments of my speech. Water management and efficiency are, as others have said, closely related to climate change. The first two weeks of November saw only 10 per cent. of normal rainfall, although we may have made up for that over the weekend. There is a need for short and long-term planning and innovative approaches to help mediate between industry, the regulator, consumers and environmental interests, as well as to address the challenges of flood and drought, which many people think have their roots in climate change.
Does the hon. Lady accept that another way in which climate change relates to water resource management is that a great deal of energy is expended cleaning and pumping drinking water that is then largely flushed down the toilet? That is how we manage water use in most of our houses at present.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Such issues need to be assessed by the carbon committee, as I suggested earlier, to see whether there needs to be some change in direction.
In dealing with water management and some of the issues arising from the need to curb emissions from domestic energy use, we must take account of the pressures that higher bills put on low-income households, which is a particular problem in the far south-west of England where our water bills are £100 more than the average. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) pointed out earlier, it is much easier for those of us on higher incomes, but others are spending as much as a quarter or even a third of their income on high water bills and the recently increased energy bills. We need to have regard to that.
Some of the costs have arisen due to pollution clean-up in the past, but I hope that it will be possible to find some way of helping low-income water users, for whom there is currently no relief in the social security system and little effective help. There are regulations covering vulnerable persons, but they help only a small number of people.
I commend the measures outlined in the Queen’s Speech to improve our environment at local, regional and national level. They set out a programme, especially in the climate change Bill, which will enable our Government to maintain their international reputation for leading the world on these matters.
The primary sensitivity about the proposed Greater London assembly Bill relates to planning powers and their abstraction from local boroughs. Experience in the days of the Greater London council left boroughs feeling that their ability to initiate developments locally was restricted by the need to pay cognisance to what the GLC was doing. There is a fear that we shall go through the same process under the GLA.
I recognise that the Government, in their consultation on the GLA legislation, have emphasised that only a small number of the most strategically important planning decisions will come to the Mayor. They will not expect him to intervene in terms of giving positive approval—another change that is proposed—other than in those strategically important decisions and the applications considered will be only those submitted on a sub-regional basis. However, the acceptance in the consultation of the current low threshold of intervention on measurements of floor space, height and the number of houses in an application suggests that local authorities will have to deal with the Mayor at that low level of intervention.
I know that the Mayor and his extremely professional planning officers take the view that they are better placed to intervene in the consideration of planning applications and to maximise the section 106 value from major applications. Indeed, some local authorities in London may not be as strong as others. I have a criticism of my local authority—Croydon—which is far too closely bound to particular developers in respect of key applications. There must, however, be an expectation that local knowledge means that local authorities are best placed to drive forward such applications.
The Mayor of London has recognised that there are also issues in respect of the fact that only one person acts as a planning authority. He realises the importance of an open approach and a public process so that he can be given advice and be lobbied by people who may have concerns about an application. I very much hope to hear that the Government will give consideration to the inclusion of such openness in the legislation that comes before us at a later stage, because one Mayor’s promise may not necessarily be delivered by another.
I am also concerned that in the proposed legislation it will be down to the boroughs to provide members of the public with information about anything in a planning application to which the Mayor will give consideration. That strikes me as a remote process. In the consultation, it was suggested that the Mayor should be able to call in every application for a tram stop, which seems to be a tactical consideration to allow him to pursue his desire for the west London tram scheme against the significant opposition to that proposal.
In times past, I enjoyed acting as chairman of the budget committee of the London assembly and I remain concerned about the impact of the requirement for a two-thirds majority to stop the Mayor’s budget in the totality of its demands on London taxpayers. The two-thirds requirement has to be secured twice at each annual budget. Although that quixotic target was secured once, bringing together Greens, former UK Independence party members, Conservatives and Liberals in an unusual rainbow coalition, it has not been possible to sustain on a continued basis. Unfortunately, that has led to the assembly being a busted flush. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said earlier that the assembly was little more than a talking shop. Certainly, the assembly has been left in a much weaker position in attempting to express its views on scrutiny issues, because such a high hurdle is set on its key power.
There are, of course, many problems with a local taxation system that, in London, raises a sum equivalent to only 8 per cent. of the authority’s total spending. The gearing of 12 and a half times creates a certain remoteness, which is even greater than that seen elsewhere in local government, given the link between taxation and local accountability. I had hoped that the legislation would consider the appropriateness of the two-thirds target.
I am also very interested in the way in which the GLA and the assembly have delivered over the past six years and in the ability of highly professional officers in the finance department to advise the Mayor and the assembly in running the budget process. I am certainly very supportive of Tony Travers’s idea that the assembly should have a separate budget office. Something similar is in place in New York, and such a system should be in place in London. Indeed, greater powers are given to other assemblies within a strong mayoral structure in New York, Barcelona and Berlin, where they have powers to legislate and to control budgets.
I recognise that the prospective legislation will include confirmation hearings for key mayoral appointments in the assembly, but I regard that as limited consolation to the assembly. Certainly, it would be attractive, in line with local government practice, for the assembly to be able to produce a forward plan of decisions taken by the Mayor, so that those decisions could be called in.
I also welcome the proposal to bring a great deal of the learning and skills process within London’s governance, but I am concerned that, with the creation of a separate London skills and employment board
“with the capital’s key business leaders”—
again, I quote from the Government’s consultation documents—the experience of those key business leaders will be as disappointing as that of those of us who have served on the sub-regional learning and skills councils in London. Perhaps that conflict is recognised in the Government’s proposal that there should be an early review of the relationship between LSCs and a skills and employment board. I have also served on the board of the London Development Agency, and there may also be a conflict between the family of LSCs or regional development agencies and the accountability to London’s governance.
There is no proposal to change the role of London’s elected assembly members in influencing the Metropolitan police authority. There has been a very real lack of accountability to London’s elected representatives. The Mayor has always been able to say that such matters relate to the general governance and running of administration of the Met. Only if the Mayor decides to become the chairman of the MPA, perhaps under the new provision, will there be any accountability.
The final process that is lacking from the proposed legislation relates to what will happen with European funding. Although European funding was consulted on, it does not seem to appear in the prospective legislation.
Colleagues have referred to the Government office for London. After the changes in London’s governance, it will be very interesting to find out whether GOL or the GLA will end up with the larger budget. Until now, GOL has continued to dominate.
Turning to the proposed local government legislation, despite all the desire for localism, the reality is that the proposals to centralise the funding that local government has secured through section 106 agreements by introducing a planning supplement tax represents nationalising yet another process in which councils have been involved.
I very much welcome the approach that is being taken towards encouraging more mayors. A directly elected mayoral system has worked satisfactorily in London, even though we may not agree with the Mayor whom we have in place. However, proposals to allow councils to vote in favour of creating a mayoral system is unlikely to deliver much more—after all, councillors will not vote themselves out of office and put themselves through another election process.
What would be more interesting to hear from the Government is whether a lower hurdle than the very high one that has been set to date will be set so that the public can prompt referendums. The proposals for a four-year mandate for council leaders will continue to underline the idea of the indirect election of mayoral posts. That will essentially turn many councils into electoral colleges for local government.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) gave a very incisive analysis of how many councillors go through a very long selection and election process to find themselves with what is essentially no more than a role in post hoc scrutiny of the decisions that have been taken by a small executive.
I should like to make two final points. I am concerned about the idea that we should encourage the creation of parish councils in London. It is well over 120 years since we had parish councils in London. It is fair to say that Government-inspired ideas for neighbourhood and strategic partnerships in local government have worked well, but the prospect of having a third tier of local government in London strikes me as excessive. It is sufficient to continue to develop the neighbourhood partnership model, without putting in place that additional tier.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. GOL’s expenditure is more than £16 billion and the GLA’s current spend is £10.5 billion. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister in replying to the debate whether GOL will still spend more money than the GLA. That does not seem appropriate when we are supposedly seeing more discretion sent down to the London authority.
My final point is that there seems to have been a lot of celebration in the House about the fact that the number of targets set for local government will be significantly reduced, but in reality even 200 different targets for local authorities, which we expect to have their own discretion and to take their own initiative, is still far too high a figure to allow us to believe that the Government believe in localism and the effectiveness of local government.
It will not surprise the House to know that I believe that this is an excellent Queen’s Speech which demonstrates that the Government are still, as the phrase goes, running on gas—even if we are introducing measures to cut gas consumption. I was delighted that the Queen’s Speech referred to a local government Bill and a climate change Bill, which, along with all the other excellent measures, will help to continue the transformation of my constituents’ lives.
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) say—I am paraphrasing—that climate change is not just happening up there for the people up there, but that it has to happen and is happening down here, so measures to control it are essential. In that spirit, I want to congratulate a number of people and organisations in my constituency.
First, I congratulate the Swindon climate change network, which has done some excellent work with local politicians, including myself and local councillors, drawing our attention to the absolute necessity to get climate change on the agenda locally and nationally. It has had a marked effect on my understanding of the issue, so much so that I will question the Secretary of State very carefully about his opposition to targets. I hope that he will reflect further on the merit of framing tight targets.
My local newspaper, the Swindon Advertiser, has conducted a “time for change” campaign and is leading the way, not just following local public opinion. It is helping to ensure that local people understand that climate change is about what they do and the measures that they can take in their homes and in their lives every day. It has also shown that the practices of our local businesses can make a difference.
I would also like to mention npower, based at Windmill Hill in west Swindon in my constituency, which wants to bring a windmill back to Windmill Hill. The best of luck to those at npower; I hope that they succeed, because the windmill that they want to bring back will power up to 1,000 homes with renewable electricity—an excellent idea.
Yes, I do, as Friends of the Earth forms part of the Swindon climate change network: it is already included in my umbrella.
I was particularly pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that the local government Bill will give people more control over their own neighbourhoods. Measures such as antisocial behaviour orders have been introduced to help, but people still feel disempowered. I hope that the Bill will give control back to them. I do not like attending meetings at which I hear, as I did last Friday, pensioners say how worried they are about going out at night because they live on the route home from some of our local clubs. The behaviour and activities of some young people who come home early in the morning is quite atrocious.
Housing is another important issue that has been mentioned this afternoon. Swindon also faces the prospect of the building of many extra houses without the correct infrastructure in place and without the necessary further measures on top of the Government’s 40 per cent. increase to make housing greener. I fear that we will not be environmentally friendly enough in Swindon and I do not want to see that happen. I want thoroughly green measures to be implemented under our legislation.
I shall talk about local government measures from my experience as a local councillor and of my local authority, Swindon borough council. To illustrate some of the issues, I shall refer to the example of the Lower Shaw farm, which the council unfortunately wants to close, possibly to sell it off for extra housing. Together with other pressure groups, I am fighting that decision.
The Labour Government have invested heavily to bring about improvements in local public services. The next stage is to guarantee national standards while supporting local communities to take a lead on decisions that affect them. By 2007-08, the total Labour Government grant to local authorities will have increased by 39 per cent. since 1997.
In addition, £2 million has been provided by the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Health to turn around my local council. Subsequently, the council achieved its two-star rating in December last year and the Government have begun to give it more autonomy. I congratulate the local council, its officers and councillors and the Government officers who helped the council to achieve that. Direct intervention in the administration has at last ended, but the idea that Government support has ended is wrong, as Government policy continues to underpin the improvements.
I should like to draw out from that experience a few points about local government reorganisation, as the possibility of more unitary authorities is now on the cards. We had a brief debate earlier about the most appropriate size of unitary authorities. From my experience as a councillor involved in the reorganisation of Berkshire county council and from my involvement with Swindon borough council, I believe that the most important thing is not necessarily the size of the local authority, but the understanding, vision and capacity of its members and officers, plus the support and advice that authorities are given by the Government and other supporting agencies.
The circumstances of the reorganisation are also important. Berkshire’s splitting into six unitary authorities was very different from Swindon’s becoming a unitary authority after leaving an existing, but smaller, Wiltshire county council. It was different in Berkshire because the county council was no more, whereas Wiltshire county council remained and Swindon borough council, as a unitary authority, got a pretty raw deal under the reorganisation. I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on the lessons learned from the 1990s reorganisations and apply them to any future reorganisations. I also hope that councillors and officers will reflect on those lessons. Discussions can be acrimonious, but I hope that they will not adversely affect people’s transfer to new unitary authorities.
To come back to discussing Swindon, I was pleased to learn today that the town falls within one of the successful pathfinder areas for primary schools, which means that it will receive an additional capital grant of £6.5 million in April 2008. I thank the Minister for Schools for the record investment in Swindon schools.
Nevertheless, Swindon borough council is still claiming that it needs to sell off much-loved capital assets, such as Lower Shaw farm, which is a community resource that local people value. I am very concerned about the sell-off of the farm. It is run by the Lower Shaw Farm Association and is a thriving educational and recreational centre. It was a dairy farm initially bought by the then Thamesdown borough council, but in the scheme of things, it was not required for development. It was later agreed by council members—this was minuted—that the Lower Shaw farm should be
“retained in perpetuity as a centre for educational and recreational activities appropriate to its natural environment, its unique setting, and its founding spirit”.
During the past 20 years, the association’s work has developed and expanded. Its important role in Swindon was recognised in 2002 when Lower Shaw farm was the first winner of the local Agenda 21 “quality of life” award for
“boosting awareness and interest in sustainability”.
Indeed, right hon. and hon. Members have appeared at the farm, during the literature festival, for example, and on other courses, and some of them know it well. Its activities have grown to include up to 24 structured residential courses and recreational events in all sorts of spheres. It is a beacon of excellence—not just educationally, as it also a beacon of environmental and local government excellence. That is why I am raising the issue in today’s debate.
I do not understand why a local council is claiming that it has to apply best value rules and therefore sell it to the highest bidder. I do not understand why the council is seeking to close down something with such a proven track record, with all its facilities and expertise in matters educational, cultural and environmental. It could be a flagship project for Swindon if only the local Conservative administration were prepared to support it instead of attempting to close it. It was championing environmental issues such as recycling and composting 20 years ago, when they were perceived as cranky. Now that they are in the mainstream, we should not consider closing such a place—it is a green lung in west Swindon—and concreting over it, as is proposed.
I hope that you will indulge me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and allow me to speak about something that is not part of today’s debate but will feature on another day of our Queen’s Speech debate. As hon. Members know, the Farepak problem emanates from my constituency. I want to speak about that because of the announcement in the Queen’s Speech of a consumers redress Bill. Farepak’s bankruptcy blights the Christmas of perhaps 500,000 decent people, many of whom have been saving since January, and it casts a shadow over the beginning of the season of good will.
We need to fulfil our manifesto commitment to
“protect the rights of consumers, bringing forward proposals to strengthen and streamline consumer advocacy”,
especially in the light of problems such as Farepak. However, we also need to fulfil an unwritten commitment, which, I believe, exists between the Government and the Farepak savers, who trusted the advice of hon. Members to save and avoid debt, yet have not been rewarded. Indeed, they have been punished for saving.
Given that consumers have to use all the information available to them to make decisions about where to buy their goods or put their savings, the Farepak customers could not have known what the parent company was up to. We understand now that the parent company was removing money from Farepak and using it to prop up others in its family of companies. My constituents could not possibly have known that. They invested their money, as did constituents throughout the country, and were badly let down.
It has been said that the consumers redress Bill will cover doorstep selling. We need to be careful about that. Of course, people who sell on the doorstep and are employed by companies need to have rigorous measures applied to their work. However, some of the Farepak agents were working on behalf of the company to collect money on the doorstep from their friends and neighbours. We must be careful about the strictures and restrictions that we apply to their behaviour, and our support for or condemnation of them. Those agents feel guilty because they collected the money from their friends and neighbours. I do not want a Bill to place such people in a more vulnerable position in future.
However, I am glad that the Government intend to introduce a Bill to crack down on those who rip off vulnerable people in our communities. I hope that it closes the loophole that allowed Farepak savers to lose so much. I hope that the proposals will protect people who save with similar companies next year. They start saving in January; if we do not introduce a measure quickly, I fear that others may be in a vulnerable position this time next year.
The measures in the Queen’s Speech will continue the transformation of my constituents’ lives. The Bills that I have mentioned include some radical proposals, which will make life better for my constituents. There are other proposals on security, which reflect the enormous changes in our lives since 1997, and ensure that we will be better protected and live safer lives locally, nationally and internationally.
A Bill on further education, training and skills will be introduced. I hope that it ensures that many more young people in Swindon go on to achieve better and more academic qualifications.
There will be Bills on concessionary bus travel and on pension reform. There is even the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which will ensure that all our constituents can watch their televisions in the safety and happiness of their homes.
I hope that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) will forgive me if I take a slightly different view of the Queen’s Speech. The debate has been wide-ranging and I hope that previous speakers will forgive me if I do not pursue the cloned hybrid element of it but concentrate instead on the Mayor of London. I think that that will be a change.
The proposals for enhancing the role of the Mayor of London will be spread over several Bills. I shall not, therefore, attempt to make a Second Reading speech, but I want to discuss the various proposals in a joined-up way. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), I continue to serve on the London assembly. Indeed, we have been in harness together for the past six years. Like him, I previously spent some time as a London borough councillor. I am not sure what that says about our social lives before we became Members of Parliament but it has perhaps given us some idea of the practical problems of London governance.
I was recently the deputy chairman of the commission on London governance, which was set up jointly by the London assembly and the London boroughs on a cross-party basis to examine the way in which we take forward the London governance settlement. Against that background, the Government’s proposals are disappointing and constitute a missed opportunity.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, Central and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), I have no problem with enhancing the power of the Mayor of London as a strategic authority. A devolved settlement is now accepted politics and I, for one, am glad of that. There is an opportunity to make that work better—that was the position that I always adopted as leader of the Conservative group on the London assembly. We now want to consider practical measures for achieving that. Sadly, the Government’s proposals fail to take advantage of the opportunity in two important ways.
They fail to tackle a proper balance between central Government, the Greater London authority and the London boroughs—the three key players in governing London. The proposals, though welcome in some ways, do not go far enough in taking power from central Government and devolving it to London government. I shall give two specific examples.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central said, the proposals for the learning and skills councils are welcome as far as they go. However, from what we hear of the draft Bill, we are likely to face a convoluted method of placing the Mayor of London in a leading role in the learning and skills councils because it is proposed to make them fit the national template. That is a mistake. There is no reason why London, with a system of devolved government, needs the same template for the operation of learning and skills councils. I would be happy to give the Mayor much more direct control through the London Development Agency—the obvious linking point—over such matters.
The Government could have gone further on health. I am glad that we now have a single strategic health authority for London. That makes sense. However, we could do more to give the Mayor and the Greater London authority, which have democratic legitimacy, a greater role in the development of health policy in London and the scrutiny of the working of the health service. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is not present because I agree with his point about the democratic deficit in the health service. Primary care trusts are an obvious example.
In my constituency, our acute trust and the PCT may be about to close the accident and emergency department at St. Helier hospital, and there is no democratic accountability in that decision. Local councillors can perhaps review a decision but, in practice, they have no power to influence it.
The hon. Gentleman is right. For that reason, the London government commission suggested in our final report that London borough councils should be given much stronger powers to scrutinise the work of the PCTs and acute trusts in their areas. Indeed, if we were sensible, we would look to remove the obstacles that currently prevent successfully performing London boroughs from taking on some of the commissioning role of the PCTs. That would make for a much better fit between the provider and democratic accountability.
It is a shame that the Government are still too wedded to a single national template for the way in which the service is delivered. At the strategic and regional level, it seems right to give the Mayor of London greater input into the development of health policy. Having a health inequalities strategy is a step in the right direction, but I see no reason why the Mayor should not have a much closer involvement in the development of public health policy in London and the key appointments in the public health field. I do not see why the London assembly should not have a proper, statutory role in the scrutiny of the work of the strategic health authority in London. All those things would make good sense in the London governance context, but the Government have not gone that far.
The obvious area where the Government have ducked an issue is in relation to the Government office for London. That has been referred to by my hon. Friends and I will not repeat their points. However, it seems peculiar that we have a situation in which the number of civil servants in GOL has risen since we have had a Greater London authority. By the time we have added up the numbers in GOL and the numbers that the Mayor has recruited, we have something like double the number of bureaucrats looking after London matters that we had before. That does not make sense. The missed opportunity has been to fail to take this chance to slim down GOL and transfer many of the programmes that it administers to the Mayor directly or to the functional bodies—in some cases to the police authority, in others to the London Development Agency, and in some cases even to the London boroughs themselves. To slim GOL down, it need not follow the same pattern as Government offices elsewhere in the country, because we have a different governance structure in London. That is a serious missed opportunity.
The damage is that, to beef up the Mayor’s power, the Government compensate for that strategic failure, which would have represented proper devolution and proper localism, by seeking to suck up planning powers from the level of the London boroughs to the Mayor. That is not devolution or localism. It is a regional centralism, which is not good or healthy for democracy. The reasons given for that by the Mayor—we all understand why the Mayor seeks to push the envelope of his powers all the time—frankly do not stack up. As somebody who served as a member of the old Greater London council, albeit for a short while, I can say that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central is right: tension between the GLC and the London boroughs was rife going back right to the beginning, because of the unsatisfactory overlap in relation to planning powers. That tension existed regardless of which party controlled the GLC or the boroughs. We are in danger of recreating that.
It would be much more sensible to encourage the Mayor to work in much closer partnership with the boroughs, rather than tending to dictate to them. I have looked at some of the analysis of some of the key strategic planning issues that the Mayor says that he wants to be able to take on board. One problem is that the Mayor himself has not been the best advocate for increasing his powers, given the way in which he exercises some of them. On some of the strategic issues, he has adopted a capricious and, frequently, contradictory approach to different planning applications. I will give a couple of quick examples.
The first relates to a mixed-use development in Kew Bridge road in Hounslow. The Mayor supported the development, but the borough council refused it. The Mayor supported the developers on appeal. The Secretary of State concluded that the borough was right to refuse the application. That was because the development was not a good design, it would harm a conservation area, a world heritage site and the setting of listed buildings, it would produce substandard units of accommodation, it would harm the living conditions of people nearby, and it conflicted not with only the borough’s unitary development plan, but the Mayor’s own London plan. The inspector found that the Mayor’s evidence was wrong on that last point. The Mayor maintained that the development supported his London plan; the inspector said that it did not. That does not give one much confidence in the Mayor’s planning powers.
A similar example is a development in Hammersmith and Fulham, where, again, the Mayor supported a planning development that contravened two parts of his own London plan. The same happened in Greenwich, where the Mayor wanted a high-rise development that was adjacent to a world heritage site. Finally, in Southwark, the Mayor sought to oppose the London borough’s attempts to refuse a planning application, claiming that that would reduce not only the height of the building, which seems to be a bit of an obsession of his, but the number of units. In fact, the London borough of Southwark, left to its own devices, negotiated a scheme that produced more units than the Mayor’s would have done. The majority of those borough councils are Labour controlled, so I am not making a narrow partisan point. The fact is that the Mayor does not have a good track record on planning matters, which is why we have concerns and will want to return to the issue in the debate on the Bill.
The final element that I want to touch on—time presses—relates to the other area where an opportunity has been missed. One point is the balance between central Government and GOL, the Mayor, and the boroughs. The other is the failure to address the balance between the Mayor and the assembly. The assembly has its own democratic legitimacy. It is elected by the same people as the Mayor on the same day. It has democratic rights too. There has been a failure to balance increased power going to the Mayor with the ability of the assembly to act as a proper check and balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central referred to the budget situation and I will not repeat what he said, but it is a key issue.
I recently led a delegation from the commission on London governance to New York, where we able to see how these things work at first hand. What my hon. Friend said is right. The city council in New York has considerably greater power in relation to the mayor of New York than the London assembly has in relation to the Mayor of London. Not only does the city council have the power to overturn the budget by a simple majority, it also has legislative power. The mayor’s strategies—to use the equivalent London word—in New York require a vote in their favour by the city council. We do not have that in London.
Those are significant powers, but they have never prevented New York from being regarded as a strong mayor model. It is sometimes argued that giving more power to the assembly would weaken the strong mayor model. The New York example clearly demonstrates that not to be the case. Neither Rudolph Giuliani, nor Michael Bloomberg have had any difficulty in getting their policies through and being strong mayors, despite the fact that, not only did they have that considerable power of the city council to deal with, but the city council was always dominated overwhelmingly by the opposing party. Giving the assembly more power is not a recipe for gridlock. I know that that is the propaganda that the Mayor of London puts out, but I hope that the Government will not buy that line when it comes to the detail of the legislation.
A key point that we need to look at is the mayoral strategies. The budget has been discussed. I am glad that the Government are proposing to strengthen the requirement for the Mayor to consult the assembly on his strategies and to give reasons where he differs, but they ought to go further. They should require the mayoral strategies to be approved by a vote in the assembly or, at the very least, they should give the assembly the power to amend the strategies in the same way as it can amend the budget. We can argue about the thresholds and so on, but the principle ought to be that, if the Mayor’s supply can be amended, why on earth can the strategies that give rise to the demands on his supply not be amended as well?
That was considered and, at one point, before the legislation came into force, it was the Government’s intention. In 1998, on Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“The assembly’s scrutiny role underlies all its work: it will be consulted on all strategies, and have the power to propose amendments”.—[Official Report, 14 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 627.]
It is a shame that that got lost somewhere in the subsequent passage of the Bill. It is not often that I say that the Deputy Prime Minister was right, but he was on that occasion. The subsequent climbdown—how and why it happened I know not—was a mistake. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to go back to their original 1998 thinking and give the assembly the power to amend mayoral strategies. That would concentrate the mayor’s mind and significantly improve democratic accountability in London, which we all want.
The mayor eventually gave way and allowed planning decisions to be taken in public, but that happened only because of the pressure exerted by the assembly and its committees over six years. That proves that rigorous and powerful scrutiny improves decision making, rather than hindering it, and that is also true of Select Committees in the House. I hope that the Government will take that message on board and that the detail of the legislation will reflect it, because there is still an opportunity to improve the proposals on London’s governance and to make the settlement work better.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate.
I welcome the Government’s new approach on local democracy because I believe that greater council independence will provide significant benefits to my constituents. The White Paper shows that the Government fully appreciate the essential role that local councils play and acknowledge the enormous progress that has been made by leading local authorities in recent years. The Government are listening to local councils and their proposals are working with the grain of the best of local governance.
Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government published the new local government White Paper only recently, I, like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, am keen to play a full role in the long-term debate that will accompany these long-term reforms. When the House has the opportunity to discuss foreign affairs and international development, hon. Members recognise the importance of clear and transparent governance and democracy. I, like others, strongly believe that democracy and sustainable, meaningful economic development go hand in hand. Such arguments have just as much relevance to local governance as they do to foreign governance. I hope that the arguments will be integral to the local government Bill that was announced in Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech.
This country has been a champion of democratic rights for a long time, but for many years our commitment on the international stage has not been matched locally. Fifty years after the end of empire, no one thinks that our diverse world should be run from the White House, yet successive Governments have thought for too long that they can run a diverse country from Whitehall. Thankfully, both attitudes and economic realities have changed. The rapid onset of globalisation means that our local economies must be hugely varied and based on similarly varied skills bases.
Brighton and Hove’s economy is no different. Although Brighton and Hove was once seen simply as a pair of seaside towns—a holiday retreat for workers in British industry—it is now a city that is recognised for its creative economy as much as its tourist economy. Brighton and Hove city council now needs the independence to take full advantage of its emerging place in the world. The changes that Brighton and Hove has experienced over the past 10 years, led by its culturally and socially diverse population, must be reflected in modern and effective local governance. For example, training programmes should be directed locally, rather than centrally, and local colleges should work closely with local employers even more than they do now to determine the needs of the local economy.
Democracy and economic success are very much related, and I welcome all attempts to provide the people of Brighton and Hove with the democratic tools that they need to aid the economic success of the city and the wider region that depends on it. The democratic control of budgets is of key importance. Brighton and Hove council, like all councils, needs more control over transport and training budgets, for example. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, it should also be able to raise extra local money, if that is what is needed. That would allow the council to take more decisions on local priorities, such as whether to spend more on community policing or free bus transport.
I realise that we must move carefully. Councils must prove their democratic credentials to the residents whom they serve before greater economic and fiscal devolution occurs. Council performance is important and should be proved, but I hope that the reforms that the Government will introduce will allow such scrutiny to be conducted by residents and their representatives, rather than central Government Departments or regional offices.
Local government has an extremely important role to play. Brighton and Hove council ensures that the schools that my children and younger constituents attend are striving for even higher standards. It ensures that our rubbish is collected, that our streets are safe and clean and that ever more household waste is recycled. Councils provide health and leisure services and help families to access the essential services that they require.
The success of recent years has been down to increased money and investment. Essential performance targets that have been set by central Government have successfully ensured that the new money was well spent. In addition, strategic capabilities have been enhanced. Our hard-working local councillors and officers have been given new responsibilities to work in collaboration and partnership with outside bodies and to improve housing, recreational space and schools. I am confident that they are ready and fit to take full advantage of their skills.
Targets were important to ensure that money was spent not only well, but in the right areas, but the new performance framework proposed in the White Paper shows that the strategy is changing. Brighton and Hove council faces new, complex problems, and it feels that it has the capacity to respond to them in a long-term and strategic manner. Central Government must continue to set minimum standards, but I want Brighton and Hove city council to have the freedom to use its experience and skill base to tackle the complex policy issues that affect local residents without central Government direction.
Like many areas of the country, we have pockets of deprivation. Employment rates have of course greatly improved, but work remains to be done in areas in which unemployment continues to exist. It is at the local and regional level that strategic economic policies can best tackle such problems. Different councils and areas have different needs. It is right that the number of central targets should be reduced to around 200, but it is also important that councils are given greater freedom to achieve, through collaboration, the goals that local residents want.
I recognise that it is still early days, with the White Paper only recently published, but it is in the long-term interest of our local authorities that they understand the direction in which they are heading on performance targets. I welcome the call for local councils to involve and consult the users of their services and to provide better information to residents about the quality of local services. However, I would like the range and detail of these local targets to be decided locally. This would require continued pressure in central Government to reduce bureaucratic controls. I welcome the slashing of the 1,000 indicators on which local government has to report. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has cut back the weeds, but she and her Cabinet colleagues must ensure that they do not grow back again.
As with many cities, Brighton and Hove’s political boundaries do not match its economic influence. If councils are to be given new, real powers to affect their residents’ economic course, they will also require the power to branch out into neighbouring areas and to form wider strategic regional partnerships. For that reason, I welcome the proposed Sussex improvement partnership, which will involve all local authorities in Sussex. Such a wider partnership is essential to deliver strategic thinking. I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will approve initial funding for the partnership with all speed.
The Government have already devolved a lot to the English regions, with different regional agencies taking decisions on public transport, training, planning and economic development. However, it is now important to allow Brighton and Hove council, working in partnership, to bring greater democratic accountability to the process. I want constituents’ locally elected councillors to have a bigger role in communicating local priorities to the unelected members of the South East England development agency. Regional bodies and local democrats need the incentives and tools to work hand in hand, and to do so in different ways in different places and situations.
Brighton and Hove shares many goals with various towns along the Sussex coast, but it has important links with London, too. The ability to democratise regional strategic planning will allow Hove and Portslade to take full advantage of their place in Britain and the world. As transport has improved, larger numbers of people are choosing to live in my constituency but work in London. If we are to take advantage of that, we will require better and more sustainable transport planning at the local and regional level, and the people who are most affected should have a democratic say on which transport solutions work best.
I want structures that reward Brighton and Hove city council for taking great strides in job creation, in attracting new businesses and in training both young and older people. Those changes require environmental considerations to be taken into account, and such considerations are well championed at local and regional level within the essential national framework. Brighton and Hove was granted Fairtrade city status in 2004, and I want the city to build on that achievement.
Greater use of local area agreements and multi-area agreements will help Hove and Portslade to benefit from their place in the city and in the wider south-east. Multi-area agreements will allow Brighton and Hove city council to reach out and form strategic regional partnerships with those councils that want the same. We do not need a “one size fits all” policy. Greater council freedom and greater local democratic transparency can create the political areas that local people want, and from which they will most benefit.
I would very much welcome the further use of local area agreements to simplify funding streams. Financial planning would obviously be smoother if councils had greater control of their funding. The Lyons inquiry’s interim report, published in December 2005, expressed interest in using a more “contractual approach” to central-local relations, so that local authorities had greater flexibility over their funding. Local area agreements are beneficial but they do not provide a strong enough local economic framework for devolved local economic development. If, instead of the fourth block of local area agreements, there was a contractual approach, it would clarify the integral role of local authorities in their regional economies.
Such changes could not have been considered in 1997, when so much targeted investment was required to improve local services after two devastating recessions. However, the changes discussed in the White Paper are not short-term changes that we can make now, while the British economy is doing so well, but reverse in future. While conditions are right, we should take the opportunity to strengthen local democracies and economies for the long term. The changes must be made, so that my constituents can respond to the winds of economic change in future.
Ken Livingstone’s reign as London Mayor has shown us how powerful leaders can regenerate neighbourhoods, shape their cities and provide a focal point in crises and in celebrations. Local control is needed if we are to solve the different problems that each area presents, and if we are to foster economic clusters and specialisms. Sir Michael Lyons’s statement last month demonstrates his approval for greater decentralisation. We have to wait for the publication of his inquiry, but his statement was encouraging to those people who want local decision making to be enhanced. Leadership and the structure of councils will, of course, need to be reformed in many ways to allow for greater democratic scrutiny by the public. More power for councils will require greater transparency and public scrutiny. Targets are effective in the short term, but it must be local people who check their councillors and council leaders in the long term.
The Government are right to say that good and accountable leadership is essential for our cities and localities, but I do not want them to think that strong leadership is always the same as good leadership. Following a referendum in 2001, Brighton and Hove opted to use the reformed committee system, rather than to have a leader and cabinet, but the White Paper suggests that that model will no longer be available to it. As the council’s capacity has expanded, that leadership model has remained strong, stable and accountable.
I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that the local government Bill will give councils the appropriate flexibility in arranging their governance structures. In particular, the best elements of the committee system—it allows wide consultation, member involvement, and detailed policy examination—should not be forgotten in the drive for clearer and more accountable leadership. Every council should serve its community. I understand the Government’s goals in proposing leadership models, but they must understand the necessity for governance arrangements that are appropriate for each area.
I should like to introduce one more factor into the debate. The White Paper talked of allowing councils that already conduct elections by thirds to move to a system of all-out elections if they wished.
I agree that elections by thirds have proved very successful for many councils, but it should be up to local authorities to choose the system that most suits them; they should not be pushed into one system or another once they have made their initial choice. Some local councils are being given the freedom to decide what election systems they want, but we should not stop other councils from doing what they want. It is important for each local authority to use the arrangement that provides the best democratic scrutiny by local residents, for the benefit of local residents.
I am optimistic about the reforms outlined by the Government; they will assist them in their progress. I want to help them to deliver better transport and skills training for my constituents, and to deliver jobs and investment. Crucially, I want local people to re-engage with their council to shape their communities for the better. As I said at the beginning of my speech, democracy and development are natural partners. Through greater local democracy, my constituents will get the sustainable development that they want and deserve.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow). Interestingly, early in her contribution, she welcomed a general theme in the Queen’s Speech, on which I hope that the Government will follow through: the removal of many of the indicators used by councils in best value analysis. My constituency covers west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and many of the best value analyses carried out by the Council of the Isles of Scilly are more expensive than providing the service under analysis. We end up with a bizarre, unintended outcome, because we have applied metropolitan norms to councils, such as the Isles of Scilly council, that clearly do not fit those norms.
The debate was interesting in many ways. It started off with the predictable and tiresome tribalism that is inevitable during the opening exchanges in such debates, but interestingly, as the debate gathered pace, and as Back Benchers became more involved, a strong body of support emerged on the issue of climate change. I hope that the Government can work on that. Of course, there is debate about the style and regularity of targets, but I hope that when the Government introduce their climate change Bill we will build strong legislation on the consensus that has emerged today. I hope that we can concentrate on areas of agreement, rather than seeking to exaggerate disagreements which, on the evidence of today’s debate, are few.
Many Members were disappointed that the Government did not express any intention to introduce a marine Bill in this Session. I had a discussion with the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare last week, in which he said—I do not think that I am breaking any confidences, but if I am, he did not tell me that he was speaking to me in confidence—that the Government were mindful of elections to the devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland. Bearing that in mind, it would not be appropriate to introduce proposals at this stage, but he said that the Government might introduce a White Paper in March or April next year. I am keen that they should do so, so that we can build on the strong cross-party consensus in favour of legislation and update the archaic regulations that fisheries committees and many other bodies have to apply. That is an extremely important issue, so I hope that the Government will act speedily to introduce such a measure.
I do not wish to embarrass the Government or the Minister. I am sure that an explanation will be given later, and it is not for me to expand on the justification that the Minister gave. He simply suggested that the Bill would not receive sympathetic treatment if it were introduced now, and would be better received by the devolved Administrations if it were introduced later. The indications are that it will be introduced in the third Session of this Parliament, not the second Session. Obviously, I believe that to be regrettable.
We look forward to the introduction of the local government Bill. On the theme of local government reorganisation, I hope that the Government accept that they should play an enabling role, rather than a controlling one. They have plenty of experience showing that they do not gain anything by taking an over-prescriptive, micro-managing and controlling approach. Indeed, that has created serious problems, not only in local government but in the management of the health service and many other areas. I hope that the Government will learn from speakers of all parties in today’s debate that they should play an enabling, not a controlling, role. They should get off local authorities’ backs, and they should not dictate or micro-manage their activities.
I trust that the Government have learned the lessons of the north-east referendum that took place little more than two years ago. I hope that the local government Bill will incorporate a strong dose of devolution, because the lesson of that referendum was that devolution and decentralisation are a process of letting go, not of holding on for dear life. I hope that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose South Shields constituency is in the north-east, accepts that interpretation of the problem. It was not a matter of the people of the north-east failing to welcome a devolved settlement, because the Government approached them with an offer on their own terms, within their boundaries and timetable. They virtually held a gun to their heads and said, “Do you want it or not?” Inevitably, in those circumstances, the people said no. If the Government had simply offered a menu of powers, giving the people of the north-east—or, indeed, of any other region—the opportunity to make a business case and act on their own initiative, rather than having an agenda forced down their throat, the outcome would have been entirely different. I hope that the Government accept that.
Local authorities have become local Government agents, both under this and the previous Administration. They simply deliver Government policy with little room for fiscal or regulatory manoeuvre. Many people who operate at that level wonder why they bother, as they are simply carrying out Government wishes. The so-called regional dimension must be given prominence. Hon. Members have referred to “the region”, but in my part of the world there is not a region of the south-west. A south-west zone has been created by the Government for bureaucratic convenience and benefit. A region implies some kind of internal integrity and community of interest. There is none in that area. I can see the administrative attraction for the Government, but it makes no sense to people in the area.
If the Government want to achieve something bold, ambitious, creative and sustainable in local government, they must learn to let go. In a place like Cornwall, we could do something bold and ambitious, and establish a single directly elected body for Cornwall—we will not call it an assembly at this stage; we will just call it a body for Cornwall—which could draw down powers. We are keen and ambitious. We have objective 1 funding and it has worked well when we undertake projects ourselves, working in partnership, without too much Government interference. We have struggled only when there has been Government interference.
I hope the Government will recognise that in the local government Bill they should enable people to come together, and not prescribe too much. In the Bill they should not tell local authorities how to elect their executive or how to go about certain types of elections or configurations within local government. People on the ground are grown up enough to come up with their own solutions and do not need to be told by central Government. I hope the Government will take an enabling role.
When the Government introduce planning legislation, as is proposed in the Queen’s Speech, I hope they will recognise that they must devolve more to local authorities, particularly the ability to use effective tools for the delivery of affordable housing. In the past 30 years my area has seen a higher rate of housing growth than almost anywhere else in the country, yet the mismatch between the level of local earnings and house prices is among the highest, if not the highest, in the country, and the social housing problems are among the worst, if not the worst, in the country. Building houses is not the answer. A much more sophisticated solution is needed.
The Government must recognise the fundamental truism that planning is fuelled by greed, rather than by need. In my area people hold on to land because they want to turn a field from £3,000 an acre to £1 million an acre. That is natural human frailty and I do not criticise them for it. I understand the motivation for it, but how will we ever build affordable housing with land prices like that? That value is not created through some skill on the part of the landowner or through their endeavour. It is given to them when a planning authority signs an agreement to it.
The motivation has gone the wrong way. How can we develop an intermediate market in those circumstances? The Government must make a distinction between fettered and unfettered planning permissions, and clamp down on the unfettered. It is the hope of unfettered planning permissions that is holding back any possibility of meeting the need for affordable housing in such an area. I hope the Government will bear that in mind when they present their proposals for a review. They must be bold and also give local authorities the tools to deliver affordable housing.
The Government can achieve that in two ways—first, by distinguishing more clearly and giving local authorities the powers to clamp down on unfettered permissions, to fetter permissions with section 106 agreements, covenants and other means, and to work with registered social landlords and others to achieve affordable housing. Secondly, the Government need to recognise the characteristics of the housing market. I did a survey of estate agents in my area the other day which shows that five times as many properties have been sold to second home buyers as to first-time buyers. Some estate agents told me that 65 per cent. of their properties sold last year went to second home purchasers and 0 per cent. to first-time purchasers. That is not because there is no one who wants those properties. It is because there is no chance of them ever getting those properties.
The Government need to grasp the issue by the throat. They should give local authorities the tools to distinguish permanent and non-permanent uses—people using the property for permanent residential use, and those using it for investment and recreational purposes. That can be done through a change in the use class order.
We are not debating House of Lords reform today, but I want to make the point that we should really consider that subject under the heading of “effective scrutiny”, because the purpose is not only to reform the House of Lords but to achieve effective scrutiny in Parliament. We should first ask ourselves what we want a second Chamber for. We do not want it to be simply a mirror image of this Chamber. We need a second Chamber that is able to engage in effective scrutiny, revision and sober second thought. That means that we need to do something a great deal more interesting than many of the proposals for various levels of directly elected Members in the second Chamber.
I disagree with members of my own Front Bench on this issue, but I believe that if we genuinely want to achieve a second Chamber that is neither a lapdog nor a logjam Chamber—depending on its complexion in relation to that of this House and of the Government—we need to consider ways of ensuring that we have a Chamber that, while not based on patronage, has Members who can provide effective scrutiny, revision and sober second thought without the tribalism that we get in this Chamber.
I hope that the Government will reflect on today’s debate. It has raised a number of challenging issues, and the Government really need to be bold in many areas. However, they also need to understand the underlying theme of much of the debate, which is that they need to take an enlightened approach and lay off the controlling approach that they have adopted over the past nine years.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I should like to make some observations about the Government’s approach to local government, and in particular to unitary, most-purpose strategic councils in areas currently served by the two-tier county and district council system. I am pleased that the Government are opening the door on this debate, as flagged up in the local government White Paper, and by the promise of legislation and the “Invitation to councils in England” document issued last month. All this is taking place in the context of the long-awaited Lyons review on the future of local government, including how best it should be funded.
I have been campaigning in support of the unitary principle for some time, because I believe that the present two-tier structure in Bedfordshire is not working. Bedfordshire county council has a poor record as the third-highest taxing and the second-worst performing council in England. Social services there have been in special measures for a long time and education outcomes at GCSE and A-level are below those of its statistical neighbours. In June this year, the Audit Commission reported that the county council was performing badly with regard to the supporting people programme, and concern has also been expressed about the Bedfordshire youth service.
Bedfordshire is in the lowest quartile in the national assessment of road and footpath conditions, which I believe is related to the inability of a two-tier system to deliver, with the county and the districts blaming each other. Most importantly of all, the system has failed to address the continuing economic relative underperformance of the area. Although average incomes assessed on a household basis are above the national average, they are below it when assessed on a workplace basis. The range of local jobs and skills is also narrow, so people have to commute out of the county to access better paid, higher skilled jobs. For too long, that situation has masked the weakness of the local economy. I believe that the local councils have a duty to address that but, although they all have their own economic development departments, there has not been a proactive common approach to build on Bedfordshire’s strong locational advantages, located as it is between London and the south-east, the midlands and the east of England. Another strategic weakness is the failure to address and make the case for east-west rail and to deal with the very poor record on recycling that we unfortunately have.
I have come to the conclusion, based on a number of years of considering such matters as a local resident as well as a representative, that although structural change does not guarantee success, on balance a single council would be more likely to deliver than two, wherever one happened to live in Bedfordshire. It would have one set of managers and councillors, and clear accountability and responsibility. Rather than arguing for one part of what I believe to be a weak structure to take over the other—either county or district—I believe that having two unitary authorities in Bedfordshire, one centred in Dunstable and the other in Bedford, is the way forward. I have not found many people who disagree about the principle, but of course there will be many points of view about the details of the territory and the geography.
What is to be done? We have a window of opportunity—the Government’s document, “Invitations to councils in England”, calls it a “short window”. The Government acknowledge that in two-tier areas local government faces challenges that can make it harder to achieve strong leadership and clear accountability, and that in some areas councils work together and try to do so effectively. However, they also acknowledge that even in those areas more should be attempted and done and that in two-tier areas the status quo is not an option. That sounds like an invitation to consider the unitary route and to volunteer to opt into it, but if one reads the document from beginning to end it is clear that that is not the case.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has come in at this timely moment towards the end of the debate, as I have to say that the Government’s approach thus far seems to be sadly over-cautious. Councils bidding for unitary status must present an outline business case by 25 January next year. If the criteria are met, the Government will put the proposals through a 12-week public consultation exercise, as stated in paragraph 5.10 of the document. However, it also states, at paragraph 5.17, that proposals will be prioritised if more than eight councils put forward business plans that meet the criteria and that, if that is so, they will be prioritised before the stage 2 public consultation exercise is launched. In other words, the priority attributed will be flagged up and known by all in the area where the consultation is taking place.
I ask my right hon. Friend to think again about that. To use the words of the document, the “short window of opportunity” for unitary proposals to go forward is, in my view, too short and too narrow. In fact, it may hardly be a window at all but more of a slit or crack through which the sunlight of unitary land just about manages to dash through into a darkened room where two-tier councils, even if they want to get out, will be bound in prison for ever. I hope that that is not the case. It will serve little purpose to invite councils to submit a business case given that only a handful are likely to go forward. If there are more—I am supposing for the sake of argument that there will be—they will be tagged with a lower priority and invited to take part in what will be seen as a wholly meaningless process of public consultation when everybody knows that because of the low-priority tag the Government will not let the proposal go forward, whatever the outcome of the three-month statutory consultation process. Such an approach would be wholly unproductive and would undermine people’s willingness to take an active interest in seeking improvements in their communities, which is what we would all like them to do—demonstrably, by turning out and voting in greater numbers at local council elections, never mind at general elections.
The Government should think carefully about how the proposals will pan out in practice in the months ahead. The case for unitary councils is strong in principle, and I have no doubt that through the invited business cases submitted over the next few weeks we will see not only good examples of in-principle arguments but place-specific details. Whatever I think, if local councils, residents, businesses and organisations up and down the land want to proceed in that way, invited by the Government, and if the business cases are robust and meet the criteria set out in the document by the Government, I cannot see any overriding justification for putting obstacles in the way of the progress implicit in those plans.
I strongly urge it on the Government and my right hon. Friend that the invitation must be not only genuine but seen to be genuine by honouring the public consultation process untrammelled by a Government priority mark. That means that if more than eight proposals succeed in the process, they should all go ahead, preferably all at once, but if there are compelling reasons regarding public expenditure totals in a particular financial year, which need to be explained very thoroughly at the time, perhaps the proposals could be phased in over several years.
I cannot see how the goals of greater accountability, strong and strategic leadership, cost-effectiveness and neighbourhood empowerment can be properly met without a unitary structure. The “Invitation to councils in England” document devotes 11 pages to the unitary route and two pages to pioneering pathfinders for new two-tier models. Having read that information, which did not take much effort because there were only two pages, I found it unconvincing.
There is clearly no case for compulsion. I understand that the Local Government Association is concerned about that, and I do not think that anyone should be forced to go down the route of local government reorganisation. We experienced that in the 1990s and it did not work. However, if we are not going to go down the compulsion route, we must at least honour the implications of our invitation to councils to volunteer; I mean those councils that meet the tests having been invited to volunteer.
There is a need for greater imagination, courage and ambition in these matters from all those people, at all levels, who want a better future for local government. There will be plenty of ideas around the country; indeed, there already are, and there will be more. Soon, with the Lyons review, the Government’s response to it and a local government Bill, there will be a great deal to do. After all, local government is a crucial part of our national way of life. It should be strengthened, not weakened and confused. I know that the intention is to strengthen, but the message needs to be clearer.
I urge the Government to be bold and to go beyond the narrow chink of light offered thus far in the document and instead to throw open the door and window to all credible requests for unitary status that pass the test.
I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in this wide-ranging debate, and I shall take the liberty of widening it a stage further. One issue that the Secretary of State did not mention when she opened the debate and which was not significantly mentioned in the Queen’s Speech is that of drug and alcohol abuse, which is of profound concern to local communities and, indeed, local government.
Local government is at the forefront of seeking to deliver the Government’s strategy on drug and alcohol addiction. This subject could be raised in any of the debates on the Queen’s Speech, such as those on criminal justice, education, family, welfare, and foreign affairs and defence, but it is particularly relevant to this debate on local government and communities because it is there—through drug, alcohol and addiction teams—that we see what happens.
We see references to addiction in local area agreements, but do we see the outcome or delivery on meeting the needs of people out there? We can consider drugs, for example. In 1998, with great fanfare, the Government introduced the national drug strategy, with lots of money to boot, which considered four areas: young people, communities, treatment and availability. Now, significantly, young people are left out of that equation, as are communities. The strategy now consists simply of treatment and availability. In fact, the essence of the Government’s drugs strategy could be further reduced to “out of crime, into treatment”.
Drugs are a large problem. In 2004, some 360,000 adult problem drug users were identified—a figure that, no doubt, was understated and is increasing. The Government’s strategy and the Queen’s Speech fail to address the need for those problem drug users to overcome their addictions and, just as importantly, the wider implications for their families and children. Too often, the associated victims of addiction are not taken into consideration, certainly not as part of the Government’s drugs strategy. In 2003, the “Hidden Harm” report recognised that there were 200,000 to 300,000 children of drug users in England and Wales, and yet the Government have still not implemented fully that report’s recommendations. Effectively, the Government want to protect society by introducing yet more legislation, rather than focusing on the individual concerned.