Order for Second Reading read.
I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill implements the majority of the proposals set out in “Strong and prosperous communities”, the local government White Paper, which was published in October. Local government has a long and proud history as a driving force behind public services and the success of our towns and cities. The House will be familiar with some of local government’s great historic figures and their achievements—for example, Joseph Chamberlain, Mayor of Birmingham, who left the city, in his words “parked, paved and improved”, or Herbert Morrison, who did much to shape the London we know. Let us not forget the more than 1.5 million men and women working in local government on whom we rely, day in, day out. We are never more aware of their service than in times of adversity, such as the current storms. I pay tribute to them.
History teaches us that local government works best when there is a constructive partnership with central Government to deliver what local people want and need.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
In a moment.
For decades, the relationship between local and central Government has swung between suspicion and trust, between tension and harmony. In the late 20th century, the atmosphere reached a low with the central Government and councils at loggerheads over the poll tax—perhaps that is the point on which the right hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.
As an opponent of it, I would be happy to do so, but I want to ask the Secretary of State a very simple question: is not local government best when it is not bossed around by regions? What part of the “No” in the north-east did she not understand?
Of course we listened to the view of people in the north-east, but surely the right hon. Gentleman would agree that the £19 million that it costs to run the regional assemblies is money well spent. Voluntary bodies administer hundreds of millions of pounds, largely on behalf of local authorities: they plan regionally, they spend for local authorities, they are often led by local authority leaders and 60 per cent. of the members are from local authorities.
May I suggest that the Secretary of State conduct at least a consultation, but preferably a referendum, on the existing unelected assemblies, to find out exactly how unpopular they are?
The hon. Gentleman would do well to listen to Councillor Keith Mitchell, Conservative chair of Oxfordshire county council and leader of the South East England regional assembly. He says:
“This year we brought £500 million of transport and housing investment into the region, yet the assembly only costs 50 pence per person per year.”
With hard work on the part of local and central Government, things have improved immensely over the past few years. Massive investment and reform have driven standards up, and in many areas local government is not just up to the job, it is leading public service reform. I believe that we have now reached a point where local government can once again embrace its place-shaping role to meet the demands of the 21st century. I want to see all our councils leading the drive for sustainable communities, regenerating our city centres, lifting people out of poverty and improving local public services. It is the job of central Government to enable local government to play that role. That is the purpose of the White Paper and, indeed, the Bill.
The White Paper was the result of extensive consultation. I believe that we have forged a high degree of consensus in the local government community. In particular, it has been welcomed by Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, who said:
“The Bill is encouraging. It takes steps on local leadership, deregulation and cutting red tape, reflecting the LGA’s long standing position”.
The Secretary of State rightly focuses on local government. Given that part 11 of the Bill fundamentally alters the way in which public and patients are involved in the NHS, does she not think it very wrong that no health Minister will be accountable to the House for the measures contained in the Bill, including the scrapping of patient forums? Is that not a reflection of the low priority accorded by the Government to patient and public involvement in health?
The hon. Gentleman will see my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) the Minister of State, is on the Bench beside me to listen to the debate and of course to reflect on it. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to measures on public involvement in health, because they are designed to give more power to service users in local areas to raise issues of concern to them. They represent a huge advance on patients forums, because they allow an independent voice to be expressed.
Will the Secretary of State concede that by involving just local government in the process, it will be a closed process between public sector providers? There will be a complete loss of accountability from independent people who are able to express serious views about the performance of our health service. What are the Government afraid of when it comes to CPPIH—Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health—and patients forums? Surely it is inappropriate to take away that power.
The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the proposals in the Bill. This is about involving a far broader range of patients and service users—the public—in delivering improvements for that service. As I understand it, patients forums have an average membership of only eight at the moment. In future, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will be able to register for the new local involvement in health networks–LINKs–in which local people can get involved in delivering service improvements.
The Secretary of State must understand the House’s confusion on the issue. Only last year, the National Health Service Act 2006 set up the patients forums and the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. One year later, the Government are scrapping the patients forums and the commission. Each year, we see yet another change to public involvement in the NHS. Why did the Government ever get rid of community health councils? We all understood what those councils did: they ensured that the Government and the NHS locally were accountable.
I am afraid that hon. Members are showing their ignorance of the proposals in the Bill. In fact, patients forums were not established last year; they were established five years ago and have been in operation for some considerable time. Of course, the name in the legislation had to change as a result of other changes that were made last year.
The explanatory notes—
The hon. Gentleman wants to intervene again. I shall be generous and let him have a go.
One thing that I think I can do is read the Queen’s English:
“Section 237 of the National Health Service Act 2006…requires the Secretary of State to establish Patients’ Forums for NHS trusts… Part 11 of the Bill makes provision for the abolition of CPPIH and Patients’ Forums.”
Last year, legislation was introduced for patients forums and trusts; this year, it is being scrapped.
I thought that I had just made myself clear that there were reasons why the legislation had to be drafted in that way. In fact, patients forums were introduced five years ago and have been in operation for a considerable time. Of course, over that five-year period, considerable changes have been made, and it is now right, particularly as primary care trusts have become more coterminous with local authority areas, for the local involvement in health networks to have a geographic focus on the local authority area and a wider remit to consider health and social services and to involve a far wider range of users.
Might my right hon. Friend not reflect with me that it is rather bizarre for the Opposition to criticise proposals that enhance the role of local government in the overall scrutiny and improvement of health services locally, when they have spent much time criticising the Government for not enhancing the role of local government? Why do they not applaud the measure, which will enhance the role of local authorities?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes a very important point: the measure will take forward proposals to make it much easier for the public and, indeed, the voluntary sector to get involved with service improvement, and it represents a considerable advance on the previous measures.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the fundamental issues of representation and accountability is the ability to remove the people who make the decisions? Does she not agree that the thing that is missing from the Bill is a direct power for either local people or local councils to remove the unelected quangos that we now have in local health authorities? At the same time, is this not also an opportunity to abolish the unrepresentative NHS Appointments Commission?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, although he will of course recognise that the commission is an independent body that makes appointments on their merits. He will have an opportunity to discuss that in Committee, as the Bill progresses.
I hope that, given the consensus in the local government community and despite the reasoned amendment tabled by the Opposition, the Opposition will decide today that they at least support the principles behind the Bill: to give a stronger voice to citizens and communities to shape the places where they live and the services that they receive; to encourage local authorities to provider stronger and more strategic leadership for the places that they serve; and to reduce central prescription, so that local authorities and their partners can respond to local needs and demands.
The Secretary of State is making the point that local people should become more involved in decision making. If a council decides that it wants to become a unitary authority, will it need to get the approval of the people in its area?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are currently going through a process of inviting proposals from local government and that all bids have to be in to the Department by 25 January. One of the criteria for assessment of the bid is whether there is a broad cross-section of support for those proposals.
I know that a number of colleagues want to come in on this issue. I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell).
Talking about referendums in local government, we had the assembly vote in Northumberland, when people said no, and a vote for a two-tier system in Northumberland, when the people of Northumberland said yes. I presume that, as that is the wish of the people, we are going to get a two-tier system in Northumberland.
My hon. Friend will understand that I am not able to comment on specific bids that may or may not have been received. However, if a council puts forward a bid for unitary status that meets the criteria, it will be seriously considered on the basis of the criteria that have already been set out. If, on the other hand, local people and local councillors decide that they want to put forward a bid for a two-tier pathfinder, where they work together to create efficiencies, we would want to encourage that as well.
I welcome the part of the Bill that makes it easier for councils to become single tier, but is not the deadline of 25 January far too short, especially given that the Bill allows, for the first time, proposals for unitary authorities to cross county boundaries? That is an important reform, but it is also a complex one.
It was clear when we set up this process that local councils wanted us to provide a short window of opportunity for them to put forward proposals so that, after decisions have been made, they can get on with the business of delivering local government. The House will remember the Banham reforms, which dragged on year in, year out. People were distracted from the job of delivering for local people. We wanted to avoid that, hence the short deadline for councils to submit their bids. There will then be an opportunity for us to consider those bids. I hope that we will then move on from the debate on restructuring and that local authorities will be allowed to get on with the job of governing.
The Secretary of State has encouraged me greatly, because she has given the House the impression—this has already been said to me—that the Government will not be prescriptive on this matter and will allow the people in the areas to make the decisions. Bearing it in mind that the council in Shrewsbury is overwhelmingly opposed to unitary status and that we wish to keep our borough council in the proud, beautiful town of Shrewsbury, will she respect the wishes of my borough council, myself and the local people of Shrewsbury?
I understand the position that the hon. Gentleman is taking towards the potential submission of a proposal on unitary status. The criteria against which we judge proposals are clearly set out. One is that the proposal must command a broad cross-section of support. The others are that it must not put upward pressure on council tax, that it must deliver real value-for-money savings, that it must be able to be met from the council’s own resources, and that it must offer strong leadership and deliver for local people.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if there is a proposal, whatever its source, to go from two-tier to unitary, there will be a referendum—a vote with the local people involved—as suggested to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, both of whom agreed, last February?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that has not been the case under different Governments. We have set out a process that involves inviting local people to put forward propositions, but they must be able to demonstrate a broad cross-section of support for them.
The Liberal-controlled authority in Pendle talks about an “exciting vision” of a unitary authority with Burnley, which is
“shared by…citizens of Burnley and Pendle.”
There is no evidence for that at all. I return to the point that was just mentioned: are councils expected to canvass the views of the electorate if they are going to dissolve the two-tier system and move towards a unitary system?
It will be for councils to demonstrate that they have a broad cross-section of support. Clearly that is one factor that we will have to take into account, alongside the other criteria that we have set out in the invitation document. I have already said that I expect only a small number of propositions to meet the strict criteria that we have drawn up for unitary status.
If my right hon. Friend reflects on the Banham process, she will agree that it did a lot of good work. It took a long time, but it came up with well thought through proposals. The disadvantage was that the Conservative Government threw Banham out—or most of it, at any rate. We do not want to make that mistake again. Does she not agree that the more focused process in which she invites councils to engage will enable us to get down to the nitty-gritty with those who wish to opt in and debate the matter seriously?
My hon. Friend sets out extremely clearly and concisely my own view, which is that it is much better to have a focused, short debate, in which local people can opt into the process on the basis of strict criteria, than to have a drawn-out, lengthy debate that may or may not end up with a particular resolution being taken some years in the future.
Like the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), I support unitary authorities and welcome the measures in the Bill. I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that local people should have a say, but will she explain why her civil servants told chief officers that bids, such as that which will be made by Durham county council, will be successful and top of the pile only if they include one of the barmy ideas about directly elected executives?
I have full faith in my hon. Friend, but I do not recognise the account that he gives. That is certainly not the policy intention. It is absolutely right that we look for strong leadership, but strong leadership may take different forms. It is one of the criteria, and another is that the arrangements are responsive at neighbourhood level. That is the sort of governance arrangement that we will look for, but there is no mandatory requirement for any particular form of strengthened leadership.
May I refer the Secretary of State back to her earlier remarks, in which she said that local government had expressly wished for a short window of opportunity, namely the period ending on 25 January? Will she tell us on what evidence she based that statement?
Of course, there has been conversation on the subject between central and local government for a number of years, and it began before the Government came to power in 1997. One point that was made to me very forcefully was that local governments did not want unitisation and unitary authorities to be the only thing that they were thinking about for months and years to come. They wanted to get on with the job of delivering for local people, but in certain cases they made a powerful argument for change. They said, “Well, if you’re serious about the place-shaping role, and if you really want us to deliver value for money, and you want us to keep the council tax down to its lowest level, give us the opportunity to present our case.” The agreement that we reached was that the strongest bids would be considered against extremely strict criteria, but that the window of opportunity would then close, and the unitary debate would, I hope, close down thereafter.
I will take one further intervention, and then I will move on to a different topic.
On the issue of directly elected mayors, will my right hon. Friend confirm for the record that the unique situation flagged up in the White Paper in Stoke-on-Trent, which has a council manager and an elected mayor, can be changed in a referendum? Will she confirm that when it comes to choosing the kind of governance that we want in the elections of 2009, the Government will work with all elected representatives in Stoke-on-Trent to find a way forward that fits the particular local governance needs of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent?
I understand the issue that my hon. Friend raises. She will, of course, have seen the written ministerial statement made on Friday, which says that we will work with local representatives and people to find a way through on the issue.
I must make some progress.
The Bill is the start of a devolutionary process. Other ongoing work is a vital part of the picture, including the comprehensive spending review’s consideration of government structures and powers in relation to transport, skills and economic development at the sub-national level, as well as the Lyons review of local government finance. The Bill is a huge stride forward in taking the practical action needed to make a real difference to our communities. Today, I am publishing an implementation plan that sets out how we will deliver on other commitments in the White Paper, too.
It is the role of councils to serve local communities and respond to citizens’ needs. People want clean, safe streets and public services that respond quickly to their everyday problems. They want effective solutions without endless bureaucracy, which is why the White Paper and the Bill place a strong emphasis on the role of democratically elected councillors. We should celebrate their role, and make it easier for them to get things done. Our proposals will give a new voice to individual councillors through the community call for action, which gives citizens and councillors a new way of raising issues that they care about such as persistent antisocial behaviour, a poor recycling service, or problems with care when people come out of hospital. The community call for action will allow a councillor to draw those issues to the attention of colleagues and demand an answer from the council. Councillors can act collectively, too, through overview and scrutiny committees, which enable them to hold partner authorities to account on behalf of local communities. The Bill therefore proposes to strengthen the powers of those committees to enable them to demand information from partners and require providers to have regard to their recommendations.
The new powers that we propose to give local councillors will help them to represent their communities better, but we also want those communities to have a greater say in the places where their members live and in the services that they receive. They cannot do so without adequate information, consultation and involvement. The best councils already engage with their communities, and the Bill proposes to require all local authorities to inform, consult and involve local communities as appropriate.
The Somerset Association of Local Councils has raised a narrow but important point about parish councils’ inability to enter into a guarantee. Parish councils are often involved in partnerships and charity work usually undertaken by companies that are limited by guarantee, but they cannot become full participants because of that legal bar. Will the Secretary of State look at that during proceedings on the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that we are actively considering with local parishes. We are seeking to find a way forward, but I shall certainly correspond with him to see whether we can address the problem.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. She said that the Bill will empower local people and councillors to make decisions in their area, but she will appreciate that in an extremely large rural county such as Shropshire, councillors living 30, 40 or 50 miles from Shrewsbury will make decisions that affect the town. That is not right, because they live too far from Shrewsbury to know our town.
The principle behind the Bill is that it is local people who are best placed to determine such issues, not central Government. If local people want to move to single member rather than multi-member wards, it should be for them to decide. If they want to opt in to unitary status that, too, should be for them to decide. That is the point of devolution. We will provide a new power for the best parishes to promote economic, social and environmental well-being and, in addition, we will give communities the power to establish parishes in London, as they can already do so in the rest of the country. Those powers will give neighbourhoods more control over very local issues such as leisure facilities and provision to keep the streets clean and safe.
Does the Secretary of State accept the concerns of London Councils, which was previously known as the Association of London Government, about the need to draw up criteria to prevent extremist groups active in London politics from seeking to challenge sensible determinations by local authorities not to permit the establishment of parish councils for purposes that neither she nor I would support?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. In the White Paper, we made it clear that local authorities should make the final decision about whether a new parish should be set up. That decision should be based on a number of grounds, including the contribution that the parish would make to community cohesion. During the passage of the Bill, I propose to introduce statutory guidance to define the role of parishes in community cohesion.
The Secretary of State mentioned community involvement in provision to keep the streets safe. If a community can make a call for action on that subject, why is it not allowed to become involved in measures to tackle crime and disorder?
There are separate powers, which are already established, for local communities and local citizens to be involved in community safety issues. They can already issue a call for action, which must be responded to. We are supplementing that power in the Bill with a broader community call for action, which covers the other areas of local public service delivery. To improve local areas, we need to empower councillors and the communities that they serve, but we must also give council leaders the powers that they need to provide direction and take tough decisions.
We recognise that leadership comes in different shapes and sizes. We are therefore offering three different leadership models: a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive of councillors, or a leader elected by their fellow councillors with a clear four-year mandate. The way in which councils choose to govern themselves will be different in different parts of the country, but each of our models will help make local leaders more visible and more accountable, and a clearer mandate will make it easier for council leaders to take tough decisions and see them through.
The discretion given to local councils to decide which model they wish to employ is a positive step in the devolution of decision making, but will the Secretary of State consider allowing councils the discretion to return to the committee system, in which all councillors were involved? Will she also consider, under the strong executive model, reducing the number of electors required to prompt a referendum to decide whether a strong executive or mayoral system should be put in place?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is no longer necessary to hold a referendum to move to a mayoral system, although it will still be possible to petition for a referendum. As to whether it would be possible for a council to move back to the committee system, we have ruled that out for a purpose. We think that greater devolution of powers goes hand in hand with the responsibility for stronger leadership that is able to look over the whole area in which local people live and be responsible for the quality of life across that area, not just for the local public services that are delivered in that area. Local council leaders will be responsible in future not just for social care, for example, or for the services directly delivered, but for the quality of the environment, climate change and all the issues that are of concern to local people. With that comes a responsibility not only for strong leadership, but for responsiveness at neighbourhood level.
Will the Secretary of State tell us about the fixed terms for council leaders? In the whole of the UK—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and pretty much across the board—there is no such thing as a fixed term for an executive leader. Where does the idea come from?
The hon. Gentleman is familiar with the model of an elected mayor. What else is that? With the council leader model, we are trying to strengthen the mandate of the council leader to take decisions that are relevant to the people in their area, and to have the confidence and ability to see those through without constantly looking over their shoulder, wondering whether they will be in position the following month or the month after. That is an option which local people may be able to consider, and one that will prove attractive to many councils throughout the country.
I strongly support the thrust of the Bill and many of the measures in it, but on the subject of council leaders, High Peak council is currently run by a coalition of Liberal, Conservative and independent councillors. The leader of the council is a Liberal, who is one of only eight Liberal councillors on the council. I do not see how an elected leader from within the council could be sustained for a period of four years under those circumstances. There must be a way for councillors to recall a leader within those four years, especially if the political complexion of the council changes.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which is why we have embedded in the provisions the possibility of a vote of no confidence, so if the political complexion of the local authority changes, there will be an opportunity for members to hold the leader to account. We are trying to strengthen the mandate of the leader and the presumption that the leader will be in office for more than one year.
I cannot understand why the Government are fixated with the idea of leadership. Local government delivery of regeneration schemes in Manchester, Leicester—where my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) was leader—Newcastle and Gateshead occurred under the old committee system. Those councils had strong leadership and also the ability, which my right hon. Friend described, to remove a leader. What is the difference between what she described and the current system?
My hon. Friend describes a system of strong leadership. We want strong leadership everywhere. We have examined different options that might be attractive to councils in delivering that, not only in areas that already have it but in those that do not. We do not say that people can be in post for four years without challenge. Of course they will be challenged and responsive to local members. In exceptional circumstances, a vote of confidence could be called and the leader could be changed. That is a useful way out. However, rather than living in fear that they may not be in place in a year, local council leaders can make decisions, safer in the knowledge that they are more likely to be there for several years. That is a compromise between the committee system and others for stronger local government.
I am a little confused. The Secretary of State made a comparison with a directly elected mayor. However, he is directly elected by the people, whereas a council leader will be elected by elected members, who may not have a large mandate to serve on the local authority. Why did the Secretary of State make a direct comparison between a directly elected mayor and an elected council leader? It does not stand up.
I described a directly elected mayoral system and an indirectly elected leader system. They are not equivalent, because one is directly elected and the other is indirectly elected, but they both have strong mandates and are visible and accountable to local people. When devolving more power to local people, it is important to have a visible and accountable local leader. One is directly elected and the other is indirectly elected.
I must make progress. Given the time, I believe that Opposition Front Benchers, too, would appreciate it if I made some progress.
In future, local authorities will set out their vision for their places and influence their relationship with central Government through three key documents. First, the sustainable communities strategy provides the overarching vision. Secondly, the local development framework sets out the way in which an area’s physical development contributes to that vision. Thirdly, we propose to strengthen the local area agreement through the Bill. That will be at the heart of the central-local relationship, setting out agreements to deliver priorities for local areas and defining local authorities’ role in making them better places to live.
The strengthened local area agreement will radically cut the number of national targets and indicators for a local area. There are currently up to 1,200. We envisage reducing that to 200 indicators, with around 35 targets, plus the existing statutory education and child care targets.
Local authorities on their own cannot shape the places they serve. As well as engaging communities, they must work closely with other public service providers. The Bill therefore places a duty on key partners to co-operate with the local authority to agree the targets in the local area agreement, giving a transparent set of priorities to deliver.
We also propose, by amendment, to make provision in the Bill for new health and well-being partnerships and joint waste authorities. Those would support stronger local partnerships and help improve health and waste services.
In the spirit of devolution, the Bill also includes important framework powers for the National Assembly for Wales.
I believe that we have reached a watershed. Local government is up to the job and constantly improving. It is not only right but necessary for it to lead reform. The Bill takes important steps down that road. There will be further steps in due course, but the measure sets out significant proposals to empower communities, enhance the leadership role of local government and bring about a radical change in the nature of the relationship between central Government and local government and its partners. I commend it to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a second reading to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill because it fails to provide the freedom and powers to meet the needs of communities as claimed by the White Paper; would lead to further centralisation because of the new power for the Secretary of State to direct councils to restructure; would lead to the costs of restructuring falling on over-burdened council tax payers; fails to return powers on housing, planning, transport, learning and skills from unelected regional bodies to local government; fails to impose an upper limit for the number of performance targets used by central government to micro-manage local government; fails to give NHS patients and the public an independent and investigative public services watchdog, or a national voice for patients; and fails to fulfil the Government’s pledge in the White Paper ‘Our health, Our care, Our say’ to give local councillors a commissioning role in public health.
I begin by expressing sympathy for the Secretary of State, who clearly does not have the full support of her own side, leaving aside the concerns that Conservative Members have expressed. Perhaps I can help her understand the reasons for that.
We had barely a month’s consultation on the White Paper before the Government proceeded with indecent haste to publish a Bill. Even more surprisingly, we are being asked to debate and scrutinise local government reform while still waiting for the much delayed Lyons report on local government finance. So instead of confronting the real problems facing councils, including council tax levels, and the lack of care for the elderly, of housing and of waste disposal facilities, the Government have opted for what the Secretary of State herself called a “distraction”, namely, the restructuring of local government. They have taken a new power, way beyond the scope of the White Paper, to direct councils to restructure. That is certainly radical, but it is the opposite of devolutionary.
I wonder what came over the Secretary of State? Did she panic about the lack of volunteers for the mass restructuring of two-tier local government by the 25 January deadline? The Bill gives the Secretary of State unfettered power to redraw the map of England. At one extreme, this might involve there being no more counties; at the other, it could involve the abolition of districts that are known, trusted and local. At least her predecessor, the Deputy Prime Minister, agreed that referendums should be used when changes of this scale were to occur. He said:
“if you want to have a unitary then you can have a ballot, discuss it with the people, but if you want it, fine.”
Why has that principle been swept aside?
Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Secretary of State gives strong advice to the chief executives of county councils about referendums? The chief executive of Shropshire county council has been playing a strong role in this matter, both on television and in public, yet I believe that it is fundamentally wrong of civil servants to play any role whatever in referendums of this nature. Will my hon. Friend ensure that that point is put across very strongly to the Secretary of State?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts to secure a voice for the people of Shrewsbury on this important matter, and to their success in securing a referendum. I feel strongly that those people should be given the chance to say whether they want their present local government arrangements to be abolished. I invite the Secretary of State to comment on my hon. Friend’s point about whether a public servant should remain neutral on the issue of referendums, or whether they should take one side of the argument or the other.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that her own party has form on this matter? When it abolished the Greater London Council and Tyne and Wear county council—the “mets”—there was never a proposal for referendums. To their credit, this Government at least provided for a referendum when the ill-fated assembly of the north-east was being proposed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) has said, the people in Northumberland and Durham spoke out quite clearly on that issue. Should not we therefore just press ahead for a single unitary authority in County Durham?
The hon. Gentleman made a number of interesting observations during the Secretary of State’s speech. I sincerely hope that the Government Whips Office will consider him for participation in the Standing Committee, because he would clearly bring a great deal of experience to enhance the debate. His intervention on me largely concerned history, however, and I want to concentrate on the threat that will face local government as a result of the Bill.
We now know that the whole invitation process, complete with its consultation and deadline, was a farce. First, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) toured the country giving the chief executives of councils an insight into the promised land of unitary government. In bypassing the elected councillors and going to the appointed officials, he could not have made clearer his disdain for local democracy.
Then came the appointment of the present Secretary of State, who declared herself to be
“more concerned with outcomes for citizens than lines on maps”.
I wish that she had stuck to her instincts in that regard. I can understand why she formed that view. She has a background in economics. When have we ever heard of a restructuring exercise that did not cost money? Proponents of unitaries may point to huge cost savings, but in the short term, there will be a big bill for redundancies, employment tribunals, contract write-downs and other sunk costs. Those costs will be added to the bill for council tax payers. Cambridge university has estimated that restructuring would mean an extra cost of £121 per person. That would work out at roughly £345 on top of the average council tax bill—a bill that has already risen by 84 per cent. since Labour came to power.
My borough council has commissioned two reports by professors at Oxford and Cambridge universities, which show that redundancies in Shrewsbury alone could add up to as much as £20 million—money that we local council tax payers will have to foot.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which shows precisely why the people of Shrewsbury are so entitled to their referendum on abolition. I pay tribute to the work of his council, which has prudently kept reserves in hand, little though it might have thought that the fateful day would come when it would have to investigate the cost of its own abolition.
It is a real irony that voters are being offered the chance to pay more tax for less elected representation. Did the Government ask people whether they wanted such change? Are members of the public spontaneously running up to the Secretary of State and her colleagues asking for restructuring? I doubt it. The latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy survey, conducted in the autumn, showed that only one quarter of respondents believe that local government reorganisation would be desirable.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Is it not the case that the Government have no intention of holding referendums on any of these issues, as they know that they are trying to ride roughshod over the popular will of many communities around the country, and having lost in the north-east, they have no intention of losing again?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I suspect that the R word—referendum—does instil a little fear in the Government.
Why have the Government set district councils against county councils in a battle for survival that will cost the taxpayer dear? It cannot just be that they were stung by losing the chairmanship of the Local Government Association, and by the erosion of their position at successive local elections. Is not the truth that Labour is trying to do at the Dispatch Box what it cannot do at the ballot box?
I have a simple question: does the hon. Lady support the Conservative leader of Cumbria county council in wanting a unitary authority for that county?
If one is a serious localist, one should support the view of democratically elected local councillors. They, in turn, need the evidence of local opinion. Given the Government’s time scale, however, with two days remaining until the deadline, how is it practically possible, in places such as Durham, to establish that view?
Let me give my hon. Friend some guidance on what is happening in my area, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), and pose a question through her to the Secretary of State. To establish a broad consensus of opinion, will the Secretary of State rely on ballots of opinion taking place, as we speak, in four out of the five districts in Shropshire? Alternatively, will she rely on a survey of a focus group of 44 people in Shropshire, which the proponents of unitary status argue gives them the consensus of opinion?
My hon. Friend must await the answer to that question from the Secretary of State. He will also be aware, however, of a poll conducted by the BBC to try to establish what local opinion in Shropshire might be in relation to this matter, which the BBC had to curtail because it had been abused by people being urged to vote early and often, if I may use such parlance.
I must make some progress.
With no warning and no consultation, the House is suddenly being asked to grant the Secretary of State the right to abolish or rearrange great swathes of local government, wherever and whenever she feels so inclined. Should not the Bill at the very least set out in detail specific situations in which that power can be invoked? However, it does not do so; there are no limitations on the scope of the power, or the circumstances in which it can be used, which makes it a formidable weapon for any Secretary of State. I caution Members to think long and hard before approving such a power, which will put councils for ever under the sword of Damocles, knowing that at a stroke they can be reorganised out of existence.
It would have been better had the hon. Lady consulted more closely her colleague, the chairman of the Local Government Association. If she had done that, she would have known that we have already given a commitment to the LGA that we will narrow the scope of the power to direct, but that it may be necessary in the short term, as a result of the current invitation, to deal with residual areas to make the unitarisation proposal work. There is no intention to force any council down a route that it does not want to go down.
Of course I consult the chairman of the LGA. That is why I am aware that the Secretary of State failed to consult him prior to introducing the clause that will enable her to direct councils to restructure themselves. That is step one. Step two is how hon. Members are to know about the extra explanation given orally by her if it is not on the face of the Bill or in the explanatory notes. At least we have been able to extract a willingness on her part to constrain this draconian power, but until we see it in writing in the form of an amendment, we will continue to press for the extreme power to be curtailed.
I spoke to the LGA today—its name has been bandied around—and have been informed that if the Secretary of State tries to overturn a referendum in a place like Shrewsbury, we could go for a judicial review. If she does that, I will spend night and day helping my council to pursue a judicial review. She will not destroy the independence of Shrewsbury.
The House is left in no doubt about my hon. Friend’s commitment to his constituents and those who live in Shrewsbury who do not want the status of their district council rolled over either by direction or through the power of the Bill. Local government is asking itself what on earth it has done to deserve this treatment at the hands of the Government. In fact, councils have been more effective in making efficiency gains than any Department, so why the kick in the teeth?
The Government hold out the promise of reducing the straitjacket of performance targets, but why is there no upper limit on the face of the Bill? When the White Paper was published, the Opposition were sceptical about how long it would be before the tick-box tendency took hold again, but even we thought that the Government’s pledge to reduce targets would last long enough to make it from the White Paper to Bill. It seems that our faith was misplaced. When it comes to the crunch, the Government simply cannot bring themselves to trust councils. They will not commit themselves to ending the target-driven tyranny that is such an obstacle to devolving power to local communities.
I understand how the culture of targets and directives comes about. Any new Government want to make their mark and they try to do that by driving things from the centre. That applies to Governments of all complexions. However, the Government have had almost 10 years and they still feel the need to micro-manage. Local government is desperate for more freedom to innovate and to better meet local needs. Local communities are hungry for a bigger say in decision making, and central Government are in the way. The Bill implies that there should be a general move towards less regulation, but there is nothing binding and nothing on which the Government can be held to account.
The same criticism can be levelled at the uprated local area agreements, of which the Government have made much when justifying their localist credentials. The provisions for the agreements lack a clear process of how they will be achieved and to whom they are ultimately accountable. As the Local Government Information Unit says in its briefing, it is not clear how the duty to co-operate will be secured in practice. Will the chief constable, sitting at the table with the council leader, dance to his tune or that of the Home Secretary? Who has the line management? In home affairs, Whitehall has. Far from getting together and reaching an agreement based on the wishes of the community they serve, representatives are all dancing to the tune of their relevant Whitehall Departments.
I see nothing in the Bill that would remedy that problem. To make matters worse, I see no sign that other Departments are sympathetic to the devolving of power to local communities; the reverse, in fact. We will end up with a heavily compromised agreement between representatives who are in hock to their masters in Whitehall. That is why we have proposed something more radical in the Sustainable Communities Bill, which gives local councils far more discretion over the way in which money is spent locally and, for the first time, total transparency in regard to how much is spent.
The Government have rightly given councils a choice of leadership ranging from elected leader to elected executive to elected mayors, but rather like an anxious child dipping its toe in the waters of localism, they recoil and refuse to let councils decide for themselves whether they want a cabinet or a committee system. When asked about that earlier, the Secretary of State said, “We think it is not desirable to return to the committee system.” That is a classic example of centralism if ever there was one. Central Government “think”, therefore local government do not get. Has the Secretary of State listened to councillors? Strong leadership is about people, not structures. It is a relatively small issue, but it is a symptom of a Government who, beneath the surface, are still committed to micro-managing councils.
The Bill contains measures that seem localist on the face of it, but beneath the surface do nothing to loosen the stranglehold of central Government over local government. We welcome the measures to devolve power beyond the town hall to parishes, but urge the Government not to overlook other models of local governance such as residents associations and other elected forums. As we have heard, London councils in particular are concerned about the effect that introducing parish councils might have on community cohesion.
Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), I should add that the Commission for Racial Equality has also raised concern about inclusiveness in the proposed governance arrangements. Only 3.5 per cent. of councillors in England come from ethnic minorities, compared with 8.4 per cent. in the population as a whole, and last year only 10 per cent. of parish council seats were contested. That is the cause of the concern about cohesion.
If we are to encourage more civic-minded people into local governance, there must be root-and-branch reform of the Standards Board, beyond the scope of the Bill, to stop the frivolous and malicious complaints that will put people off serving their communities. More public involvement may be secured through the community call for action outlined in the Bill, but why has the exception been made for law and order? The Secretary of State said it was because a facility was already in place. If it is, it is not working particularly well.
The health provisions contain further evidence of the centralising tendency that dogs the Bill, particularly the section on public involvement. It is not a year since the Government published their White Paper “Our Health, Our Care, Our Say”, which stated that democratically elected councillors should have a local voice in health and social care. Where is that in the Bill? Without it, councils cannot give real expression to the statutory duty that they already have for public health, and health commissioning remains a Whitehall-driven process.
A further weakness is the lack of genuine public involvement. What the Government propose is supposed to be the answer to the whole sorry saga of abolishing community health councils in the teeth of strong public opposition. A myriad bodies have been created over the last few years, including the patients forums. Those have already cost £120 million, much of which will presumably have to be a sunk cost under the new formula, but that is now about to be ripped up in favour of LINKs, or local involvement networks. As we have already heard, there is a real danger in what the Government are proposing because of a conflict of interest. Local government already provides social care, which has to be wired into NHS provision. The question is, how independent and how representative will the LINKs really be?
Given that the Bill includes public involvement in health in its title, is the hon. Lady as surprised and disappointed as I am that the Secretary of State, in a very lengthy and detailed speech, did not cover that issue at all? I do not think that a case has been made for the abolition of patient and public involvement forums. Will the LINKs have adequate resources? Will they work within the terms of the Nolan principles, so that people directly involved in the provision of health and social care services will have to state as much and to withdraw from discussions? Most importantly, will they be bound by anti-discrimination legislation, because those who are involved in the PPI forums such as the successful ones in Leicestershire have not been able to get information on that out to their would-be successor organisations—the LINKs?
Another cogent case has been made for membership of the Standing Committee. The hon. Gentleman has a genuine interest in the issues under discussion, and I share his concerns. In particular, I have no doubt that we share a concern that the Disability Rights Commission has. It calls on the Government to make sure that there is proper representation on the new LINKs forum. I also share with him a concern about the loss of expertise that will arise as a result of the abolition of the—very recently created—PPI forums.
The Government are struggling to find a way to replace community health councils. I am concerned that although public involvement is mentioned in the Bill, the word “patient” does not arise a great deal. The voice of the patient was clearly articulated by community health councils, and I am concerned that that voice might be lost in this subsequent reform.
I have spent some time setting out the Bill’s biggest failings. However, its biggest failing of all is not to do with what is included in it, but with what is not. All Members will agree that what gets people really fired up about local government is the level of council tax. That is ironic, given that the blame for punitive council tax rises lies firmly at the door of the Chancellor. It is odd that the Lyons review has been put off until the Budget, by which time the Bill will have completed its passage through the House of Commons.
That is why we have asked for Sir Michael Lyons to come before the Standing Committee on this Bill, in accordance with the new model of evidence-taking by a Bill Committee, so that we can take account of his views as the Bill is amended. We have also asked for Kate Barker, Rod Eddington and Sandy Leitch to do so, because they are all reviewing areas that directly affect the role of local government. Taking evidence as part of the scrutiny of legislation is a new House procedure, and the Government must make sure that they keep their promise to let scrutinisers have a proper say over who they call before them.
We are debating the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, but what is missing is the one vital measure that would make it truly local. That measure is the abolition of unelected and unaccountable regional government—regional quangos that cost every household almost £600 every year. How much longer must Ministers indulge in this absurd regional agenda? It was the Deputy Prime Minister’s pet project, but it has now become the elephant in the living room.
Nobody wanted regional government, but it was forced on them anyway, and for as long as it exists anything that the Government say about localism will be met with scepticism. Abolishing regional government would help to bring council tax down and give real force to localism. If the Bill were to contain that measure alone, it would be greeted with great enthusiasm across the country. But of course, the Bill does not provide for that, just as it does not provide many commonsense measures that would deliver real localism.
Instead it shackles local government more firmly than ever to Whitehall. How could the ongoing threat of abolition be perceived as anything else? Far from being a feast of devolution, this Bill simply throws councils a few scraps from the table. The reason for that is understandable. The Government are ruled by a centralising Chancellor.
The Chancellor is not sympathetic to localism; that stands to reason as he has spent the best part of 10 years waiting to get his hands on the levers of power so he is determined not to let any of it go. That distrust of localism is laid bare in this Bill. It is a Bill that short-changes councils and communities alike, and it is with regret that I am unable to support it.
I welcome this very important Bill, which marks a significant shift in the balance of power from central Government to local government. That is hugely important in terms of the way that our people look at government, both local and central.
The Bill is clearly only the first part of the changes that have to be made in the relationship between central and local government. The second will come with the publication of Sir Michael Lyons’ report and the Government’s response to it, and the comprehensive spending review will also have a massive part to play. It is right that that should happen, because this is about governance, administration and the delivery of public services; it is not, at the moment, about the quantum of those public services. However, the two are intertwined: we cannot talk about governance without referring to the resources given to local authorities—and, indeed, vice versa.
If the resources are to match the Government’s aspirations in the Bill, Sir Michael Lyons must address a number of issues in his report, including the ability to raise money from the council tax or its successor—if a successor is indeed proposed. Some 90 per cent. of my authority’s houses are in band A or B, which clearly reflects the nature of the borough’s economy. Other councils have few, if any, houses in those bands, which reflects their ability to raise money and the economic activity within those areas. That point has to be taken account of in the way that the council tax is raised.
However, local authorities’ ability to raise money from other sources must also be taken into account. I read recently in the Evening Standard that Westminster city council can raise £25 million from parking charges alone. Other London boroughs can raise only £1 million, and some even less. If the way in which central Government grant is calculated cannot take such differences into account, we will be unable to achieve a fair system for local government.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. My local council, Wandsworth, has a much lower grant than average; however, last year, the Audit Commission said that it delivered the best value for money of any council. Does he agree that another criterion that national Government should consider is indeed the value for money delivered by local councils?
The hon. Lady mentions value for money, but the important point is that when central Government give resources to local authorities, such decisions should be based on need, an issue to which I shall return.
Sir Michael Lyons also has to ensure that the formula that distributes the central grant reflects the needs of the given area. I understand that fairness is a moveable feast, but importantly, the formula surely has to be based on measures of need. The Bill’s thrust is joint working between not just local government but other agencies, particularly the primary care trusts.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He will know that, according to a number of indices, the borough of Stockport is considered very prosperous. However, the two Stockport wards that are in my constituency share many of the same characteristics as the five wards in the borough of Tameside and the neighbouring city of Manchester. Yet, as a result of their being in the borough of Stockport, we are at the back of the queue for much of the funding, including Building Schools for the Future Programme funding. Does my hon. Friend think that that issue also needs to be addressed?
Indeed I do. My hon. Friend raises a very important issue but if my reading of the Bill is right, it can be addressed through the overview and scrutiny committees. Local ward councillors in areas of deprivation within broad council areas that have a reasonable level of resources will be able to take such matters to those committees and make sure that the needs of their areas are addressed by councils.
We have to take into account that not only are some local authorities underfunded, but so are some primary care trusts. If PCTs are substantially underfunded and cover the same area—I see that the Secretary of State is looking at me askance, but I assure her that my local PCT is some £11 million away from its target, and will still be so at the end of the comprehensive spending review. That is a substantial amount of money, and when one adds in the fact that the local authority area I represent is also well off the target that the Government have set, we have a double whammy. The Bill refers to relating the local authority, the PCT and other agencies together, so the amount of funding they all receive will be important if we are to ensure that the governance arrangements deliver for the people of the borough.
I said earlier that the definition of “fair” is debateable and a moveable feast. However, it is not an abstract concept. On the contrary, it is very real and it will be a huge task to ensure that we have the ability to tackle deprivation. We have heard talk of a north-south divide, or a Labour-Conservative divide, but that is not the case. I recognise that there are many areas in the south of England, especially in some of our coastal towns, which have areas of great deprivation. They deserve the resources to tackle that. There are also many areas in need in Conservative council areas and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) suggested, in Liberal Democrat council areas. It is important that we recognise that any definition of fairness has to be about tackling deprivation, on the basis of need, and we need a system of local government finance and other Government finance, when it is devolved, that recognises that.
The hon. Gentleman says that the issue has not split people along party lines, but I can tell him that it has. On my council, every Labour borough and county councillor voted for a unitary authority, and they all voted against the people of Shrewsbury having a referendum.
I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman is coming from—[Hon. Members: “Shrewsbury!”] I will rephrase that. I am not quite sure where he is coming from intellectually. I know where he is coming from geographically. I was talking about the amount of money that local government and other bodies get in grant from the Government; I was not talking about what form of government we should have. I will come on to that issue if the hon. Gentleman will hold his water, as they say in Scotland, and he may have another opportunity to intervene.
I also welcome the strengthening of local councils through local area agreement, which recognises, at last, the primacy of the council as the only democratically elected institution in the local authority area. That is very important. We have had a long process, started by the Conservatives when they were in government, of moving towards quangos, and that has been to some degree continued by this Government. However, we will at last have a way to reverse that trend and make the democratic process more important.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I have some sympathy with his desire to recognise the primacy of elected local authorities. Against that background, does he agree that it is especially disappointing that the Bill does not include a requirement for NHS foundation trusts and health trusts to be members of the local area agreements and under a duty to co-operate? Those of us who have been involved in local government know that it is essential to include those health bodies so that we have the integrated service—especially closer co-operation between health and social services departments—that we need.
I very much agree that that is essential. A few weeks ago, I had one of my regular meetings with representatives from my local authority, PCT, acute hospital trust and local improvement finance trust. In fact, the LIFT programme in my area is the best in the country. We talk about various issues, and local MPs are involved in the discussions. I therefore agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but remind him that the Bill will enable the Secretary of State to add other organisations to the list of those that must take part in LAAs. I hope that the list will include the organisations to which he referred.
The best councils, such as my own in Wigan, engage strongly with other agencies, and with both the private and voluntary sectors—
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish gave a little laugh at that, but I remind him that Wigan is one of only two councils to get four stars. I can therefore say, honestly and without a shadow of a doubt, that Wigan has been independently assessed to be one of the best councils in the country. I am glad to place that on record yet again in this House.
Wigan is able to engage with agencies and bodies in the private and voluntary sectors because it is recognised to be a good authority: for their part, those other bodies acknowledge that they get added value out of its involvement. Giving local authorities a statutory leadership role in their communities will cement the engagement process in those areas where it is already evident, and ensure that other parts of the country begin to move in that direction. The Bill will mean that a council will become, not the top dog locally, but rather a leader of equals—the primus inter pares.
I especially welcome the proposed change to the system of targets. The White Paper proposed that many targets should be scrapped and only a small number retained, and I understand from my discussions with Ministers that that is still the intention. Even more important is the fact that the targets will not be set by central Government; instead, they will be put in place through the LAAs, following discussion with local authorities. The targets that are set will therefore be relevant to each authority—Wigan’s targets will be different from Wycombe’s, and Cambridge’s from Camberley’s—and must reflect the needs and priorities of the elected representatives serving each community.
I turn now to the involvement of the community. That is a very important aspect of the Bill, because we must ensure that the people whom we govern are involved in the governing process so that councils can deliver services in a better way. In addition, councillors’ ability to refer matters to the overview and scrutiny committee will greatly strengthen their role as advocates and leaders in their community.
Moreover, the ability of council leaders to devolve resources to ward councillors will enhance that role, and Wigan, where a substantial amount of money is already devolved to each councillor, offers an example of how important and effective that can be. I live in Wigan Central ward, which is represented by three excellent councillors. They recognised that putting gates across alleys was very important in areas of terraced houses because unrestricted access to the alleys behind those houses leads to burglary and other nefarious activity. The system of gates that the councillors have put in place has greatly enhanced security, and made people feel much better about where they live. I pay tribute to Councillors Halliwell, Willis and Shaw for what they have done in that regard.
However, the proposals in the Bill carry some dangers. For instance, community capacity is not equally spread. When I was a local authority representative for the Norley ward, I represented people who were not as able as people from more middle-class areas to express themselves and make their voices heard. It is important that we take that into account, so that the Bill does not become a nimby’s charter, nor a vehicle for the articulate to override the wishes of the majority. We need safeguards to ensure that the Opposition, of whichever party, do not abuse the process and that they use the measure properly.
I want to talk about unitary authorities, of which I have some experience. I was a local councillor when Greater Manchester was a two-tier authority and a councillor in Wigan when it was a unitary authority. I was also a council officer in a district council. All my experience, both as a councillor and an officer, shows that unitary authorities serve the people much better than the two-tier system. They do so because there is clarity of responsibility between the electorate and the local authority; people do not have to go to their county council with inquiries about housing or getting their bins emptied, which is the difficulty in two-tier authorities.
In unitary authorities, there is clarity about resources. The fairly small district council in which I worked was full of excellent people; they were dedicated local government officers but they had neither the financial nor the intellectual resources of a unitary council. When I was chairman of the highways and works committee of Wigan council, we had a difficulty with our local building department. We resolved that difficulty only because we were a large unitary authority, with the financial resources and intellectual capacity to bring to bear on the issue. That could not have happened in the district council for which I worked.
The role of the Conservative party has been appalling. I understand that the Conservative Opposition have refused to allow Conservative-controlled local authorities to enter discussions about setting up unitary authorities, even when the authorities want to do so because they recognise that it is the best deal for their area. That is disgraceful.
The Conservatives have form. Under the Local Government Act 1972, and against the wishes and advice of Redcliffe-Maud, the Conservative Government introduced the two-tier authority system, the residue of which is still with us. They have messed about with the system ever since and they are still doing so. They know that unitary authorities are right because whenever they are in government they move towards that system. They know that county councils are not necessarily the right thing.
Cumberland, Westmorland, West Riding, East Riding, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Middlesex and Berkshire were all English counties abolished by the Conservatives. Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Lincolnshire, Kent, Essex and Warwickshire were all butchered by the Conservatives, when great chunks of them were put into other areas. That is their form.
The Conservatives went even further. With no referendum and no reference whatever to people in Scotland, they got rid of every county—from Caithness to Kirkcudbright and from Berwickshire to the Western Isles. Every county was abolished and unitary authorities were imposed. In Wales, every county was abolished and unitary authorities were imposed. In Ireland, all six counties were abolished and unitary authorities put in their place.
The Conservatives know that unitary authorities are best, because when they are in power they set them up. Conservative Front-Benchers should let people decide in their own areas. They should not impose things on Conservative-controlled county and district councils; if people want a unitary authority, let them go for it. Conservatives should tell people that their experience is far better under unitary authorities—they know it, because they did it themselves—than under two-tier authorities.
I think that it is a good Bill. As ever, it could be improved, but I am sure that we will achieve that in Committee.
When we heard that a White Paper was on its way and would be followed by a Bill, some of us thought that it presented a real opportunity for local democracy. We thought that there was a chance to rebuild and restore local democracy, to make it more representative, to empower it, make it more responsive, effective and capable—and, of course, to provide the resources that it needs to deliver the services and responsibilities heaped on it. If local government had those foundations, we would be able to achieve a more equal partnership between local government and local democracy, and central Government and the democracy in this place—perhaps something closer to the balance achieved in the US, the Commonwealth countries or the EU’s larger countries, in which the proportion of spending and service delivery by local government is hugely higher than in the UK, particularly England.
We needed a more vigorous engagement and participation with communities and individuals—something that could have sprung from a White Paper and local government Bill. We needed more local services, tailored more accurately to the needs of local communities, delivered and designed by local people. That was the opportunity that we hoped for, and our colleagues in local government certainly hoped to see it as well—but the opportunity has been missed.
The Bill is a disappointment, not only because of what the Government have left out of it, but because of what they have put into it. They have certainly gone for quantity rather than quality, with 176 clauses and 15 schedules. Somewhere in all those provisions something has to come out right, but I am reminded of the mythical monkeys who set out to type Shakespeare. How long would it take them to achieve that, and how many failed attempts would be made on the way? It seems to me, having read the Bill, that we have much ado about nothing, but not too much of all’s well that ends well—
No decent monkey would put its name to this Bill.
The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, makes an important point.
What we have here is quantity not quality, and change not reform. Perhaps the classic example is what the Bill does to change the executive arrangements for the leadership of councils. It is interesting to note that the Audit Commission, having carefully looked at the performance of councils, has reported that—regardless of their governance arrangements—councils are improving their overall performance year by year. Whatever model is adopted, the average picture is that performance is improving. The idea that requiring councils to go for a strong leader or strong cabinet-type model will produce bigger and better improvements seems to fly in the face of both local government evidence and national Government evidence.
My hon. Friend will know that no serious research has been done on the existing executive arrangements, which have been in place for many years. The Government have neither commissioned research themselves nor encouraged external research.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have had informal discussions with the Audit Commission about how that might be done. One thing that is clear is that on the basis of the Government’s own system of measuring targets, inspections and performance, no discernible difference in the models can be determined. As to Cabinet government at the national level, we need reflect only on Iraq, the Home Office and the Child Support Agency to realise that that model does not always deliver effective leadership to point us in the right direction.
This Bill represents quantity not quality, change not reform, and busyness not effectiveness. There are dozens of botched proposals in it, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have already commented on some of them. I want to pick up some of the things that are missing from it, the first of which, clearly, is a strategic view of what local democracy is for, and how to make it more powerful and effective. The signs of it all going wrong were there, of course, with the White Paper, which was very much a delayed “five out of 10” effort, based on a compromise within the Government. It is not the Secretary of State’s fault—she inherited a dog and she has added the breakfast—but the framework for the Bill was flawed, and the Bill itself is flawed as well. There is no strategic view.
Secondly, the Bill has skipped the vital question of making local democracy more representative. The Secretary of State’s colleagues in Scotland, working with the Liberal Democrats, have introduced a fair voting system for local government, and it will be voted on and in place for the May elections this year. It is a great pity that such a provision has not found its way into her Bill for England. I will quote the Electoral Reform Society’s comments:
“The Electoral Reform Society believes that the Bill represents a missed opportunity to reinvigorate local democracy in England and Wales. Amongst the numerous reforms proposed in the Bill, a glaring omission is any reference to reform of the electoral system by which councillors are elected.”
Of course, we will want to consider that matter in Committee.
The third missing element is the creation of a self-sufficient local democratic system that is self-reliant, with the strength to deliver services for local communities. To do that, those involved need resources, including financial resources. We need the uniform business rate to return to local council control. We need the abolition of council tax and the introduction of a local income tax. We need a reform of the grants system—in particular, an end to the huge civilisation of ring-fenced grants and bids, which takes up so much of the time of local government and its officers—and a much fairer and more objective system of allocating grants.
Those seem to be the key missing elements, but what about the things that are in the Bill? I shall mention a few of them; there is plenty to choose from in 176 clauses. I shall start with the internal governance of local authorities. On Friday last, the Secretary of State made a written statement about the future governance of Stoke-on-Trent council. Indeed, she referred to it in her speech, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) made an intervention. The Secretary of State said in her speech that she wanted to give councils flexibility, and to see them experimenting and doing all sorts of exciting things. I shall quote from her statement of last Friday, which encapsulates in two sentences what is wrong with the Government’s approach to these matters.
Where is the Secretary of State going? My hon. Friend is talking about her.
The Secretary of State has heard this already; she made the statement. Of the governance of Stoke-on-Trent, she wrote:
“For this reason Government will not be prescriptive as to which model should be used. However, the status quo is not an option.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 47WS.]
She is not going to be prescriptive, but the status quo is not an option. That is exactly how the Government proceed time and again.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that the position in Stoke-on-Trent is unique, because it is the only local authority in the country where we have a council manager and an elected mayor, who together comprise the executive. That has caused us local governance problems there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital that the Government and the Minister for Local Government work with those democratically elected in Stoke-on-Trent and with local MPs to find a way forward for governance that best suits our wonderful city?
I certainly understand the point that the hon. Lady makes, but the model that Stoke has was set up by statute—by the Secretary of State’s predecessor—and it is a harsh judgment by the Secretary of State on her predecessor that she is now going to abolish the only working model. Whatever the merits of the case in Stoke-on-Trent—I do not want to intrude on the hon. Lady’s private grief—if local government had restored to it the right of self-determination on its internal governance, that would not be an issue for her or the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it gives me the opportunity to reassure him on two points. First, regarding the status quo that has been referred to, that inclusion was there at the request of the leadership of Stoke, on a non-partisan basis. Secondly, the office was created in Stoke by a referendum and can be taken away only by means of a referendum. The statement refers to the post-2009 situation, and will be based on the views of the people of the wonderful city of Stoke-on-Trent.
I am grateful for what the Minister has said, but I am sure that he will agree that with regard to the governance of all local authorities, the Bill says that they have to conform to one of the three new models, and if they do not happen to do so already, the status quo is not an option. There is no question of that situation being endorsed by a referendum before things are imposed by the Secretary of State. The point that the Liberal Democrats want to make is: why is it for the Government to intervene in the internal governance of local authorities? If there were any evidence at all that the performance of local authorities is adversely affected by one or other of the governance systems that are in place, perhaps the Government would have a case. I had a talk with a number of local government consultants who give advice on these matters, and their view was that the best that could be said of the Government’s proposals is that they will not make the situation worse. There is no question of their leading to an improvement. There is no possible way in which that could be measured.
Let us consider the models and look at the changes that the Secretary of State proposes to make to how mayors will come into existence in future. I was interested in what the Minister just said: in Stoke-on-Trent the system could not be changed because it was put in place by a referendum and another referendum is necessary to get rid of it. That is all very good, but what about mayors? There have been 32 referendums on the establishment of mayors, and in 20 cases voters have opposed the creation of mayors. That is two to one against mayors. There are 12 mayors in place, and without doubt some of them do excellent work. There are some good models, and some of them are doing better than their predecessor councils were. Obviously, I want to draw the House’s attention to the mayor of Watford in that context. However, the House also needs to understand that in four of the 12 cases there are active campaigns to get rid of mayors, because they are not seen as effective models at the local level.
The Government’s solution is, “Let’s take out the public participation in that decision. Let’s have mayors established not by popular preference but on the say-so of a council.” It is not altogether surprising that the leaders of councils tend to be in favour of strong entrenched leadership. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see why that might be so. When we consult leaders, funnily enough they are in favour of strong entrenched leadership. The question is: is that model good for local democracy, does it improve the delivery of services, and does it give good value for money? The answer is that there is no evidence at all to show that that is so.
The proposal to have entrenched leaders, as opposed to mayors, seems to have been drawn up by somebody who had no knowledge whatsoever of local democracy. I was sorry for the Secretary of State, who had to respond to a string of questions on that point. She represents a constituency in which, for a period, no political party had overall control of the local authority. One third of all local authorities are in that position, and it is difficult to understand why she imagines that the strong leader model would be right for a council in which no party had overall control, or how a council with such a governance system would manage if it entered a period in which no party had overall control.
Whoever worked out the proposal had evidently not looked at the statistics, because in half of the remaining local authorities—the two thirds in which there is a party with majority control—the leader’s average term of office is less than four years. What exactly is the model intended to deliver, and how will it do it? I have already commented on the difficulty that there will be for cabinets and cabinet slates; a whole set of issues will have to be explored. I point out in passing that it is a good job for the Scottish Parliament and Executive that the Bill was not in force earlier. Otherwise the past eight years would have been very difficult in Scotland, where there is a multi-party Executive.
I heard the Secretary of State say that one of the reasons for going down the route proposed is that she will give enhanced powers to local government, which would therefore need strong, effective, centralised leadership to deliver results. That is fine, except for the fact that in the first half of the 20th century there was committee government even in the largest cities, and the committees dealt with public transport, and public utilities such as gas, sewage treatment and electricity. There was nothing that they did not do, and on the whole, they were leaders in those spheres. A lot has changed since then, but the idea that there could be no consensus if work was done by committees, whether multi-party or dominated by one party, and the idea that those committees could not deliver effective decisions, are not based on any proper historical analysis. We have severe concerns about the Bill’s proposed changes to governance, and we simply assert that it is for local government to determine how it should govern itself. We have allowed that for the colonies, so it does not seem excessive to allow it for local government.
On a much smaller and entirely different issue, the Bill includes provisions relating to the powers of the Audit Commission. At the moment, the commission not only does work commissioned by the Government in respect of local authorities, but carries out work commissioned by local authorities on their own behalf, so that, for example, an authority can find out whether its social services department is delivering. The Bill proposes to remove the right of the Audit Commission to accept such work. Just when huge numbers of local area agreements are about to come into force, when there is to be much more co-operative and partnership working, and when issues of value for money and sensible organisation between several tiers of local authorities and public bodies are more important than ever, the Government are including a provision to prevent the Audit Commission from accepting a commission from bodies that want to look into how they provide services.
I cannot imagine why that decision has been taken, but I shall be interested to learn the reason in Committee. A cynic might think that it has been done so that PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG can be taken on as consultants, at three times the price and half the credibility. [Interruption.] If the Minister for Local Government wants to tell me, either now or in Committee, why he thinks that is not true, I will listen, but the fact is that he is taking away that right of the Audit Commission, to the disadvantage of value for money, local government and the commission itself.
The Secretary of State was quiet—whether from embarrassment or not, I do not know—about national health service reform. “Reform” ought to be in inverted commas, and we ought to add, and underline, the word “again”. There are district nurses in my constituency who have had three different employers in three successive years, as trusts were moved around. Whether the policy of patient and public involvement in health has been in place for four years, two years or one year, the Government are now tearing up a system that they assured the House was the correct response to getting rid of community health councils.
The loss of community health councils is lamented by all, except NHS administrators, whose subsequent record of control and management has, of course, caused the Government to tear their hair out. When CHCs were abolished and PPIH introduced, individual complaints were siphoned off and given to the NHS, which thus acted as judge and jury on complaints made against it. Whatever the merits of PPIH, the system is far weaker and more fragmented than it was under CHCs.
Now PPIH is to be abolished. Hon. Members will have received copies of correspondence in which the first letter says, “Dear PPIH member, thank you for all your help. Your job is now over.” The second letter, however, says, “Whoops, we acted a bit too quickly. Please stay on for a bit until we pass the legislation.” Clause 162 proposes to abolish the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. Despite the fact that it has reduced powers compared with CHCs, and it is very much a creature of the system, it still has the capacity to bite, because it said of the Bill’s provisions:
“The Government has yet to report on the resources that will be available to local authorities to support LINks, and the formula to be used to distribute funding. When legislating in 2002 to establish PPI Forums and the CPPIH, Parliament also had no information about the intended budget and consequently many of the intentions of that legislation were unachievable due to funding restrictions applied later.”
The Commission itself says that it could not do the job that it was set up to do by Parliament, because the Government shrank its funding and kept it under strict control. As hon. Members have said, only primary care trusts are required to co-operate with the new system, not provider trusts or, in Stockport, the foundation trust that has just decided that it will no longer meet in public. I tabled a parliamentary question about that, and the answer that I got back was, “That’s okay—it’s up to them.” Not only are some important elements of the national health service omitted from the Bill, but those that are omitted are the ones that are doing their best to get under cover and avoid public inspection.
I understood that the code of practice for the Standards Board was to be put into the public domain today, before our debate, but evidently that did not happen. That code will be crucial in determining whether reform of the Standards Board will be workable and effective for local government. I make no bones about it: we think that the board should be abolished—but if it is to be reformed, that reform must be drastic and effective, and the process must be open to discussion and debate in the House. If the code is introduced in a statutory instrument, it will not be debatable, so I ask the Minister, when he replies to the debate, to make it absolutely clear that the code will be published before the Bill goes into Committee, so that we have the opportunity to consider it when we consider the relevant clauses. I understand that the code has been hotly debated by many people, none of whom has been democratically elected. They have all stirred the pot, so it is time the code was published so that we can all have a look at it.
Even when the Government have got it half right in some parts of the Bill, they have still managed to get it half wrong as well. Whether it is internal governance, the powers of the Audit Commission, NHS reform, the Standards Board or a stack of other matters, there is a lists of defects and errors that must be tackled. The fundamental problem, however, emphasised and underlined time and again by sins of commission and omission, is that the Government do not have any respect or regard for local government.
I shall give way to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).
What advice about consulting the views of local people would the hon. Gentleman give to Liberal councils that want to go from two-tier to unitary status? I know that it is his party’s policy to hold a referendum before major structural changes happen, but in this case referendums are impractical, I suspect. What advice would he give?
I have the advantage not only of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but of a phone call from Lord Greaves, who is a councillor on Pendle borough council and who has his own views on these matters, as the House would expect.
My answer to the hon. Member for Pendle is that the Government have not been fair and straightforward with the House. Many of us understood that in relation to the creation of unitaries, it was the Government’s intention to have a restricted number—almost a small tidying-up operation. However, by casting their net so widely, they have set all sorts of hares running in various directions. The information that we have heard from Shropshire and Shrewsbury, from Lancashire, from Pendle and from practically every other county area—Cheshire is an example known to me more personally—shows that there are strong views and strong voices raised in every direction, often by members of the same political party pulling in different directions. I note in passing that despite the letter that went out from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to all his councillors around the country, many of them are strongly engaged in that as well.
There is no commitment from the Government in the Bill to rebuilding a strong democratic society, and no vision for the future of grass-roots democracy. We will vote against the Bill today and seek to improve it in Committee. The Government have lost the respect of those of us who believe that local democracy should be the core of our national democracy.
The Bill, which was described to us today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as a platform to deliver real change on the ground and real changes for local people to influence local decision making and improve their lives, comes when there is no doubt that our modern society is attaching far greater importance to what happens in our immediate neighbourhoods. Paradoxically, this is at a time when we are travelling more and when global issues are attracting much more of our attention.
I suspect that some of this renewed interest in localism and localities results from the centralism that we have experienced over the past few decades—centralism and paternalism from the state, which apparently knows best. However, the public are critical of the apparent growing differential between the type and quality of the services offered by neighbouring local authorities. We have a far more discerning and demanding population, aided by fast and effective access to information and media headlines. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we have experienced an increase in criticism about a lack of local involvement, and concern about postcode lotteries.
We should put that criticism in context. In 1997 Labour inherited demoralised, cash-starved local authorities whose interest in performing well for their citizens was, understandably, not a top priority. They were simply trying to stay afloat. Our first priority in government was to raise standards and aspirations, which meant the centre continuing to take a very close interest in the delivery of local public services. With so many local authorities now performing well, it is possible for Ministers to let go of some of the control mechanisms and to trust local councils and local people.
The Bill is a move in the right direction, as it has the potential to offer local councils more freedom and power. Local authorities need those powers if they are to provide effective leadership. Citizens, too, will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered in the Bill better to hold their elected representatives to account.
There is widespread support for the Bill. I recently spoke at an event organised by the New Local Government Network and attended by representatives from local authorities—elected and officials—and by voluntary and community organisations. There was a degree of consensus that the Bill was positive for the sector, but—there is always a but—a number of issues were raised, and concerns were expressed that the Bill lacked teeth or, though well intentioned, was a little too vague in some areas.
I should like to focus on a couple of matters. The first relates specifically to the role of the voluntary sector and existing non-statutory partners. Everyone agrees that successful communities depend on strong local government. Sir Michael Lyons is clear about that when he refers to the importance of place shaping in achieving good community cohesion and thriving local economies. That can happen only if we have clear local leadership and greater involvement and engagement with the public and a range of partner bodies.
The voluntary sector plays an important role, which the Minister responsible for the third sector acknowledged in his recent public comments. It is not there to take over delivering services but clearly has the experience, expertise and contacts on the ground to offer support and partnership when appropriate. It is also in a good position to assist individuals to scrutinise local authorities and elected members. Indeed, volunteers often act as advocates for marginalised groups in our society—the very people whom the Bill seeks to empower.
The Bill places a duty on statutory partners to co-operate and consult with
“such other persons as appear to be appropriate”.
Although I fully appreciate the problems of listing people and groups in legislation, I hope that the Minister for Local Government will understand that, although the best authorities already co-operate with and consult non-statutory bodies, too many councils do not and will not unless some means is found of compelling them to do so. Will the Minister set out the mechanisms that enable the Department to ensure that local authorities seek the voluntary sector’s support and advice? The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is worried that we are considering an extraordinarily grey area and would like the voluntary and community sector to be recognised as an essential non-statutory partner.
Issues that relate to delivering the many proposals in the Bill also have an impact on the voluntary sector. In the main, it does an excellent job, but if the Government and local authorities are serious about using its expertise to best effect across the range of new aspects that the Bill outlines, it will need support to build capacity. Local authorities should also take account of other Government-funded programmes for supporting the sector, such as Change Up and Capacity Builders. It is important, when providing support to the community and voluntary sector and enabling it to engage with the Bill, to link what is happening locally and nationally. Otherwise there is a risk that the Bill’s best intentions—empowering local citizens to have their voice heard—will not be fulfilled as comprehensively as it is hoped.
Making the public aware of the new opportunities in the Bill will fall partly to the voluntary sector. When we look back on the Bill, the last thing we want to do is wonder why, as we have with other game attempts to engage the wider public, so many people continue to feel disillusioned about their ability to make their voices heard or influence decision making.
The provisions to extend scrutiny powers are important, but questions have been raised with me about their scope. They represent a further devolutionary move, which enables the partnerships to be more accountable to the communities that they serve and is therefore welcome. Respected organisations such as the Local Government Information Unit, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and the Local Government Association have asked why several key local providers, especially in the health sector, have not been included. Again, I appreciate Ministers’ dislike of including lists in legislation, but perhaps the Minister will explain the reasons behind the exclusion of NHS foundation trusts and health trusts as well as housing associations from the short list.
As my hon. Friend knows, on several occasions I have raised examples of leisure trusts or arm’s length housing companies depriving locally elected councillors of background information, which would have been required under the access to information regulations in the Local Government Act 1972, but is not under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Does my hon. Friend perceive an opportunity in the Bill, through strengthening overview and scrutiny functions, to ensure accountability when co-operation does not work?
Yes, I agree. In Committee, we have some scope to make progress on that. My hon. Friend mentioned arm’s length companies. Housing associations are an interesting case. Given that much of the Government’s housing policy has been to move local authorities’ role to providing a strategic overview of housing of all sorts of tenures in their area, it is perhaps a little odd that housing associations are not included, especially when they are often partners in a range of social policy initiatives, such as those on antisocial behaviour, as well as being the main social housing providers in some areas. There is also the wider criticism that a minority of housing associations are not as accountable to their tenants as they ought to be. The Bill provides a real opportunity to do something about that.
Following on from what my hon. Friend has just said, there is also a case to be made that contractors providing services to the public sector and carrying out public functions ought to be included. Will the Minister tell us whether there are precedents for imposing responsibilities on private bodies involved in the delivery of public services in that way?
I am also concerned that partners do not appear to be required to attend scrutiny meetings, which is also the point that my hon. Friend has just made. I am not convinced that sending a written report will be adequate, either. The provision in the Bill seems to be a watered-down version of what was in the White Paper. Clause 93 seems only to place a requirement on members of the authority, whereas paragraph 3.35 of the White Paper stated that
“we will require those public service providers (other than the police who will instead be subject to the new scrutiny arrangements set out in the Police and Justice Bill) to appear before the Committee”.
I might have misread the Bill, or failed to read across to another clause, in which case I stand to be corrected, but I would welcome clarification on that point from my hon. Friend the Minister.
The community call for action will be a useful tool for citizens whose local authorities are not already following best practice. We all know that well-run councils enable proper scrutiny, but others can behave in petty-minded ways, either for political or personal reasons. Individual councillors sometimes complain that their voice is not heard or that they are not taken seriously, perhaps because they are in a minority, either politically or for reasons such as race, gender or religion. I must stress that that is not the norm, but in those cases, the public can understandably feel helpless and voiceless. It is important, particularly in the interest of community cohesion, that the voices of those in our smaller minority communities are heard, and that they feel fully represented by their elected representatives.
The Commission for Racial Equality is rightly keen to ensure that community calls for action are operated fairly and monitored centrally, so as to ensure that all citizens’ views are equally championed and investigated. The community call for action can strengthen the hand of councillors and citizens, but we also need to be wary of the vexatious citizen or group. Proper safeguards must be put in place to ensure that the call for action is not misused, for example, to slow up important decisions or to give interest groups more influence over decisions in the wider community.
I know that SIGOMA—the special interest group of municipal authorities—also has worries about that part of the Bill. We all know that those who are well educated, literate and who have good communication skills can quickly form action groups, not necessarily for the benefit of the whole community but more on a nimby basis. They have the power and the tools to do that, and unless the voluntary sector is given the right funding and recognition to support the vulnerable, certain groups in our communities will still not be heard or have the support that they need.
Other hon. Members have already expressed concern about local area agreements. I am pleased that the targets are to be extended, and there is evidence from the existing scrutiny of health that that will strengthen partnership working and assist in finding solutions to local problems. However, the Bill restricts the duty to respond to scrutiny to specific agreed LAA targets, which leaves gaps. Many outside bodies would like to see the scrutiny power over partner agencies extended to cover other issues of local concern, and not just the issues covered by LAA targets.
I should like to make one small point relating to the openness and accountability of first-tier councils. Will the Minister explain why the Department does not hold a database of first-tier authorities? Is it because the bureaucracy involved would be enormous, or are there other good reasons? He will know that this issue exercises the National Association of Local Councils, and it would be helpful if that matter were clarified.
The Bill specifies a new duty on local authorities to extend the participation of local citizens, which will be essential if the raft of measures set out are to be translated into better and greater engagement from residents. However, the duty does not specify how that is to be done. It appears to leave it up to the local authorities themselves. How will the Secretary of State monitor whether local authorities are widening participation? The Bill is wholly non-prescriptive on that issue. So much of the Bill’s success hinges on greater involvement from a range of partners, and yet it appears to leave how that is done in the hands of councils, which is little change from the current situation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will offer reassurance on that matter.
There is much to be gained from the Bill. I suspect that good local authorities and well organised community groups and individuals will make good use of it, in the same way that the best councils make good use of tools already at their disposal. With planning gain supplement in discussion, I know that section 106 is not necessarily popular, but the best councils used section 106 agreements to good effect, and it has taken the others a long time to catch up. In Committee, let us consider whether strengthening some elements of the Bill will enable swifter and better use of such tools by our citizens and local representatives.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who has made an elegant transition from political adviser to parliamentarian. She raised some extremely practical points about how things work on the ground, which is the most important question.
The Secretary of State described the Bill as radical, which makes me think that we ought to call in the trading standards officers. I do not think that there is much that is radical about the Bill at all, but I note that Bolton lost 5-1 away to Middlesbrough on Saturday, so perhaps she had a bad weekend in preparation.
The impression that I get from the Bill is that it is very provisional—many parts of it seem to betray unmade-up minds in the Department, which has not really decided in which direction it is facing. We understand that we are in a period of regime change and transition, and that there are pulls in different directions, which all Departments are caught between. The Department for Communities and Local Government in particular is caught between different tendencies. The Government’s ambitions do seem to have been diluted significantly, however, since the departure of the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Of course, there is always the argument, “We are waiting for Lyons.” We have been waiting for Lyons so long, I am amazed that Pinter has not written a play about it. One might say that Lyons would be the ghost at the feast, if we had a feast. We do not have a feast, however; we just have a ghost. We keep waiting to hear not just when Lyons will be delivered but when the Government will decide to publish it, and whether they will publish their own conclusions, so that they can be judged by the electorate in the local elections in May and we will not be caught by local government purdah; otherwise, we will have entered a further stage of regime change, and it will be another year before local government finance starts to be given any future shape.
If the Bill is intended to be a charter for devolution, it is timid and tentative. If it is a blueprint for empowerment, it is hesitant and unadventurous. If it seeks to introduce a revolution in leadership, it is muted and confined. Only in unwinding some of the best-value gendarmerie of inspection and control does it show a few red blood corpuscles; curiously, the debate has concentrated little on that, which I think is the most important part of the Bill. Of course, the Bill does not specify in any detail what will replace that. The Government made clear in the White Paper that there would be a rigorous system with a framework of outcomes. We agree with that, but the devil would be in the detail in relation to how it operated in practice. That part of the Bill, however, is welcome, and one to which we can all subscribe.
The most puzzling part of the Bill, which has attracted all the attention, which I am not sure that it deserves, is the reorganisation. Two years ago, we had the Miliband momentum, which made it clear that the Government wanted to deal with reorganisation once and for all by heading for unitaries. One year ago, we had the Kelly crush for directly elected mayors. That also seems to have been diluted. What we have ended up with are some confused signals from Government. Does the regional agenda still hold true? Could it be reconfigured to help the idea of city regions to develop, and I am enthusiastic about the concept of city regions? Do we find the Prime Minister’s attachment to charismatic leadership running up against the Chancellor’s devotion to institutional solutions? All those questions seem to be unresolved.
I am listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has to say. Can we summarise it as the Curry compromise?
It is always boring when people start sentences with the words, “When I was a Minister,” but I inherited the boundary reorganisation. The job then was to get that brought to a conclusion, which we did. I see strong arguments for unitary councils, but I am much more an enthusiast for smaller unitaries. I am fed up with the obsession with capacity which seems to underline so many Government actions. Other factors are important, and accountability, identity and responsibility are among them. I would be much more sympathetic to a French-style system. It appeals to me a great deal more because the level of accountability is much more tangible than it is in our system.
I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman says, but does he accept that there is a contradiction in wanting small local community-based authorities and city regions, which suggests two tiers, while espousing unitaries as the right outcome?
I do not think that there is a contradiction, because there are different circumstances. There are two overwhelming issues that the Leeds city region could address which perhaps could not be addressed in a different context. One is transport and the other might be skills. Those are the two issues that I would highlight in my part of Yorkshire as being the most important to address. There must be a geographic area that corresponds to the sensible solutions to those problems. Other parts of the country have different problems and would not need the same solutions.
In the Bill, the Government seem to want unitaries, but just a handful of them. We have this famous narrow window of opportunity—I am not sure how those adjectives fit together. I am not sure whether the aim is to allow Cambridge or Oxford to become a unitary, but based on current boundaries, there are serious questions about both those cities. Nor do I feel that the conspiracy is as deep-seated as others do. In any case, it is fairly small beer. The applications will be in by the end of the week, if I remember the date correctly, and then we will see.
One of the other problems with the Bill is that however much the Government talk about devolution, leadership and letting people decide, they cannot, at the end of the day, kick the habit of prescription. The prescription of different forms of council management are not necessary. If we have a sensible framework to deliver outcomes, I do not understand why the Government should be preoccupied with the structure that delivers them. It was, after all, the Prime Minister, I think, who said that what works is what is best or what is right. Although I do not usually quote him with approval, and I see some cringing on the Labour Benches at that non-ideological, pragmatic approach, on the whole he is right. That is what matters, rather than the structures. I regret that we have that form of prescription.
A large part of the Bill is unexceptional and, frankly, unobjectionable. I am mildly in favour of it. There are three main thrusts: leadership, devolution and empowerment. I have said that I cannot quite see that any of them is enough to send the citizens storming to the barricades. Leadership is covered by the local area agreements, requirements on public bodies to co-operate and the scrutiny powers. The local area agreements offer important opportunities and possibilities. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport said, there is bound to be debate on who is embraced by the local area agreement. If one is not careful, one gets an absolutely gigantic sort of jellyfish of an orgasm—[Laughter.] I wondered how many of my colleagues were awake. I am agreeably surprised. I meant “organism”.
That organism will be very difficult to manage. People will ask why the health trusts and housing associations have not been incorporated, but if they all are incorporated, the poor local authority that has to manage the arrangement will spend the whole of its time packing its bags for a journey that it never gets around to taking. There must be some framework and limit to the working of the system, but I think that there are huge possibilities. Given the pattern of local government expenditure, it may well turn out that in a number of years the expenditure flowing from the local area agreements surpasses the expenditure flowing from the revenue support grant. We need to find sensible ways of managing the reorganised system and giving it a proper direction.
Another issue is devolution and the possibility of all-out elections and single-ward councillors. I am not sure to what extent my agent constitutes a representative focus group, but he is passionately keen on the idea on the grounds that it will make his job a great deal simpler. This is something that can be decided locally. The enactment of byelaws without the approval of the Minister of State is welcome, but will it be possible to enact byelaws dealing with the issues that my constituents get excited about? They are constantly demanding traffic-calming measures, for instance, and measures to deal with antisocial behaviour—which, no doubt, will be covered by the local area agreements in any case. Then there is the final repatriation of the ethics committee to councils.
The Standards Board has had an extremely rough ride, which I think it has deserved on the whole, and is now becoming sort of watchkeeper—or perhaps, if I may use a classical analogy, it is Charon, whose job is to ferry people to the land of the dead. It has a hugely unhappy history; let us hope that it improves in its new manifestation.
As for empowerment, I am rather in favour of parish councils. I recognise that in metropolitan areas certain issues may arise when there is a concentration of people from particular ethnic minorities or persuasions. I only hope that people will beware of thinking that parish councils can achieve very much at all. In fact, their powers are token. The smaller parishes devote most of their time to writing letters to the other authorities in a mood of increasing frustration, trying to persuade them to do something about a local issue, or complaining about or giving advice on planning when they know that the district council will not take a blind bit of notice in any circumstances.
I speak with some feeling because my wife is a parish councillor. She brings to her parish council a way of doing things that is no doubt due to her French blood, and occasionally leads her to pass comments on Uttlesford district council and Essex county council which would not bear repeating in the Chamber. I have no doubt that the officers of those two councils would reciprocate in equal terms.
Creating parish councils may provide a voice, but the voice is often not heard. We need to think hard about whether the powers of parish councils—which can vary hugely in size, from representing a small market town to representing 200 people in a village—are really effective in an age of devolution.
I can see what the community call for action is trying to do, but I am a bit sceptical about whether it will get very far in practice. Councils are pretty disillusioned, and many have not found it easy to extract any reality from the scrutiny role. However, in so far as the community call manages to kick some councillors into some sort of action on behalf of their communities, it may prove welcome. Many councils take their cue from the officers rather too easily. We live in hope, provided that—as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport mentioned—the initiative is not captured by people with particular interests or agendas, as sometimes happens.
The salient point about the legislation is that it will be launched in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The slowdown in the rate of increase in public expenditure will dominate the remainder of this Parliament. It will be the dominant continuing political event. The comprehensive spending review will mean tight rations for local government. The most telling phrase in the White Paper, which can be found as early as the executive summary which is a bit of a relief, is:
“Ambitious efficiency gains will be required as part of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review.”
I hope that local government realise what will be sought of them in respect of those ambitious efficiency gains. They will lead to constant pressure. That will eclipse any measures taken under the Bill. Compared with that imperative, a large part of the Bill is, frankly, merely ornamental.
The Lyons review will not ride to the rescue. By the time that it has reported, the report has been published, the Government have formulated their response, there has been a consultation on that response and any necessary legislation has been drafted, years will have passed. Although we are all waiting impatiently, the review is not a knight on a charger that will come along and set us free. Therefore the best thing that we can hope for is that the Bill is the first step in a gradualist approach.
I have twin daughters, and about 10 years ago they had a succession of boyfriends. I had nothing particularly against most of them, but I was also not particularly in favour of them, to be frank. I just hoped that something better would turn up, and I am pleased to be able to say that two things better turned up—one for each of them. I have a similar hope for this Bill. I do not think much of it; there is nothing to laugh at, as Albert might have said at Blackpool—or it is “neither nowt nor summat” as they say in my part of the world. However, we live in hope that something better will turn up—that this Bill is the beginning of a process, and that we will be able to look back at it and say “Actually, something did begin at that stage, and an awful lot has happened since.” We hope that that is the case.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). His speech was wide-ranging, but mine will be parochial. However, I agree with him that unitary authorities should be relatively small.
I welcome much of the Bill, but the time scale for putting forward proposals is very short, and it concerns me that there is a narrow window of opportunity. The date for proposals is 25 January. Cumbria has one county council and six district councils, and in areas such as Cumbria it will be difficult for the district councils to come forward with a proposal. Therefore, I think that the time scale is too short—although there are those who will say that if district councils were to have a year in which to come forward with a proposal they would find it difficult to do so.
Let me go into the history of Cumbria. It was created in 1974 by a Tory Government. There was no logic behind its formation. It took in Cumberland, Westmorland, the county borough of Carlisle, the Furness part of Lancashire including Barrow, and a little bit of Yorkshire. The intention behind the formation of that county was to create an authority that would not be controlled by the Labour party. It would not have been possible to create it without the M6; it is, in fact, a motorway county. It can take two hours or more to drive from one side of the county to the other, even on the motorway.
Cumbria was never the right solution. The right solution might have been to create Cumberland with the county borough of Carlisle inside it. If we look at the mountain ranges in Cumbria, we can see that that is why Cumberland was formed. We have an affinity with the north-east. Westmorland and the Furness area, which have an affinity with the north-west, should have formed another authority that looked towards the north-west.
I am now going to bore Members by talking about my personal local government history. Before reorganisation, I served on the Carlisle borough council—I know I do not look old enough to have done so, but I did—and I was also a member of Cumbria county council and of the Cumbrian health authority. I chaired both the county council and the health authority, so I know the problems that they face at first hand, and one of the problems is the county’s size.
There is no overall media coverage or local newspaper for the county—although there are about six or seven local newspapers. The ITV station for the area covers only half the county. The BBC splits coverage; programmes for the southern half of the county come from Manchester and those in the north come from Newcastle. It tried to put them together in the ’80s, but it had to return to how things were before because nobody watched. People will say, “We have Radio Cumbria,” but those who can remember will remind them that we used to have Radio Furness as well but that that was done away with for economic reasons only.
There is no real affinity. The Minister’s constituency of Oldham, East and Saddleworth is as near to Barrow as Carlisle is to Barrow, and there is more affinity between Barrow and Oldham because they were both part of Lancashire at one time. Therefore, Cumbria is vast, and it is not a county, but a sub-region. A look at the map reveals that it comprises 48 per cent. of the north-west region.
The majority of the population of Cumbria lives on the periphery because of the mountains. We have six district councils, because it was deemed necessary to have six of them to represent the various communities. There are also five distinct accents in Cumbria, of which I have one. It is a very big area.
Because of its size, Cumbria county council has never been particularly successful. I used to be its chairman and a couple of years ago I had an Adjournment debate because the council was so bad. I asked the Government to take back and look after children in social services. Recently—until this week—three secondary schools in my constituency were failing; fortunately, the Roman Catholic school, Newman, has just succeeded in coming out of special measures.
The county council has put forward a proposal to become a unitary authority. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) did not endorse the leader of the county council, who is a Conservative, in terms of that proposal. I am in a cleft stick because I believe that we need to have unitary authorities. A case can be made for Carlisle to be a unitary authority, but the city council has decided not to follow that path. If any of the districts could become a unitary authority, it is Carlisle. It has a population of about 110,000, and the population in its central urban area is about 80,000.
We have had only one proposal. I can give two options. In 2004, the boundary committee for England recommended that the county be split north and south. That is similar to the boundary proposal that the districts of Allerdale, Copeland, Carlisle and Eden form one unitary authority, and that Barrow-in-Furness and South Lakeland—and I would prefer Lancashire and Morecambe to be included, too—form a southern one. That is one option that we should look at. The other option is for there to be a unitary Cumbria with beefed-up area councils.
The current proposal is to run Cumbria with the same number of councillors as Sheffield is run with—this matter is mentioned in the White Paper and the Government did not do justice to Cumbria by doing so. They intend that Cumbria should be run with 84 councillors. The Government talk about front-line councillors. In fact, what they are really talking about in Cumbria—and, I am afraid, in a lot of other places—is full-time councillors. Given that it takes perhaps two hours to drive to a council meeting and two hours to drive back again, young people with children will not be able to become Cumbria county councillors. All those years ago, young people like me were able to get time off from their careers, bring some expertise to the council and give something back to the local community; however, that will not be possible. I know what the public think, but councillors are not well paid and they do not get good allowances. All that a unitary county council the size of Cumbria will get is retired people. Only they will be able to take part in such a council, which will have the functions not only of the existing county council, but of the districts.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
In a moment. The idea is to increase the number of area councillors to four—one for west Cumbria, one for Carlisle, one for Eden and South Lakes and one for Barrow and Furness—and to delegate massive powers to them while the centre sets the precept and plays a strategic role, thereby providing all the savings that a local authority would provide. However, the problem is that Cumbria county council did not consult anybody; it simply decided that that was the option and that such a council would be run with the same number of councillors. I suspect that they will run it as well as it ran the county council.
So although I am in favour of unitary authorities I cannot support a Cumbria unitary authority, which would be an absolute disaster. In fact, I would prefer the current two-tier local government arrangement. If I have read the Bill right, although the Government are saying that there is only a narrow window of opportunity, the reality is that the powers in the Bill will enable this or another Secretary of State to alter local government boundaries, or to have unitary authorities at a later stage. Before the Minister goes ahead and gives the okay for a unitary Cumbria, will he talk to the county and district councils and bang their heads together? Will he talk to the local MPs and see whether he can come up with a sensible solution that will give us local democracy and save the council tax payer money? That is essential. As I said, I prefer the current option to a unitary Cumbria.
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), and I want to present what is a rather simpler picture in Northumberland than the complicated cross-currents of opinion that exist in Carlisle. I have been helped in what I am about to say by an earlier intervention from the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who, in a slight slip of the tongue, referred to a two-tier option when he meant the two-council option; however, he made his position very clear.
Like the hon. Member for Carlisle, I believe that unitary local government has considerable advantages, not least because it is easier for the electorate to understand, and because local authorities then tend to have a bigger critical mass of services and staff within which they can make changes and adjustments denied under the two-tier system. It is difficult, however, to implement unitary local government in Northumberland; indeed, we have found it difficult every time such a reorganisation has been considered. At the moment we have a county council and six districts, but the size of the county makes things very difficult. It is more than 100 miles from end to end, and contains two very different types of area: a highly concentrated urban south-east core, and a large rural area stretching from Berwick, in the north of my constituency, to Haltwhistle, which borders on Cumbria.
I want to suggest to the Minister how he might consider the bids that will emerge from Northumberland. To start with, he should remember that when the unitary question was put to a referendum at the time of the regional referendum, there was a clear vote—some 56 per cent.—in favour of two unitary authorities for Northumberland, not one. The votes were broken down according to the way in which the regional referendum was conducted, and in my own rural area the majority in favour of two authorities was much higher even than in the referendum as a whole. It was clear that there was no consensus for a single county-wide unitary authority.
The Labour leadership of the county council simply ignored that fact and decided to go ahead and put to the Minister a proposal for a single unitary county authority—against the wishes of many of their own councillors. Indeed, the leadership did not even seek the council’s support for the proposition until last week. The Minister will have received letters, deputations, visits and all sorts from the Labour leadership of Northumberland county council, but they never sought the support of the council for their proposition.
Meanwhile, the Northumberland districts showed surprising consensus. Bearing in mind all the past difficulties, I was surprised that all six districts agreed that a twin unitary authority solution was the right way to go.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the decision that the Labour group took last week. In fact, it was a very narrow decision; the leadership were about to lose the vote, until they reached a compromise. Labour councillors were not going to vote for it, which shows how far apart the leadership were from their own council.
Indeed, and I shall deal with this point in a little more detail in a moment. Perhaps both the hon. Gentleman and I should declare an interest, in that both our wives happen to be members of the county council. We both disagree with the view that the county leadership have been putting forward. [Interruption.] We both agree with our wives about this issue; indeed, all four of us agree with each other. In fact, all four of the county’s Members of Parliament agree on this issue, as I shall shortly explain.
The districts put together a proposal for two unitary authorities, which is an impressive feat of consensus. What really struck me was the fact that they had recognised that different issues would confront the two authorities. The more urban of the two authorities, they said, would primarily face issues such as health inequality, low educational attainment, access to employment, crime and disorder, and synergy with the wider city region based in Newcastle, whereas the dominant issues for the more rural authority would be access to services, market town sustainability, tourism and economic diversification, affordable housing, transport and the condition of the highways. There were different strings of issues, from which I have merely cited some examples.
That was a revealing analysis. We are talking about two different areas that face rather different problems. They obviously have some problems in common with other parts of the country, but there are some striking differences. The financial calculations, which are notoriously unreliable in any local government reorganisation proposal, did not show huge differences between what could be achieved by having two authorities and by having one.
I turn to the point that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley so vividly portrayed. When the county leaders put their single-council plan to the council, they realised in the end that they could not win—that they simply did not have the votes—although extremely strong letters had been sent to Labour councillors, saying that if they did not toe the line they would be expelled, and would not be allowed to stand in the district council elections later this year. That was a pretty serious threat, which they nevertheless continued to withstand. I should explain that in the meantime, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had written to Conservatives in the area, saying that they should not support any change at all, although quite a number of them were by that time firmly committed to the two-council option.
The council’s Labour leadership realised that they were not going to get their proposal through, so at the very last minute a revised motion—it was not on the agenda paper; councillors did not have it beforehand—was produced, containing the following wonderful words:
“Council…Endorse the submission of a single unitary proposal in the context of county support for the submission of both a single unitary by the County Council and two unitary councils by the district councils.”
In other words, they could take their pick. As the county leader said at the meeting, the Government are going to decide which one to have, anyway. So the council leadership could not get their own proposal through their own council.
The bid was very complex, involving adding 22 neighbourhood structures. One factor that influenced a lot of people was the county’s failure to deliver for rural areas. Opinion probably swung even more behind the two-authority solution when it was realised that the county had an institutional inability to cope with some of the rural problems. The Minister for Schools has taken a close interest in a very vivid example of such problems, and he has recognised that further work needs to be done. In trying to deal with school transport issues, the county ended up imposing a very high charge for school transport for over-16s. It decided to charge £360 per child aged over 16 for transport to school in the rural areas of the county. That does not happen in Cumbria. The council also withdrew train passes from students from Berwick who were travelling to college in Newcastle and told them to go on the bus, which took one and three quarter hours. The usage of the bus has fallen to five people, because it is such an impossible way to travel to college. That is one example of how the decision-making structure of the county did not enable the rural aspects to be considered.
Another example is the executive, which does not have a single member from either the Alnwick district or the Berwick borough, and has only one from Tynedale. That reflects the partisan differences between the different areas, but those differences would be writ large in a single unitary authority. Whichever part of the authority managed to gain control of the executive, the rest would feel very left out. The two-council alternative is more attractive and more popular.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we were to have a referendum, support for the two unitary authorities, in his area and mine, would be overwhelming?
That is true, and reminds me of the old saying, “Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book?” We have already had one referendum decision that reached exactly that conclusion, and nothing that has happened since has made it likely that opinion would shift away from it. In fact, if anything, opinion has probably strengthened in that direction.
If the Government decide that the area is not one that they should choose and if they are not prepared to accept the two-council bid, the alternative will be to make a reality of a new kind of two-tier system, and make it work properly. That was ruled out because the county leaders were so concerned to get the one authority bid, that they would not have a serious discussion about making the two-tier system work. For it to be made to work, and some of the problems to be addressed, it is clear that—as the districts have recognised—they will have to share more services and staff and work more closely with the county. That discussion never got off the ground, because the county said that it would not play that game because it was interested only in a single county bid. It was up to the district councils to make a different bid if they wanted to—
Turkeys do not like Christmas.
Indeed. The options that would be widely acceptable are the two unitaries option, or making the two-tier system work properly.
I wish to suggest to the Minister criteria for considering bids for unitary authorities. If all four MPs from a county, representing all three parties, are against a bid, all the districts are against, a referendum in the area voted against it and the county council leadership cannot get its proposal through, a Minister might want to think about rejecting that bid, looking to see whether another bid is on the table and deciding whether to proceed in that area at all. I suggest to the Minister that he meet the four MPs from the county—the hon. Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and me—as we all agree in our opposition to the county option.
In the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman has just described, how could any council put forward that bid?
Well, the county managed to get through a peculiar motion that said that it recognised both bids, but that the officers were authorised to prepare a single county bid—which they had already done anyway, presumably on the basis that somebody had to do it—but the substantive bit of the motion effectively puts forward both bids. It is clear that to accept the county leadership’s bid for a single unitary authority would not make any sense. Most of the elected representatives in Northumberland, both urban and rural, take the same view.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) addressed the more general issues raised by the Bill, but I wished to consider one aspect that I hope does not feature in any bid and is not forced on any council—the directly elected executive. That strikes me as the most barmy proposal for local government that I have ever heard. Interestingly, the Secretary of State did not advance it or explain it when she spoke earlier. It would involve all the parties putting forward a slate of candidates for those posts. If there were eight executive posts, all three parties—perhaps even the independents, too—would put forward a slate of eight candidates. If a party thought that it had a good chance of winning, but was not certain, it would be likely to put up the same people to be members of the council. Indeed, knowing the difficulty that we all have finding candidates, it is likely that the parties would do that. So on election day, one of the slates would be elected and the eight candidates would become members of the executive. Immediately, those people would have to resign from the council, leading to eight by-elections to replace them. That used to be the situation in the House of Commons. Ministers used to have to resign after they were appointed and a by-election would be held, which they took part in. The House abolished that procedure some 60 or 70 years ago, and nobody has ever thought to reintroduce it.
First, I remind the House that it was the right hon. Gentleman’s party that argued to retain that system. Secondly, the proposal for the directly elected executive was one of the models suggested to us by local authorities. I will not mention the political colour of those local authorities, but I think that the House can guess.
When I see a barmy proposal, I say that I think that it is barmy. The point that I am putting to the Minister is that he should not force that proposal on any authority.
If the leader of a directly elected executive were to die during his term of office, or resign for some other reason, the whole lot would have to be elected all over again. If other councillors were then elected to the executive, they would have to resign from the council. The crucial difference with the House of Commons system is that when a Minister had to resign he was allowed to fight the by-election, and usually remained a Member of Parliament, so the Executive was still rooted in the elected body—but that is not what is envisaged in the council model.
The leader of a directly elected executive could not sack anybody. He could not conclude that someone was not a team player or was not helping to make a success of the executive and should be sacked. All that he could do is move someone, for example, from education to waste disposal. Sometimes that seems to happen in cabinets anyway, when political factors make it difficult to sack someone—but under this model it would be impossible to sack anyone.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, because strong leadership requires strong accountability. Therefore, I have concerns about a directly elected executive, and about a directly elected leadership. The Bill does not specify what method could be used to remove a leader who does not perform—it uses the word “may”. For a host of reasons, local authorities need the option to remove a leader if it is felt that he or she is not operating properly.
There is common ground between us on that point. People can put forward different models and the Government can make provision for them to be used, but I do not want prescription by the Government, whereby local authorities are saddled with a system that they cannot change after they have had some experience with it. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) mentioned the situation in Stoke, where the procedures make it difficult to change even if there is a consensus in favour of that change.
The Bill is still loaded in favour of certain preferred solutions, and it would be much better if the Government, while keeping whatever models they want—including ones that I think are barmy—provided a procedure for local authorities to adopt a model but to be able to change it if it is wrong. We could also have a trigger mechanism that allowed the electorate to say that a model was not working, and hold a referendum to defeat it. That would be an improvement. However, the main purpose of my speech was to give the Minister some guidance on how he might view what almost everybody in Northumberland regards as an unacceptable bid to create a single unitary authority for the county.
I welcome many aspects of the Bill, but like many other hon. Members who care about the future of local government and want to see it restored, and local democracy strengthened, I want it go further. I welcome the Bill for very much the same reasons that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out when she introduced it. It is the start of a process, and it contains much for us to build on. Like other hon. Members, I recognise that dealing with the structures and functions of local government can be only a part of the process of revitalising local democracy. The fundamental questions of how local services are funded and paid for must wait for the Lyons review. Only by returning responsibility for most of local government revenue to the local level can we ensure that accountability to the local electorate is fully restored.
I want to concentrate on four aspects of the Bill. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched in passing on the first—that measures to revive local democracy can be successful only if high-calibre candidates from a cross-section of a local community are willing to serve. In many areas, such people do not put themselves forward for election, and the sad fact is that the average age of councillors is now somewhere in the late 50s, with barely one in eight under the age of 45.
All political parties find it difficult to get younger people to stand. Women remain under-represented in many local authorities, and minority groups often do not get a look in. Equally, the calibre of council candidates presents an enormous challenge. All parties will admit privately—and some of them will do so publicly—that in many areas it is difficult to get effective local people to put themselves forward as candidates, or to stand for a second term. Far too often, people will serve one term and then decide to go and do something useful—to “get a life”, as some have expressed it. I served on a local council for 30 years, and I have some sympathy for them. Perhaps I was the one who did not get away.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people do not choose to serve more than one term because they are accused of not delivering to the public, even though they have very few powers and often just have to deliver what the Government ask them to? They get all that public hatred, and have no power to do anything about it.
Many local councillors share that perception, but the problem also stems in part from the denigration and undermining of local government that took place under the previous Conservative Government. That has contributed to the present low morale among members of local government.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Standards Board for England has done a lot to undermine the confidence of people who become councillors? Does he accept that the Bill does not go far enough in effecting root-and-branch reform of the board, and how would he put that right?
I believe that the Standards Board has done an enormous amount to raise standards in local government. I welcome that, as I do the reforms proposed in the Bill to strengthen the mechanisms for ensuring that the very highest levels of probity are maintained throughout local government.
People must perceive the local councillor’s role as worth while. The Bill addresses that problem to some extent, but for some years now the scrutiny function has been undervalued and under-resourced. Too often, those councillors consigned to the scrutiny role have felt impotent and unable to affect anything that matters. Scrutiny is regarded as an answer to the question, “What do we do with councillors who aren’t in the cabinet?” It is not considered to be something that has a value in itself.
I welcome the provisions that give more support to help councillors to serve their constituents.
Does my hon. Friend agree that people will not get involved in politics, and take the scrutiny role seriously, unless they feel that they can change decisions that have been taken? The weakness of the system introduced—unfortunately—by this Government is that the scrutiny role is regarded in most councils as the poor relation to a cabinet position, and that is because people involved in scrutiny cannot affect the outcome of cabinet decisions.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I welcome the measures to strengthen the scrutiny role, but I am firmly of the opinion that councillors need to feel that they have something worth while to do, regardless of their authority’s leadership structure. They must be able to initiate policy and to make real decisions that have an impact on their constituents. I welcome the changes proposed, but the Government could do much more to enable councillors to feel that they can make a difference, whatever their role.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should consider how people value the councillor’s role? If that role is diminished, so that councillors are unable to direct policy and make big decisions, will not people feel that the value of turning out and voting is also diminished?
Yes. I have no doubt that the way in which candidates and councillors see their role has an impact on how people regard their responsibility to vote in local elections. We must encourage people to vote, and ensure that those who are minded to put themselves forward feel that they are performing a useful function.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my profound concern that the option of a committee structure is, with some exceptions, excluded from the Bill? The committee structure gave new councillors an obvious way to hold a local executive to account, and helped members of the public to know what was going on in their council.
The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my notes, as I shall come to that in a few moments.
If we are to have strong councils, we need good councillors. Getting them represents a challenge for the Government, local authorities, the Local Government Association, the Improvement and Development Agency, and for the political parties. We must do all that we can to encourage good-calibre people to come forward, and to ensure that they perform a useful function when they are elected.
The second aspect of the Bill about which I want to speak has to do with the leadership of local councils. The cabinet system—and I have referred already to the scrutiny element—has been less than completely successful in achieving its stated aims, which included making decisions more transparent, timely and effective. The system was designed to give the public at large a clearer view of what was happening in a local authority, and to enable authorities in turn to provide leadership to their communities. Although it may have worked in some areas, it did not work everywhere and it is certainly not a model that some local authorities have been able to use as effectively as its original proponents hoped.
I am most interested in what my hon. Friend is saying, but was not the reform that created the cabinet system deliberately intended to shift power from the back benches to the leadership of councils? I am not saying that I agree with that, but has not the reform been effective?
The reform may have been effective in the way my hon. Friend suggests, although I do not recall that result being proposed as the original justification. The justification for the reform was as I have described, but the results were often counter-productive of the originally stated aims. It has often produced decision making that is less accountable and less transparent, and left local people less connected with their local authorities than before.
I used to be on a finance committee, where we could stop and change decisions, and question officers about the issues. In most local authorities that system has ended and the reasons for decisions are now shrouded in mystery. Does my hon. Friend agree that the effect of that change has been to give not only some councillors but, more worryingly, unelected officers more power?
I chaired many local government committees and chaired the policy and resources committee for a number of years. I certainly felt much more accountable as the chair of the policy and resources committee than could ever be the case for councillors who serve in the cabinet of the local authority of which I was once a member. The old committee system had many failings, but it provided clarity of decision making. It was clear who was taking the decision and there were mechanisms for accountability of decision making. Members of other parties could hold to account the majority group, which chaired the committee and often made the proposals. The system had many strengths alongside some undoubted weaknesses.
I welcome the Government’s intention in general terms to provide clearer leadership in local government, but I have reservations about the choices offered. I share some of the reservations expressed by other Members. I suspect that, when faced with the choices that the Government propose, the majority of local authorities will opt for the model they consider nearest the status quo. There are many vested interests in most local authorities that will lead them to do that. Inevitably, the option that most will take is for a leader with a four-year term. I suspect that that proposed change will prove little more than an illusion when we consider the reality behind it.
Nothing in the Bill will prevent a political group in the privacy of a group room from changing its leader whenever it chooses and by whatever mechanism it chooses. In most circumstances, that change of leadership and the loss of confidence implied will have to result in a change of council leadership, whatever the mechanism for achieving such a change. Loss of confidence in the majority political group would inevitably result in a change of council leadership, too, and mechanisms would have to be devised to ensure that that is possible. There would be very little difference from the current situation. I say that as someone who survived 17 annual general meetings. The council leader only ever had one-year terms—from one AGM to the next—and I suspect that the result of the Government’s option will be little different.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on surviving 17 AGMs—he must have been a splendid council leader to inspire such confidence—but does not that demonstrate that the system was much more democratic, which engendered enthusiasm for it among councillors and political parties? Does he agree that returning to the traditional committee system that we enjoyed in the past is one possibility that could be offered?
My notes must have been shared among my hon. Friends as well as with Opposition Members; my hon. Friend expresses precisely my view.
I want to say a little about directly elected mayors, as I feel the Government ought to press that option more strongly, and it should be encouraged in more urban areas. It is a legitimate option in the present situation. Direct election of a mayor, with proper mechanisms for accountability, could provide a person with a clear mandate to take bold decisions, who was able to foster partnerships with others in the community on equal terms and provide the clear community leadership that was possible but not always easy in the traditional system.
I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s greater local government experience—I served for only eight years on a London borough. I hope that the Whips are not listening, because I agree with almost everything he has said, which is dangerous for both of us. Does he agree, however, that directly elected mayors have failed to catch the public imagination? Turnouts in referendums and mayoral ballots have been extremely low and the system has not hit it off with the electorate, so does he agree that the Government should conclude that it is not the British way—that it has not worked and should not be tried in the future?
I was not proposing directly elected mayors as a panacea for all the ills of local government. As I indicated in my opening remarks, the funding of local government is a fundamental issue, but directly elected mayors would be appropriate in some areas and, as I have suggested in responses to other interventions, if a choice is to be given, there should be the option of returning to a structure much more akin to the one with which those of us who began in local government many years ago are familiar. I acknowledge that improvements to the committee system could be made, and that a degree of executive authority could be given to the chairs of committees, but if options are to be given, the two that would be most appealing in terms of revitalising local government are the directly elected mayor and something akin to the former committee system.
As my hon. Friend feels that an elected mayor would be most in the interests of democracy, will he tell us how that would be consistent with encouraging people, young and old, to stand for election as local councillors and to be responsible for strategic decisions, not just for spending a small pot of community money?
The option would be perfectly compatible with that aim. Alongside a directly elected mayor must be a properly empowered council to which the mayor is accountable, and which provides a budget and approves strategic plans. The role of an elected mayor can be compatible with a strengthened role for back-bench council members.
As one of the Members representing the city of Leicester, my third point is of particular concern to me but will be familiar to many other Members who represent urban areas with tightly drawn boundaries. Boundaries in Leicester and in many local authorities throughout the United Kingdom surround the conurbations of many decades ago and are far too tightly drawn for modern needs. Clearly, the Bill will not deal with the issue of boundaries—I would not expect it to—but the problems of the urban core can still only be properly addressed outside their very confined boundaries. Similarly, the potential of those areas can be fully achieved only beyond those confined boundaries of local government areas, which are now long out of date.
I welcome the requirements for local partnerships and widespread agreements, but the fact remains that, if a local authority is to respond effectively to problems and fulfil opportunities at the urban core, it must be able to insist on the co-operation of its neighbours. I hope that, as the Bill receives further consideration, it will be possible to look at ways in which councils at the core of urban areas can be equipped to require their neighbours, whose concerns may be more parochial, to co-operate in addressing what ought to be common problems.
My fourth point has inevitably not had much attention today; I refer to the proposals to establish LINKs. I have reservations about the abolition of the patients forums. I believe that their work could have been built on rather than replaced by LINKs. Some fundamental questions about LINKs need to be addressed. First, we need to address how they will be funded and ensure that they are adequately funded. We must ensure that the Nolan principles are applied to them. As far as possible, existing members of forums should be enabled to take part in LINKs. We also need to ensure that they have adequate access to information and details on the workings of those whose work they will be monitoring. Only with those safeguards and associated powers will LINKs have the credibility that the Government hope for them.
To conclude, despite all I have said, there is much in the Bill to be welcomed. It takes some important steps forward towards revitalising and re-empowering local democracy, but I hope that the Secretary of State and Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have noticed the number of Members on both sides of the Chamber who have made what I hope the Government will view as helpful and constructive suggestions on ways in which the Bill can be strengthened. I hope that the Secretary of State and her colleagues will be sympathetic to the improvements suggested in this debate, which will no doubt be put forward in Committee.
I agree in some measure with much of what the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) had to say, particularly on the point that if we are to have good councils, we must have good councillors. However, the situation will improve only when we give councils and individual councillors more power in respect of decisions affecting their local communities. At the moment, we are falling some way short of that.
If I may, I would like to confine my remarks to part 11, which in my view would bring about a radical change within the NHS. It would fundamentally alter the structure of public and patient involvement, most notably with the scrapping of patients forums, which the Government put in place only four years ago. Indeed, the creation of patients forums and the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health was hard won by the Government in the face of strong opposition in the House and elsewhere. The forums replaced community health councils which, by and large and in many parts of the country, had worked very well.
It is therefore, in my view, disgraceful that measures to replace patients forums with local involvement networks have been tagged on to the end of what is already a long and contentious Bill that deals with local government rather than health. Indeed, the Bill does not even include the word “patient” in its title. It is almost as if the Government were trying to sneak these measures in, hoping that no one would notice. If that is the Government’s intention, they are, I suggest, badly mistaken because there is deep-felt anger in the country about how the Government have conducted their reforms on public and patient involvement.
The fact that no health Minister will be accountable to the House for the measures in the Bill reflects, I would suggest, the low priority that the Government accord to the issue. It is an insult to patients forum members and other stakeholders that so little parliamentary scrutiny of this radical overhaul is taking place. I can understand the Government’s embarrassment, however, as their track record on this subject has not been good. Community health councils were scrapped and patients forums introduced about four years ago.
Before the hon. Gentleman goes any further down the road with community health councils, some of us have long memories and served on them in the past. It was the Conservative Government who froze their budgets and cut the money that CHCs used to communicate what they were scrutinising to the wider public. The hon. Gentleman should be careful before applauding the work of CHCs, because his Government did not have a good track record of supporting them.
What I would say is that the CHCs were operating very well when we left office and they continued to work well during the first few years of the Labour Government. That is why there was such widespread opposition to the Government scrapping them when they did. A lot of expertise in CHCs was lost at that time, which is why the patients forums got off to a very bad start. Once established, patients forums were not provided with the administrative support that they needed, which compounded the original error. As a result, the turnover of membership has been high. Meanwhile, the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health has cost more than £120 million to set up and run over the last four years and will cost even more to abolish, whereas CHCs did not require such a costly body to oversee their work.
One of my concerns is that the hard work and expertise contained within patients forums now risks being lost by a Government intent on replacing them with LINKs—a matter that one or two Members have already raised. The qualifications for individual membership of LINKs are not set out in the Bill, but left to the discretion of a host organisation. There can therefore be no reality to the Government’s claim that LINKs will build on the work of forums or that forum members are being encouraged to participate in the new arrangements. In particular, the specialist knowledge and skills of patients forums attached to such specialisms as mental health and ambulance services risk being lost—a terrible waste. The Government risk repeating the mistake that they made when they scrapped CHCs, for far too little of the expertise contained within them was transferred over to the patients forums. As a result, the patients forums did not get off to a good start; and the Government risk making the same mistake again.
I would like to clarify a point. We have made it very clear that we hope members of patients forums will transfer over to the new LINKs. We have also made it very clear that if LINKs decide that some of their people want to specialise in mental health, for example, they should be able to do so. It is important to provide a basis on which people can bring their expertise generally to the LINK, but there is absolutely nothing to stop people specialising if they want to. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the Minister for her intervention, but the problem is that that approach was adopted when CHCs were scrapped and very little expertise transferred over to patients forums. I would remind the Minister that qualifications for individual membership of LINKs are not set out in the Bill, but left to the discretion of the host organisation. That will make it difficult for the Government to claim that LINKs will build on the reforms and the work of the forums. If the qualifications are not set out in the Bill, members of the patients forums will not know where they stand.
Qualifications for membership are not the only details missing from the Bill. In fact, the Bill is extremely vague on a number of points. Local involvement networks will not be created as statutory bodies, with statutory powers. It is merely a name given to certain nondescript arrangements, set up by a nondescript host organisation to carry out activities that will be entirely subject to change at the Secretary of State’s whim.
I want to pick up on the point about qualifications. We do not want to be prescriptive from the centre. The hon. Gentleman’s idea of setting down qualifications would exclude people from the process. We want as many people as possible to join LINKs, so saying that x, y or z is always necessary for someone to become a member of the LINK is not right. We want discretion locally, so that people can get as many others involved as they can. I hope that that is helpful.
Only time will tell. All I suggest to the Minister is that such a vague approach was adopted when scrapping the CHCs, and far too few individuals from CHCs made their way across to patients forums. The general view afterwards, looking back with hindsight, was that too much expertise was lost. In many respects, I hope that I am wrong, but we will see whether things transpire as the Minister believes.
Furthermore, I suggest—certainly to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—that the proposals have been developed without regard to the views or concerns of patients forum members. In large part, they have been ignored. For example, no patients forum member sat on the expert panel that reported to Ministers last year. Of course, forums have tried to make every effort to raise serious concerns about the plans, but the Government are now pushing ahead against their wishes.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fundamental problem with this so-called reform, like a lot of things that the Government have done in health in trying to get local people involved locally, is the fact that the organisations will have no teeth—they will have no power to do anything? How can people be encouraged to serve on something that will not make any difference?
I agree with that in large part, and I want to come to that in a moment. Without real teeth, what is the incentive to serve? The Government must take on board that fact. The problem is compounded by the fact that a lot of patients forum members feel as though they have been completely ignored. I can speak only for the local patients forum members, and they feel that they have been completely sidelined, as though they do not exist and as though their expertise counts for nothing in this process. That is a bad mistake, and it does not bode well for the Health Minister’s claim that, suddenly, that expertise will find an easy path into LINKs, when existing patients forum members are being completely ignored in the reform of patient and public involvement.
Would the hon. Gentleman be surprised to find out that, in Devon, when the PCT was considering making cuts to services and to minor injury units and reducing the number of community beds temporarily, the forum was not consulted? The disenchantment felt by those members is quite severe. They wonder why they are there if no one talks to them about such proposals.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Again, I repeat that it does not bode well for the Health Minister’s argument to suggest that such expertise will be embraced, given that the existing expertise is completely ignored when the structure of the reforms is being considered. We hear that not just from local patients forum members, but from others across the country as well. However, I must move on, because I know that many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
We have a number of concerns about the proposals, and I shall start with independence. For any system of involvement to be credible, it must be independent of the NHS, local government and other social care providers. Patients forum members are concerned that local authorities will have an undue influence over LINKs, for they will be financially accountable to the council yet will be expected to monitor some of the services provided or commissioned by the council—a clear conflict of interest, compounded by the fact that funds for the creation of a network will not be ring-fenced.
I take the issue of independence seriously, but the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that CHCs came under the umbrella of health authorities, yet they were not accused of not being independent.
Yes, except that there are one or two differences, including how CHCs were funded. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, let me quote the patient and public involvement forum for Northampton PCT:
“Independence is one of the stated objectives yet the independence PPI Fora are being replaced with bodies controlled by powerful local authorities under significant political influence.”
That concern is being expressed by patients forum members up and down the country, as he well knows. I ask the Minister why the funding for LINKs will come through local councils at all, when the expert panel responsible for developing the LINKs concept included no such recommendation to the Minister.
One of the clearest things that came from our consultation on the future of patients forums was that forum members felt that not enough resources went direct to the front line. Therefore, if we were to release the resources that currently go to the commission at the centre, we had to find a mechanism to enable money to go directly to patients forums. Local authorities are a very good example of how contracts can be let to voluntary organisations independently to run the LINKs. More money will therefore go to the new LINKs through the auspices of the local authority, while preserving their independence.
I hear what the Minister is saying, but the fact remains that many of those who were consulted—certainly, a lot of patients forum members—do not understand why the funding must take such a route. When the expert panel responsible for developing the concept of LINKs included no such recommendation, it certainly brings into question the Minister’s reasoning on why the funding should take that route.
Let us briefly discuss one or two other concerns that Opposition Members have about LINKs. A further concern of ours relates to the powers of inspection. Where patients forums have been successful—for example, in putting the spotlight on cleanliness or the quality of hospital food—the power to enter and inspect NHS premises has often been the key. However, the Bill seems to contain, at best, a watered-down version of that power—a power to enter and view.
Of course, it is impossible to tell how useful the new power to enter and view premises will be, since precise arrangements will be left to the Secretary of State’s discretion in making the regulations. However, CPPIH has expressed concern that the qualifications and conditions set out in the regulations could have the effect of weakening the power to enter premises. The words “inspect” or “inspection” do not appear anywhere in part 11, whereas they were key to previous PPIH legislation. The patient and public involvement forum for the University Hospitals of Leicester said:
“The inspections and service reviews which have had such strong impact on improving patient care have depended on the statutory powers. To discard a programme of over 20 inspections a year by trained and experienced Forum members is a retrograde step, damaging to patients and the public.”
I concur with the hon. Gentleman, because my PPI forum members have told me that they feel that this is a question of legitimacy and that, if they do not have the right of inspection, their powers would be completely denuded. I entirely agree with him.
Let us be absolutely honest: we do not believe that the Government actually wanted the power to enter and inspect. It was not even included in the original proposals. Only when the Health Minister turned up at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on patient and public involvement and got a very strong reaction against the Government’s proposals did they include the power to enter and view. We contend that that falls well short of the power to enter and inspect. There is a big difference, and the Bill does not make it clear that the powers that patients forums have will be matched by those of the new LINKs.
To clarify the issue, I think that patients forums would agree that it is important to make sure that we do not have any duplication between inspection bodies, such as the Healthcare Commission, and patients forums. We listened to what members of patients forums said and agreed that there should be a right of entry to premises. However, it is important to remember that not every member of a LINK would have a right of entry, possibly because of sheer numbers, but also because anybody involved in that has to have a Criminal Records Bureau check. We have kept that back for regulations so that we can continue to consult on how that role can best be carried out. That was a response to the patients forums.
The trouble is that the Minister cannot have it both ways. Patients forums have that power to inspect at present and it works perfectly well, even with the Healthcare Commission having those powers as well. What is blatantly clear from the Bill is that the power to inspect seems to have been withdrawn as part of begrudging concession by the Department of Health. LINKs members can only “view”. There is a difference, and I look forward to that matter being fleshed out in Committee. The Minister has not made the case clear and certainly cannot defend the fact that LINKs members have not got those inspection powers.
In short, the Bill fails to deliver what patients want: a strong, independent investigative mechanism to influence decision making and hold public services to account. It fails to create a national voice for patients, or even the capacity for regional networking of LINKs. The Department of Health has talked about a national voices project, but that initiative has been led by the voluntary sector and is currently quite separate from LINKs. Nor does the Bill give patients a direct role in the regulation of health and social care. LINKs apparently lack that function, despite the recommendation from Lord Currie that a function should be created. For our part, we have already consulted on proposals for health watch, an independent national voice for patients, but with a local presence, which would combine the traditional investigative and representative functions of PPIH with those of a modern, consumer-style watchdog. Until the Government join us in embracing that concept, patient and public involvement in the NHS and social care will continue to suffer from the Government’s poverty of ambition. In the words of the organisation, Health Link, a repository of great experience in patient involvement and an authority in these matters:
“Effectively, this Bill consists of PPI designed for the benefit of the NHS, not for the benefit of patients.”
That is a damning indictment.
Order. The average length of Back-Bench speeches is increasing. That will have a disadvantageous effect on those who are still waiting to catch my eye. Perhaps hon. Members will bear that in mind.
I will certainly bear that sensible advice in mind. As we have already heard from a number of contributors, the Bill contains many good things, not least the facility to allow credible cases for unitary council status to go forward. None the less, I hope that we will not lose sight of—or fail to debate in as much detail as is required, certainly in Committee—the public involvement part of the Bill. I wish to address that subject today, as the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) has just done. Out of 14 parts and 176 clauses, only one part—part 11—covers patient and public involvement in health and social care. Although I express a personal view, I also speak as chair of the all-party group on patient and public involvement in health.
In 2000, a national health service plan proposed to abolish community health councils. In late 2003, patients forums were set up, together with the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. Now, both the forums and the commission are to go, to be replaced at local level by LINKs and at national level by, it would seem, nothing. The all-party group has sought to identify the views of patients forum members on the best way forward. We met a large number of representatives on 30 October in the House and we will meet a smaller number on 30 January. The principal concerns expressed by patients forum members that we have dealt with are as follows.
First, there is uncertainty about the direction of travel and where we are going. Secondly, there are fears that LINKs will not be independent and will be subservient to the political process in local councils. Thirdly, there is the feared abolition of the inspection rights currently enjoyed by forums. Fourthly, there is the apparent lack of a national voice. Fifthly, there is the failure of Government, as perceived by the people we met, to recognise that forums already actively pursue networks, links and local contacts with a variety of voluntary and other organisations in their areas. All those are fair points to raise and need to be addressed in the House, both today and, perhaps especially, in Committee and later.
Personally, as I indicated in an intervention on the hon. Member for Billericay, I do not think that coming under the umbrella of local government necessarily undermines independence. I support local government and I think that it is capable of doing the job properly, but we need to be aware of those concerns and ensure that they are properly addressed. As I said earlier, both for budgetary and overall administrative reasons, community health councils came under local health authorities, although perhaps they were called strategic health authorities at that time. There have been so many changes, I cannot quite remember. However, community health councils were not accused of being the creatures of the Department of Health or local health authorities and so it does not necessarily follow that LINKs would suffer from that same accusation.
However, we need to think through the administrative arrangements, the resourcing and the governance issues with regard to LINKs in order to understand how independence is to be secured and how accountability is to be made clear. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will understand that the Government’s intention to consult on these and a number of other related matters risks giving rise to a period of greater uncertainty and speculation on some crucial questions. That is inevitable, although hopefully it will not last too long. Having more uncertainty and speculation on some of these matters is not satisfactory.
I am not upset at the thought of there being one LINK for every local government social services area in the country. I understand that that would mean 152 LINKs, instead of well over 400 patients forums. However, it is essential that they be rooted in the local authority area and that they be local. I am not certain that that would be guaranteed, because, in carrying out its duty to establish a LINK, a local council will have to tender for an outside body to do that on its behalf. I do not think that it is likely that there will be 152 outside bodies, waiting to be tendered to operate in those council areas and to set up a LINK. If a regional or a national organisation does that in some places, which is likely, we will need to ensure that local sensitivities and the shape of local areas are sufficiently respected and understood.
With regard to the power to inspect health and social care facilities, I think that the concerns expressed by forum members are largely met. Earlier in the debate, there was some probing of the meaning of the words used, but in clause 156, there is a commitment that LINKs will have such powers, and that answers many of those concerns. Okay, so the wording is
“to enter and view, and observe”,
but in general terms, people will understand that to mean inspection, although it is a legitimate issue for further debate in Committee. That is not necessarily the same inspection that would be made by an expert group that was statutorily empowered to take a particular route, but in general terms, many of the forums’ concerns are answered in clause 156.
Further to that point, why does the hon. Gentleman think that the words “inspect” and “inspection” were not used at all in the Bill?
That is one of the questions that we can ask Ministers, and one of the points that we can pursue in Committee. It is a perfectly legitimate point, but I will not get hung up about it right now. The important thing is that LINKs will be able
“to enter and view, and observe”.
A more important point that the hon. Gentleman could have picked up on is the fact that the provision applies to public sector bodies only. Independent providers will only be required to allow inspection. The same applies to the requirement to give information. Under the Bill, both requirements are concentrated on public bodies.
With regard to independent providers, my understanding is that the inspection and provision of information will happen only if requirements to that effect are written into the contracts arrived at between the public-sector commissioner and the independent or other-sector provider. I understand that there are more than 28,000 contracts between public-sector commissioners and private or other-sector providers of social care, so there is a real problem with how inspection information will be delivered, until the contracts are amended or renewed. That question needs to be addressed in the next few weeks.
I should like to try to address some of the issues on that point, and say why it is important that we should consult widely on the matter. In some cases, for example in the independent sector, the premises that we are talking about might be people’s homes—an instance might be residential homes—because some social care can be delivered there. We have to respect the sensitive issues around going into someone’s place of abode, and social care increasingly takes place in people’s homes.
I am grateful for that helpful intervention, but on that subject, one of the Bill’s strong points is the embracing of social care as well as health issues, and therefore the principle of being able to get information, and visit or inspect, should apply, too. I take on board the fact that there are extra sensitivities, but if my point is not addressed, it will seem as if an inferior role can be given to many social care providers.
On the national dimension, although no one would want a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy, there will be a need for LINKs to communicate, learn from each other and benefit from best practice. Such a facility should be there from the start; we should not tack it on later, simply because it is obvious that we must do so. I would like the Government to take that on board right now. I understand and support the proposed functions of LINKs, which are neatly set out in clause 153(2). In fact, reading the provisions on that subject—they are set out in simple and straightforward language, which is welcome—I do not see how patient and public involvement in health and social care could function at all, unless it is on the basis of the words in clause 153(2). I am therefore at a loss to understand why, under subsection (3), all or part of subsection (2) may be amended, or even omitted, by the Secretary of State—subject, however, to consultation, as is pointed out in subsection (4). The drafting of subsection (2) effectively allows the Secretary of State to abolish LINKs at some stage in the future. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to address that.
I shall comment briefly on how LINKs might work, and on the issue of membership, which has been raised by other hon. Members. I accept and agree that the Government do not want to dictate, or to be heavily prescriptive about everything that happens in the country, from the centre. They do not want membership to be pre-approved by another body, and that is absolutely fine. None the less, there is surely a need for some detail and shape. We need something to look at, so that we can discuss, understand, and hopefully improve LINKs, and I hope that that will emerge in Committee.
The Government rightly recognise that the patient and the public are represented not just by patients’ forums, but by hundreds of bodies across the land, many of them voluntary organisations, dealing with all kinds of issues, and some of them are very specialist. Beyond those bodies, there are of course millions of members of the public who dip in and out of health and social care concerns, and they should not be ignored by the system, either. There must be some structure. Presumably, there will be a LINK committee of some sort. The Bill does not say how that would be devised, but at some point before the legislation completes its passage through this House and the other place, there will have to be a sharper focus on how LINKs could be delivered.
There will be LINKs in various different parts of the country, serving different populations. Some of them—in the case of smaller unitary authorities, for example—will serve perhaps 100,000 or 120,000 people. At the other end of the scale, in the county of Kent, there are more than 1.5 million people. For that reason, the bodies will be different in different parts of the country. As to what they will do, obviously they will communicate with existing groups, including voluntary organisations and others, and they will try to communicate with the public, too, perhaps through websites and so on, so that people may opt in. There will be a core of people on LINKs, I guess—I should not have to guess—surrounded by dozens of organisations, and beyond that, thousands of individuals who will get involved now and then. Might all those people and organisations be members of LINKs? We do not know, but it is a fair question to pose.
The answers will not come today, but I have mentioned the sort of details that we will have to address in Committee. Even if we do not need to legislate for every detail, it is important that we demonstrate that we know what we are talking about, and that we understand what sort of landscape we want to view in future, to better deliver patient and public involvement in health. I do not think that any of the proposals are bound to fail automatically, but we need more substance, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to bear that in mind. It has been said to me—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I was hoping to conclude, but yes, I give way.
Briefly, does the hon. Gentleman accept that it does not bode well for greater clarity about qualification for membership, if one considers that patients forum members have largely been ignored up to this point, as regards the structure of the reforms?
A great deal of work needs to be done, and as far as I am concerned—I have not heard anything to the contrary—existing patients forum members have a great deal of positive work to contribute to that process. In fact, I have not heard anyone suggest that either those individuals, or their ideas, would not be welcome. Indeed, it is essential that such people are involved in the process. Discussing the absence of firm detail, someone told me that envisaging the way in which LINKs will work requires an act of faith. Yes, that is the case, but we need a little bit more than an act of faith when we legislate in Parliament, as I have said. If we are to encourage innovation and, to use a well-worn phrase, let a thousand flowers bloom, we need to know the structures on which that is to be based.
The process of fleshing out the provision could be assisted by the parallel inquiry that the Health Committee intends to hold on patient and public involvement next month, while, in parallel, the Bill is in Committee. I should be grateful if Ministers would assure me that the outcome of the Select Committee’s deliberations will inform the Bill, and that the programme will allow that to happen, otherwise it is a waste of parliamentary time. The Secretary of State has repeatedly stated that we live in a time of change and reform. There are concerns about the way in which health services are delivered, so we particularly need effective patient and public involvement, hopefully on an informed basis, as that will help to deliver the improved and reformed health services that we want. As those changes take place and as the new PPI process is not yet clear, we must consider how we will undertake the transition from patients forums. It is therefore important that strong signals are sent on transitional arrangements. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reflect carefully on those matters and to introduce a framework for LINKs that is sufficiently detailed to generate a more positive debate on the way in which PPI can be better delivered.
I feared that part 11 would be rather neglected, so I am delighted to follow the hon. Members for Bedford (Patrick Hall) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and concentrate on it. I am delighted, too, that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who is responsible for patient and public involvement, is in the Chamber, and I would welcome any contradictions and interventions that she may wish to make.
I am relieved that Members on both sides of the House have reservations about the abolition of patients forums. The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) had reservations about their abolition. Surely we could have built on their strengths. I remind the House that in 1641, Lord Falkland said that
“when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change”.
The modern equivalent is the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The measure is another example of unnecessary Government meddling with the NHS. I do not object to change or reform if it is needed and based on completed trials or evidence, but the constant changes over the past 20 years appear to be a case of change for change’s sake, which is intolerable and, in the long run, counter-productive.
I remind the House that we had regional health authorities, which became NHS regional executives, which became strategic health authorities before reverting to regional executives. We had primary care trusts, which became large PCTs—which, in fact, were the same as the abolished area health authorities—and practice-based commissioning is suspiciously like GP fundholding. The Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health and patients forums are to be abolished three years after their formation. The CPPIH’s annual review states that the commission was formed in January 2003 and the forums were put in place in December 2003, so they have had only three years and one month in which to establish themselves and work successfully.
The Health Committee produced a report on patient and public involvement in health in 2002-03, in which it stated:
“PPIFs form the cornerstone of the new system for patient and public involvement”.
It cited Sharon Grant, who chaired the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, and believed that
“it would take at least 3-5 years for PPIFs to be fully operational.”
We have only just completed three years of that three to five year period, but we are about to abolish the PPIF cornerstone of what we are constantly told is a patient-led NHS. Forums have begun to be successful, and in my area they already have links—I use that word advisedly—with patients, ordinary people, young people in schools, disability groups, and trust boards and managers. They are thoroughly effective and, if they were left to develop, other forums, with the right chairperson and personnel, could become equally effective.
We all expected the CPPIH to be abolished, as the Labour party made a commitment in its manifesto to cut the number of arm’s-length bodies. However, the abolition of forums was not mentioned by the manifesto—all that I could find, in a section on empowering patients, were the phrases, “putting patients centre stage” and “extending patient power”. I was lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject in July 2004, on the very day that a Government document on the reconfiguration of the Department’s arm’s-length bodies was published. It said:
“Patients’ Forums will remain the cornerstone of the arrangement we have put in place to create opportunities for patients and the public to influence health services.”
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the Minister and her Department have set great store by the report by the expert panel that said that inspections by patient and public involvement forums were not taken seriously by local NHS organisations, and thus carried little weight? That is not the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, nor in my constituency, where the forum performs a fine service that does indeed carry weight. Would it not have been a better option to follow the example of good practice set by our local forums, rather than seek to abolish forums?
I could not agree more. There are very effective forums that enjoy a tremendously good working relationship with the trusts in their area. They can, and do, have influence. The Minister who replied to my Adjournment debate repeatedly said that patients forums would remain the cornerstone of patient and public involvement in health.
I should like to look briefly at a few things in the Bill, some of which have been mentioned. It is a good thing that the Bill brings together health and social care in the remit of the bodies that will replace patients forums. Clause 153(2) was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bedford, and like him, I am at a loss to understand clause 153(3), which gives the Secretary of State power to alter everything in the preceding subsection.
Much has been said about the limitations of the right of access. The Minister confused me further by saying that the right of access had to be limited because of the number of people who would serve on the LINK bodies. That brings me back to the efficiency of the present forums. They are the right size for members to have access even to residential care homes, nursing homes and so on. Even if they are called LINKs, we need a small group to act as the central body co-ordinating all those who contribute their views on health and social care. The right of access is crucial.
The Bill mentions the right of referral to overview and scrutiny committees only in relation to social care services. I do not know whether that is an omission. I assume there will still be a right of referral to the health overview and scrutiny committees.
Enough has been said about the concerns about independence. Nothing has yet been said about clause 163, which deals with consultation. The worry is that the clause introduces the word “significant” before describing the degree of change in the health service that would warrant a duty of consultation. The word “significant” weakens the provision considerably.
I agree with hon. Members who have commented on the lack of detail in the Bill. There is certainly a lack of detail about funding. In my Adjournment debate back in July 2004, the Minister responding said:
“The current budget for the commission is £33.3 million. There will be no cuts to that budget . . . We will invest more resources in patients forums, and any savings that accrue from the abolition of the commission will be invested in patients forums and in providing expert advice on patient and public involvement.”
Uncertainty has been expressed about the function of LINKs. Again, the Minister responding to my Adjournment debate said:
“I shall describe how patients forums will be affected. As I said, they are the cornerstone of patient and public involvement. They will not be abolished, nor will their independence be undermined. Rather, the support they receive is to be strengthened. It is key in the new arrangements that forums remain as independent as they currently are, so that they can continue to be responsive to the views of local people.”—[Official Report, 22 July 2004; Vol. 424, c. 583-4.]
We have also heard mention of the loss of a national co-ordinating body, which is essential.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points about the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. I am sure that he was present earlier in the debate when I drew the attention of the House to the views expressed by the commission about the fact that its resources had been trimmed to the extent that it had not been able to perform. Does he agree that that is a lamentable record, which ought to be put right now?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course adequate funding is essential; that needs to be spelled out. I hope the matter will be examined closely in Committee.
The Government were wrong to tack the provisions on health and social care on to a local government Bill, but I am delighted that they are getting an airing. It has been said that the Health Committee is about to undertake another inquiry into patient and public involvement in health, and that that will coincide with the Committee stage of the Bill. That seems rather back to front. As the hon. Member for Bedford said, we hope that the Government will allow time for the conclusions of the report to influence the final form of the Bill.
I remind the Government that there are two aspects to patient and public involvement in health. Patient involvement is a single patient’s involvement with their own care, their own illness and communication with staff. Public involvement means definite, independent, adequately resourced and adequately informed representative groups of citizens, with recognised channels for two-way communication with all commissioners and providers of health and social care in their area. The best forums were beginning to do that. If the Bill goes through, the Government must ensure that their replacement, the LINKs, achieve better public involvement, or the Government will be accused of meddling, and the words of the Earl of Derby about Lord John Russell’s foreign policy in 1864 will again be all too relevant: “Meddle and muddle”.
As was said by the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall), it is important that the health aspects of the Bill are examined in close detail. The House of Commons annunciator indicates that we are debating the Local Government etc. Bill. I hope that the “etc.” part does not disappear off the radar entirely, and that in Committee Ministers will respond to the points that have been made in the debate.
We have heard contributions from Members in all parties who have vast experience of local government. I hope that Ministers will regard the debate as work in progress. If we get the Bill right, it should encourage people to stand in local government elections and to want to bring about change locally. That means that we need the right local government structures. I think back to my time as a Lambeth councillor and remember reading reports from the 19th century about the medical officer for health and the sanitary officers, the importance of bringing together health, social services and local government, and all that municipal government at that time was able to contribute.
I cannot help but agree with many of the earlier comments—that is the problem with speaking so late in a debate on the Floor of the House. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) spoke about the Lyons review. Over the coming months local government leaders will have to deal with the implementation of equal pay, the extra resources that that will require, and issues relating to local government pensions, which may involve more money for local government. It is strange that, having waited so long for the White Paper, we are holding the debate without having had the benefit of the Lyons review and a clear idea of future local government finance. It is important to link local government funding with the way in which people who are elected to be strategic leaders respond to what local communities and people want. Local government must be fit for purpose.
The deadline for submissions of 25 January has been mentioned. Perhaps that should be re-examined if everybody everywhere in the country is expected to make proposals having had the benefit of our Second Reading debate.
Our debate takes place against the background of the Labour Government’s good record on local government. They have achieved much, especially after previous Conservative Governments cut so much local government funding. I stress to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I genuinely appreciate all that the Government have done for local government. However, it is now more important than ever that we get the Bill right.
Not least among the Government’s achievements is the promotion of the duty of well-being, which provides huge opportunities. That will now apply to parish councils, too. The abolition of surcharges also made a big difference, as did the huge increase in funding settlements to which I referred earlier. Extra money for neighbourhood renewal is another achievement. For councils such as Stoke-on-Trent, where deprivation stretches throughout the city, the extra neighbourhood renewal money has made a genuine difference.
We talk so much in this place about the fight for democracy internationally, but I am concerned to ensure that local people can take up the fight for local democracy and play the vital part that so many of our constituents want them to play, and take local authorities forward. I know many councillors—I am sure that some will follow this evening’s debate with bated breath—who want to play a strategic role in local government. They do not believe that they were elected simply to be glorified social workers. They believe that their role is to have an input into policy making so that they can deliver the policies that emerge from the council. As we heard earlier, if people cannot deliver, they will not be interested in standing a second or a third time for local government.
We all want well managed local services and we want people to be engaged. We must take seriously the warning signs in many parts of the country, including mine, where the turnout for local elections has been poor. The Bill provides an opportunity to re-engage with local communities and it is therefore more important than ever to get it right.
I should like the Government to consider the Bill’s effect on local party politics. We have heard a great deal about party funding and the way in which we engage with our party members. However, many long-standing members of my party—and, I am sure, of other parties—feel that their introduction to party politics was through their part in local government. That has a bearing on the funding of party politics, and it is important that we ensure that the new models for elected mayors do not lose the accountability that local government has developed through its close link with local party politics. I urge Ministers to take that on board.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s opening comments about sustainable communities. Given that we will consider the climate change Bill soon, it is important for many of its provisions to relate to local government powers and the duty of well-being. All the targets that local area agreements set should link what needs to be done nationally with the way in which our counterparts in local government can take forward the agenda of tackling global warming by interpreting national policy locally. I should like to hear more about the way in which what happens in local government will link to the climate change measure and other Government decisions, not least that about the new combined body that will incorporate English Partnerships and Housing Market Renewal. That will have major implications for local councillors, who work through local area agreements and local strategic partnerships to deliver their agenda on regeneration, if they cannot link what happens locally with national Government targets. I hope that the Government will take account of changing national structures and the implications for what happens locally.
It is important that the local development frameworks and local strategic partnerships are linked to local councillors. In my local authority, I have been appalled by the lack of a seamless link between the local strategic partnership and elected council representatives. It is almost as if a parallel bureaucracy has been set up. I do not believe that that was the Government’s intention. We should consider carefully the way in which we take policies further in the light of the Bill’s new powers and the reorganised structures for local government.
The Secretary of State spoke a little about the local development framework. We should consider that carefully. In my area, it has been delayed. None the less, decisions from the local planning department are being determined by planning inspectors in Whitehall. Without the local planning framework and the local development framework, we cannot get the whole policy together. Ministers must take account of that.
Anyone who listened to the debate from the outset and heard the references to Stoke-on-Trent will probably realise that one of my main reasons for wishing to speak briefly is to flag up the position there. The Local Government Act 2000 gave us a referendum, which provided the option of an unelected council manager and an elected mayor. Together, they would form the council executive. However, the Act did not provide for subsequent legislation or regulation to enable us to hold a further referendum and thus provide a constitutional basis for the people of Stoke-on-Trent to make an informed decision about the system of local government that best suits our needs. If that happened, we could reach agreement about the system with which we would proceed for the May 2009 elections.
Stoke-on-Trent is the only council in the country that has a system of an unelected council manager and elected mayor. Everybody, from all the political parties to the council manager and the elected mayor, has impressed on the Stoke-on-Trent Members of Parliament that they want the Bill to provide for the further regulation that should have been included in a previous measure. The Minister for Local Government is not on the Treasury Bench at the moment, but I am sure that he takes a keen interest in the debate. I pay tribute to him for following up the many parliamentary questions, letters and debates to try to ensure that we get it right. I am pleased that the Government have now made an announcement to the effect that, as soon as this Bill is enacted, we will have a constitutional basis for the further referendum, although we will have to wait a little longer for it than we had originally hoped. That means that, by 2009, we will be where we want to be, and we will be able to elect the new system of local government that we want for Stoke-on-Trent.
I hope more than anything that that assurance will give everyone in Stoke-on-Trent who is involved in running our city, in the regeneration debate and in neighbourhood renewal the confidence and certainty that the issue is to be resolved. They will therefore no longer have to put all their energy into worrying about that, and will instead be able to get on with taking advantage of all the Government funding available to deal with the deprivation and problems that we have in Stoke-on-Trent. We need to get on with the job of governing now, not to be sidetracked, and we need to ensure that that moves further forward.
I am pleased that the Government have made their statement in time for this debate. However, it would be helpful if it could be followed up, in a letter if not in the Minister’s closing speech, or perhaps at the meeting with Ministers on 31 January that the people of Stoke-on-Trent have asked for. May we have an ongoing dialogue with the Government about what will fit us best, and about how we can ensure that government works locally? We need to ask questions about the role of local councillors and MPs alongside our elected mayor and council manager, and about the independent commission that the Government are considering.
We need to ask how we can achieve flexibility, and take the opportunity to participate in the city-region debate. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said earlier about areas such as ours that are surrounded by a large hinterland. We need to take part in the city-region debate and ask how Stoke-on-Trent can work collaboratively with other local authorities in the area.
I want to make two brief final points. Part 9 of the Bill relates to the conduct of local authority members in respect of ethical standards. Will the Minister look again at the question of how it is okay for someone on the sex offenders register to be elected as a local councillor?
I should perhaps declare an interest when making my final point, as I am a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. The institute is excited that we have finally put public health on the agenda, and welcomes the proposed duty to co-operate between councils and primary care trusts and to include all their work in the scope of local strategic partnerships.
I look forward to having an ongoing dialogue with Ministers as the legislation goes forward, because I am not altogether convinced that the three options—of which Stoke-on-Trent will be able to take advantage, along with every other council in the country, when the time comes—do not need a little tweaking in order to provide the best local government structures for the people who so richly deserve them.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). I want to look at the local government reorganisation that is proposed in the Bill. Like many other Members, I welcome some of the measures that apparently seek to give greater freedoms to local communities and to remove what we all hate most in local government, namely, targets and red tape. They cause sclerosis at local government level, as I and many other Members who have served in local government know, and they leave communities feeling that local government is just a mouthpiece for central Government diktats. I raised this issue earlier, and I know that other hon. Members share my frustration. Consultation often pays lip service to local views, with the outcome already having been determined by some central Government bean counter. It seems to me that the Government ask a question, and if they do not like the answer, they keep asking it until they get the right one.
The other main driver that worries many in local government is the fact that they have little control over the purse strings. The thumbscrew approach to local government finance causes deep unhappiness, involving too many levers which mean that local authorities cannot deliver what local people want. I raised this issue during our deliberations on the Sustainable Communities Bill. If people have no control over the finances of their local council and over what their council can do, they have no real power at all.
Too often, the Government appear to pay lip service to localism while allowing more and more important issues, such as planning, to be decided at regional level. Many Members on both sides of the House have great difficulty in accepting the regional approach. That approach causes intense annoyance in constituencies such as St. Albans, and is a prime example of the Government not listening. For example, I happened to have the delight of attending the east of England draft planning review recently. Such events are familiar to many in the Chamber who take a keen interest in local government. They tend to go like this: Hertfordshire proposes a draft housing figure of 66,000, which we believe we can deliver, but we are told to go away and come up with a figure that is more in line with central Government thinking. The council then reluctantly proposes 72,000 homes with no green belt encroachments. However, we are told that we should come up with an even better figure, and advised that 79,000 might be nearer the mark, although it would involve some green belt encroachments. Then, because our answer is obviously still not quite right, we are informed in the review that we are likely to have 83,200 homes.
I struggled when I heard the Minister say earlier that local people should shape the places where they lived and have a greater say in the places where they lived and the services that they received. That is not happening now, but if I honestly believed that the Bill would deliver that, it would have my support. However, I do not believe that it will. There is strong opposition to the ratcheting up of housing totals, and fury at the whole rigmarole of councils being asked what they would like to deliver, only for the plans to be revised centrally. Unanimous local opposition to them seems to have no effect and falls on deaf ears. The Government do not allow local people to make those decisions, and the Bill will certainly not change that.
I wonder whether there will be a shift towards a unitary approach, with the scrapping of the existing tiers of local government. The proposals ring alarm bells for me. Indeed, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether we are going to have district elections in 2007. This is a contentious issue, and perhaps it involves a thought in process in the Minister’s mind. Perhaps if she gives it greater thought this evening, we shall be all the wiser.
I am extremely concerned that the Government acknowledge in their own review that, despite the Local Government Acts of 1999, 2000 and 2003,
“Public satisfaction with the overall performance of local Government is low compared to most other public service providers and has declined since 1997…current local Government modernisation agenda policies appear to have done little to increase public satisfaction with local Government”.
So we are going to get a bit more restructuring, because it has obviously proved so wonderful—according to the Government’s own assessment of the situation—that we need more of it. However, the proposals in the Bill, although quite radical, will achieve little more than moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic. If we have problems in local government, altering the structure without altering the emphasis on delivering localism will not achieve much at all.
Consequently, I have little faith in clauses 1 to 30, which propose to give the Secretary of State the power to implement structural changes to local government in England so that areas with a two-tier arrangement can easily be reorganised into a single unitary tier, but also scrapped altogether if the arrangement does not meet with the Secretary of State’s approval. This will be a win-win situation for the Secretary of State, and a lose-lose situation for local authorities and local people. If people feel divorced from decision making, subjected to imposed housing quotas, stifled or driven by targets and deprived of funding, and if they get even less funding if they do not comply, how can they think that things are decided locally, and why would they have any more confidence in a Government who give more power to the Secretary of State to decide that, if they do not like the system, they can scrap it altogether?
The local government restructuring will be a costly exercise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) pointed out, research by Professor Mike Chisholm of Cambridge university suggests a transitional cost of £121 per person. Given that my council tax payers do not like paying for local government, and prefer to pay for services, not bean counters, the prospect of having to pay £121—perhaps more, as I have never known a Government figure that does not rise—will fill them with dismay. It will hit those on fixed incomes and pensioners the hardest. What are they getting for that £121? They will not get a better service; they will get a more divorced service, and people whom they do not recognise, do not know and cannot talk to, unlike their local councillors. Having been a local councillor, I know that people can ring up local councillors and talk to them; they are accountable and known. The higher up the decision making is, the less accountability there is, and the less empowered people feel when they are fed up with what their local councils do.
If the Government are hoping for savings, they should heed Professor Chisholm’s warning:
“it is unrealistic to suppose that the creation of a single unitary council in an otherwise two tier county area will generate financial savings and that there is every prospect that ongoing costs would in fact be increased.”
That is not just transitional costs; it is ongoing costs. As someone who has a two-tier authority, I do not welcome even more costs. As the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government admitted in 2006, the Government reorganisation is generally “a great distraction”. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden touched on that point. Many Members will be wondering what we are being distracted from. Partly, perhaps, the intention is to further the Government’s creeping programme of regionalisation—regions by the back door. I hate to keep referring to the draft east of England plan review, but Mr. Tim Frehey, head of development of infrastructure for the east of England, explained that we would have regional targets on carbon dioxide emissions, and that we would have great control over housing totals. However, the beleaguered St. Alban’s and Decorum officer who attended the meeting, Mr. John Chapman, said that we would have “no choice” over housing totals. My local council wants to ensure that local people are listened to. The thread for the regions is becoming stronger and stronger, and local democracy is diminished as a result.
The housing totals debacle is a barometer of this Government’s approach to regionalism: if one alters the structure, one eventually gets the right answer. The district and the county said no, so the exercise had to be done again. Perhaps I will be called a cynic, but it seems that if the district and county say no, scrapping the district and county is the way to get the right answer: a resounding yes for the Government’s housing totals.
Like the Greater London council.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment from a sedentary position: not having been a member of the GLC, I would not know.
Given the Government’s propensity to trample over local opinion, clause 8(2)(a) contains a worrying phrase:
“the Boundary Committee may recommend to the Secretary of State such boundary change as, in consequence of the review, seems to them desirable having regard to the need to secure effective and convenient local government”.
That prompts the question of what is local. As we have regional targets left, right and centre, I would dispute that “local” means my district. It also prompts the question of what is effective and convenient and for whom; I would suggest that it is not for my constituents, but possibly, for regional or even national government. I do not believe that the needs of my constituents are at the heart of the Bill. This Bill has far-reaching implications and I look forward to debate it in Committee.
Briefly, as I am conscious that other Members wish to contribute to the debate, I shall address the apparent democratic deficit for health in the Bill. That issue has been raised by many Members, and concerns were expressed about inspections with LINKs, to which the Minister responded that people were entitled to do reviews. If reviews and inspections are similar, I do not know why we need a change of words. If they are not similar, it is a definite change of emphasis, which I do not welcome.
My local council has already lost its scrutiny of health. It is not happy about that, and nor are local people. They will not welcome a further dilution of their input in that regard. People on the street and the council are infuriated by frozen posts, massive cuts in services and, especially in my constituency, the loss of the proposed super-hospital. The Government are strong on consultation, which is an issue that I raised in relation to the Sustainable Communities Bill, but I am not sure that they are long on listening. A long consultation was undertaken on option 1 and option 2. Everyone was voting like mad, and it was covered in the local newspaper. Ultimately, however, we were told that there was no such option. It had all been a waste of energy and expectation for the local community. Local government, with its hold on the purse strings, just decided that the hospital was not going to happen. That further dilution of patient involvement, along with the lack of accountability, fills me and other hon. Members with great concern.
The proposed new LINKs need great scrutiny. The British Medical Association has some valid concerns. It observes that LINKs may not work well with those who are
“less educated or less able to dedicate time”,
It is important that people feel that they can contribute, and are not intimidated by a vast system that does not to listen to the patient’s voice. The BMA also says:
“There is a danger that LINks may be patronised and manipulated by managers”,
“Lack of Co-ordination for LINks does not formally enable sharing of information and ideas.”
Again, a larger and more unwieldly structure—the Minister tells us that hundreds of people, and almost anyone who wants to join, can be involved—will result in a worrying dilution and lack of expertise.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who is not in his place at present, raised valid concerns about the health aspects of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) also referred to patients being marginalised. I will not revisit those concerns. I hope, however, that the Government will start listening to concerns of hon. Members who feel that the Government are moving not towards localism but to a convoluted and complicated form of bureaucracy, which will mean that the person in the street will not understand what is going on, and will feel yet again that things are being done to them, rather than for them and with them.
Were the Bill genuinely empowering local councils, and giving greater scrutiny on health, I would support it. [Interruption.] I hear the Minister muttering away, but I will not explore the jelly fish idea, which grasped our attention for a while. I share the concerns expressed that we will end up with an organism that will not deliver what people want.
I welcome parts of the Bill; there are other parts that bemuse me, and others to which I am violently opposed. As we are considering the role of local authorities in scrutiny, I will make my contribution in that spirit.
The Bill is an attempt to make local government more responsive to the needs and aspirations of local communities. That has eluded us for some time, and it has led to disaffection and a lack of engagement in local elections. We have a problem to overcome in relation to local area agreements between local statutory providers and local service providers. How do we engage the local community in those, and how do we create a dynamic relationship that responds to the local community’s aspirations and influences those local area agreements? That should be the focus of our attention. Much in the Bill moves us in the direction of bringing local authorities closer to their communities, and I very much welcome those aspects of it.
I can give examples of difficulties that have arisen in my local communities. A number of the most deprived communities in my constituency were asking for services, especially podiatry services, for elderly people. We convinced the local primary care trust to set up a pilot service in a satellite practitioner nurse-led centre financed by our single regeneration budget programme. That proved popular and was well attended by elderly residents in the local community. The pilot came to an end and in spite of the popularity of the service and the high demand, the community unfortunately failed to influence the service providers to bend their spend—a phrase we have used in the past—to meet that aspiration.
I also chair one of our local neighbourhood renewal panels. For many years, at the start of the neighbourhood renewal programme, we asked for funding for neighbourhood wardens from the neighbourhood renewal funding. However, it was difficult to get officers who supported the panel to produce a report in favour of them in spite of the fact that the whole community, covering two estates in the neighbourhood renewal area, was unanimous in its support for the idea. We finally got the report three years later and the neighbourhood wardens are now in place. They are extremely popular and are doing a very good job.
Similarly, a number of heads of local schools came up with the idea of having adult learning centres in their primary schools. They came to the neighbourhood renewal panel with the plan to work in partnership with the further education college for the borough and develop adult learning centres where parents and people from the community could come to improve their education and employability. The scale of the improvements and benefits to the local community are difficult to quantify, but with little money from our neighbourhood renewal panel the heads were able to set up those schemes. One has led to £1.4 million of additional investment to expand the adult learning centre by having a family centre on the premises and a lift to enable disabled people to access the adult college. That scheme arose from a local initiative, with the heads of local schools talking to residents on their neighbourhood renewal panel and the panel agreeing a sum to finance the improvement and introduction of those services. That is an example of people who were empowered by the resources made available to them through neighbourhood renewal programmes so that they could make a difference. There was a reason for them engaging in the process because they made a contribution and a significant difference to their community.
Sadly, our neighbourhood renewal programme has been rolled up into a much more centralised structure in which it has to hit specific targets. The decision-making process has been taken away from local communities. A minimal sum of money is left for people to play around with in their communities. Basically, the presence of local residents in terms of neighbourhood renewal is now a box-ticking exercise to satisfy the requirement for some sort of community engagement to deliver on the core themes.
My hon. Friend talks about the centralisation of neighbourhood renewal. The Department funds neighbourhood renewal through local authorities. In neighbourhood renewal funding areas that is a non-ring-fenced grant through the local area agreement. Is he saying that it has been centralised to borough level or to national level?
I am grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. It is very much centralised at borough level. What has been drafted for the programme of expenditure is driven by the service professionals, whether they are in statutory organisations or the borough itself. The complaint from members of my neighbourhood renewal panel is that what was working well, and what empowered the local community to be very responsive to things that came out of the community at a local level, has been diminished and has almost disappeared. That is to the detriment of the programme.
Another part of the Bill that I very much welcome is the intention to expand the support and involvement of the third sector. When we do that, and in particular when we talk about introducing local parishes in London, we need to guard against those communities that have readily available to them the capacity to take advantage of those powers at the expense of those communities that are more disadvantaged and therefore less likely and less able to do so. In saying that, not only do local councillors need to play their role, but we as MPs need to play a role, too. Often when we draft this type of legislation, we overlook our role as champions within our communities.
I have been involved in setting up local community forums in my constituency, and I am currently involved in trying to set up a charitable trust involving local residents. One of the problems that we are coming up against is that we already have an existing centre that is used by young people. The charity is funded by a trust, held by a bank, and it had a capital sum invested for it. Unfortunately, as a result of the dotcom collapse, some of that capital sum disappeared. The income is now reduced and the fall means that the charity has drawn on the lump sum that it invested, making its income even lower. It has been a vicious circle.
None the less, the charity is an important voluntary organisation within my constituency and it is having serious problems in identifying a source to fund the core activities of a charitable trust. It has a number of irons in the fire with regard to applying for grants, but it does not have a means to access resources readily. It needs resources that can be underwritten for three years or more to give it sustainability and the chance to plan ahead to perform its core functions. That is a big problem. The forthcoming taskforce report into the third sector must address the problem of core funding for the third sector to ensure that such bodies can stand up and play their role in delivering some of the strategies that the Government and the funding bodies want an organisation that engages with young people in the community to deliver. If those organisations fold because of a lack of funding for their core functions, the opportunity is lost to engage with them and with the use of their resources and links within the community. That is an essential part of ensuring that we have a vibrant and effective third sector.
I want briefly to cover one or two other things. Part of the Bill deals with the future of local government boundary review procedures. My experience when we had the local government boundary review in Greenwich was that the whole process was unsatisfactory. The local government boundary commission was not accountable to the local community. It held no public inquiry to conclude its initial findings and it split many well-established and well-understood local community boundaries across not only council wards but, inevitably, parliamentary seats, because its findings were the building blocks for the future parliamentary review. I say that having benefited slightly from the parliamentary boundary review. I do not want to give the Minister the impression that this is sour grapes. In fact the difference is marginal, so it is neither here nor there.
The Cator estate in Blackheath is run by its own trust, currently served by two wards and in future to be served by two Members of Parliament. None of the decisions made any sense, but the commission committed itself at an early stage to delivering a set of ward boundaries providing for a number within 1 per cent. of the average number per ward if the population is divided by the number of wards. By setting itself that standard it drove a coach and horses through any idea of local accountability, local knowledge and local communities.
If we are to engage with local communities and encourage people to participate in elections, we must ensure that they feel some affinity with the boundaries of the areas that are being represented. In Greenwich, we underwent the painful exercise of moving from two-member and one-member wards where we had 62 councillors to three-member wards with 51 councillors. In the process we made the wards too big. They are unwieldy and unrepresentative, and parts of communities are lumped together in a ward while half a mile away there is another part of another community, although there was a much more sensible solution to the problem in the locality.
The Bill suggests a system of directly elected mayors, leaders or executives. I believe that there have been 35 referendums on mayors, and that on 23 occasions the proposal was rejected. If we value elections and putting information before the electorate, allowing them to make up their own minds, we should recognise that communities that have been given that choice want to exercise it; but the Bill suggests that we take the choice away, and allow no referendums before introducing mayors. The Minister looks puzzled; if I am wrong he can correct me, but I believe that if a local authority decides that it wants a directly elected mayor, it should be able to put the proposal to members of the local community in a referendum so that they can decide. Heaven help them if they are stupid enough to vote in favour of it, but that will be a matter for the community. In any event, the proposal should be put to the community in the form of a reasoned argument.
It has been said that we have diminished the role of local councillors by electing executives. I am passionately in favour of the committee structure, because when we were on committees as local government councillors we had the opportunity to scrutinise the officers who were charged with responsibility for delivering services. At present, scrutiny means scrutiny of a member elected to an executive rather than scrutiny of the officers. What used to happen was that a group of members with broad knowledge of, say, social services in an area could interrogate the officers charged with delivering those services.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not, because I am about to sit down. I have been speaking long enough, and I know that others wish to speak as well. I could go on, though, and I hope that there will be further opportunities to scrutinise the Bill. I know that other Members will speak about the scrutiny of health services. That is what I wanted to speak about next, but in fairness to them I will sit down now.
The White Paper should bode well, in view of the names of such documents, such as “A stronger local voice” and “Our health, our care, our say”; things might seem to be moving in the right direction. However, others may understand my scepticism and that of my constituents, given the existence of similar documents produced by health managers using the phrase “in your hands” when the proposed reconfiguration of services seems to involve an inexorable slide towards the downgrading of accident and emergency, children’s and maternity services despite the wishes of thousands of people.
First, however, I want to focus on local government, in which I have a particular interest because I was a councillor in Enfield for some 11 years. The Bill appears to make the clear admission that legislation in 1999, 2000 and 2003 has not succeeded in revitalising local democracy and satisfaction with local services. In fact, it could be seen as a formal apology from the Government: “We are sorry. We accept that we made a mistake. We are going to abolish many of the inspection regimes such as best-value performance indicators, and reduce the burden on local government.”
The hon. Gentleman says that he welcomes the changes in the performance regime. As he will know, the Government’s argument is that the regime has helped to improve the performance of local government significantly, to enable it to deliver higher-quality services. I hope he recognises that local government has improved its services.
I recognise that Enfield council, under Conservative control, has greatly improved local services, but that is not a result of all those inspection regimes. In fact, it may have happened despite them. It is an interesting spin on the record of best-value performance indicators to suggest that once they are supposedly fulfilling their purposes, they should be abolished. Perhaps a similar proposal is being considered for patient forums. They are fulfilling their purpose in Enfield, so I do not think that they should be abolished. I shall say more about that later.
Ironically, the Government’s interference in earlier legislation is part and parcel of the problem. Any moves to deregulate and get out of the hair of local councillors and those in control are very welcome.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way very briefly, as others wish to speak.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about a further diminution of local councillors’ powers? He may have spotted, in clause 32, a plan to centralise the complaints process by giving the national Standards Board power to suspend a locally elected standards committee. Does he not agree that that is a move in precisely the wrong direction, and that local problems should be resolved locally?
As a member of one of the early standards committees, I welcomed its efforts to ensure that complaints were dealt with by local councillors and independent chairmen, rather than being second-guessed by a national board.
Why is public satisfaction so low? One question that any resident would want to ask is, “Why is my council tax rising? Who is responsible for that—who holds the purse strings?” As Members have suggested, the whole issue of local government finance is missing from the Bill. That is a big omission, because it is in terms of that that people might feel a change in their level of satisfaction. They want to ensure that their council is much more responsible—that it is responsible for the taxation raised, and that that links in with representation and expenditure. I await the Lyons review with bated breath, but we must not delude ourselves about the importance of matters such as shifting the structures and seeking to improve consultation. The crux is whether local councils have proper autonomy.
Let me turn to another significant part of the Bill. An issue for the public is whether they have a voice—whether they, or their representatives, are involved in decision making. Is there a genuine devolution of power? The Government answer that by addressing structural change, but that takes them in the wrong direction. Their structural change involves looking at the option of giving more power to executive leaders. I have not had letters in my mailbag or people banging on my door demanding that more power be given to the council leader. People do not say that they want that. What they want—and what we want when we suggest that there should be more councillors, and that perhaps they might be younger and more able—is more power and accountability for councils and individual councillors.
That is why it is profoundly disappointing that having a committee system is not one of the options among the various structural models. When I was elected as a councillor in 1994, I was one of the youngest councillors in Enfield. It took a while for me to understand what was going on in the council, but I appreciated the signposts of the committee system. I knew where to go to get information and who to ask questions of. My party was not in control of the council at the time, but, as an opposition councillor, I appreciated having the opportunity to ask questions not only of councillors, but of council officers.
We now have a system of cabinet government, and I was a cabinet member. I appreciated the level of involvement that I had with council officers and having some kind of streamlined decision making. However, the scrutiny of my role diminished, as did the amount of information that went not only to councillors but to the public. Also, newly elected councillors, in particular, do not know where to go. They are put on a scrutiny committee and it takes them a while to get to grips with the labyrinthine ways of how to hold an executive with increasing power to account.
Other elements of the committee system that were of benefit were the degree of consensus and the cross-party working that could be achieved on a committee, for the good of a community. That now seems to be decreasing. I urge—as I will do again in Committee—that we look into at least giving local communities the option of having such committees, even though in my experience they are not perfect.
Another issue to do with structure involves the standards committee. I welcome the recognition in the Bill that things have become centralised, that we need to devolve decision making, and that the conduct regime needs to be determined locally by local councillors working with independent members. I was an inaugural member of the standards committee in Enfield. The independent chairman and councillors on both sides of the party divide worked well and diligently. However, the committee became concerned that the standards board was increasingly taking powers and control away from it.
Also of profound concern throughout the country is the increased detail and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the code of conduct, and the fact that it lacks basic common sense. Therefore, the suggestion that there might be a clearer, simpler and more consistent and sensible code of conduct is to be welcomed. However, we will need to see how that works in practice.
I particularly welcome the suggestion that there will be a reduction in the burden of best value and inspection. It is about time that that happened, and my party has campaigned vigorously for it, not least during election campaigns. It is also welcome that the Audit Commission might have a gatekeeper role in terms of inspection, instead of its seeking to perpetuate the inspection regime, which is a circus in many respects.
The catchphrase “community call for action” sounds good and engaging, but will it involve the public? We must not ignore the fact that the public are engaged in the debate. I have held a number of public meetings about the North Circular road—about the continued blight caused by that congested road that goes through my constituency. There was also a recent public meeting against the closure of Southgate police station. I can think of another one that intended to stop back-land development at New River crescent involving a number of houses along our river path. There was also a recent campaign about the proliferation of mobile telephone masts. All such local issues have caught the imagination and concern of many of the public, who are engaged.
However, the public have a concern that the Bill does not address: they feel powerless to make changes in respect of such issues—issues that are of profound concern on their doorstep, and affect their lives. In the context of the North Circular road, they see Transport for London as unaccountable to them—it is unelected—and that other legislation is not providing more accountability. They see Transport for London setting targets and taking action that they have no real control over.
Communities see the Metropolitan Police Commissioner setting central targets for what are termed community assets, but they have no involvement in the decision as to whether they can keep their local police station. The Government set targets and guidelines for the density of back-land housing development; again, that is a case of second-guessing the local community. Similarly, the guidance on mobile phone masts makes little provision for consulting or involving local people.
Those are the issues that my constituents are banging on the door about and feel powerless to address, not the structural change that the Government are trying to make, or the mechanism of the “community call for action”. They are concerned that this is more than a structural change—that it is a substantive change not in the relationship within local government, but between central and local government. That concern is not being addressed; the Bill is silent on it.
On local area agreements, the Bill refers to local targets, but the hand of central Government remains heavy. Why should the Secretary of State be able to approve local targets? Local councils and their partners should be free to determine their own targets through their own measures, instead of the Secretary of State seeking to second-guess them. To what extent will the community call for action process involve young people? Will they really be able to call on councils to act? Where is the reference in the Bill to young people’s proper engagement in that process? They are concerned about their communities, but will they really be able to facilitate a call for action?
As I said in an intervention, crime and disorder is excluded from the community call for action process because it is dealt with in the Police and Justice Act 2006. However, what action should communities who are concerned about alcohol-related issues take, for example? Will such issues be dealt with properly? It is clear that they are not being dealt with properly now through the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. Will this bureaucratic model exclude such issues because they fall under the category of crime and disorder, and will that affect proper community engagement?
I want to finish on the subject of patient and public involvement forums and LINKs. Constituents in my own forum have expressed grave concern about LINKs. They say that although the Government describe LINKs as expert panels, they are not taken seriously by local NHS organisations and carry little weight. My local forum has produced 18 reports, which have had a big impact and are well respected. In the last year, it has produced reports on the anticoagulation clinic, wards, catering services, the accident and emergency department and patients’ telephone services, and there are reports to come on blood-testing and stroke facilities, maternity and obstetric services, and pharmacy and cancer services—I could go on.
That is a vigorous and hard-working forum that feels that the proposed LINKs will not address these issues properly. It tells me that spot inspections of cleanliness and patient management are often far more effective than planned inspections by organisations such as the Healthcare Commission. I am concerned that the existing proper statutory duty to inspect will no longer exist, and that, as has been said, there will simply be a duty to observe, which comes with preconditions and caveats.
I finish by referring to part 11 and the duty to consult, which is to be changed. Will a duty to consult only on significant changes really deal with issues in my constituency such as the local baby clinic and developmental checks, which have been removed without proper consultation? The duty to consult has not been properly upheld. I would welcome the measure if it would firm up the process, but the concern is that it will not. The dead hand of Government is clear in this regard. The question of what is significant is determined by the Secretary of State. The White Paper was called “Our health, our care, our say”, and in Committee I will try to ensure that that phrase is not just words, but leads to action.
I welcome the Bill and applaud the Government for introducing enabling legislation that allows local circumstances relating to restructuring to be taken into account. I shall give a completely opposite set of reasons why we should have a unitary county in Durham from those given by my hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who are no longer in their places.
I know that not everyone will be pleased that the restructuring of councils is back on the agenda, and we should acknowledge that the Bill actually goes much further than that. I have previously been a member of a unitary authority and a district council, and I represent an area that now has a two-tier authority. Over the years I have developed strong views about the need for unitary councils. Therefore, I am pleased that the previous Secretary of State and the present ministerial team have listened to those who were saying that it should be possible to revisit the question of unitary status, and I thank them for bringing forward legislation that will enable that.
When the then Secretary of State for the Environment set up the Banham commission in 1991-92, he clearly set out the reasons why two-tier authorities were not a good idea and the advantages of changing to unitary status. It is a pity that that Administration bottled out of rolling that change out across the country. Instead, they stopped as soon as they got into some difficulties in rural areas. It is not easy to establish unitary authorities in rural areas, but the Bill charts a way to do so.
It is worth briefly rehearsing the arguments against two-tier authorities. They can be very costly. We have seven districts in County Durham that duplicate several functions, but we need to recognise the lack of strategic leadership caused by small districts. Districts may also not be sufficiently local to have a real connection with people. That is not a point that has really been discussed today, but their boundaries are often very artificial. Perhaps most importantly, it is very confusing for local people who live under a two-tier structure, because they are often not clear about which council has responsibility for what.
Like the hon. Lady I have worked in a unitary authority, but I also respect democracy. Not so long ago, her electorate decided that it knew enough to want to retain a two-tier system. Does not the voice of the people count?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but in the referendum on the regional assembly the people of Durham county voted for a unitary authority, so I am in fact taking note of what the people said—
Two unitary authorities.
Order. Interventions should be made in an orderly fashion, not from sedentary positions.
I should point out to the hon. Gentlemen that the people voted in favour of one county unitary authority in County Durham.
It may assist the House if I point out that Northumberland and Durham are separate counties.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it had not dawned on me that Opposition Members would not know the difference between Northumberland and Durham.
I am pleased that Durham has brought forward proposals for a unitary county and that it has a lot of local support for that. The legislation states that the council has to get local stakeholders on board, not that it has to achieve a consensus, which would be difficult in practice.
The leadership models outlined in the Bill provide a fair amount of variation and should allow local councils to come up with a model that reflects well the needs of local people. I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) that I think that it should be an aspiration to have leaders in place for four years, so that they can stand on a manifesto and be judged against what they have delivered—or not—four years later. I hope that that provision remains in the Bill.
I appreciate that the Bill allows districts that want to work more effectively together to have pathfinder status. However, I am not sure how that will help local people who, as I have said, are often very confused about two-tier local government.
I began by saying that the Bill charts a way through the real difficulty associated with establishing unitary local government in rural areas. The unitary councils that it sets up will provide county-wide strategic planning, but the Bill also stands up for the needs of the large number of people who make up the wider community. That balance is very important if rural areas are to be able to challenge the city-region agenda, when that conflicts with their needs. For example, the regional spatial strategy in my area appears to acknowledge the needs of the two city-regions, but takes no note of the need to provide more housing or economic development in the county as a whole. I hope that a unitary authority will give the people of County Durham a stronger voice which will enable them to get that regional spatial strategy changed.
The balance to which I have referred can be achieved if we have stronger neighbourhood councils. They need powers in addition to the ones that they have already so that, when they demonstrate the necessary competence, they can deliver services at the neighbourhood level. That is very important, as people in Durham identify most with what happens at a very local level—that is, in their village or urban neighbourhood. They are concerned about matters such as parking, community halls and bus shelters, and councillors should have a budget for such things so that they can react quickly to local needs.
The Bill will allow us to achieve a better balance between neighbourhood communities and more strategic planning. I cannot understand how the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), can say that the Bill will not improve local representation and accountability, given that many of its provisions are intended to strengthen parish councils, where that is appropriate, and to support what goes on at a neighbourhood level with new forms of neighbourhood councils. I am also pleased that the neighbourhood councils will be able to co-opt local people to join them—a system that could bring in much needed skills. However, we must look very carefully at whether that might erode the local democratic voice. Clearly, the power of co-option could be used only in very limited circumstances.
I am pleased that the Bill contains provisions in respect of the community call for action, which will strengthen the scrutiny applied to what is happening in local areas. Local councillors and others—including young people—must be able to bring forward matters for greater scrutiny in the council and get a report on what needs to be done. The Local Government Information Unit has said that the current community call for action does not go far enough, and that it should cover a much wider range of topics. That is worth considering, but the danger is that only the most articulate and organised voices will be heard. The regulations supporting the Bill will have to be very clear about how often a particular matter can be brought forward, and about the numbers of people involved.
Does my hon. Friend agree that councillors who do their job properly should be able to deal with major problems arising in a ward or electoral division, and that the community call for action is very much a last resort, to be turned to when conventional mechanisms break down?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and hope that the process will be used most in the circumstances he describes.
I welcome the improvement in partnership working that the new local area agreements should bring about. It is important that they are used to bring the community and voluntary sectors on board. However, we may need to look at the list of things covered by LAAs, as they must be able to tackle some of the cross-cutting issues, such as climate change, local environmental matters and social inclusion, which it has been difficult for them to consider effectively. I also welcome the changes to best value and the rationalisation of inspection, which are much needed to reduce the bureaucratic burden on local authorities.
I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to give further consideration to one or two issues. Other Members have mentioned that all political parties have difficulty in attracting a wide range of people to be councillors. We shall have to tackle the difficult issue of remuneration for councillors, especially for members who become full-time members of a county council executive and whose remuneration should reflect that. We should take care not to be drawn by the Daily Mail hysteria on the subject; we need grown-up, rational discussion about how to include more people and involve them in local government. We also need to look into improving the skills base.
The Bill is likely to be judged against its objectives, which are to give local people more influence over the services and decisions that affect their communities, to provide more effective, cost-effective and strategic local government, and to bring on board citizen empowerment. I hope that the Bill will be judged on that.
I realise that other Members want to speak, but I want to raise one final issue. Standards need to be put back on the agenda. Most of the standards issues that come to my notice are petty and often personal and vindictive, yet there are huge matters to address. For example, the official website of the City of Durham council is full of statements from portfolio holders and the council leader; they are prominent on the web pages but it is hard to find information about council services. There seems to be no body that can look into such issues.
I shall have to curtail my comments significantly, as we are coming to the end of the debate and I want to make sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), have a chance to speak.
I want to give the Minister the result, hot off the press, of the referendum held in Shrewsbury on unitary authority status. It is with great honour that I announce that more than 27,000 people in my constituency voted in the referendum, which is great for democracy. People are interested in how their council works. I must tell the Minister that 67 per cent. of the people of Shrewsbury voted against a unitary authority—a majority of more than 10,000, which is even bigger than my parliamentary majority.
I campaigned hard against a unitary authority, so I am grateful to my constituents for rejecting the proposals. Ministers say that they will be open-minded and respect the wishes of the people. Well, people in Shrewsbury have spoken and I very much hope that the Minister will take their point of view on board.
I campaigned on the issue because I felt so desperately passionate about Shrewsbury and her identity. We have the lowest council tax in Shropshire and the council is rated excellent. In my estimation, we have the best chief executive in the whole of England, Mr. Robin Hooper—an excellent gentleman who does a tremendous job of providing services to Shrewsbury, despite the below inflation levels of increase in local government funding from the Government. In fact, Mr. Campbell, our finance director, informs me that this year our increase was only 1 per cent.—far less than the rate of inflation.
Because of my passion for Shrewsbury, I decided to call a meeting with the Minister for Local Government—I am pleased to see him in his place to listen to my speech—and I must say that he is a man of honour and principle. I would like to thank him for the help he gave me—a very rare thing among the Labour Government. This gentleman certainly deserves praise for all his help. However, he did say at the meetings that the Government would not be prescriptive. That word is indelibly printed on my mind—and I am pleased to see him moving his head. He told me that the Government would not be prescriptive. He told me that if all areas asked for unitary authorities, the Government would not be able to afford it. He acknowledged the huge cost of redundancies and gave me a commitment in last December’s meeting that the referendum would ultimately play a role in the Government’s decision.
I must say that Labour councillors tried to provide a different view of what I have said about my constituency. I am particularly upset with Councillor Alan Mosley, the socialist councillor from Castlefields, who has tried to imply in public meetings that I am somehow misleading my electorate about the Minister’s comments. I put on the record here in the House of Commons that I spoke the truth to my electorate when I assured them that the Minister for Local Government would not be prescriptive in this matter and that he would take the result of the referendum into account. Unless he intervenes on me, I take it as confirmation that my comments were correct. I ask the Minister to confirm the Government’s view on this matter—and I need a guarantee from him in his summing-up speech that the referendum result will be respected.
During the course of my campaign on this issue, I spoke about one thing and one thing only. I did not get involved in the fiscal or financial elements, but spoke about local councillors being accountable to local people in Shrewsbury. Let me provide one example. Councillor Mrs. Judith Williams, who has represented the Porthill area for nearly 20 years, is an extremely hard-working Conservative councillor. She knows every single flagstone on every single pavement in that part of Shrewsbury. That is exactly the type of local person living in Shrewsbury who is accountable to the people of Shrewsbury and who can take the decisions that affect Shrewsbury. Nobody else from outside our town could do so as well.
The county council is currently looking into proposals for congestion charging in Shrewsbury as part of TIF—the transport innovation fund. This quango said yes to providing money for a north-west relief road, but explained that the downside would be the imposition of congestion charging in Shrewsbury. If we have no borough council in Shrewsbury, the unitary authority will be able to impose such measures, so councillors from outside our community will be able to impose congestion charging on Shrewsbury and we will have no say in it whatever. In a unitary authority, Shrewsbury would have only about a third of all the councils across the whole of Shropshire. Tanners, a major company in my constituency, is extremely concerned and has said that it will leave Shrewsbury if congestion charging is imposed.
I am trying to be as quick as I possibly can, but I also want to say that the Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council gets £80 less per household than the neighbouring Labour council of Telford and Wrekin. For every single house in my borough, we receive £80 less, which is an extraordinary amount of money. Two identical Shropshire hamlets—Withington on my side of the border and Roden on the other side—are subject to that difference of £80 for every single house. That is a great anomaly, which I want the Minister to take into account.
I always get replies from the Minister for Local Government saying, “Oh well, there are significant areas of deprivation in Telford.” Well, yes, we have significant areas of deprivation in Shrewsbury as well. I am sick and tired of Ministers telling me, “Oh well, yes, but Shrewsbury is a beautiful, quaint little English town with flowers—a picturesque little town.” Yes, of course, we want to have that image—ours is a beautiful town—but we have areas of deprivation. When his Parliamentary Private Secretary visited my constituency to look at a new library in a very run-down part of Shrewsbury, she was amazed. She said, “I didn’t know you had areas like this in Shrewsbury.” There is that sort of prejudice among the Government. They think that, if people are out in the countryside in Shropshire, they are somehow very wealthy and do not need extra support from the Government. That is not true.
I shall finish now, because I have been told that I can speak only for seven minutes. I could speak for hours on this issue. I will finish by saying that at the end of today’s sitting, I will present the Minister with a document, which I hold up proudly, entitled “Local Governance by Local People for Local People: Darwin Option for Shropshire; Evolution of Change; Outline Case for the Enhancement of Effective Two Tier Working.” That document has been created by my borough council and its chief executive, Robin Hooper, to make the case for an enhanced two-tier system for Shropshire, rather than having an unwanted unitary authority imposed on us.
I strongly support local government—it is an important part of public life in Britain—and I should like to concentrate on two issues in the Bill: the ability of local authorities to opt for unitary status and the devolution of power to communities, certainly to parish and town councils. A lot of the rest of the Bill is about unpicking some of the mistakes that we have made in the past 10 years. I support doing that, but I am not sure whether we will find the perfect local government solution for which the Government appear to be looking.
The baseline for me in local government is accountability—it has been said already that that is part of the attractiveness of local government—and it involves two things: the ability to elect someone to local office and the ability to remove someone from office, which is just as important. My concern with some of the things that have been said about the Bill and with the tenor of some of the things that the Government are doing is that, somehow, we are trying to depoliticise the process. The suggestion seems to be that using a quango, a board or something that is not directly elected by the people provides a better way to deliver services. I am sorry, but I do not agree with that because, ultimately, people must have the right to remove people from office.
A classic example—which will not go down well among Government Members, but I am sure that it will among Opposition Members—is the North East assembly, which the people of the north-east rejected overwhelmingly. It is now in place, sitting there, costing £2 million a year. It is not relevant to people, but it is having a direct effect on my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), by coming up with the regional spatial strategy. When the two of us asked to make representations to a Minister, we were told that we could make our representations as part of the consultation process, as though we were just ordinary members of the public. The same thing has been said to local councils in Durham. It is completely wrong that an unelected body should have such influence.
I also want to touch on the issue of leadership, which seems to be something that the Government have grasped, saying that it will solve all local government problems. The options available are a mayor, a directly elected executive, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has already described as “bonkers”—I completely associate myself with his views—and a new style of leadership, which is very interesting.
I was heartened after my intervention on the Secretary of State when she said that the Government would not be prescriptive in the model that was proposed. I must tell the House that that is not what is coming from the civil service. Officers in County Durham have been told that, if they want their unitary bid to be taken seriously, it must contain an element of the new system—either a mayor, or a directly elected executive. I am pleased that the Secretary of State scotched that and said that other options can be put forward. I just hope that that is correct. The case made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham for a single unitary county in Durham was strong and passionate, and I totally believe in it.
I fear that, by means of this leadership method, we might get mayors by the back door. I have a copy of a briefing note that was sent to me today by the parliamentary Labour party. It is for people who cannot think for themselves. It says:
“Does the Government want more Mayors? We want stronger leadership everywhere. The success of Ken”—
he is known as “Ken” now—
“in London shows that directly elected mayors are highly visible and benefit from a strong mandate to take tough, but essential, decisions on issues such as congestion charging. People understand who is making these decisions and where the buck stops”.
That demonstrates where the problem comes from. We are looking at the issue in the light of a London-centric model. We have to recognise that there are examples up and down the country of where the old committee system, which I served under for nearly nine years in local government, served us perfectly well. Most of the regeneration of Newcastle and Gateshead was done under the old committee system. The revitalisation of Manchester was done under the local committee system. Let us not be fooled by some of the people who write these position papers and documents. Many of them have never served in local government, but they think that they have the answer to all our prayers in these models. I do not denigrate the hard-working councillors of all political persuasions, who, let us be honest, do their work for little monetary gain and who get a lot of hassle.
I strongly support the case for a single unitary in County Durham. A bid will be put forward by the deadline of this Thursday. A single unitary will, overnight, clear up the confused mess that we have at the moment. We have a county council that spends 86 per cent. of the budget, district councils that are too small and bicker among themselves and over the most small-minded things with the county council. It will do away overnight with 275 councillors. I have 60 councillors in my constituency alone. They vary in quality. We have some good county and district councillors, but all parties are struggling to get people of quality to come forward. Comment was made earlier about savings. The change will save £21 million for the council tax payers of County Durham. More importantly—this will be attractive to many council tax payers—the bid says that the precept will be moved down to the lowest, which is Chester-le-street. Six out of the seven districts will see their council tax precepts reduced.
The other issue is about devolving power to the local level. That is a good aspect of the Bill and something that we should grasp. I hear people say, “You can’t have a unitary county, because you can’t represent local people.” That can be done. In County Durham, we have some examples of good town and parish councils. That is why I have been fighting for the last two years against Derwentside district council to form the new Stanley town council, which will deliver at a local level. Okay, it is not high politics. It is about flower beds, litter picking, street lighting, Christmas lights and so on. But that is what a lot of people want. The Bill will give them that. The bid from County Durham stresses that devolution of power to local town and parish councils. I accept that that puts some pressure on the existing ones to go for quality status and make sure that they are professional, but it is welcome.
I do not know whether the Minister has worked out that the timetable for the changes means that we will have elections in May this year and, in the middle of that, we will be saying to people, “Your council will be abolished in the next year to 18 months.” Will the Minister think about how we can improve that in some way? It will not help turnout at those local elections.
Finally, I turn to health. Ever since I was elected, I have made representations about accountability at the local level, and I feel strongly about the subject. What is proposed in the Bill is a complete dog’s breakfast. We are unpicking something that we put in place quite recently, as it does not work. It does not work for one reason, which relates to my point about accountability: there must be the ability to affect actions. People must be able to change things. Neither what is proposed in the Bill nor the system currently in place can really change decision making in health at local level, and that is because of that terrible body, the NHS Appointments Commission, which appoints staff without any reference to local people. Even if those staff commit a host of mistakes, local people cannot remove them. If local councillors had made the mistakes that some local trusts in the north-east have made, they would be out on their ear at the next local elections. That is the issue.
We have missed an opportunity to democratise local health provision, after the mess of foundation hospitals. I am glad that I voted against the idea when it came before the House, and I have been proved right: it did not work, and did not make health more accountable. The Bill is a missed opportunity to introduce if not direct elections to health boards, then at least some way for local people or bodies to remove the decision makers. If we do not ensure that, we will not really interest people in local health. There are opportunities for local people under the Bill, but I do not think that it will be the panacea that people might think it is, or that it will bring about the Government’s ultimate aim of finding the perfect form of local government.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). I agree with practically everything that he said—I am sorry if that damages his career prospects—and perhaps that is because he spent a long time in local government before he came to the House, as did I. I wish that some other people had done the same. I am sorry to say it, but the truth is that the Bill is thoroughly disappointing. It is devolution of the kind that Napoleon Bonaparte brought to Europe. He said: “I bring freedom to the peoples of Europe, provided that you (a) subscribe to the French governance model, (b) subscribe to the code of Napoleon, (c) subscribe to the continental system of tariffs in trade, and (d) send a levy of troops to the Grande Armée. Once you’ve dealt with all that, you’re entirely free to do what you like.” The same situation applies to the Bill.
The provisions are totally constrained, and the leadership model is a good example of that. When I was a London borough councillor in Havering, we had strong political leadership, and we had a leader and a cabinet. It was the leader who chaired the policy and resources committee, and he and the committee chairman met, and gave the officers and the authority the direction that they needed. There is no need to tinker with that, because it worked. The other problem with the Bill is that it is all about tinkering and creating a plethora of new structures, but what we should be doing is reinforcing existing democratic structures.
That brings me to the buzzword of empowerment. The first thing that we could do is empower democratically elected councillors as local champions. I had the pleasure of being the deputy chair of the commission on London governance; I think that the Minister for Local Government is acquainted with some of its work. My chairman was the former Labour leader in Croydon, and we had input from leading Liberal Democrat council members, and we came to an all-party view. We thought that much more could be done, not to diffuse accountability, but to reinforce and concentrate it around the elected councillor as the local community champion. I am sorry to say that the Bill misses an opportunity in that regard, but I suggest that we could change that by taking some simple thoughts on board.
We could strengthen the position of councillors by giving them a statutory right to be consulted by all public service providers in their ward. I was horrified to find that under the model for safer neighbourhood teams, the involvement of local councillors is almost discouraged, but they should be involved. Local councillors should be consulted about local health provision, on issues such as where a local surgery should be sited in their ward. We could strengthen their powers in that regard.
I am sorry, but I cannot give way to the Minister, because time is so short. I appreciate his courtesy on past occasions, but he will appreciate the constraints that I am under, and I am sure that he will make his point when he winds up.
Instead of worrying about parish councils in London, where there is little demand for them, it would be far better to provide a devolved ward budget for spending in the public realm. Some progressive authorities already do so by providing £20,000 or so to be spent in each ward. If we entrenched such a provision, it would empower councillors to make local decisions, consult their community and make a proper business case for what they do. It would refocus everything around people who have democratic legitimacy.
We ought to make sure that there is better working between the health service and local authorities. We have made a start with overview and scrutiny committees, but why should we not go further and give ward councillors, too, involvement at borough level? That would strengthen things at the base and give them teeth. Should we not consider the possibility of allowing successful local authorities to take on PCTs’ commissioning role? Local authorities had a good record in public health in the past. We ought to return to that practice and build on it, instead of replicating a massive range of structures. Time is pressing, and I want to make sure that other hon. Members can make a contribution. I hope that I have indicated in a few brief headlines the missed opportunities in the Bill. That saddens me, as it saddens all of us who entered Parliament because we are passionate about local government, which is desperately important to the country’s health. We could do better, and if the Minister and his colleagues will only listen, we may yet do so.
May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on his contribution? I hope that he has done enough to be drafted on to the Public Bill Committee.
I shall be brief, and deploy a broad-brush approach to part 11, which endeavours to deal with patient and public involvement. In health, we are confronted with two parallel worlds—the world of decision making and the world of consultation. The world of decision making is made up of quangos, trusts, appointees, NHS networkers and so on, who decide what services are available, commissioned and cut, as well as the way in which they are configured, structured, run and financed, and even where they are located. They respond to ministerial instructions, financial pressures, turnaround teams, European directives, advice from the royal colleges, pressures from professional and union bodies and, of course, market forces. That is called local decision making, in the same sense that colonial government was local decision making.
The parallel world of consultation produces bodies such as community health councils and patients forums, which will be replaced by LINKs—local involvement networks. It produces, too, brochures, meetings, consultations and pseudo-consultations, surveys, much frustration and not a great deal of change in the eventual decision making. The public are given rights to be heard and consulted, as well as rights to a response, a hearing, a survey and a visit, but not a scrap of decision-making power is surrendered to them. Power remains with commissioners and providers and, ultimately, head office at Richmond house.
One cannot move from one world to the other without confusion, so one cannot avoid developing a deep cynicism. The Bill resolutely keeps those worlds apart. Poring over its small print, I could not find a single clause allowing the public to determine what the decision makers do. Ministers should be honest and tell us what they think—that the public are not capable of shaping the health service. If they think that locally elected people are probably too dim or lack relevant expertise, why do they not come out and say so? Why do they not admit that such people cannot make tough decisions or are likely to make bad ones if they are allowed such powers?
The Government choose to ignore the fact that many health services were locally grown, planned, owned and, at one stage, locally financed in part. Things are run differently in other parts of Europe. Almost every hospital has a long history of public involvement and local commitment going back many years, and it would be great to revive that practice. I accept that we have overview and scrutiny committees, which I support—indeed, they should be enhanced—but apart from fine words, ultimately they have the power only to refer things to the Secretary of State.
So in my view the Bill, unamended, leaves the parallel worlds of the decision-makers and the consulted just as far apart as they were before, and still parallel. Patrician rule remains, and hollow consultation and quango rule are still in place. There will be patient and public involvement, but it will be an extraordinarily frustrating business.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the Minister while he is in his place. To my surprise, I have a few moments, so I shall touch briefly on two issues.
I reiterate the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the timing of the Bill. As the Minister for Local Government said from a sedentary position earlier in the debate, the issue of local government reform has been on the agenda for over two and a half years. The Lyons review was commissioned by the Government to look at the restructuring of finances for local government. It is due to report in March. Why is the Bill not presented for our consideration after the Lyons review has reported? That is extraordinary.
Another timing issue that I should raise is why areas have been asked to volunteer to change their status by Thursday this week, after Second Reading but before the Bill has completed its passage through the House. We heard from the Secretary of State that she intends to make amendments to the Bill, which could be significant, to do with the powers of the Secretary of State to direct local councils. Councils are being invited to abandon their existing structure for a structure that is still unclear, in terms of both the powers that will be available to them and the financing regime within which they will be operating. That seems a peculiar way to go about making legislation that will affect local government.
I welcome aspects of the Bill. I welcome the reduction in targets, which we have heard about from many hon. Members in all parts of the House. I welcome the reduction of best value reports. My council—I should have reminded the House that I am still a local district councillor and proud to be so—has to produce best value report notes on some of the most minute aspects of the council’s service, which seems quite unnecessary. I welcome some of the plans for increased powers for parish councils.
But there are many aspects of the Bill that concern me. Other Members have covered those in great detail, so I shall highlight three in particular. One is the loss of the committee structure, as directed in the Bill. I, like many others, have served on committees and found, when I arrived on the council, that that was a suitable way of learning the procedures and methods of council working. In the event of unitary structures being imposed, and with councils perhaps as strong as 80 to 100 councillors, in a cabinet system of government individual council members will be merely voting fodder and will not have access to discussion or decision making as they do on committees at present, which has cross-party benefits and allows people to mature and perform various roles on the council.
My second concern, which has not been covered much in the debate, is the impact of increasing city regions on rural areas. There are many rural areas which, even if they become unitary, will not be sufficiently adjacent to cities to be able to be included in city regions. It is important that we consider in Committee whether the similar powers that will be available to city regions will also be available to rural areas, perhaps working together.
I am also concerned about the increasing centralisation of control of the standards committee. A number of hon. Members touched on that earlier.
Does my hon. Friend agree that too often, frivolous complaints to the standards committee have been used to stifle debate in local democracies?
That was most helpful. My hon. Friend makes a perceptive intervention, as ever.
But does my hon. Friend agree?
I happily agree with the comments made in that direction.
Let me consider the two principal matters that I wanted to discuss. The first is the greater centralisation of control that the Bill creates through granting the Secretary of State powers over many aspects of local government—perhaps more than hon. Members appreciate. Clause 2 grants the Secretary of State explicit power to direct local authorities to make a proposal to reorganise. The Minister shakes his head. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that she had no intention of directing areas apart from those that initially volunteer to become unitary. However, the Bill gives her the power to do so and, if it is accepted, it will exist for her and any successors—and there have been several Secretaries of State in recent years. Although the right hon. Lady may have good intentions, her successors may not.
Clause 3 provides that the Secretary of State may specify a date by which areas that want to consider their structure must make proposals. Local authorities must have regard to any guidance that the Secretary of State chooses to make. Those powers give the Secretary of State immense control to determine what happens to local authorities, and which become unitary. It is her decision, not the local people’s. It contrasts with her earlier comments. I hope that she will honour the assurances that she gave and not take the powers. I also hope that we can circumscribe them in Committee.
Secondly, I want to consider consultation. Much has been said about the Government seeking to proceed with unitary status only in areas where there is a desire for that to happen, which is supported by a “broad consensus”. That term is not defined in the Bill, the invitation to bid, discussions or Ministers’ replies to questions. Defining a “broad consensus” appears to be a matter of ministerial discretion.
Tomorrow, an application for unitary status will land on the Secretary of State’s desk from three local authorities in Shropshire: the county council, Oswestry borough council and South Shropshire district council, which is my authority. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who made a powerful speech this evening, is well aware of the position.
Do you support it?
I assure the Minister that I do not support the bid for unitary status. I have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to make the case for enhanced two-tier working. My authority has a good track record of enhanced two-tier working with the county and neighbouring district authorities.
The proposals are supported by the county council, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors wherever they had an opportunity to vote on them and a small number of parish councils. The consensus in support of the bid is based on an Ipsos MORI focus group, which interviewed 44 people in Shropshire. Earlier, we heard about the views of many residents of Shrewsbury and Atcham.
Yes, 27,000 residents took the opportunity to vote on the proposal. This evening, I received the results of the ballots that were conducted in my areas. They are a genuine test of public opinion. The Electoral Reform Society conducted them and the questions were independently approved by that body. The proponents of a unitary authority went to extraordinary lengths to try to stop the ballots, including legal challenge and attempts to fix local polls. I look to the Minister to confirm in his response to the debate that he will take note of the views of the voters in Shrewsbury and Atcham and in my constituency. On a 42 per cent. turnout—higher than for local authority elections in my area—57 per cent. of people in South Shropshire voted against unitary status. In Bridgenorth district council, on a 46.5 per cent. turnout, 86 per cent. voted against unitary status and in favour of enhanced two-tier local government. The people of Shropshire have spoken, and they want their councils to work together to achieve savings and greater efficiencies. They do not want a unitary authority imposed on them by this Government.
I welcome the many good contributions to the debate from both sides of the Chamber—many of which have identified a series of flaws in the Bill—to which the Minister for Local Government, who has been warmly praised this evening, will respond in a moment.
Four trends have emerged from what colleagues have said. First, councillors should be doing real jobs. They should be properly engaged, not crowded out by targets set elsewhere or fooled by a structure that pretends to involve them but does not do so. Several colleagues mentioned the need for the committee structure to be covered by the Bill, at least as an option. The hon. Members for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) and for Eltham (Clive Efford), my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and, notably, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made that case particularly strongly.
Secondly, the Government have dealt with the health aspects in only a small part of the Bill, and real concern has emerged over the limitations of LINKs. The hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall) and, most notably, the powerful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) made it clear how important it is to speak up for the independence of those who comment on health issues, and to speak out against their diminishing role in inspection. We defer to my hon. Friend’s expertise and look forward to his participation in the further stages of the Bill. He certainly spoke for all those on the Front Bench tonight.
Thirdly, the House was concerned about truly letting the people decide. Hon. Members drew our attention to the absence of detail in the Bill about how decisions are to be taken—decisions in relation to local government that affect the most important aspects of our constituents’ lives. We will forever be pleased that we were in the House on the night when my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) announced the results of the debate that should save their local district councils. That was democracy in action, and I challenge the Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that he will not accept the results of those referendums. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and the hon. Members for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) also spoke of the importance of letting the people decide. Whatever the decision may be, we must bring the people into it. The Bill certainly does not do so.
Fourthly, more than one colleague picked up on the sense of prescription that lies at the heart of the Government. Whatever their honeyed words about consultation, at the end of the day they are all about telling us what to do. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made that very clear. My right hon. Friend, above all, put his finger on what was going to happen in the next couple of years. He described the turning off of the public sector tap. If a chill has not already descended on Labour Members as they look at the money that has flowed into the education and health systems over recent years, they must surely feel one now. Let them just wait and see what is coming in the next couple of years.
I want to deal with the positive aspects of the Bill—although this part of my speech will, understandably, be brief. First, we support local decisions on the electoral and warding arrangements of a council, which should be for the local people to decide. I repeat, however, that we urge the Minister to take the opportunity to look again at the committee system, as so many people want him to do. The Local Government Information Unit backs up that request in its briefing to us.
Secondly, we welcome the efforts to involve parish and town councils more. My old constituency of Bury—dear Bury—had no such councils, so I came rather new to the 54 parish and town councils in North-East Bedfordshire. They have been a huge blessing. They are a local tier of information and advice and, like the National Association of Local Councils, I strongly support a greater role for them. The parish and town councils in Bedfordshire are very perceptive and sharp. Among the responses that I received to the consultation that I produced, Renhold parish council said:
“Councillors say also that any measure that can reduce central government interference is to be welcomed.”
We have heard it from Renhold parish council—and if the Government would take note, we would all be pleased.
Thirdly, although we welcome a revision of targets from the centre, experience suggests that we should examine carefully the new local targets set. Too often, the impression is given that local targets are set with national criteria in mind. Why the Government want to be involved in the setting of local targets we just do not know.
That brings me to the heart of our concerns about the Bill: the power to direct local authorities to make applications for unitary status, and the absence of any democratic means of gauging public opinion and support for proposals put forward. On 26 October, the Government published a White Paper full of the meaningless modern jargon that those in authority now use to keep the people in their place—the patronising face of modern administration. At paragraph 3.55, the Government say:
“We are, therefore, now inviting local authorities in shire areas to make proposals for unitary local government “,
and at paragraph 3.57:
“More information can be found in the Invitation accompanying this White Paper, including full details of the criteria”.
However, by 13 December, a bare 47 days later, the Bill was published, and out of the blue the word “direct” appeared. Where had that come from? What responses to consultation had there been in those 47 days to make Ministers suddenly realise that taking that power was necessary? If minds were not changed in that time, why was there no mention of the power to direct in either the White Paper or the full details of the invitation?
It is not as if the White Paper was rushed. The parliamentary brief mentions the debate on the future of local government as having begun in July 2004, with a White Paper expected the following year. It was late, but after hundreds of seminars and speeches, those in local government might have expected it to be pretty definitive, at least on such a major issue as restructuring. Either the failure to mention the power to direct was incompetence of the kind that has become the hallmark of this Government, or it was deception on a grand scale, which is also now indelibly attached to them, from the Ministry of Defence to No. 10. We have already forced an admission of possible amendment from the Secretary of State, and I look forward to hearing the Minister confirm that.
Where is there any sense of democratic support for the proposals that will come forward? Where is the referendum?
We have had a referendum in Northumberland, and we agreed on what the county council did not agree on—that we will have two unitary authorities.
The hon. Gentleman made powerful interventions on the Secretary of State to make it clear that the people had spoken in his area, and that they deserve to be listened to. But where is that provided for in the Bill? He cannot see it, and nor can we.
How is a “broad measure of support”—the weasel words in the White Paper—to be calculated? How is that to be weighed against what is on the face of the Bill, which is what the Minister believes is in the best interests? How cringe-making some of the words in the White Paper are. It talks of a “permissive approach”—and there is the wonderful phrase from the Secretary of State:
“we must have the courage at the centre to let go.”
Can anyone recognise that about this Labour Government? It sounds like a melodramatic mum appealing to a child in a ’30s or ’40s northern drama, not letting her children out of her sight to go into a cruel world. This Government would not know what letting go was if they confronted it.
This Bill highlights a fundamental divide between the two main parties, which is about the willingness to let go. Labour is addicted to power and control. From health to education, and local government to the police, everything that has a public element must be within its grasp. Every public service that one can think of has been driven almost demented with target after target, their discretion fettered and their professionalism compromised. Devolution of power is at the heart of the issue. There is a sharp contrast between the Conservative party’s approach to the issue—as shown in our commitment to the Sustainable Communities Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and our opposition to this Bill and its unjustifiable powers to direct councils—and the Government’s hostile and reluctant attitude to the Sustainable Communities Bill and their determination to push through this Bill regardless of its constitutional outrage.
Letting go is not easy. It is against the conventional norms of government in this country over the past 30 years or so—[Interruption.] I said 30. It is completely against every fibre of the Treasury’s being, yet the evidence is that as the central Government stranglehold on local government has increased, the participation of the public at the ballot box has decreased. Coupled with that is a sense of powerlessness at local level: it does not matter what we think or say, because the Government will decide. People think that if their council follows the Government’s agenda it will be praised and congratulated, and given the pretence of making its own decisions—but if the council goes its own way, it will be marked down in assessments and its people will pay.
I have great admiration for the hon. Gentleman, but when he was an MP for Bury, did he vote in favour of the poll tax?
The poll tax and history! How many years is that going to be tried on? Does the hon. Gentleman use it in every debate? History has moved on. It is not the poll tax that will be the deciding issue at the next general election, but this Government’s deceit, the way in which they control and centralise power, how they have let people down on health, education and the police, and the way in which they will turn off the tap. That is what people will judge by at the next election. Enough is enough.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
We have seen the danger. It is time to take some risks and restore trust and discretion. Our opposition to the Bill, our support for the Sustainable Communities Bill and our continual objection to nationally driven targets and agendas is hard tangible evidence of that, against which there are only sweet words, with hidden meanings, from the Government, and the tough experience of thousands of public servants who have heard this talk of devolution so many times.
This Government now suffer from two fundamental flaws, each of which is enough to kill them. One is a failure to understand a shift in the political bedrock and to work with it. The second is that few any longer believe almost anything they say or any statistics they produce in their own interests, such has been the devaluation of the relationship between the Government and the people in this country.
The Bill is a fig leaf to cover the Department’s inadequacies. How will it help the local government funding crises, so often the result of the Treasury and the Chancellor loading responsibilities and taxes on the local taxpayer and evading the rap for doing so? How will it help the taxpayer who knows that he will have to bear the costs of any reorganisation and see any potential savings eaten up by the Chancellor, filling the gap with new taxes and ensuring that there is higher pay for executives as a result of reorganisation, as was highlighted by the newspapers this weekend? Will reorganisation build another house, provide another care bed or a new carer for the elderly? There is no doubt that taxpayers in all areas, male and female, will feel the burden.
The Bill should have been about listening to the people and devising some serious adjustments to power that would have delivered what they really need. Instead, we have a Bill that has at its centre as crass a piece of naked power grabbing as we have seen, even from this Government. The Bill should have been about restoring the democratic balance by bringing back under the democratic control of local authorities the powers over housing, transport and planning that were taken from them and given to unelected regional bodies. Instead, it is an increase in central Government command over an agenda that is fast losing the sense of being local and is leaving the people behind.
With regard to bids by the Conservative groups on Bedfordshire county council, South Bedfordshire district council, Mid Beds district council and Bedford borough council, what would be the hon. Gentleman’s advice to them, as they are opting in to unitary status?
My advice is that they are entitled to think what they like and take their own decisions, and they should be listened to. My advice is that they should not be subsumed by the power of direction that the Government are taking over them.
The debate is about when to take a risk and how power is devolved. This Government would not understand the devolution of power if they met it in the street stark naked, waving a cheque and asking for a peerage. The people deserve better from this discredited Government. A vote for the Opposition amendment will serve notice that the House and the people have rumbled them, and that we will accept their tightening grasp, their avoidance of democracy and their weasel words not a moment longer.
I did not expect such an exciting flourish at the finish from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is normally such a consensus politician. Let me, in all seriousness, draw the House’s attention to the reaction to our White Paper and the Bill from the Conservative-led Local Government Association, with which we have spent two years building consensus to ensure that English councils can benefit from the devolution that the rest of the United Kingdom has already experienced.
The hon. Gentleman criticised the Government for not being able to let go. We let go in Scotland; the Conservatives opposed it. We let go in Wales; they opposed it. We let go in London; they opposed it, having abolished it in the first place. We let go on transport. We let go in Northern Ireland. We let go through the prudential borrowing regime. We are letting go through the local authority business growth initiative, to the tune of £1.5 billion. We let go through non-ring-fenced grants and £500 million from the neighbourhood renewal fund, opposed by the Conservatives. The local area agreements and the change in the performance regime that the Bill introduces have already let go significant powers, to the tune of £500 million of pooled money, to local government and its partners. That amount will rise to £5 billion by the end of the next period. We are letting go across the country.
Let the House be in no doubt about the Conservatives’ response when we do let go, and ask councils to come up with their own proposals for new organisation—not ours—with the clear criterion that they will be allowed to go ahead only when there is value for money and no extra burden is imposed on the council tax payer. What is their response? It is to get out the Central Office staffers and send them to the county councils of England to hold their hands and tell them that they are not allowed to present proposals that their own officers are telling them would reduce the council tax bills of people in those areas. The Government have not prescribed where the unitary proposals should come from. We have not told districts or counties which model we prefer. We have said that value for money for the council tax payer should be the criterion.
We have heard a great deal about Shropshire this evening. Shrewsbury is a beautiful place and it does have pockets of poverty, although not as many as Telford. Members have spoken as if the Secretary of State were proposing to abolish the council in the constituency of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). It is not the Secretary of State who is proposing that; it is Shropshire county council.
I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who may wish to ask me who is the leader of Shropshire county council. In fact the leader of Shropshire county council is a very eminent Conservative, Malcolm Pate. It is a Conservative proposal that the hon. Gentleman is trying to pretend is an example of the Government’s taking central powers. It is not possible to square that with the proposals of the 1980s and 1990s, which changed the boundaries of local government in England in Berkshire, Middlesex, Lancashire and other areas across the country. The former Secretary of State Mr. Heseltine admitted—
No, I will not give way at this point. Mr. Heseltine admitted in the Local Government Chronicle that he had made his final decisions on the boundaries in England on the basis of a helicopter flight around the towns and an ordnance survey map. That is the truth of what happened under reorganisation. This Government will stick to the criteria that we have published. We will abide properly by those criteria, and we will judge proposals accordingly.
I will not give way. We have plenty of time in which to debate these issues. The timetable for consultation issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensures that after proposals have been submitted there will be widespread consultation. I look forward to that, including the consultation with the public. They will of course have their say, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) pointed out.
It is incumbent on me to try to respond in as much detail as possible to those who have asked questions and made comments. Unfortunately, some myths have been perpetuated, but some sensible detailed points have also been made. If the Bill is enacted, there will be two new local government statutory duties. Let me make it clear what they are. First, a statutory duty to co-operate will be imposed on the local authority and its public partners. That will empower local councils in a way that has not been the case for many decades; indeed, that is already happening through the local area agreements. The second duty that will be imposed on councils will change the relationship between them and their citizens; it is the statutory duty, through the best value regime, to involve, consult and devolve the double devolution part of the devolution.
I advise Members of all parties to take a serious look at those proposals. I must pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who said that he welcomed much in the Bill although he wished to raise some points of detail. Having been a Minister with responsibility for such matters for four years, he understands the importance of this change in the legislative regime. Our proposals are genuinely devolutionary. I advise the Conservative party to try to change its mindset, because its opposition to our proposals will leave it floundering in the wake of those local authority leaders who are already grasping the new powers.
Members of all parties had points to make about the leadership model. As elected representatives, all of us know that devolution can go only so far—that, at whatever level, somebody has to take a decision. The Bill ensures that, ultimately, those who take such decisions are elected representatives. Concerns about community cohesion and unrepresentative groups are met by the fact that a central role will be played by the elected councillor, either as a front-line ward councillor, or as a leader or part of the leadership of a council.
Will the Minister give way?
Not now, as I want to finish the point that I am making. I am normally generous in taking interventions, but I have only a few minutes left.
Let me say something about the boundary on the devolution of power. Given that through the local area agreement more money will be pooled by the Government and their local agencies than is contained currently in the revenue support grant, and also that more money will be distributed, the boundary on that devolution is the insistence, on behalf not only of the Government but of Parliament, which has the right to intervene in local decisions should it wish to do so, that areas have strong and accountable leaders for their local councils. That is why we have put forward what we see as strong leadership models.
Admittedly, the indirectly elected leader does not in practice change significantly what is already the case in most areas, but in the context of what we are talking about, one cannot expect any Government of any political persuasion to go down the route of radical devolution. Anybody who has studied the financial arrangements in the Bill cannot expect us to devolve power to leadership at local level that is not accountable. It has been said that we are prescribing mayors; we are not. Nor are we prescribing the modus operandi of councils in detail. However, we are insisting that if there is to be power at local level it must be accountable.
I will now take a quick intervention.
I know that the Minister is not prescribing, but there is an enthusiasm for directly elected mayors. If he believes so strongly in the idea, might he consider reducing the number of electors that are required to force a referendum on that issue?
Points made on the numbers can be debated in Committee, should the House agree to the Bill’s Second Reading. However, I have met mayors from across the country, and those who are in place—whether Conservative, Labour, independent or Liberal Democrat—are making a difference.
A number of Members asked why the Lyons report will come after the Bill. It seems to me that any consideration of the proper function and form of local government and the changes that are being made in order to build on the reforms that this Government introduced elsewhere in the public sector could sensibly be made only before we discuss the finance.
I appreciate that it is the job of the hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) to oppose—that is their constitutional duty—but there is one thing that I would bet my council tax on. Incidentally, according to today’s report by the Local Government Association, my bill is the second lowest since the council tax was introduced, but I see that the Opposition are giving no credit to the Government. [Interruption.] Presumably, we are now getting the Hammersmith and Fulham argument. The Opposition call for devolution, but why is it that, when councils of their own party put the council tax up, it is because of a centralised, heavy-handed Labour Government, yet when they lower them and cut services, they blame the cuts on a Government who allegedly do not give them funds? Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart of the Local Government Association speaks more common sense in one press release than the Opposition have done throughout today’s debate.
That is not to mention—no, I will mention it—the fake consensus that we had on Friday. When the Sustainable Communities Bill was given its Second Reading, with support in all parts of the House, the Government agreed with its intention and said that we would study its details in Committee. Do we see the same consensus regarding the plea of the Local Government Association and of Labour Members? Surprise, surprise, Mr. Speaker, we do not. It is no wonder that people think that the Opposition are cynical.
Does it not make sense to discuss the possible reforms of local government finance after the House has had a chance to discuss the roles, functions and direction of travel that it wants for councils? Had we done it the other way round, I bet my council tax on the fact that the Opposition would have said tonight that we had got it the wrong way around. The proposal has always been that we would take forward the form and function before the finance.
On the duty to direct, let me give the Opposition the reassurance that they and the Local Government Association are looking for, and which I have already given them. We have taken that power—we will introduce amendments to clarify it, as I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have undertaken to do, to ensure that there are limited circumstances in time and geography where that can be done—because we have a duty to ensure that we do not do what the previous Government did, which was to introduce unitary proposals for some areas that had detrimental effects in others. We have to provide a solution that is fair to all.
That, in all seriousness, is the point that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made. He had a referendum, and the Government must, and will, take the opinions into account, but we must also take into account the impact of proposals on other parts of the country. That is why the directive exists. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar says that he is not reassured. Given the cynical mood that the Opposition are in, I would imagine that they would not be reassured if I promised him a zero council tax and free meat pies. [Interruption.] I notice that it was the meat pies and not the low council tax that got him going, but there we are.
The measures in the Bill represent the most radical empowerment of local authorities and their partners, and of local councillors as front-line councillors in their communities. There are powers to set byelaws; to decide the configuration of wards; to decide to move to all-out elections, if so required; to work with their partners in the expenditure of taxpayers’ money over the 35 outcomes that they will decide, in conjunction with the Government; and local targets that they will decide on behalf of their local people. It is a radical measure and I call on the House to support the Bill.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
22 January 2007
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading):—
22 January 2007
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT IN HEALTH BILL (PROGRAMME)