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Communities in Control

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2008

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about “Communities in control—Real people, real power”, a White Paper that sets out the Government’s proposals to pass more influence, power and control to local communities and citizens.

As we reflect on the founding of the national health service this week and celebrate the achievements of this most civilised of British institutions, it is worth reminding ourselves that the NHS came about because of democratic politics. It is as much a testament to the powerful potential of politics as it is a testament to our common bonds of humanity. Like most noble achievements, the NHS was not a product of a cosy consensus; it was the product of a titanic political struggle.

Those of us elected to this House would do well to remind ourselves from time to time of the great struggles for democracy in this country. We should remember the ordinary soldiers who stood and debated with their generals at St Mary’s church in Putney during the English civil war, the families who gathered at St. Peter’s field in Manchester in 1819 to support parliamentary reform and were trampled and killed by the cavalry, the textile workers and miners who met on Kersal moor in my own constituency in 1838, the women who faced prison and even death to win the right to vote in the early part of the last century, and the men and women who fought and defeated fascism 60 years ago.

Whenever we risk taking our democracy for granted, we should recall the brave men and women on whose shoulders we stand, and give thanks for their fortitude and courage. When we look around the world, from Burma to Zimbabwe, we should recognise that the struggle for democracy is universal and that the drive for people to want to control their own lives is part of human nature.

This White Paper represents some significant steps forward towards giving local people a greater say over their lives and greater control over the forces and decisions that shape their neighbourhoods. I am convinced that in the coming decades, people will expect and demand much greater power within the political system. There is a tide of history flowing in the direction of greater democracy, and all of us who are part of the political system would do well to understand it, anticipate it and adapt our system to take account of the change that is coming. We are building on the devolution and decentralisation already enacted by this Labour Government—devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, more powers and resources for councils, and more ways for citizens to play an active role—but we need to move further and go faster.

The White Paper has two broad aims. The first is to rehabilitate local political activity as a worthwhile activity, conducted by decent people in pursuit of noble aims. We cannot function as a democracy without strong local democratic institutions and vibrant political parties in every area. Local authorities have a vital role. There are now many excellent examples of councils being at the heart of local democracy, and that should be the case everywhere.

Secondly, we must pass more power to local people so that they feel that if they get involved, it will be worth their time and effort. People are perfectly rational. They will get involved if they can see the change that they make, and if they do not, they will soon fall away. People are not apathetic: almost 70 per cent say that they want a bigger say in how the country is run. People want to be involved, but the structures and cultures of politics sometimes alienate them. They are disengaging themselves from the political process because they feel that they lack power. It is also crucial for young people to become involved, because our democracy rests on future generations being part of the process.

The White Paper will contain measures to enhance local democracy, but the Government are also committed to offering the public more opportunities to influence national decisions. Today the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), will publish a discussion paper providing a national framework for greater citizen engagement and suggesting mechanisms for involving the public in debates and decision making on national issues.

So what do we propose at local level? First, we want to place a new duty on councils to promote democracy. They will have to run campaigns to register voters, explain voting to local people, work with schools to explain local councillors’ roles, and train staff to be able to say which group controls the council, how to register to vote and when the next elections are. Councils should be vibrant hubs of local democracy, not units of local administration. We will allow councils to provide incentives to encourage more people to vote, perhaps entering voters in a prize draw.

Alongside the White Paper, we are publishing our response to the report by Jane Roberts’s Councillors Commission on the barriers and incentives to becoming and remaining a councillor. Many of Jane’s ideas are incorporated in the White Paper.

There will be a range of measures to increase visibility and accountability in local services. We will raise the profile of overview and scrutiny systems, which should be analogous to the Select Committee system at national level. Local public officials will need to appear before regular public hearings, and there will be a new right to petition to

hold local officers to account at public meetings. There will be a consultation on making it easier to demand a referendum on whether to have a directly elected local mayor—[Hon. Members: “We’ve had enough of them!”] We shall see. The consultation will be about making it easier to demand a referendum on whether to have a directly elected local mayor, for instance by accepting electronic petitions.

We are also announcing a review of redress when things go wrong in council services. The review will consider the way in which redress is being used across the public and private sectors, and will make recommendations on how it can be used better in local public services to improve satisfaction and service delivery.

We support the provision of more councils at community level, such as parish and neighbourhood councils, and will introduce a new right for local people to appeal to the Secretary of State if their council denies them the opportunity to establish a community council. We will introduce a national system to recognise the contribution of councillors who have served two full terms, by giving them the title “Alderman” or “Alderwoman”. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That is fine. Some Members of Parliament would be entitled to use that title—[Interruption.]

We will revise the so-called Widdicombe rules, which restrict council officers from political activity, and allow more council officers to engage in political activity if they choose to do so. We will also consult on extending the right to time off for public duties to a broader range of public service roles.

The Government support the vital democratic contribution of the voluntary sector. We will launch a £70 million communitybuilders scheme to support community organisations. We will also remove some of the barriers preventing faith-based organisations from supplying goods and services to local authorities. There will be a £7.5 million empowerment fund for national third sector organisations to establish innovative schemes, particularly for young people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to gain vital community leadership skills and become involved in planning and social enterprise. My Department's social enterprise unit will be launched in the autumn.

Petitions have been a well-understood part of our public life for centuries. They represent a recognised method of aggregating views into a single collective voice. They are so simple that even young people and children can take part. Many local authorities handle petitions very well. However, we want all of them to do so at the level of the best, so we will place a duty on councils to respond to all petitions, and if a petition has the support of more than 5 per cent. of the local population there will have to be a debate in full council.

Petitions will help local people to direct their council to clear away abandoned cars, build a new road crossing, introduce traffic calming measures or deal with an empty property. Councils will also act as community advocates, for example for petitions relating to NHS primary care trusts.

I am convinced that there is no conflict between representative and participatory forms of democracy. They are mutually reinforcing, and the best councillors are the ones who are in touch with the views of their community. We want to build on the success of participatory budgeting schemes, which allow local people to have a real say over how local investment is made, including in youth, community safety and health budgets.

We hear many negative things about young people today, and we are told that they have rejected mainstream politics. We need to do far more to harness their energy and their desire for social action and involvement. We will open up Government to young people and support a range of innovative programmes to help them become effective leaders of tomorrow.

We all understand that not everyone wants to become an active citizen, but none the less there are millions of people in Britain who want to do more for their communities but lack the platform on which to stand. We will transfer more assets—such as community centres, street markets, swimming pools, parks and land—to local community ownership. We want to see more local co-ops and mutually owned groups running local services. A new asset transfer unit will be established to speed this up. We also want to see more social businesses, and we will encourage councils to ensure that social enterprises are able to compete fairly for contracts.

This White Paper takes us further on our democratic journey, but this is not the last word. We are changing here the terms of the debate. We will continue to strive for greater reform, devolution and accountability, because that is what people increasingly want and demand, and because it is the right thing to do. I commend this White Paper to the House.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving me advance sight both of her statement and of this essentially harmless White Paper. Until her statement, I thought I was the one who was advocating “Just say no” to the right hon. Lady, but it appears that her colleagues in the Home Office and the Department of Health have taken the very life out of these proposals, and have found it remarkably easy just to say no to Hazel.

May I rise to the right hon. Lady’s defence and support a number of the measures in this document? We agree that there is a strong case for more city mayors where they are supported by local people. The hurdle for a community to get one is far too restrictive, but as the people of Bury decided last week, local choice must be paramount. However, why is the right hon. Lady so timid in allowing mayors just to join police and crime reduction partnerships? Why does she not go all the way and give them real control over policing?

The right hon. Lady calls for online petitions, but if she is such a supporter of e-democracy, why is her Department axing all funding for the International Centre of Excellence for Local eDemocracy? Does she not appreciate that that centre has been instrumental in helping local community groups and parish councils establish and publish community websites, and that it is the only organisation offering impartial advice?

We support devolving the management of services to local groups, and the strengthening of social enterprise is very welcome. However, a rag-bag of proposals is no substitute for policy. Does the right hon. Lady not understand that there is a contradiction in stripping local authorities of real powers in planning, housing and waste and transferring them to an unaccountable quango, and in replacing them with a few toys, few of which will see the light of day? It is less than a year since the last local government Act received Royal Assent. How many of the community provisions from that Act have commenced, and why has the community call for action introduced way back in the Police and Justice Act 2006 never been implemented?

The right hon. Lady mentioned that in order to encourage people to vote, their names will be entered into a prize draw. Will she confirm that the booby prize for such a draw would be a Labour councillor, especially when, under a scheme announced on page 137 of the White Paper, she suggests that councillors should be allowed to vote in meetings from the comfort of their armchairs, without being put to the inconvenience of meeting a voter? That is hardly an inducement for people to vote.

The Secretary of State calls for residents to be given a £10 rebate on their rubbish if it is not collected on the right day, but that pales in comparison with the £75 fines issued by Government bin bullies for putting out rubbish the evening before collection or—heaven forbid—not shutting the bin lid correctly. What is the point of a £10 rebate on a missed bin when families face £200 charges on top of their council tax?

I know that the Labour party is having difficulty finding candidates, but allowing staff to become councillors is partisan. It would be a return to the sweetheart deals in which officers and councillors swapped roles on a tit-for-tat basis. Such examples of jobs for the boys brought so much corruption to local government. This is jobs for the boys masquerading as human rights. We believe that it is in the public interest for the roles of officer and councillor to be separated, and we will make reversing the Secretary of State’s policy a high priority after a change of Government. Will she ensure that any officer who takes advantage of this arrangement understands that after the law is reversed, they will have to either find alternative employment or create a by-election by the next annual round? We will also oppose her desire to reintroduce propaganda on the rates.

If petitions are to play a more important role, does the Secretary of State realise that listening to them will be all the more important? The Government have ignored petitions on post office closures, polyclinics, a referendum on the European treaty and the congestion charge. What is the point in a council having a duty to respond to petitions if it has been stripped of its powers to make any difference? The Government have stripped away local accountability in planning, housing and waste. They have created a democratic deficit that this White Paper is inadequate to fix.

The Secretary of State started with a reference to the Putney debates and the Peterloo massacre, and ended by offering the inducements of a scratchcard for voting and the title of alderman for ex-councillors. That the Government should come to this is genuinely and truly sad.

I welcome the damascene conversion of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) to having more city mayors. I can only presume that he has been under intense pressure from the leader of his party, who has been a champion of having more mayors. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has seen the light and decided that that form of leadership is the right approach.

I also welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for some of the powers for the voluntary sector, but it is this Government who are providing resources, back-up and support to the sector in partnership, instead of seeking to push services on to the voluntary sector as an abdication of local and central Government responsibility to provide services for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of police and crime. My White Paper contains a reference to an increased role for mayors in addressing crime and community safety. He will see much more detail in the police Green Paper, which is likely to be published shortly. We mean to ensure that local people have much more say on crime, and on health, in which they also have a significant interest.

The hon. Gentleman will also see that the White Paper contains models for increasing primary care trust accountability. Those are very interesting and will be welcomed by local people who are keen to see commissioning in the health service take place at local level, so that they can influence it more.

The hon. Gentleman also welcomed the development of social enterprise and asset transfer. Again, he talks the talk, but it is this Government who are turning that into reality, with massive programmes in the health sector to encourage social enterprise. GP practices are increasingly adopting a social enterprise model. A GP practice close to me now provides appointments first thing in the morning at 7.15, and late night appointments at 8.30. That is what the public want to see, and that is why we have to be more adventurous in the models that we adopt.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of councillors being able to vote remotely. This is a consultation, but all our parties desperately need better, higher-quality people to come forward as candidates. People often have responsibilities to manage in their homes and family lives. If someone represents a rural area, it often takes them a tremendous amount of time to get to meetings. We have to be braver. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to have a little courage, a bit of imagination and a little creativity. His recipe is simply for more of the same, but the turnout in the last set of local elections was 35 per cent. Even in the London mayoral election it was only 45 per cent. Unless we are prepared to have courage and convictions and to do things differently, we will see this disaffection and disengagement from local politics continue, to the detriment of all our political parties and of democracy in this country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Widdicombe changes. I do not think that it is fair for a highways engineer who does not advise the council and has no role on policy, but earns £33,000 a year, to be barred from any democratic political activity because of that. It sends out the wrong message. It is right to correct that situation, which was caused by the previous Government.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that we had stripped powers away from local government, and that if we gave it more powers, that would be the answer. [Interruption.] Let me just say this to the hon. Gentleman: he seems to have had a bout of amnesia. In the past 12 months, we have reduced the number of national targets from 1,200 to fewer than 200. We have negotiated local area agreements and there are £5 billion-worth of un-ring-fenced funds. We have given local authorities the right, through the duty to co-operate, to draw together health, police, local councils and Jobcentre Plus, and we have given them excellent new tools to tackle antisocial behaviour. That is one area where local councils can make a difference, and that is where they need to put their efforts.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on her proposals but on her energy, commitment and advocacy, her bottom-up approach and her drive to empower local people. I reassure her that the shadow Secretary of State was entirely wrong when he proclaimed that it was easy to say no to Hazel; I have never found it easy to say no to her. I hope that my colleagues will not, either.

I welcome the new money and resources to empower local people through capacity building at local level and through community leadership. Will she say a little more about whether that could be used to reinforce the experiment of guide communities, so that those who have been so successful in neighbourhood renewal could spread their best practice to other parts of the country and ensure that in reality people can take control of their lives and futures, from the bottom up?

My right hon. Friend has a lot of previous history on this agenda, from as long ago as when he was a local councillor in Sheffield seeking to empower local people. I can certainly assure him that the £70 million communitybuilders fund and the £7.5 million empowerment fund will be about increasing people’s capacity to participate in decisions and shape their own future.

He knows, as I do, of the excellent work at Perry Common in Birmingham, in Balsall Heath, in the Goodwin Development Trust in Hull and in our communities where local people are striving, sometimes against the odds. It is about time that national Government got behind those local people and gave them the ability to reach the potential that they undoubtedly have.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of the White Paper and of her statement this morning, and also for the advance notice of the proposals, which have been trailed for the past six months. Although a lot is already in the public domain, I am not sure whether all her Back Benchers feel involved in the process and empowered as a result of the policies.

This is something that has been hyped for quite a long time, and it is difficult to see what the fuss is about. There is little to disagree with, because the proposals are so limited in scope, ambition and vision. The fact that the Secretary of State drew parallels with historic struggles for democracy was quite tasteless, and threw into relief the timidity of her proposals. How can she compare e-petitions with people who made the ultimate sacrifice to try to achieve democracy?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that many local councils, many of which are Liberal Democrat, are many steps ahead in this process? For example, Newcastle is already undertaking participatory budgeting involving people as young as three. Kingston council has a petition power, whereby petitions lead to debates in the chamber. When will the Government make proposals to do the same in this place? Councils already transfer assets to different community groups, but that is often used as a way of palming off white elephants and getting rid of financial liability. How is that innovative and new?

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is nothing in the proposals to undo the damage inflicted on local authorities and communities by this centralising Government? Is not the introduction of a duty to promote democracy in councils an admission that the withdrawal of power and resources from local government has disempowered communities and reduced voter turnout? Today’s proposals are trying to treat the symptom, not the cause. Many of my constituents have been more than happy to participate in the parish planning process, but they have been turned off by the inability to turn any of their proposals into reality.

Of course it is important that councils share best practice so that all members of the community are involved in decision making. That should happen not just through endless, fruitless consultation but through getting people involved in setting priorities and making decisions. Today seems to me to be about adding a new buzz word, “involvement”, to the local government lexicon, alongside “consultation”, “engagement” and “empowerment”. It will not be enough to convince people that their views will have an impact on centrally imposed Government decisions on subjects from eco-towns to post offices.

Have the Government learned their lesson? If so, why are there no measures to close the accountability gap in so many unaccountable regional and powerful quangos, such as regional development agencies, strategic health authorities, learning and skills councils and primary care trusts? Should not other Departments have a duty to be involved in putting communities in control?

Why is no duty to devolve placed on the Government? There is endless scope for resources and decisions to be pushed away from Whitehall. The statement would have been an opportunity to do that, but it has been missed. Finally, why was there nothing in the statement about implementing the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which was the result of a grass-roots campaign to put bottom-up decisions in control? Why is there nothing about giving councils control over their finances so that they are not dependent on Whitehall handouts? If the Government believed in devolution, they would put their money where their mouth is.

The test will be whether people wake up tomorrow, or next year, and suddenly feel that their world has been revolutionised by today’s White Paper. Does the Secretary of State think that she has achieved that? Unfortunately, I think not.

If the real test of any announcement was that people would wake up within 24 hours and feel that their world had been revolutionised, that would be a fairly high test for anybody. I entirely accept that this is part of a journey, as I said in my statement. It is not the last word. Over the next few decades, the tide of politics will mean that people will want more involvement, control and power. It is up to us to try to facilitate that process.

I agree with the hon. Lady that many local authorities are doing excellent work on this agenda, with a lot of support and back-up from the Department, whether through participatory budgeting or the transfer of assets. That is confounding people’s scepticism about the agenda, as it is shown to work in practice. I want to try to ensure that the rest of the local authorities learn from that practice, adopt it and get that tide, swell and critical mass of people who can make a difference. Then we will see the change. We will see that people’s lives are very different once everybody is doing that as a matter of course.

The hon. Lady talked about putting our money where our mouth is, but there are significant funds in this White Paper, particularly for the voluntary and community sector, to encourage sustainability. One of the sector’s biggest complaints is that it has to go round every 12 months looking for funding from local authorities, and is in a supplicant position, going round with a begging bowl. If we can get the sector to stand independently with community land trusts, with co-operatives, with social enterprises, and with independent income streams, that will be a prize for our communities. The hon. Lady talked about the assets being transferred as a white elephant—but I have made it clear that this is about the jewels in the crown, not simply about things that are failing, because I want people to succeed with this agenda.

Finally, the hon. Lady said that there was little to disagree with in the White Paper. I am not surprised. This is the right thing to do, because people want to see it happen. Our responsibility is to try to ensure that it happens across the country. I draw her attention to page 28. When she gets to read the document, she will see that that extends the duty to involve to a range of organisations, including the police, the regional development agencies, which spend billions of pounds of public money, Jobcentre Plus and a range of other organisations.

The Secretary of State has talked about local democracy, but I remind her what happened in Northumberland. We had a referendum on introducing a two-tier unitary authority, a proposal which gained about 57 per cent. of the vote. Unfortunately, the Department in which she was then a Minister forced a single unitary authority on us. Where is the democracy in that?

My hon. Friend will accept that the unitary authority proposals came from communities and local authorities. They were not imposed from the top, with central Government saying, “You must have unitary authorities.” Communities were asked whether they wanted to put forward proposals on local governance, so that the proposals could be tested to see which would be the most effective. Obviously, decisions were made in respect of the local authorities to which he has referred, but the process was from the bottom up.

The statement resembles an extremely cheap cup of cappuccino, with a huge amount of froth but no detectable coffee—I suppose that the next proposal will give people air miles for voting. Leaving that aside, will the Secretary of State assert very clearly that local democracy depends on people being representative? It does not matter how low down an organisation is, or how small the assets that it is managing, the line of accountability to representative bodies must be very clear. Will she assert that principle, as waste is waste, whether it involves £20 billion, which is what the Government specialise in, or tuppence-ha’penny?

I absolutely confirm that the White Paper places an emphasis on the representative democracy that is at the heart of our democratic system. Over the past 12 months, I have been trying to establish that involving more people in more decisions is not a threat to representative democracy, but a chance to strengthen it. I am worried that political systems are becoming remote from ordinary people, who feel that it is difficult to break into them. I want to make sure that people feel more connected and that politicians in their communities are listening to what they say and acting accordingly. That is vital, if we are to rebuild the bonds of trust, which the right hon. Gentleman, like me, considers to be extremely important to our democracy.

In the past, battles were fought and blood was spilled to get the vote and for collective responsibility, but I know of no evidence that people have quarrelled even once in any high street in Britain about having a lord mayor. People did not fight for something that is the very opposite of collective responsibility—it is nothing more than an example of the development of the cult of personality. If my right hon. Friend wants to help local government and get more people to participate, she should ensure that some of the power taken from local authorities over about 35 years is handed back to people who are elected. As for e-petitions, may I caution her that they do not amount to collective responsibility? They are more like instant gratification, which, sadly, pervades every element of our society.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes some important and considered points. The proposal on e-petitioning will be subject to consultation, as I am conscious that we do not want a one-click democracy. It is important that issues are debated as well. He has said that there has been no debate about lord mayors, but we are talking about elected mayors with executive authority—

There are only 12 in the whole country at present, so it is difficult to draw broad lessons. However, on Tuesday I was in Lewisham with young people and their directly elected mayor, whom they see as “our mayor” and with whom they have a personal relationship. I know that this area is controversial, but people who want a bigger say want a directly elected representative. Accountability must be very transparent indeed, and people need to know that the person turning the vision for their community into action is someone for whom they voted at the ballot box. They must be able to call that person to account. That is the inevitable tide of politics.

The Government are right to recognise the need for more direct democracy and radically to devolve power to local people. However, does the White Paper contain measures to devolve control over local government finance to local people or to ensure locally accountable police chiefs? Does it contain a right of initiative, rather than merely a right to petition and trigger town hall talk? Without such steps, the White Paper just pays lip service to localism—it does not have the Levellers behind it, so much as Sir Humphrey Appleby.

The hon. Gentleman is on the enthusiastic wing of his party when it comes to local democracy, but I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) necessarily agrees with all his proposals. As I said earlier on police accountability, the White Paper contains a commitment to establishing a directly elected element in the police system. The details will be spelled out in the police Green Paper. Where there is a mayor, they will assume the role of the directly elected person in the police system, which is a significant step forward towards greater transparency and accountability.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be more local influence on local government finance, and that debate will no doubt run and run. We recently signed a concordat with the Local Government Association that for the first time sets out the rights and responsibilities of central Government and local government. Again, that is a significant step forward. As I said earlier, in the past 12 months there has been a significant move towards giving people at the local level more space to do what they really want and freeing up local councils to respond accordingly.

As for local initiatives and referendums, local people can petition for participatory budgeting. That is a big step forward in the devolution of power, and the White Paper contains details about the community justice initiatives that we want to pursue. Under them, local people will get the right to vote on high-visibility community punishments. That approach is being piloted in Liverpool and Salford, and it is proving a great success.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and the White Paper. The ideas on empowerment and holding councillors and officers to account will be welcomed in Stourbridge, where Tory-controlled Dudley council has closed leisure centres, schools and libraries with no consultation. This week, the council has cut services to the elderly and doubled the price of meals on wheels, also without consultation. Will she undertake to come to my constituency to see the damage done by the Tory-controlled council and to show Dudley how to clean up its act?

I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s area to discuss what action can be taken on those very serious matters. The White Paper’s ideas on petitioning and calling for action from councillors will increase local people’s ability to force matters to be debated in public and to secure a proper response. They will empower her local community in a way that is markedly different from what happens at present.

When the right hon. Lady spoke about the NHS and consensus, she seemed to overlook the point that the proposals carried through by the Labour Government were originally put forward by my Liberal predecessor as MP for Berwick, Sir William Beveridge. Why is today’s statement mainly about rules for the conduct of council business and not about transferring power from central Government to local government? Is her Department still dominated by the attitude described by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell)? He pointed out that, when Northumberland people voted for what they wanted, the Government gave them the opposite.

This White Paper is about transferring power to citizens and communities. It does not profess to be about transferring power to local authorities. In 2006-07, the White Paper and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 amounted to a dramatic shift, with local area agreements freeing up councils through grants that are not ring-fenced. The council thus became the central, democratically elected organisation co-ordinating the whole range of public services, which represented a significant degree of devolution from the centre to the locality. The focus of the White Paper is to ensure that part of the deal is completed, meaning that if there is to be more devolution to local authorities, which there should be, they have a responsibility to devolve power more and more to local people and communities, so that they, too, absolutely feel part of our revived and more vibrant democracy.

Apart from the proposals for referendums on directly elected mayors, does my right hon. Friend think that there is a role for the greater use of local referendums in respect of putting people in control?

Yes; there is a provision for neighbourhood councils to hold local polls, and I want to do more work to find out the appropriate area in which to exercise those powers. The powers are a bit arcane—the polls have to take place before 4 pm for some very ancient reason—and it is time that we looked at the rules. The polls should also be about relatively local issues, on which people will clearly hold strong views, but there is room for the consideration of how we might develop more techniques, so that people can have a say. The issue is not only about participation, but about voting on the priorities and issues that matter to people.

I commend the Secretary of State on planting in an otherwise slightly disappointing statement a pearl of great value, namely the removal of barriers in local communities to faith-based organisations providing goods and services. Does she agree that, if properly implemented, it will unleash a great well of energy, passion and love for people, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society? I encourage her to implement the proposals as quickly as possible.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that welcome. The issue is controversial for some people, but I personally feel that many people are motivated by faith of all kinds to do great acts of social good, and if we miss out on that, we will miss out on a lot of talent and energy. However, I am concerned to ensure that if faith groups become involved, they do so on a proper footing—not by evangelising or proselytising, but by providing services in a non-discriminatory way to the whole community. I intend to work on a charter. Faithworks has a similar one, which is very simple and straightforward, but which makes those points very clearly.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her statement and on the White Paper, because the measures in it are probably the most important steps towards strengthening local democracy and communities for a considerable period. Does she agree that it is particularly important to strengthen and value both the work of locally elected councillors and their scrutiny role? For far too long, the role has been seen as a job that is done by those who do not make it into the council’s cabinet or executive, but that work needs to be properly supported, valued and rewarded.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I commend Leicester city council on some of the steps that it has taken in respect of the agenda, which have been very impressive indeed. He will find in the White Paper a section on overview and scrutiny, setting out how I want to ensure that the role is strengthened and regarded almost as a Select Committee, with similar powers to take evidence, to call people to account and to ensure proper scrutiny and accountability. Councillors who take on the role also need more training and support, because it is still relatively new, and some of them would benefit from sharing the experience that we have gained in the House. I am absolutely determined to ensure that the overview and scrutiny role is seen not as a second-best option, but as one of the most important jobs on any local authority.

The Secretary of State has said that local government is vital, and I am sure that we all agree. However, the Government removed planning powers from local authorities in my constituency and set up a quango that paid little attention to local opinion. Is she now saying that she will scrap that quango and restore those powers to local authorities? If she is not, this White Paper will not be worth the paper it is printed on.

I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to our debate just last week about the independent planning commission. He will know that during the debate, it was made very clear that local authorities would retain their powers over the vast majority of planning applications, and that the commission would deal with those major infrastructure projects that are important for the future of this country as a whole.

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to sustainable communities and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, he will find that, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has said, there is a reference in the White Paper to the Act’s implementation, which will obviously form part of the framework for the future.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that voting and elections are healthy and important parts of the democratic process, but that they are not democracy itself, which is a much wider concept. She will be aware that what matters most to most people is what happens outside their front doors—in their block of flats and on their streets and estates. She will also recognise that in deprived areas, where there are the fewest facilities and the poorest conditions, there is a real lack of accountability, local control and influence over what goes on. Does she agree that councillors and council officials are often, but not always, the community development workers who are best at empowering estates to control their own environments? And will she ensure that councillors and council officials are brought on board for the emancipation of those people who are least able to express their views and influence the state of their community?

My hon. Friend, like several Members, has a tremendous record not only on empowering his community, but on his work with the Community Development Foundation. I am more than happy to confirm that, in the White Paper again, there are a number of proposals for us to work not only with the foundation, which will play a central role, but with a range of organisations to increase capacity and help our communities to develop. One thing that I am keen to do is to ensure that ordinary council officers, such as housing officers and planners, work in a way that builds the capacity of the local community. It should not always be a job for a specialist; it should be part of the day job.

Some aspects of the Secretary of State’s announcement were statements of the blindingly obvious. I cannot believe that she can say, “We must give more power to the people, so that they feel that if they get involved it will be worth their time and effort.” People are perfectly rational, and they get involved if they can see any point to it. If, during a consultation in my community, my constituents were offered option A and option B, and option A was 34 and option B was also 34, there would be little point in getting involved. I am referring to a consultation on the single-issue revision of Gypsy and Traveller sites, which the Government foisted on the east of England. People do not get involved because hundreds—

Order. I must say to the hon. Lady that we are talking about one supplementary. There was a movement from local government to Travellers, and that is too many questions, so I shall let the Secretary of State answer.

Consultation and involvement should involve dialogue and conversation, and my experience is that people who want to get involved do not necessarily expect to get 100 per cent. of what they want. They want people to be properly engaged and to achieve some change as a result of their involvement, so it is important for local authorities to enter into dialogue with people with a view not only to listening to what they say, but to acting on it. People will not keep getting involved if they keep getting rebuffed. That is a very important message, and I can see that the hon. Lady agrees.

Is it not the case that properly engaging with local communities on issues that matter empowers local councillors and councils? I commend to the Secretary of State the excellent and fully resourced scrutiny function at Tameside metropolitan borough council and its district assemblies, where it has already devolved decision making, staff and budgets to community level. That is in stark contrast with Stockport, where the authorities have done everything to obstruct the Friends of Reddish Baths, which wants to reopen under community management that much- loved and well cherished community facility.

Again, my hon. Friend has a great record on supporting his community. He also has a four-star, excellent local council—it is one of the best in the north-west—that is not afraid to devolve power to the community. We often find that the best councils are the most confident with that agenda, because they see community involvement not as a threat, but as a means of strengthening the way in which they actively represent their area.

Does the right hon. Lady believe that the majority on a council should also form the majority on the scrutiny committee, or should the opposition have responsibility for scrutiny committees?

Very often in local authorities, scrutiny is led by the opposition, and clearly that is a matter for local authorities to determine. In this House, Select Committees are chaired by a variety of people. Often, it is best practice to be able to drill into the policies. Now that there is to be a cabinet structure, there is an even greater requirement for scrutiny to be very active and rigorous. I would like scrutiny increasingly to involve the local community. There is provision to co-opt local people on to scrutiny committees and to take evidence from the community, which is a measure that I commend.

I ask my question as a great supporter of town and parish councils, as a former town councillor and as a former town mayor for Brierley and Grimethorpe town council. The Secretary of State will know that in certain areas people have overwhelmingly voted to abolish the local parish council in a parish poll. Under the existing system, it is virtually impossible to achieve that objective. In the White Paper, will she look at that very difficult issue in detail and come up with some recommendations?

There are 70,000 local town and parish councillors, so they are a very important part of our local democracy. I have been working hard with them over the past 12 months to try to get the quality parish council agreement, to try to enact the well-being power and to make sure that such councils have more powers to involve local people. I will certainly look into the issue that my hon. Friend has raised to see whether we can come up with practical proposals.

I wholly support the principle that local people should have much more influence over the decisions that shape the future of their communities. Indeed, that is the whole premise of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which my co-sponsors and I took through Parliament with broad cross-party support. However, I am concerned about the number of new devolutionary Bills that local authorities are having to process at the same time. There was local government legislation and the 2007 Act, and now there is the new White Paper. Will the Secretary of State clarify what the Department is doing to present those three strands of legislation in a coherent, integrated package that will inspire, not alienate, local authorities?

The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. White Papers are never, and should never be, the end product of what we do, so implementation will be key. I am very focused on that. We are talking about quite a significant change. It will work best if local authorities feel that they own the process, want to champion it and feel that it will make them stronger in their communities. He makes a very good point about taking an integrated approach across those pieces of legislation. At some point, we will see the proposals in the police Green Paper, and the issues and arrangements resulting from the NHS constitution. With regard to local communities, we really need to get to the point where there is an integrated offer across the public services. We need an integrated way in which local people can be involved that is not complicated or bureaucratic, but that really bites and makes a difference. My personal challenge is to try to make sure that that is coherent and inspiring to local authorities, so that they will want to take the agenda forward.

I am an honorary alderman of Gateshead council—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—an honour conferred on me because of my long service to the council, so local authorities already have such powers. I am not sure why the Secretary of State has proposed to centralise those powers. I am always filled with trepidation when Ministers start telling local government how to go about its business—I have seen that from both sides of the House—so I shall study her proposals with interest. Will she guarantee that any new powers, responsibilities or duties placed on local authorities as a result of her White Paper will be fully funded from the centre by Ministers in the Departments responsible?

My hon. Friend has extensive experience of local government, as do a number of people in the House, including myself. I think that I am one of the relatively few members of the Cabinet who has been a local authority councillor. Indeed, I have also been a local authority officer, so I am a real champion of local government. He made a point about ensuring that there are no new burdens, which is the phrase that we use, and I certainly give him an undertaking that across Government we will make absolutely sure that when we ask local government to do new things, local government has the finance to do them.

The Secretary of State will recall my predecessor’s clear view of the Secretary of State’s decision, and her Department’s decision, about the future of local government in Cheshire. If the Secretary of State believes so strongly in local democracy, why did she split the county of Cheshire in two, despite the view overwhelmingly taken by local people in a referendum, and dramatically reduce the number of democratically elected local councillors in the process?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that there were a range of views on the proposals, and those views were held strongly by a number of Members. He will know that my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christine Russell), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) all supported a two-unitary-authority solution to issues in Cheshire. I entirely acknowledge that people held strong views, but there were a variety of such views. The proposals came from people in those areas, and the change was not dictated from the centre. We asked people to put forward proposals, which were tested against a number of criteria. Clearly, the option of having two unitaries in Cheshire met those criteria in a way that was most effective for leadership, strategic vision and community engagement at a local level.

I commend my right hon. Friend for her very strong statement, but there is a great deal of cynicism among local people in Swindon, because they do not feel properly represented. They are particularly concerned about a weak local plan that leaves the people of Eastcott very vulnerable to houses in multiple occupation. Will her White Paper help them? Constituents are also concerned about Coate water, a much-loved beauty spot that is threatened by building next door, which is being undertaken by the local council, and about their heritage buildings, such as the Mechanics institute. They feel helpless, because they feel that they are not fully represented. How can they be involved, through her new work, in saving their way of life, and their much-loved land and buildings?

Clearly, the people of Swindon have a formidable champion in their Member of Parliament. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised those issues with me. A number of measures can be used. Certainly, the petition powers proposed in the White Paper will ensure that local people can raise the issues, get them debated, and obtain an explanation of the policies. The participatory budgeting powers will enable them to have more of a say in how local authority budgets are spent. The proposals on community justice will give the people whom she represents the right to have a bigger say on community punishments. Those are tangible, practical, real-life issues that I hope will engage more people in the democratic process. Who knows—she may be able to get some new candidates whom she can support to come forward for her local authority.

As a councillor on Kettering borough council, may I say that there will be huge concern throughout the borough of Kettering about the Secretary of State’s proposals to allow council officers to participate in party political activity? Local residents rightly value the impartiality of local government officers, just as the British people rightly value the impartiality of the civil service. It seems to a lot of people that the Government are trying to blur the edges on that important issue.

Does the hon. Gentleman think it right and proper, in a modern, 21st-century democracy, that someone over a certain salary level who plays no role at all in advising the council, but who simply happens to be employed by the council by virtue of their contract of employment—the example that I gave was a highways engineer—should be barred from any kind of political activity? I do not.

The answer to the right hon. Lady’s question is yes. It is an important facet of our local democracy that council officers, particularly senior officers, are seen to be politically neutral and to provide neutral advice to councillors. The so-called Widdicombe rules have ensured that for many years, so is it not rather a sad day when the party of Government is so desperate to find candidates in southern England that they have to tamper with those well-established rules, which keep the jobs of councillor and of officer firmly apart?

No. It is a sad day when people are prepared to impose draconian rules barring individuals from political activity. That sends out the message that we are not proud of party political activity and that we do not feel that it is noble and reputable. There is far too much of that in our democracy at the moment, and it is about time that we stood up and said that being involved in the politics of any party is a noble undertaking pursued by decent people on all sides. We ought to be just a little bit more proud of political activity in our democracy.