House of Commons
Monday 1 June 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Human Rights Legislation
We are strongly committed to protecting the human rights of our armed forces. However, the implications of the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case arising from the tragic death of Private Jason Smith could open the door to routine legal challenges against the Ministry of Defence to decisions made by service personnel entrusted with the conduct of operations. The Chief of the Defence Staff has made these concerns clear in his own message to the armed forces. I am urgently considering the matter, and will decide shortly whether we need to appeal the decision to the House of Lords.
I have not made any assessment of that; it is not clear to me that the judgment would have retrospective effect. That would have to be examined initially as part of the careful consideration that lawyers in the Ministry need to give the judgment. However, my real concern is whether we can stand aside and see bold decision making by battlefield commanders inhibited by anxiety about a legal process over which they will have no say and no control. Those are very serious matters. We have a clear duty of care to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, which we intend to discharge fully, but the case raises a set of issues that are complicated and fundamental. That is why it is right that—with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of others—we take time to consider it carefully.
I am sure that the House wishes to send its condolences to Jason Smith’s family; it is a tragic case. However, although we wish the Government well, I fear that the problem is one of the Government’s own making, through their human rights legislation. There is no greater breach of human rights than being shot on the battlefield—and that is what we expect our soldiers to go out and risk. What exactly are the Government planning to do, beyond appeal? If the law stands, will not the Government have to change it to rectify the situation?
I do not want to indulge in hypotheticals, but I cannot resist the temptation. If we were to lose the appeal and the current interpretation of the law were confirmed, it would pose us a serious problem, which would have to be addressed. I personally do not believe that the framers of the European convention had it in mind when it was drafted that it would ever apply to soldiers in a battlefield situation. If I am wrong, and if the House of Lords took a different decision if we appealed, Ministers would have to consider seriously the position that would then arise.
This is a very serious matter, and I urge the Secretary of State to consider wisely and make an appeal as necessary. We are witnessing the possibility of sending serving soldiers into battle with no guns or other weapons, and with their hands tied behind their backs. It is an impossible situation—unless we can enforce human rights codes on the opposition, such as Hezbollah or the Taliban; that would be a step in the right direction. In the meantime we must treat the matter seriously and regard it as a matter of high principle for the Government, and ensure that our soldiers have the proper protection that they need when going to war on our behalf.
I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. When our troops are committed to battle, the public want and expect only one thing: that they can do everything they need to do to win the battles that they are fighting. Anything that makes it harder to win the fights that they are in must be resisted strongly. Without allowing my hon. Friend to draw me any further, I can say that we are still examining the judgment carefully, and we will decide shortly whether to appeal.
I note from the press that companies such Capita, Manpower and Serco are forming a disorderly queue to get the plum £100 million contract for outsourced recruitment of people into our forces. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that, given their lack of knowledge of service life, that contract will not be extended to promote the ideas of human rights legislation in a battlefield context, about which they know equally little?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting that point into this exchange. There is no question of private contractors being employed in a battlefield environment, so I am not sure whether my hon. Friend’s concerns are likely to materialise.
I would like to express the condolences of the Opposition to the family of Private Smith, and also to the families of those who have fallen since we last met. They gave their young lives in the service of our country, and their sacrifice must never be forgotten. The Minister of State has said that the Court of Appeal’s judgment of 19 May has serious implications for our ability to conduct military operations overseas. Given the Secretary of State’s belated fears for operational effectiveness, could he say what representations his predecessors made when his Government were falling over themselves to incorporate the European convention on human rights into the Human Rights Act?
I think that human rights legislation is important. It has helped to embed a human rights culture in the United Kingdom and in our judiciary, which is very important. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that the solution to the problem is to repeal the Human Rights Act. The European convention was always justiciable through the route of the European Court of Human Rights, so that would be a false path to tread. The problem has arisen because of subsequent interpretations of the parameters of the convention, not because of the Human Rights Act. The difficulty for us all in this House is that when we start down a road with a clear understanding of where we think the parameters lie, but then find that someone has moved those parameters, that poses a set of challenges about judgments that we may have to make in the House at some point in the future. None the less, that is the right way to see the problem—not to try, as the hon. Gentleman has, to put the blame on this Government, who rightly took the step of enacting the convention in the Human Rights Act.
The UK takes the protection of merchant shipping very seriously, and many personnel, both in the UK and overseas, are engaged in activities relating to the suppression of piracy around the horn of Africa. This includes the provision of command and control functions for both UK and international military vessels. We are working with the UK shipping industry, other Departments and international partners to co-ordinate, educate and support merchant shipping in the region.
With the Santa Maria in 1961, the Achille Lauro in 1985, the attempted hijacking of the Seabourn Spirit in 2005 and the attempted hijackings of other cruise ships in the past few weeks, how confident is the Minister that the British travelling public, who form the vast majority of cruise ship passengers, are safe off the horn of Africa? Obviously we are talking about pirates now, but they could well graduate from commercial ships to cruise ships.
There has been a big increase in the number of patrols: there are not only those run by the European Union; many other nations have also been participating. Even though most of those other nations are not prepared to fall under the command of others, they are more than happy to co-operate and ensure that what is being done is properly co-ordinated and therefore most effective. There is also a big operation involving the exchange of information from the United Kingdom in Northwood to ensure that we can pass information between nations safely and securely, so as best to attack the problem of piracy. Piracy is a real problem around the horn of Africa, but it will not be solved entirely in the maritime area.
Can my right hon. Friend tell us what he knows about the involvement of the Kenyan armed forces in the work of defeating piracy in the horn of Africa? I was in Kenya last October and many parliamentarians there were concerned about the situation, so I wonder where we stand now.
We should be enormously grateful to the Kenyan Government for the assistance that they have been giving us and for being prepared, in some circumstances, to bring those accused of piracy to justice in the Kenyan legal system. Kenya is directly affected by piracy, which attacks trade to Kenya. Indeed, a lot of the World Food Programme supplies to parts of Somalia come through Kenya; those ships have been targeted and are at risk too.
Increasing numbers of ransoms are being paid, and the pirates are now investing that money in better equipment and better weaponry. Does the Minister share my concern that if the problem is not nipped in the bud, the situation will escalate to the extent that many more people may be killed?
I am sorry to say that it is a bit late to nip the problem in the bud as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It has been going on for some time now, and the amount of activity and the preparedness of the pirates to go further out to sea to attack vessels—right out into the Indian ocean, for example—make it extremely difficult to offer full protection over such vast areas of sea. The reactions of the international shipping organisations need to be properly thought through. Their governance of their ships, and their preparedness to co-operate in the channelling of shipping that now takes place, and to accept our advice, ought to reduce the problem. We believe that this activity has led to an increase in the number of unsuccessful attacks, but in the past those organisations have been prepared to offer ransoms, which are hugely attractive to the individuals involved. It is hard to put in place sufficient deterrents to counteract the attraction of such large amounts of money.
Will the Minister confirm that if the Royal Navy comes under armed attack from pirates, it is entitled to use lethal force immediately? Will he also confirm that if the Royal Navy captures armed pirates, there is no longer any risk of their claiming asylum, and that they will instead be handed over to the nearest appropriate jurisdiction?
We have looked into that question, and made sure that the Royal Navy has rules of engagement sufficient for the tasks that we ask it to do. In any circumstances, it can always defend itself if it comes under attack. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be true, because he knows a considerable amount about this subject. We have no intention of providing a taxi service for asylum seekers through the Royal Navy. We have received the co-operation of countries in the area— Kenya, in particular, as I have said—in bringing these people to justice. We will take robust action, and we are also helping with the biggest single effort being made at the moment—the co-ordination of the many different nations operating in the area. There are Russian and Chinese ships in the area, as well as those of NATO countries, and they are all prepared to co-operate and to co-ordinate their activities. The Royal Navy has provided a superb facility in assisting and enabling that co-operation to take place.
We plan to continue to supply our troops in Afghanistan with the best possible equipment: personal equipment, weapons and communication systems, as well as intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—assets, armoured vehicles, helicopters, electronic countermeasures and all the rest. Highlights this year so far have been the delivery to theatre of Mastiff 2, Ridgback and Panther. I hope that in the next couple of months we shall deliver Jackal 2, and in the course of the year we shall make more Chinooks available for deployment in Afghanistan, as well as the first Merlins to be used there. Early next year, the new upgraded Lynxes will be delivered.
I thank my hon. Friend for that extensive answer. He will be aware of the comments by Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, who said that he was worried about the distant future and the need to “muddle through” that might arise in respect of the weapons that are to be sent to the Army. He also said that the weapons were not up to the standard required, and that they arrived too late. Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with Sir Richard, and if so, what was the outcome?
I have regular discussions with Sir Richard Dannatt, a man for whom I have the greatest admiration and regard. He is a very fine officer—and I have to say that I think that he has been misquoted by my hon. Friend. I am quite certain that he did not say those things about the weapons that we are delivering to Afghanistan being inappropriate. As for their being too late, I have just given an example of how we are delivering weapons systems and other equipment remarkably rapidly, sometimes within six months of the order going out to the supplier.
May I ask a question about helicopters? Incidentally, I am delighted that RAF Odiham in my constituency has been reprieved, and I hope that it now faces a long period of stability and investment. I want to ask about helicopters in the coming period. In the next three or four years, as old helicopters are phased out and before new ones have come on stream, there is likely to be a reduction in the availability of helicopters. What do the Government propose to do about that gap?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his advocacy of RAF Odiham, for which he is famous in the House, and I am glad that he is happy with the news of the latest developments. As for helicopters, I look forward to discussing that matter in greater detail with the Defence Committee, to which I have been invited, tomorrow. As I think he knows, we are looking at a series of possible upgrades and life extension programmes for our existing fleet of helicopters, as well as focusing on the need for the future medium helicopter. Decisions on all these matters will be taken in the coming months. It will give me great pleasure to go through some of the issues with the right hon. Gentleman tomorrow, if he so wishes. As I frequently say—internally and, increasingly, externally—when it comes to helicopters, I am interested in outputs rather than inputs. Since November 2006—if I have the figures absolutely correct—we have succeeded in achieving an 80 per cent. increase in the helicopter hours available to commanders in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman regards that, as I do, as a fine achievement and a positive step in the right direction.
Can the Minister confirm that the problems experienced with rucksacks that are ill-fitting with the body armour that we supply to our armed forces in Afghanistan have now been resolved? Does he agree that in dealing with problems like this, it is imperative to act quickly?
I am totally with my hon. Friend on that latter point. Yes, we have looked into issues surrounding the burden of rucksacks in relation to the armour and so forth. It is an enormously important issue, because our troops have to carry enormous weights in very hot conditions, and I am concerned to ensure that we do everything possible continually to improve their personal equipment. The whole procurement function, as I see it, is one of managing continuing improvement. We have to remain flexible, we have to remain alert, and we have to ensure that everything we do gets better all the time. That has indeed been the story of our recent achievement, and we will continue it further. In the course of the next couple of months I shall be in Afghanistan again, and I shall talk, as I have before, individually to many people in all ranks about their issues with equipment, including the personal equipment to which my hon. Friend referred, and what they feel about all aspects of it.
The Minister will be well aware of the considerable overstretch that our troops face in Afghanistan, so can he update the House and tell us whether he has had any success in persuading other European members of NATO to supply more military equipment for our forces out there?
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation as one of overstretch. Of course, our forces have been under considerable stretch recently—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] “Overstretch” implies that our troops are being asked to undertake tasks that they are not able to undertake, which has not been the situation. The distinction between stretch and overstretch is very important, and I hope that she recognises it. Furthermore, with the end of our operations in Iraq, the stretch and the stress have been reduced. The hon. Lady will know that our last combat troops came back from Iraq just last week—indeed, I was privileged to be at RAF Honington when the RAF Regiment returned after a gallant deployment—so she is looking at the issue from the wrong angle. That said, yes, we have made considerable progress in persuading our NATO allies to make further contributions. The French, for example, have doubled theirs from 2,000 to 4,000 troops.
I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) mentioning the weight of the personal equipment that our service personnel have to carry. Will the Minister tell the House a little more, particularly about body armour and the personal electronic countermeasures equipment, which seem to be the two main sources of the problem? What is being done to try to reduce the weight of those particular items?
A great deal of work is being done to improve the armour. I believe that our Osprey armour is the best armour available to anyone in the world today. We would like to improve it further and make it more effective; at the same time—there are obviously trade-offs to be made here—we would like to make it lighter if we can. We are making a continuing effort on electronic counter-measures, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that it would be in nobody’s interest—least of all that of our troops deployed in Afghanistan—for me to go into the details in public.
We are indeed looking forward to seeing the Minister before the Select Committee tomorrow. We just hope that he will allow time for us to ask the questions.
Apart from the helicopters, what equipment is being reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan?
I may say to the hon. Gentleman that when I appear before a Select Committee, I regard the time involved as a matter for the Committee. I shall be there for as long as the Committee requires me to be there.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, probably the most important asset to be reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan immediately—or at least within a few months, after some maintenance and upgrade work—will be the Merlins. A number of other individual items of equipment may go to Afghanistan, but no precise decisions have been made about that yet.
Concerns remain about the loss of lives as a result of improvised explosive devices. Can my hon. Friend say any more about the urgency that he attaches to the provision of greater armour for vehicles to protect our troops from explosions of that kind?
As my hon. Friend probably recognised, many of the vehicles that I listed earlier are new generation. Mastiff 2 will follow Mastiff 1, Jackal 2 will follow Jackal 1 within the next couple of months, and Snatch Vixen will follow Snatch. Each of those developments involves a considerable enhancement in the survivability and protection afforded by the vehicles concerned. It is clear that there is no way in which a vehicle can be protected against absolutely any level of blast—and, sadly, that there is no way in which we can engage in armed conflict without losing troops. That is a tragic but, I am afraid, inescapable fact. We make continual efforts to improve our game, re-examining our tactics and counter-measures and trying to make them more effective, and we are succeeding—although, as I have said, I will not talk about that in public for obvious reasons. We are providing a new and ever-enhanced series of armoured vehicles and other forms of protection, and I look forward to reporting to the House on further improvements in future.
In the light of reports that American-fired enhanced-blast munitions may have caused 140 civilian deaths in an air strike on 4 May, can the Minister guarantee that British munitions, which have been used 43 times in the last year, have not killed civilians in Afghanistan? What precautions are we taking to ensure that they do not? Can pilots really see whether civilians are in target buildings? Does the Minister understand the fear that the use of such indiscriminate weapons might undermine the popular civilian support that is so essential to NATO’s operation?
The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great regard and who I know to be a considerable expert on military matters, uses terms that I am surprised to hear him use in this context. He knows that none of the NATO forces involved operate indiscriminately in any way. The word is completely inappropriate.
I cannot comment on the specific American operation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Obviously I know nothing about it, because it does not fall within my direct responsibility. I can, however, tell him that enormous attention is paid by British forces to the need to avoid collateral damage and civilian deaths. In an armed conflict, as ever in the whole of human history, that can never be achieved 100 per cent., but we make great efforts. It is a difficult and serious trade-off—particularly given that someone may put their own personnel at risk by not taking action that they might otherwise have taken in defence of our own operations, or our own troops, because of a fear of civilian deaths or collateral damage.
Does the Minister agree with the former Secretary of State, who described the Pinzgauer Vector as
“an excellent solution to our soldiers’ requirements”,
or does he now accept that, at a cost of more than £100 million, it was a massive defence acquisition fiasco—as some of us on the Conservative Benches have pointed out, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)? If so, what has he done to improve the technical evaluation process to restore our troops’ confidence in the acquisition process? That is the very least that they should expect from the Government.
The hon. Gentleman should wake up a bit, get with it and start to look at the realities of life. The fact of the matter is that those who invest in a portfolio of armoured vehicles, as we are doing—or, indeed, in a range of equipment for any purpose in this world—will want to ensure that they have the best, in terms of meeting different mobility, capability, fire power, protection and other requirements. We will inevitably have some vehicles that are less effective than others; we will inevitably have some successes and some failures— that is what a portfolio policy is all about, by the way. Vector was not a success and it is being withdrawn. Its problem has been its “operationability”: it has great difficulty carrying some of the loads that it is required to carry on the Afghan terrain. It has not been able to live up to expectations there, and we will be replacing it with the new tactical support vehicles that we have ordered—the Coyote, the Husky and the Wolfhound—which I have mentioned in the House in different contexts. That is one more example of this steady process of flexibility, improvement and enhancement, which is the policy to which we are committed.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
We are making a valuable contribution to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC—by deploying experienced officers into key posts, with their agreement. We will shortly be increasing our contribution to seven officers with the addition of a two-star deputy force commander.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention recently met Alan Doss, the new head of MONUC forces in the DRC. One of the issues that he raised with us was the need for US and UK security services to share intelligence with MONUC better if we are to track down the dissident groups operating in the east of the country. It is imperative that that intelligence is shared if security is to be restored in the east of the DRC, where Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the CNDP, and the Hutu militia force, the FDLR, are still causing chaos and huge humanitarian disruption.
Obviously, we share my hon. Friend’s desire to see the disruption in the DRC brought to an end and the humanitarian crisis that has flowed from it reduced and stopped. I am not aware of difficulties in the sharing of appropriate intelligence. If she has any information in that regard that she wishes to pass on to me, I will look into it and try to ensure that, where appropriate, we give people any information that we have that would be useful to that end.
It is good news that we are giving money to the Conflict Prevention Pool, and a certain number of key people and a certain amount of funding to MONUC; I believe that it is nearly 10 per cent. of its funding. Does the Minister agree that unless other UN member states with reasonable lift capacity are willing to contribute, with a degree of leadership, to initiatives, be it MONUC in the DRC or those in Darfur, we simply will not make progress? These peacekeeping operations appear to be just marking time: we are not making progress and there is not the required grip, because member states that could give that grip of leadership are not participating.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the vast spaces involved in conducting operations in Africa mean that the need for strategic and tactical lift and helicopter capability in theatre is of particular importance, and that those are restricting factors in terms of our ability to have sufficient impact in places such as Darfur and the DRC. I hope to discourage him from suggesting that we, with the commitments that our people have at the moment, can provide that capability ourselves, but we will obviously do what we can to encourage others to do so.
Does the Minister recognise that one of the problems is that the militia groups and the armed forces operating in the eastern DRC are, in effect, funded by illicit mining operations? Huge sums flow tax-free out of the Congo, and then flow back in for the purpose of buying arms that kill and maim people. I realise that this is slightly beyond his remit, but can he speak to trade Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers to see what can be done to close off that flow?
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no doubt that one of the motives for people to get involved in the area is the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources. We must all do everything that we can to prevent that from happening and to ensure that the regulations make that exploitation—and the humanitarian catastrophe that flows from it—not profitable as it has been in the past. I will do as my hon. Friend asks and see to it that we do all that we can in that regard.
I regularly discuss Afghanistan with my European Union and NATO counterparts. On 10 June, I shall attend a meeting of nations that are contributing to operations in Regional Command (South). On 11-12 June, I shall attend a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.
I understand that at the recent NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Poland in February, the Secretary of State said that it was crucial that as many European NATO members as possible sent more helicopters to Afghanistan. He said at the time that he was confident that that would happen. How many extra helicopters have now been sent?
I think that there are only three, from the Czech Republic, which is making available some of its helicopters under the helicopter initiative. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has said, it is important to recognise that we are deploying more helicopters to Afghanistan later this year to support our troops, and that is right and proper. On a wider level it is imperative—as I have made clear many times—that NATO do more in Afghanistan. I was very pleased that at the Strasbourg meeting Poland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Australia—our true friend and ally—said that they would support operations in Afghanistan with more troops. That has to be good news for the success of the operation.
Does not the Secretary of State understand the gravity of this singular failure of NATO? This was supposed to be an article 5 operation, and people were supposed to step up to the plate with mutual assistance, but that has not happened. That is the case against the backdrop of the House of Commons never giving a mandate for our commitment in Helmand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) made the announcement in a statement one day, and most of us had never even heard of Helmand. We have had drift on this matter and it is now time that the commitment made by Tony Blair and the present Prime Minister—that we commit our armed forces only after a conscious decision by this House—was respected. That has not happened, and there is no mandate for this operation to go on.
I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. NATO needs to do more and we have made that clear. I am glad that NATO is responding to President Obama’s request for more military assistance to the Afghan Government, as that is long overdue, but better late than never. Can we do more? Yes, of course we should, and we will continue to argue for that.
On my hon. Friend’s latter point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made his views very clear on how we should proceed in the future.
Is it not the case that the vital currency of our reputation has been undermined by the Prime Minister not accepting the recommendation by the Chief of the Defence Staff that 4,000 extra troops should be sent to Helmand if we are to do the job properly? Does that not affect our credibility when dealing with the Americans and other NATO allies?
I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman that our reputation matters a great deal to us, and it is with great reluctance that I contradict what he says. I assure him that there was no suggestion that we send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The Chief of the Defence Staff—who is my principal military adviser, as he is the Prime Minister’s— is content with the decisions that the Prime Minister has made, and we are now busy operationalising that in the most effective way possible.
I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to read The New York Times today, but it contains an important article by a distinguished correspondent entitled “U.S. Gives Absolution to its Allies”. The article makes the argument that the US no longer wants to open a second front against European allies who are not engaging in fighting and killing, but instead wants a team effort. It is changing the nature of its operations in Afghanistan, not to step up a huge kinetic war, but to find political as much as military solutions, and Britain is playing a leading part in that. Can we therefore have an end to the European bashing and an understanding—as was evident at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—that the US and its European allies are talking and working as one?
The strategy that we are pursuing in Afghanistan is not a purely military one. It is a comprehensive approach that has a necessary military component to it, because there cannot be greater security, and therefore the opportunity for the Afghan Government to deliver to greater effect in Afghanistan, unless there is improved security. As my right hon. Friend has correctly said, that military component is combined with an approach that emphasises the development of civilian capabilities and capacity, too. The Europeans are making a significant contribution to that. My criticism of the NATO effort so far is a matter of record and I do not resile from a word that I have said, but I am glad and pleased that the NATO military effort in Afghanistan has now increased, which I consider to be absolutely essential if we are to achieve the wider goals of peace and security in that troubled country.
Yes, I will: Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Belgium, and France is flying fast jets in the south of Afghanistan.
As things stand today, does the Secretary of State believe that British forces in Afghanistan have an adequate number of troops, adequate funding and the right equipment to succeed in the mission that they have been given? In particular, is he happy that when we take territory we can hold it and initiate reconstruction quickly and successfully enough?
I believe that we have sufficient troops; I believe that we have sufficient equipment; and I believe that we have sufficient resources. That is not just my view; it is view of the chiefs of staff.
A large number of the military seem to take a different view. Compared with this time last year, there has been a 55 per cent. increase in coalition deaths, including those of British soldiers, and a 90 per cent. increase in attacks on the Afghan Government. Since January, there have been more than twice as many insurgent-initiated attacks in Helmand as next door in Kandahar. In the light of a clearly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the challenges in Pakistan, is it not time that we undertook a full and comprehensive review of the strategy we are pursuing with our NATO allies and the regional players to determine a way forward? Do they all understand that failure in Afghanistan would both damage NATO and provide a shot in the arm for every extremist across the globe? Why is NATO not working?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: failure in Afghanistan is not an option. Our military effort in Afghanistan must succeed, as must our wider comprehensive approach in Afghanistan. We regularly review the strategy—the Prime Minister has made that clear—and we published a recent review of it. We remain committed to reviewing constantly the military and the wider civil and political campaigns in which we are involved in Afghanistan, and I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he wants significantly to enhance military deployment to Afghanistan.
Training (New Equipment)
All business cases, including urgent operational requirements, are structured to provide equipment to meet our training needs. However, urgent theatre equipment needs sometimes rightly take priority over training requirements. We have made improvements in providing theatre-standard equipment for pre-deployment training and have always provided in-theatre training where that has not been possible.
I note the Minister’s comments, but is he not concerned that the number of cancelled military training exercises has increased since 2005 from 58 in 2005-06 to 80 in 2008-09? Is that not unacceptable, and what more can the Government do to ensure that the training is given before the equipment is used?
Current operations will always have to be the priority. Given the operations in which people are involved, the structure of our training has changed significantly over the past couple of years. Of course, pre-deployment training takes priority, which sometimes has an impact on other training opportunities. We have to do our best to ensure that we maintain all the skills that are necessary for both other contingent liabilities and the operations in which we are involved in places such as Afghanistan.
What steps are being taken to ensure that those personnel returning from theatre can pass on their up-to-date and latest experience of equipment and counter-insurgency to those who are having pre-deployment training so that the latest information and experiences are passed on to troops before they go into theatre?
My hon. Friend hits on an important point, of which all the services are fully seized: people who are about to be deployed into a changing situation, with changing threats, need to be brought up to date as completely as possible by those with the latest information. We, and the Army, Navy and Air Force, try to ensure that training is structured in such a way that all those lessons are learned to the maximum possible degree.
When short-term gaps in equipment emerge, they are met by urgent operational requirements—UORs—which can mean that although equipment is put in place, which is welcome, troops do not have the proper training on working with that equipment. Would not a better long-term plan be a strategic review to assess more accurately equipment needs against operational requirements?
In an ideal world, we would have a proper full-blown procurement system that would be able, for example, to bring vehicles such as Mastiff into use within the 19-week time that elapsed from its first planning to deployment in theatre. However, that will never be possible. When the nature of threat changes— in Afghanistan, the situation has changed from overwhelmingly a shooting war to one in which the improvised explosive device, or the roadside bomb, became our enemies’ tactic of choice—we have to get new equipment into theatre quickly. Of course, we must follow that through with capability so that training on the equipment can take place as quickly as possible thereafter. When lives are at risk, it is essential that theatre needs come first. However, we have improved the way in which we are getting theatre-level equipment into the training establishment, because it is no good deploying equipment if we are not deploying capability, which means people capable of using the equipment with which we have provided them.
My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged, either at home or abroad.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. At a time when many former servicemen and women can find it difficult to settle back into civilian life, and at a time of rising unemployment, what is he doing to ensure that the training that they are given when they are in the forces is transferable to civilian life?
We work very hard, and put in significant effort, to ensure that those who leave the forces get the best opportunity to take up a career in civilian life. We have made new commitments on helping ex-servicemen and women migrate from the military family into the civilian world, and we will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that that happens.
That is certainly part of our argument. The draw-down from Operation Telic will help to ease the operational stress under which the armed forces have recently been operating. Specifically on Afghanistan, more contributions from more nations would be welcome—I think that there will be more in future months—but the ability to deploy forces without caveats would also be welcome, because those caveats often impede flexibility and the delivery of maximum effect on the ground.
The particular case that came before the Court of Appeal, and that was the subject of our earlier exchanges, was not just about the articles that the right hon. Gentleman mentions; it covered article 2 as well, as he will be aware. I was asked to speculate on what we would do if we lost the appeal, and I probably went further than I should have done in speculating on what our response would be. The only way in which I can sensibly answer his question is simply to repeat one fundamental point: we will have to consider the Court of Appeal ruling very carefully indeed. If there were to be an appeal, and that appeal were unsuccessful, the Government would have an obligation to reassess the situation in the round.
The deaths of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan have already been raised in questions today, and have certainly caused a lot of concern, not least among the Pakistani community in this country. I am sure that the Government and the allies are doing their best to ensure that civilian casualties are minimised, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that the UK and the other NATO forces look at their tactics and their approach, to try to ensure that there are no civilian casualties? When there are such casualties, not only are there terrible consequences for the families involved, but it jeopardises the credibility and standing of the NATO forces in the area.
The whole point of the military deployment in Afghanistan, and the whole point of the British military deployment in particular, is to protect the population from the threat of indiscriminate violence from the insurgency. We take that responsibility very seriously. A significant effort goes into identifying a target, and making sure that there are no civilian casualties. We make every conceivable effort to avoid civilian casualties. The difficulty that our commanders face on the ground is often compounded by the fact that the Taliban show no such respect for human life, and will often launch their attacks against our forces—our young men and women—from behind children, older people and women. That is the reality that our commanders face on the ground, and I can say absolutely confidently that we move heaven and earth to avoid harming members of the local population. That will continue to be our policy.
Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The British armed forces are heavily involved in trying to intercept the flow of money and materials that have their origins in the drugs trade, and that feed and fuel the insurgency. We have undertaken a number of very successful operations—I am happy to provide him with details—in which our forces have made important confiscations and have seized significant drug assets. We also support the local law and order operations of the Afghan security forces. We are making progress, and the governor in Helmand province is making real progress in reducing the total acreage devoted to opium production. We are supporting those efforts, and we need to redouble them if they are to have the effect that the hon. Gentleman and I both want.
The recession means that the Governments of all NATO member states will be scrutinising their public expenditure ever more closely, with the consequence that some, I am sure, will propose cutting defence expenditure. What impact will that have on burden sharing, and what representations is my right hon. Friend making on the North Atlantic Council to make sure that front-line services are protected?
My hon. Friend is right that there is a danger that precisely what he says will happen. Our view is that we should prioritise current operations, and we want our allies to prioritise them, too, particularly their respective deployments to Afghanistan. I am glad to say that many more NATO members are deploying more resources to Afghanistan, despite the current economic difficulties, and despite the undoubted pressure on their national budgets.
The Government produced the command paper last year which includes a host of initiatives to support servicemen and women in service as well as veterans. I have commissioned a piece of work called the welfare pathway which I will announce later this year. Among other things, it looks at work with charities and with other Government Departments. We also support the King’s Centre for Military Health Research in assessing the instance of mental illness not only in servicemen and women, but in veterans. We are conducting a study with the Ministry of Justice to ascertain the number of veterans in prison. The Government are committed to ensuring that the fullest support is given not only to our servicemen and women in service, but to veterans.
May I start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his encouragement and involvement in the celebrations in his constituency, which as he said will involve the march-past and support of armed forces day? More than 80 communities throughout the UK are being supported directly by the MOD. In many others, smaller events are taking place. So far, 460 out of 480 councils have agreed to be involved in the raising of the armed forces day flag. May I encourage communities large and small to ensure that they take part in armed forces day on 27 June or in the lead-up to it, to say a big thank you to our servicemen and women and to acknowledge the debt of honour that we owe to veterans?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to the Department about the matter and that he has had a holding answer. We are looking into the issue and we will, of course, reply to him. There is a dispute, and we will write to him as soon as we are able about exactly what we can and cannot do with regard to that situation.
I am beginning to wonder how we can take seriously the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. What he referred to as absolute fact is complete nonsense. The MRA4 contract has not been cancelled and is not going to be cancelled. We are expecting to take delivery of those aircraft starting from the end of the year. The Reaper contract has not been cancelled either.
I welcome the announcement this week that the MOD is to review the role of women in the armed forces. If we are to discharge our duties under UN Security Council resolution 1325, which specifically looks at the role of girls and women in armed conflict and the consequences of what happens to them, it is vital that we increase women’s participation in our armed forces. Experiences in Kosovo and central Africa show that where women are the victims of sexual violence in post-conflict situations, they will not reveal this to male soldiers.
We are trying to improve the recruitment of women to the armed forces, and we have been successful to some extent. The review to which my hon. Friend referred is a more specific review of the role of women in combat roles in the military. I do not want to say much more about that today, but we will keep the House fully informed of that review’s progress.
My son is one of the officers fighting alongside brave men in Afghanistan at the moment. One issue that all our soldiers face concerns the porous border with Pakistan. What is the Ministry of Defence doing to assist the Government of Pakistan and their army to try to establish further control through what seem, so far, to be successful activities in the Swat valley?
First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s son? We respect and salute his service in the name of our country. On Pakistan, the hon. Gentleman has again identified an important point. We are providing a range of help and support to Pakistan’s security forces, particularly the frontier corps, helping them improve their capabilities and their ability to deal with the serious threat to Pakistan’s nascent democracy posed by the Taliban and similar extremists. We are involved in a training role with the Pakistani military, too, and we will continue to extend the hand of friendship to the Pakistani armed forces in their fundamental struggle against the forces of darkness and primitivism.
Yes, I should be happy to do that.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister quite rightly said that he wants to enhance the role of the House and make it central to our politics. This morning, however, he has been making statements in the media about various initiatives that he wants to take, including the establishment of the national council for democratic renewal. Given that the Prime Minister has found time today to speak to a TV talent show contestant, will he find the time to come to this House to make a statement on the far-reaching proposals that he intends to bring forward?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a similar matter, in the Financial Times last Friday, there appeared to be a set of detailed announcements about the award of Government contracts under the flexible new deal. Have you had any information from a Minister indicating an intention to tell the House, either in person or by way of a written statement, about the award of contracts totalling billions of pounds? Or are we yet again to see announcements in newspapers before Members are informed?
On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. I have in my constituency about 1,000 veterans and people who are interested in the armed forces. The House authorities inform me that I can send information to them about the Castle Point armed forces day events
“using stamps and envelopes purchased from the Communications Expenditure”.
They also say:
“Pre paid envelopes should not be used.”
That restriction seems ridiculous. It imposes extra work and costs on my office and staff and makes no sense at all to my constituents. Will you ask someone to review those rules and bring them up to date?
In the past few days, there have been serious complaints about how we use the resources before us, and the reason for the restrictions on envelopes and the introduction of the communications allowance was that some hon. Members were using massive amounts of envelopes, and it had to be stopped. I know that it may be an intrusion or a difficulty for the staff, but the fact of the matter is that there are resources in the hon. Gentleman’s office to use those facilities.
Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [Lords]
[Relevant Document: The Fourth Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, HC 89, on Regional development agencies and the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Every one of us understands the degree of public anger at politics and politicians and the pressing need to reform our democracy, but it is vital that that anger be channelled into practical reforms that reconnect people with their political system and allow citizens to exercise more influence and more control. The Bill is practical and focused, and it takes us a few steps further forward on our journey.
First, it continues the drive towards stronger local democracy, empowering both local authorities and individuals by implementing the principles set out in the White Paper “Communities in control”. Secondly, it promotes economic recovery and encourages future growth and development by implementing the proposals set out in the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration. A healthy and vibrant democracy is the foundation of a secure and prosperous society. In the past decade, local authorities have taken on an increasingly important role in driving change and improving the lives of local people: we have given them increased freedom and flexibility so that they can make the most of their local strength and knowledge and connect with local people.
It has become clear, particularly in the past few weeks, that many people feel cut off or inhibited from taking part in the democratic process. It is vital that we try to overcome those barriers and to create the thriving, healthy and vibrant local democracy that would give people every possible opportunity to speak up and get involved in their local services. Side by side with the Second Reading of the Bill, we have today published a review of the evidence base, which looks at the various ways we can try to empower people—whether that involves the transfer of assets, participatory budgeting or the right to use petitions. The review reinforces exactly what we are trying to achieve through the Bill.
The Bill introduces new measures to strengthen local democracy further by, first, giving councils new duties actively to promote democratic engagement and civic participation and, secondly, giving local people stronger rights and more opportunities to have their say, through increased and enhanced scrutiny and—for the first time—through legal rights to get a response to their petitions.
In these tough economic times, those goals are more important than ever. The goals make everyone feel they can take practical action that will have a direct impact for them, their families and their neighbourhoods. The goals will also help people to shape more effective and responsive public services. That is even more important at the present time.
We all understand the desire and need to promote greater involvement, but I am puzzled by the concept of the duty. It implies that something will happen if an authority does not live up to it. What exactly would happen to an authority that was seen to be in breach of its duty? How would such a duty be determined? Would it not be better not to have that concept of duty but to keep the promotion of greater involvement, with which the right hon. Lady would find the House in full agreement?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Getting the balance right between powers and duties always exercises us in local government. It is important that there should be a duty because, unfortunately, although many local authorities are doing excellent work on that agenda, not all of them are. We want to try to bring everyone up to the standard of the best. Embedding the issue in the local performance framework, so that that the comprehensive area assessment will measure and assess how well local authorities are promoting democracy in their areas, will be important in ensuring that the issue becomes part of the normal core business of local authorities, rather than the icing on the cake. How far we go with duties as opposed to powers is always a matter of judgment. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue, because democracy is fundamental.
Does my right hon. Friend understand that one of the mistakes we made on this side was to prevent many local authorities from maintaining a committee system? That system was healthy for democracy; it was a form of power sharing that involved all councils of all political parties. When we come to the appropriate stage, will my right hon. Friend accept an amendment that would permit local authorities to have a committee system once more? That system endured and was successful for more than 110 years.
My hon. Friend will table amendments at the appropriate time. I do not accept that simply having a committee system will ensure better local democracy. I have seen many committee systems in which people’s service on committees has prevented them from being out and about in the community as front-line champions and local representatives. [Interruption.] It is clear that my hon. Friend does not agree with me on the issue, and he is perfectly entitled to his view.
I am looking at clauses 3 and 4. Could the Secretary of State explain what business it is of a local authority to “promote” matters to do with the criminal justice system? In clause 3, for example, she requires local authorities to promote independent monitoring boards to do with prisons, courts boards and youth offending teams. Clause 4 states:
“A principal local authority has a duty to promote understanding among local people of…the functions of a lay justice”.
Surely the separation of powers that her Government seem so keen on would contradict what she has put into these provisions.
I am surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise that the implications of the criminal justice system have a real impact on local communities. These bodies are not separate entities. To follow through his point, he is saying that the local authority should have nothing to do with the police system or the health system. People live in communities, and all these bodies have an impact on their quality of life. It is very important that local authorities should seek to help to recruit people to become magistrates and school governors—to take on all those civic roles in life. If he feels that these things are entirely separate, independent and not interrelated, he is not living in the kind of community that most of us live in.
With regard to a duty, will my right hon. Friend say explicitly that there is a role for parish and town councils? I declare an interest as a continuing town councillor of some 23 years. They are the first level of government, not the lowest level, and they have a key role to play in all manner of different areas. It is important that principal authorities consult them, use them as a layer of democracy, and do not try to shut them out. I hope there will be a provision in the Bill to make that formally the case.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am absolutely committed to ensuring that parish councils, town councils and all these local organisations play a full role in our democracy. I have had several meetings with the National Association of Local Councils; its members are an extremely constructive group of people, and I am keen to involve them at every single level during the passage of this legislation.
I am more than happy to give my hon. Friend that undertaking. Increasing numbers of town councils, parish councils and neighbourhood councils are being established in urban areas. As we have moved towards the new unitary authorities, which are quite large organisations, it has become very important to get them underpinned by local democratic bodies. I do not see parish councils as simply a matter for rural areas: wherever people live, they should have the right to have local representation in their community and neighbourhood.
Following up the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the Bill is just one element of a wider Government drive to try to ensure that local people have every opportunity to get involved in local decision making, not merely within their local authorities.
We are in danger of having a fairly sterile argument, because the Secretary of State clearly does not understand the point that I made to her. If she thinks that it should be the duty of a local authority
“to promote understanding among local people of…the functions of a lay justice”,
why should it not promote understanding among local people of the functions of the Church of England or, in her particular area, the Methodist Church? Why does she draw a distinction between what is a proper function of a local authority and all the things that she refers to in the Bill?
People who commit offences or get involved with the criminal justice system live in places and communities, they interact with families, and they have an impact on neighbourhoods. That is why it is important to try, for example, to encourage people to get involved in youth referral panels, and it is entirely proper for the local authority to encourage that to happen. Far from my not understanding the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, I would say he does not understand how modern communities work in this day and age the length and breadth of this country.
The progress that we have made in implementing the proposals in “Communities in control” has just been set out in our progress report, which, together with the evidence base, is published to coincide with Second Reading. I have been heartened by the fact that the evaluation of the proposals that we have made so far indicates that we are beginning to make some progress in making people feel more able to influence things that happen in their neighbourhoods.
The second theme of our Bill is economic development, both promoting recovery in the short term—real help now for communities—and, crucially, promoting growth and prosperity in the longer term. Over the past year we have been working with local government, regional development agencies and local community groups to try to determine the best arrangements for driving economic growth in future and to identify how the relevant powers and responsibilities should be distributed among the local, regional and national levels. The results of our consultations have been largely welcomed and endorsed, and the Bill will now put the arrangements in place.
Alongside the imperative to improve economic performance, should we not give equal weight to social and environmental concerns? Should there not therefore be a much bolder, stronger duty in the Bill relating to sustainable development as a whole, rather than a big assessment of economics and little reference to sustainable development in regional planning?
I hope to be able to reassure my hon. Friend, because I know that he is a champion of this issue. The whole purpose of the single integrated regional strategy is to balance economic growth with the environment and social justice. Those are the three pivotal issues that we need to get right in our integrated planning. Something that has not been as well managed as it might have been is the fact that spatial planning has gone in one direction and economic planning has gone in another. Using the same evidence base for both in drawing up the single regional strategy will be a significant improvement. I give him the undertaking that sustainable development is at the heart of the Bill.
That being the case, would it not be far more appropriate for the regional development agencies to be overseen by the Department for Communities and Local Government rather than the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform?
With great respect, I shall make a similar point to the hon. Lady to the one I made to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Increasingly, the way in which services are organised will require more integration at both Whitehall and local level. The mere fact that the RDAs sit in another Government Department should not militate against joint work, integrated services and balancing economic and environmental sustainability. The days when the Department that bodies were in determined the framework within which they operated, to the exclusion of such broader thematic considerations, are long gone—or they ought to be gone, very quickly indeed.
It is important that all our organisations are accountable, and when I come to the single regional strategy, I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that the RDAs, working with the leaders’ boards and signing off plans jointly, will give us some of that accountability. I would also make the point that in the current recession, the RDAs have played a significant role by acting quickly, nimbly and flexibly to promote jobs, and particularly to help small businesses during this tough economic time. That is an important part of their role.
I am intrigued by the fact that, although my right hon. Friend rightly says we ought to encourage greater participation and local democracy, we are now talking about the RDAs. In the case of the Liverpool city region, the RDA is channelling all the European structural funding to the Mersey Partnership, which started off as an unelected, glorified tourism operation and is accountable to nobody. How can we get practical politics with accountability when we are using quangos of one sort or another, at not just regional but local level, to dispose of the funding in a given area?
I hope my hon. Friend will see that the proposals in the Bill are designed to address the issue that he raises. The single regional strategy will be a joint document prepared by the local authorities and the RDA, and it will need to be signed off by the leaders’ board. In many cases the local authority will be the delivery agent for implementing that strategy, and the RDA funds will therefore be channelled through the local authorities to deliver the priorities that local people say are important to them. I hope that at the end of the debate he will be convinced that those are steps in the direction in which he wishes us to travel.
Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), will the Secretary of State give some indication of whether the Campaign to Protect Rural England could be consulted on sustainable economic development, so that we have safeguards for protecting and enhancing biodiversity and landscape? Will there be scope for the Bill to include something more specific on that?
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is an advocate of environmental issues, especially biodiversity. I reassure her that we intend to draw on the knowledge, expertise and experience of organisations such as the CPRE when forming our strategies. I have no doubt that, when the Bill proceeds through Committee, questions will be asked about the next stage, the guidance that we issue and the consultees we draw into our process. We want to ensure that the environment is at the heart of our proposals.
May I press the Secretary of State a little harder on community involvement in the regional strategy? She gave my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) reassuring answers about community involvement. Indeed, clause 72 provides that a statement on community involvement should be prepared and published. However, can it be right to leave the decision about who should be consulted to the RDAs and the local authority leaders’ boards? How can we ensure that those who have economic, social or environmental stakeholding responsibilities are genuinely and actively involved with the communities in which they are rooted? That is a significant concern that people in North-West Leicestershire have about the Bill. They are worried that community involvement is not spelled out, but left to the discretion of unelected bodies, which will perhaps fulfil the responsibility in a rather token way.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and those of other hon. Members to ensure that we maximise community involvement. Hon. Members know that that cause is close to my heart and that I have campaigned on it for many years. I am trying to ensure in the Bill that the elected authorities, which are members of the leaders’ boards, take responsibility for that. [Interruption.] They are elected by people in the community.
I take the point that the social, economic and environmental partners need to be fully involved, but we have not prescribed that in the Bill because that needs to be flexible. The clause that my hon. Friend highlighted provides for community involvement on a statutory basis. That is a huge step forward; in the past, it was simply taken for granted. If my hon. Friend wants to make that involvement even firmer, I am sure that there will be opportunities to do that during the Bill’s passage through the House. However, I give him an undertaking—I have given many undertakings today—that community involvement should be at the heart of the strategy. If it is not, the issues that people feel are a priority for them will not be addressed.
I am interested in the Secretary of State’s comments about taking cognisance of the desire for RDAs in particular to reflect community interests more. How would she effect that desire when Advantage West Midlands, the RDA in my area, is on the point of cutting substantial funding to each local authority in its area without proper consultation?
The hon. Gentleman knows that RDAs throughout the country, including in the west midlands, have played a significant role during the economic downturn in doing the opposite of what he claims. They have provided support, particularly for small businesses, through advice, information and deferring tax for more than 100,000 business organisations. They have also played a significant role in bringing inward investment to our regions. Of course, the community needs to be involved in drawing up single strategies, but we should not underestimate the role of the RDAs in providing real help to people and communities now. I know it is the Conservative party’s policy to abolish the RDAs, but I think that would be unpopular with businesses that are trying to provide employment opportunities for people in their areas.
The first clauses introduce a new duty for councils to promote democracy. Many hon. Members have asked me what that means practically. It is a novel duty, which has not been considered previously, but the Bill sets out in some detail what it means. Councils must explain their functions: what they do and how they reach decisions; and how other bodies, such as the police, the health service and the criminal justice system, make decisions. Ordinary people have a legitimate interest in knowing how those organisations, which have a significant influence over their lives, conduct their business, and how they can get involved, influence their decisions and make them more accountable and responsive to them and their community.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in promoting democracy in our areas, it would be useful if local authorities such as Bradford got back to the idea of canvassing to get people on the electoral register, which is a basic ingredient of democracy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously we have important elections later this week, but if people are not registered to vote in the first place, trying to get them out to vote is very difficult indeed. However, she will know that the Secretary of State for Justice and I are trying to put extra funds into electoral registration and provide a more rigorous performance framework for electoral registration, which will, we hope, maximise an accurate and comprehensive register. It is essential that people are registered to exercise their democratic rights.
That is an excellent idea. I am delighted that we managed, after three or four debates in the House, to establish the principle that the Youth Parliament should be able to sit and hold a debate in this Chamber, despite opposition from some Opposition Members. I am also delighted to tell my hon. Friend that we recently launched a programme to establish at least another 20 youth mayors, with budgets, across the country. We will also launch a programme shortly to allow young people to shadow Ministers and councillors in their areas and give them an understanding of what exactly their work entails.
My hon. Friend will know that the Youth Citizenship Commission is looking at exactly those issues and will come forward with recommendations in due course.
The new duty to promote democracy means that councils must explain their functions and decision-making processes. The Bill also introduces a duty for local authorities to respond to petitions, which is a fairly straightforward way of trying to ensure that issues that people are concerned about locally are discussed. The review of evidence, which I talked about earlier, also confirms that when petitions are taken seriously and people feel that they will be acted on, they will have a significant influence in getting more people involved.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that the real problem with councils explaining themselves is the sheer complexity of the environment in which they already operate? It is difficult for those of us who interact daily with councils to understand, but the Bill will make the situation more complicated and more difficult to explain, and therefore less democratic.
If someone has a problem with litter and graffiti on their street, the Bill requires the council to respond to their petition. I do not see how that makes the situation any more complex; in fact, I think it makes getting something done about the problem much more simple and straightforward.
I agree with the Secretary of State that petitions and large-scale participation by the public are welcome. She must therefore welcome the more than 28,000 submissions to the east of England regional strategy, of which nearly 27,000 turned out to be objections, and the 35,000 submissions to the strategy for the south-west, of which I would guess more than 30,000 will turn out to be objections. Is she satisfied that enough changes will be made, as far as she is able to make them, as a result of those thousands of objections, and that the Bill reflects a move towards more accountability by regional bodies, not less?
The hon. Gentleman has been an effective advocate in relation to some of the spatial strategies. He will know that we have looked very carefully indeed at the representations and that significant changes have been made as a result. I hope he will give us credit for that. It is important that people take part and feel that some things do change. It is my experience that people do not expect everything to change as a result of their representations, but they want to see that they have made a difference. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly the procedure adopted in the spatial strategies.
I am going to make a little progress; otherwise I will take up everybody else’s time.
The best councils already take account of petitions—I think that about a third of councils have a formal scheme in place for doing that—and we now expect all authorities to follow suit. If enough people sign a petition, this will trigger a debate, guaranteeing that elected representatives discuss the issues that are of concern at local level. Amendments in the other place have made the petitions scheme much less prescriptive than was originally proposed, which will help authorities to set the parameters around the petitions duty.
The Bill also extends the existing duty on local authorities to involve local people to a whole range of other organisations, including Jobcentre Plus, police authorities, the Environment Agency, probation trusts and other providers of services. They, too, will have to involve local people. Eventually, we shall have an integrated system in which involving people is done as a matter of course, rather than being somehow out of the ordinary.
Will that duty to participate also extend to partnership organisations, such as local strategic partnerships in which a number of organisations make decisions about public resources, as well as the statutory authorities that the Secretary of State has already mentioned? Such organisations often do not meet in public.
All the partnership organisations should certainly be under a responsibility to involve local people. Those organisations are spending public money and our intention is to move towards a system in which community engagement with decision making on the totality of public expenditure by local authorities, the health service and the police is fundamental to ensuring that the best possible decisions are taken.
The Bill goes on to enable the Secretary of State to fund the National Tenant Voice, which will be a powerful advocate on behalf of tenants. I think that there are about 4 million people in social housing, and they need a strong voice. This measure will ensure that they are heard at the highest level, and that they will be involved in shaping the policy that affects them. It will complement the work of the new Tenant Services Authority.
I should like to mention an excellent example from my own neighbourhood. An arm’s length management organisation called Salix Homes has a scrutiny panel of about 30 local tenants, known as senators. I think that this has been the first scrutiny work of this kind in the country. The panel makes recommendations and its views are fed into the housing association, which makes changes on the basis of what its tenants have said is important. That scrutiny is driving continual improvement and excellent services, and it is really making a difference.
Clauses 30 and 31 will strengthen overview and scrutiny arrangements in local authorities, making them clearer, easier to understand and more effective and, I hope, making it easier for residents to get involved. I am always conscious of complexity, but if we can make the scrutiny arrangements simpler, people will feel that it is worth while their getting involved and making a difference.
Councils with responsibilities for local area agreements will have a duty to designate an officer with specific responsibility for scrutiny—many places already do this, but, unfortunately, not everywhere does—so that there is a person who is responsible for ensuring that there is a better way for the public to get involved. Local authorities will also be able to set up joint overview and scrutiny committees. For example, a range of district councils could come together to be more effective. Those committees will have a greater remit, and will be able to review issues affecting a whole range of residents.
The first half of the Bill finishes with clauses to establish a new, impartial and independent local government boundary commission for England. This was recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to enable the Electoral Commission to concentrate on its core duty of electoral registration, rather than having to deal with boundary issues. I hope that that provision will be welcome.
Let me turn now to the second half of the Bill, with its emphasis on promoting economic recovery and growth. We all know that national prosperity depends very much on what happens at local and regional level. In the new economy, an ability to have clear vision and leadership in our regions and at sub-regional level will be fundamental to success. It is essential that local and regional leaders put in place the right strategies, and that they have the right powers, frameworks and investment to drive opportunities in the new economy.
Our review of sub-national economic development and regeneration recognised the importance of local authorities in a significantly different way from what had been the case in the past. That is particularly important in tough economic times, so we need to ensure that the framework and the powers are rightly held at each level of government—local, regional and national.
The Bill places a duty on local authorities to assess the economic conditions in their area, looking at factors such as employment, jobs, skills, enterprise, the number of start-up businesses in particular areas and so forth. If they have such information through the assessment, they will be much better able to provide the economic leadership that will stimulate and promote growth. Many councils have a really good understanding of their local economy; not all do, however, and we want to bring them all up to the level of the best.
The next clauses introduce the single and integrated regional strategy that I have talked about for each English region outside London. It involves a much more co-ordinated approach, bringing together issues such as housing, transport, skills and planning that go across local authority areas. If we are to provide the right framework, particularly for inward investment, our pitch to the people who we want to invest has to say that there are good offers around planning and transport that are fundamental to driving economic regeneration.
The less integrated approach that we have had to date has taken about five years to move from initial consultations through to draft proposals on changes to the regional strategy in the south-west—and it is still not complete. How long, then, does the Secretary of State think the more integrated version will take?
It will be an awful lot faster than the previous process, and I say that to the hon. Gentleman for this reason. In the past, we had spatial strategies that often used a different evidence base from the economic strategies, which meant that there were inherent tensions in the system that pulled against each other rather than pushing us towards a much more integrated approach. The fact that the strategy will need to be signed off by the leaders’ board and the regional development agency provides an incentive for them to ensure that everything comes through quickly, while at the same time taking into account the environmental and community issues that my hon. Friends have raised. We will have integrated strategies that will help to drive forward economic development as well.
Will my right hon. Friend include an explicit definition of sustainable development in the Bill? Many definitions are floating around in different legislative measures, but surely this is the Bill in which to lay to rest any uncertainty about the need for all development to be sustainable. Does she agree that we should put that at the heart of the Bill?
If development is not sustainable, it will not be the kind of development that will drive economic prosperity or quality of life, which are absolutely at the heart of this Bill. Whether it be housing development, jobs or industry, sustainability has to be built into it from the beginning; that is one of the lessons we have learned in reflecting on the different strategies we developed previously. As I said, they clashed with each other, whereas we are now developing an integrated approach, which I know my hon. Friend feels so strongly about.
We could probably embark on an interesting philosophical discussion and I am always keen to explore these issues with the right hon. Gentleman, who has a great deal of experience in this area. There are principles of sustainability that apply to the environment, climate change and creating the kind of community that is not just about building houses, but the schools, transport, shops and facilities that go with them. These principles of sustainable development are now, I think, fairly well established, which means that we should not be creating the kind of communities that we unfortunately saw in the 1960s and 1970s, which were not good places for people to live, work or bring up their families in. The whole point of these strategies is to create sustainable places in which people want to live, work and bring up their families. It is not such an arcane discussion as we might have had a few years ago, because those principles are, as I say, pretty well established now.
The Secretary of State is being very patient with us. I have nothing against regional strategies; indeed, quite the reverse, having seen what the other lot did for many years. Having a partnership to decide the regional strategy is one thing, but is it not the case that the regional development agency effectively holds a gun to the elected members’ heads simply by virtue of the fact that it controls the funding? The RDA certainly has the upper hand in determining the important outcomes from the strategy.
I would say that the position is almost exactly the reverse. Although the regional development agency has the RDA funds, local authorities also hold a huge amount of resource in the form of their normal funding, the working neighbourhoods fund or the future jobs fund, which I announced last week along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It gives local authorities £1 billion with which to create 150,000 jobs over the next two years. Make no mistake: local authorities are not in the weak, supplicant position of simply having to go along with what the RDA says. This has to be a genuine equal partnership, and local authorities are increasingly becoming powerful economic players for their own regions and communities.
Given the economic assessment, the single strategy and the work of the local authority leaders’ boards and RDAs in driving it forward, I believe that something very interesting is emerging. This is not just about economic development at regional level; it is more and more about what happens at sub-regional level when local authorities form groups in order to drive change. Many authorities of all political persuasions are now choosing to enter into multi-area agreements, because they see the importance of collaboration between them on this economic agenda. Ten agreements involving 78 local authorities across the country and covering a quarter of the population have been signed from South Hampshire to South Yorkshire and everywhere in between.
Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury are collaborating on a joint core strategy that will implement the regional spatial strategy that we expect to be finalised this year. Should they now stop that process and wait for the new integrated regional strategy? Will they not otherwise be developing the implementation of something that is already out of date?
I see no reason for those authorities simply to call a halt to their discussions and plans. It is not beyond the wit of people to adapt to the new statutory framework once it is in place. It would not be sensible for them to throw away all the work that they have already done, much of which can be drawn into the new single integrated strategy. That is a matter for negotiation between the leaders’ boards and the RDAs in their areas. I do not want people suddenly to decide, on an arbitrary date, that all their work has been pointless and that they will not do it any more. A great deal of it will have involved gathering evidence and coming up with policies that will be just as relevant in the future as they were in the past.
In a moment. I want to finish what I was saying about the multi-area agreements. The fact that 10 have been signed, involving 78 local authorities, a quarter of the population and a number of different parties, suggests that people are seeing significant benefit in greater collaboration between local authorities, and I want to encourage them to do more of that. Many have told us that they want to put MAAs on to a statutory footing so that the authorities have more legal power to make a difference. The Bill makes it possible to set up MAAs on a statutory basis similar to that of the local area agreements, which are now beginning to integrate health, council, police and other services.
I hope Members agree that this is a coherent piece of architecture. Where statutory processes are operating, the centre will exercise less power and devolve more power to the people in local authorities who we all want to be able to make decisions.
The Secretary of State has just described this as a much more coherent arrangement. I am sure that it is from the point of view of those sitting in Whitehall, but how coherent does she think it appears to those who are at the receiving end of public services in local communities? How effective does she think they consider these multi-area agreements to be?
That is a fair question. So far the architecture has been designed to achieve system change, and it will not necessarily have an impact on people with specific requirements—for instance, those who want to know how to obtain funding for their local nursery or community allotment. The challenge for all of us, as politicians, is not just to bring about system change—although we must do that: we must make the system work—but to translate that into giving people opportunities to do what they want to do in order to make their communities better places in which to live. The community generally does not need to know the details of the MMA, the LLA and the comprehensive area assessment. That is for us to deal with. The challenge—and I take it as a personal challenge—is how the system can be made simpler and easier for people to handle from the inside. That is why there is a duty to promote democracy and to explain who makes the decisions, where people can have an input and how they can make a difference.
On a point of detail about the sub-regional consideration of development issues in particular, recommendation 26 of the Business and Enterprise Committee’s fourth report of Session 2008-09 stated:
“The Committee is concerned about the process by which local authorities…can leave EPBs.”
If there is no easier mechanism to withdraw, a disruptive member of an economic prosperity board could cause real difficulty to the EPB. We have not yet had the Government’s response to our report. What does the Secretary of State say about the mechanism by which a local authority that no longer wishes to co-operate with an EPB can withdraw?
Again, that is a fair question, because the whole purpose of moving to an EPB is that some continuity is provided and people sign up, even though they might be from different political parties, to a set of priorities for that community. Thus, this needs to involve some legal basis, and we need to think carefully about what a notice period might be and how people might withdraw. What we do not want is people in an EPB for six months and then out of it for six months—as has been said, we do not want a hokey-cokey approach. These are very serious matters relating to developing five-year or 10-year strategies on planning and transport—big strategic issues—so people have to be signed up for a reasonable period before they are able to withdraw. However, this is a matter that we will doubtless be able to explore, as was discussed in the report.
We now have MAAs and we will have EPBs; importantly, the EPBs can be joined up with integrated transport authorities, and there will then be a single body that can take a properly integrated approach both to economic development and to transport.
My right hon. Friend will regret giving way. If she looks at the Official Report tomorrow, she will see that all this about economic prosperity boards tying up with some other bodies is gobbledegook. Most people have had enough of all this. Why can we not cut away this plethora of bodies and focus on democratically elected local authorities? That is why I say to her that this is complete nonsense and that we have had enough; we want to get rid of this plethora of quangos and joint bodies, and all this linking up and partnerships—all these buzzwords. I say take it back.
I do not regret giving way, because it always good to have a healthy debate. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that I do not know how much discussion he has with the various bodies in his local community, but the people who run the health service, the police service and the council in my community feel that there is great benefit to be had from working in partnership, from pooling their budgets and from having more joined-up services, and that that provides a better service to local people.
Now, I was—[Interruption.] There is lots of democracy in this Chamber; I have been speaking for quite a long time.
I was just making the point about transport, because it is important. Transport sometimes sits separately from other issues associated with economic development, and if our funding streams and capital allocations are not aligned with the decisions that we need to take to encourage economic development, we do not get the most out of the resource that is available to us. So, again, the approach we are taking is a positive way forward.
This is not a humorous matter, although there have been some humorous moments this evening. Before we move on to the final parts 8 and 9 of the Bill, which deal with construction contracts, could the Secretary of State give us a running total of the number of additional bodies, quangos, boards—
I have no doubt that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be pursuing that question on a regular basis while the Bill is being discussed on the Floor of the House and while it goes through Committee. I tried to make the point as kindly as I could earlier, but if he thinks that the world is still made up of a series of entirely separate, isolated and dislocated public services, he is not in touch with the communities out there. For a young offender who has difficulties in his home life, finds it hard to access training and cannot get an apprenticeship or a job, we need a series of local public services to come together in order to be able to provide the response for that young person in an integrated way—that is the way of the world these days. Hon. Members might wish to go back to the mythical halcyon days when everything was done separately in silos, but they are looking back through rose-tinted glasses. That is not the world of today, and the hon. and learned Gentleman is out of touch with reality—[Interruption.] I have answered him. He may not like my answer, but I have answered him.
On the issue of construction contracts, would my right hon. Friend consider giving local authorities powers, when awarding contracts, to take into account their functions under clause 66 of the Bill to promote the economic development and regeneration of their areas, and to consider the desirability of maintaining a diverse range of contractors? In addition to value for money, local authorities should consider local economic circumstances and the position of local building firms, which are suffering severely in this recession. This legislation could help them.
My hon. Friend makes a thoughtful and practical point. We can be more creative, when it comes to Government and local authority procurement, in looking at the factors that we take into account. We need to look not only at the bottom line, but at the social impact in an area. The evidence base suggests that if money is spent locally in the local community, every £1 spent has £7 worth of economic impact. If it is spent outside the area, the impact is much lower. In these tough economic times, it is very important to have local supply chains that help to create and sustain employment.
The aspects of this Bill that relate to the construction industry are about better cash flow and trying to ensure that there is an adjudication process for the industry. I think that the Bill will provide practical help for construction companies in the present climate.
I welcome the intentions of part 8 of the Bill, but much of the industry is concerned that the payment notice procedure is far too complicated. Will she undertake to look carefully at how the procedure will operate, so that it can be radically simplified and genuinely deliver real help for small businesses? Will she give a commitment to that effect today?
That will be the subject of discussion. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Government have provided significant support to small businesses through advice and the option to defer tax and VAT. Already more than 100,000 businesses have benefited from that provision, and we have a proud record of helping business. If there is more that we can do, I am sure that that will be discussed in Committee.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to be a champion for Luton and the people who depend for their employment on vans and other products from the area. We must never forget the damaging impact of this recession on people’s jobs, and we are determined to try to ensure that we keep people in their jobs as much as we possibly can.
The Secretary of State is glossing over the construction provisions at the end of the Bill, which are being watched carefully by subcontractors who are suffering at the moment. If a customer becomes insolvent, the main contractor can cease paying all the subcontractors immediately, even if those subcontractors have supplied all the materials and work on time and to schedule. That is very unfair, especially in a recession, and the companies are unable to obtain insurance against it happening. The Bill does not deal with that situation, and that puzzles me. Will the Secretary of State look again at the issue? I know that other Departments are involved, but she has received representations from me and my constituents about this issue. What is her present view on it?
The provisions in this part of the Bill are primarily about trying to improve cash flow, but I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the dislocation of the supply chain and the impact that that has particularly on small subcontractors. We want to try to make it as simple as we can—the right hon. Gentleman has made that point—and we want a procedure to resolve disputes properly. I am not in a position today to tell him whether we will be able to expand the scope of these provisions, but I think that it is very important that small businesses in the construction supply chain, in particular, have as much protection as they can.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have asked local authorities to pay their bills, for example, as quickly as they possibly can. Many of them now have very good payment records. One of the problems is that although they might pay the main contractor very promptly, ensuring that that goes down the supply chain is very important when it can mean the difference between a local company staying in business or not. I am conscious of these issues. I am not glossing over this part of the Bill and I want to see what I can do.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I am keen to support the points that are being made. Small building companies are writing to me and they are very anxious. They understand the integrity of part 8 and they are very clear about its potential value, but they have made it clear to me that the form in which it is written is complex and that they would appreciate it greatly if that complexity could be resolved before the Bill becomes law.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. As ever, she is practically focused on doing the things that matter in her constituency and to her local companies. I certainly undertake that, in Committee, we will examine the issue of complexity and making it simple and straightforward. She is so right—we have to keep many of those small building companies in business because they often employ people whose skills are essential to this country. In previous recessions, we lost those skills because we saw such companies go to the wall. We are determined to do what we can to ensure that such companies stay in business and keep employing the hundreds and thousands of local people in our communities who are so important to us.
On the issue of small businesses and the part of the Bill that deals with construction companies, will my right hon. Friend consider ways in which smaller building companies can still have a part to play? There is a real fear that the joint ventures and the move towards bigger contracts are cutting out local companies from the local economy altogether. There is an urgent need to ensure that we keep that local supply chain.
The Bill makes provision for more transparency in the contractual process. Will there be more guidelines, in the Bill or elsewhere, for local authorities on the subcontracting done by the main contractor? Increasingly, large companies are going for local authority contracts but the way in which they then subcontract is opaque and is sometimes not open to local companies. Some extra guidance on that would be important.
It might not be a matter for these clauses, but the way in which we carry out our procurement more generally and ensure that it is transparent, open and simple for firms to access is a major priority for us. One thing that this difficult economic period has shown us is that ensuring that people can access the available contracts in a way that is appropriate to them is quite a challenge, not just to local authorities but for Government procurement, too. As a priority, we should look at the NHS and our big Government Departments—really significant economic players—and ensure that the system is as open as it can be to people in small organisations.
It is appropriate that we have just had that discussion, because the last time the UK experienced a recession, councils were pretty underfunded and were certainly demoralised. Today, I think that local authorities are thriving, innovative and powerful organisations that are well placed to respond to the challenges ahead.
During the recession in the 1970s, when I was a member of a local authority, local authorities were encouraged to build tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of council houses, which we did. We completely housed all those on the waiting list during that time. Would my right hon. Friend not suggest that that is the way forward, both to house people and to save the construction industry?
My hon. Friend will know that there was £100 million in the Budget to encourage precisely such activity and that we are removing barriers that prevent local authorities from building houses. He will also, I hope, be aware of the £1 billion future jobs fund that I hope will help to employ young people, in particular, in 150,000 jobs over the next two years. I am sure that many of those jobs could be in the kind of work that he has outlined, involving building good-quality, environmentally friendly homes for the people who need them.
Today, local government is thriving, innovative, powerful, and well placed to respond to the challenges ahead. The Bill is designed to reinforce that position by strengthening local democracy and supporting economic development, which are the two imperatives of our time. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am sure that everyone in the Chamber with an interest in local government will have spent the past few weeks, including the recess, campaigning for the local elections. After knocking on doors daily throughout the expenses furore, I am sure that we are under no illusion that people want our democracy to work better for them, and I was glad that the Secretary of State began by acknowledging that.
On the face of it, the title of the Bill seems to hold out some promise for us all, but it is a bit misleading, which is just the first of many disappointments. Far from being a local democracy Bill, it is a charter that snatches power away from people. It is about taking power away from locally elected decision makers and giving it to regional quangos, combined authorities and economic prosperity boards—the gobbledegook, to which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has referred, that makes people feel distant from the political process.
The sheer fact that something as vital as strengthening local democracy has been lumped together with provisions on the construction industry and other economic aims tells us that the Government do not see strengthening local democracy as sufficiently pressing in itself. Instead, local democracy has been tagged on to a series of measures that look like remnants of other Bills that have been scraped off the floor. Why, for example, are we legislating to create a national tenant voice within a few days of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords coming into operation? Either the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 has been found wanting or this is unnecessary duplication. No wonder my noble Friend Baroness Warsi described the Bill as a “ramshackle” piece of legislation with
“lots of motherhood and apple pie”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 December 2008; Vol. 706, c. 404.]
The critique was not confined to the Conservative Benches. Noble Lords from all parties described the Bill as “an eclectic mix”, “a bureaucracy Bill” and, at best, a “mixed bag”.
The hon. Lady asked why there should be a voice for tenants in addition to the Tenant Services Authority. The Cave review, which proposed the reform, makes it clear that the tenant voice is a separate function that must be discharged by a body separate from the TSA. Does she therefore agree that there is considerable good sense in the Bill’s proposal?
The right hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge about local government, but my point concerns the Government’s legislative competence. Given that the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 went through both Houses of Parliament, why was the opportunity not taken to legislate on precisely the point in the Cave review to which he has referred?
In the light of the criticism admirably made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the complexity of the Bill, my hon. Friend might like to know that my Committee’s report on the Bill is the first that has required a glossary at the beginning so that people can find their way through it—I commend the glossary to the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for referring hon. Members to where they can find out how to understand the language used in the Bill.
I have long held a theory that the longer the title of a Bill, the more delphic its content, and this Bill is no different. I say that advisedly as the author of a book snappily titled “Non-food uses of agricultural raw materials: Economics, biotechnology and politics”. Needless to say, the book did not find its way on to Richard and Judy’s bestseller list.
To return to the matter in hand, over and over again I found myself writing, “Why do we need to do this?” in the margins beside the clauses of the Bill. So much of the Bill is plain common sense, or is already best practice for some councils. Best practice should be spread by councils sharing and emulating the good ideas that well-run councils introduce, but does it need a change in the law to tell them how to do that? I do not think so. Will more legislation make councils do their jobs better? I doubt it. It will stifle innovation and suppress diversity, and I happen to believe that diversity drives up standards. Diversity is a far better tool for change than the dead hand of the state. The Bill is simply legislation for legislation’s sake. By that, I mean that it is unnecessary, and even counter-productive for being so prescriptive.
I invite hon. Members to admit that half the contents of the Bill are things that most decent local authorities are doing anyway. Why are we using valuable time in the Chamber, in Committee and in the other place debating legislation that dictates when, where and how councils go about promoting democracy? On the evidence of the Bill, I venture to suggest that Ministers should not be giving advice to anyone about how to promote democracy. Why not trust councils, which have to secure their own mandate, to manage their own ways of promoting democracy, and let them be judged by the voters?
My right hon. Friend highlights a problem that is part of the general frustration felt by the public, which we parliamentarians share. Through the guillotining and timetabling of Bills, we have seen an awful lot of legislation not scrutinised properly in this place and then seen it prove to be undeliverable or unworkable in practice, so he is absolutely right to point out that the time constraint is likely to cause more problems of that kind. I add to that the fact that 170 amendments were introduced in the House of Lords, so one has to ask oneself how well prepared it was in the first place and how much work hon. Members will have to do on it in this place.
Similarly, why do measures on petition-handling and involvement in public authority functions need to be prescribed from the centre? Why not let councils get on with it themselves? If we really want a Bill that deals with petitions, let us start by getting our own House in order, literally. The Scottish Parliament really impressed me with the way in which its petitions are used to shape legislation. That contrasts sharply with the way in which petitions seem to have such a limited effect here in Westminster. How many petitions have hon. Members seen disappear into the green baize purse on the back of the Speaker’s Chair to which there is never any reply? I certainly find that disempowering, and I am sure that those who sign them do, too, but that is a bigger debate for another day.
The problem with prescribing processes, such as those for petition-handling by councils, in tiny detail by statute is that one ends up creating an expensive new compliance industry, with town hall officials chasing targets and ticking boxes. The same applies to the requirements for economic assessments in part 4 of the Bill. Is the Secretary of State honestly trying to tell me that she thinks that local authorities do not already carry out local economic assessments? At best, that is a textbook example of what my noble Friend Baroness Warsi described in another place as “prescriptive overdrive”. At worst, it is an example of Ministers using legislation to strengthen Whitehall’s whip hand over the town hall. I did not hear an answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about what happens when authorities do not carry out the new duties that the Secretary of State has in mind.
By seeking to codify, monitor and sanction areas of activity where local authorities have been creating successful new ways of doing things, the Government are regressing further and further into defensive, top-down centralising. How telling is it that in its original form, the Bill gave the Secretary of State the power to change any economic assessment with which she disagrees? That gives the lie to the phrase, “Whitehall knows best.” How on earth does that stack up with devolving more power to local communities? It does not.
Unless I am very much mistaken, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has serious misgivings about the accretion of power at the regional level to quangos in his area. I can tell him that that would go under a future Conservative Government.
In large part, this is a Bill about taking power away from communities and their elected representatives. For evidence of that, we need look no further than the way in which it entrenches the role of unelected, unpopular and unaccountable regional government. I do not understand why the Government are so determined to undermine local democracy through their obsession with regionalism. The one region that was given a say on regional government voted by a majority of 80:20 against it, yet it was ignored and regional government has been steamrollered out across the country ever since.
Regional government is an albatross around the neck of local councils, and it is time that the whole costly and needless project was ditched. Can the Secretary of State understand why those untouchable regional monoliths are so disliked? They are outmoded and unwanted. Until a Bill comes before the House pledging their abolition, they will continue to be the Achilles heel of local government. Lord Judd gave the game away when he said this in another place:
“I understand the Government’s wish not to be too prescriptive and not to undermine autonomy, which they want to see regions exercising.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 April 2009; Vol. 710, c. 244.]
There we have it—regional autonomy. That surely explains why, rather than aborting regional government, part 5 transfers planning powers from regional assemblies to regional development agencies. In short, it transfers powers from one unaccountable quango to another.
I am at a loss to reconcile that with the stated aim of the Bill, which is to empower local government and communities. Regional government has been tried and tested, and it has been found wanting by every reasonable measure. The Bill should abolish regional housing and planning at a stroke. Colleagues will know from their own experience that more often than not, when people have a complaint about the scale and location of new development, the new development originated in the region. With no regard for the local environment, the infrastructure or sustainability, housing targets are forced on communities, leaving them and their elected representatives powerless.
Is it any wonder that planning has become so controversial and new development is constantly met with such hostility? As the Campaign to Protect Rural England has put it:
“Some parts of the Bill will result in communities feeling even more confused about, and disengaged by, the planning system.”
There must be a better way to get the new housing that we need.
A number of amendments were tabled by the Conservatives in the Lords to withdraw from the regional spatial strategy and to push power and resources down to local authority level. Is the hon. Lady embarrassed that more Liberal Democrats than Conservatives turned out to support those amendments? How will she ensure that there is the same enthusiasm on the Back Benches as she is describing on the Front Bench?
I am rarely embarrassed by Liberal Democrats; usually, the most I feel is sorry for them. The strong proposals that we made in our green paper on the shift of power back to the local level is not matched in any concrete way by anything the Liberal Democrats have proposed to return power to the local level.
The official Opposition have pledged to abolish regional planning and housing, and instead give communities a real incentive to deliver the right kind of housing in the right places. Ask communities if they would like incremental growth in their towns and villages, and most would welcome it as a way of sustaining local services and delivering homes that their children can afford to buy and accommodation that their elderly can step down to so that they can live near their friends. But force massive new developments on those towns and villages, with no infrastructure and no regard for the character of the neighbourhood, and those communities will resist them at every opportunity. So let us get away from that top-down, centrally determined, regionally imposed approach. That is old politics.
Let us move from the stick to the carrot and look at what communities can reasonably absorb and what they will benefit from. Then let us give them clear incentives to deliver new housing, such as our proposal for matching council tax proceeds for every new house built for the first six years. That would give councils an immediate 100 per cent. increase in the amount of revenue generated by creating new homes. Responsible local authorities that currently have record housing waiting lists can be trusted to deliver the right homes that we need in the right places.
As always, the Conservatives focus on owner-occupation. Last week, however, there was a report that 67 per cent. of young people have almost given up on the prospect of owning their own homes, especially as mortgages will be more restricted in future. Is it not a reality that, for most people, a decent home with a garden and proper bedrooms will mean a local authority home? If we are to house most of our population decently, we will have to recreate the local authority sector as it once was.
I hear the hon. Gentleman, but I have said nothing about tenure, and from evidence we all know that mixing tenure is the right way forward. He spoke with a misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1970s, I think, when the rate of social house building was significantly higher. But how comfortable does he feel about representing a party that for the past 12 years has built social housing at half the rate of the previous Conservative Administration? That point requires some careful thought.
It is depressing that a Bill with “Local Democracy” in its title contains almost nothing about freeing up and empowering councils. The Government’s distrust of democracy is such that the Bill’s only gesture towards local involvement is a leaders’ board. However, the board will have no right of veto, and, as a former party chairman, I can tell the House that a board’s right of veto is often what gives it real teeth.
I am listening with great care to the hon. Lady, and I hope that she will reciprocate. She was right to say that the northern region rejected the whole concept of a regional assembly, but she was quite wrong to state that local governments and local councils do not work together. In the sub-region of the Tees, we work together effectively on housing and spatial issues, because the distinctions between Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar and south Cleveland are indecipherable. Joint working by councils is greatly valued, so to knock it or to understate its value is not appropriate.
The hon. Lady perhaps misunderstood me, because at no point did I say that local authorities do not work together; in fact, I encourage them to do so. However, we should not be prescriptive about which local authorities work together. I accept that in the north-east, which is one of the smaller regions, most local authorities feel a sense of identity with the area, but I hate to tell the hon. Lady that some parts of the country feel that they do not fit in very well with the artificial regions that her Government have created.
If one speaks to voters in Banbury, one finds that they remain completely nonplussed by the suggestion that, according to the Government’s artificial regions, they are part of the south-east. They do not feel part of the south-east. Similarly, people in Gloucestershire feel a long way from Cornwall, so we should question the artificiality of the over-prescriptive requirements for local authorities to work in certain regions, and certain regions alone. It is better to allow local authorities to cluster and work together in the groups that they recognise as most practical and effective, and with which voters identify.
The previous intervention backs up my hon. Friend’s point, because some local authorities have worked together for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. When the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was a union official, keeping a close eye on a local authority with which I had some links, there was close co-operation between four local authorities of a mixed political complexion. If Red Ted Knight—that name might ring a bell among historians—and I could work together successfully in a unit of four, anybody can.
My hon. Friend has real hands-on experience of running a local authority, and there is the proof that it is perfectly possible to work together in groups across the political divide. Indeed, in the west midlands area, to which my constituency belongs, the seven metropolitan authorities have always worked together, whatever the political complexion of their leadership. I am confident that if we allow local authorities to choose the clusters to which they want to belong, they will come up with the right solution.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the Bill is based entirely on the premise that such organisations of local authorities will be voluntary? Every single bit—whether multi-area agreements, economic prosperity boards or integrated authorities—is bottom-up, rather than being imposed from the top. The Bill is about whether people in a local authority want to work with their neighbours in exactly the way described by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).