Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Amendment of existing procedure in Sustainable Communities Act 2007
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 5, clause 2, page 2, line 15, at end insert
‘within six months of receiving such a proposal.’.
Amendment 6, page 2, leave out lines 28 to 32.
Amendment 7, page 2, leave out lines 33 and 34.
Amendment 8, page 2, leave out lines 35 and 36.
Amendment 9, in page 2, leave out lines 37 and 38.
Amendment 10, page 2, leave out lines 46 to 49.
Amendment 11, page 3, leave out lines 3 to 5.
Amendment 12, page 3, leave out lines 13 to 16.
Amendment 13, page 3, leave out lines 17 to 27.
Amendment 14, page 3, line 29, leave out ‘or an order under section 5C’.
Amendment 15, page 3, line 39, leave out ‘or an order under section 5C’.
I much regret that I never got a response from the Leader of the House to my offer yesterday to forgo this one-hour debate so that we could deal with the business committee. The Government said that the shortage of time meant that they were not prepared to bring the matter forward. It is incredibly impolite of the Government not even to respond to my offer to allow this debate to go short to allow time to discuss that all-important business issue.
In facing the reality that the Government do not listen and are not interested in Back-Bench opportunities, I suppose it is something to be given an hour to discuss this important Bill. It is a pity that it has to be discussed on the day we are expecting Prorogation because there were many earlier opportunities to discuss it had the Government been willing to put the matter on the Order Paper for those several days before Easter when the House rose far earlier than it needed to under the normal arrangements.
The amendment relates to measures that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) expressed concerns about on Second Reading. From the Front Bench, my hon. Friend expressed concern on behalf of the Local Government Association about the proposed measures to allow the Secretary of State to publish regulations on the procedure for making proposals. He said that such regulations were likely to lead to increased prescription governing consultation and engagement with parish councils and petitioners, as well as confusion over the form, content and timing of the proposals. According to the LGA, the resource implications for local authorities of participating under the Act were considerable and should not be underestimated.
My hon. Friend cautioned against being too prescriptive on establishing a national template for what is best for everyone in terms of consultation and engagement with local community groups. He said that we should trust local authorities to be responsive and not to prescribe too much for them. Nothing was done to table an amendment along those lines to reflect my hon. Friend’s concerns in the short time—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I said that passes were issued in the usual way. The ultimate responsibility for the issue of those passes lies with the Serjeant at Arms, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. She will look into the circumstances of the issue of the pass. I hope that that is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.
It is certainly helpful to me and I hope that the Serjeant at Arms will do so with great expedition. Obviously time is running short for a further ruling that might come as a result of those inquiries.
I have tried to articulate our concerns in the form of a group of amendments to which I shall refer shortly. I tabled amendment 1 because clause 1 is effectively a retrospective provision. It changes the rules of the game after the event. Local authorities, with community groups, were encouraged to participate in a bidding process under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. That process was always being delayed by the Government. For example, the Act came into law in October 2007. Under its terms, the Government had to invite bids within one year. Instead of inviting bids over a short period, they invited them over a nine-month period, so that the bids had to be in by the end of July last year. Those bids—there were more than 300 from 100 different local authorities—had then to be considered extensively by a panel, which had as its chairman Councillor Keith Mitchell of the LGA. The panel worked extremely hard to go through all the bids and assess them by using the criteria set down in the original Bill. It then presented them to the Secretary of State, whom I saw fleetingly for about a minute on the Front Bench just now, but he has obviously decided that this matter is beneath his dignity, which is a great pity. I know from experience how marginal the seat of Southampton, Itchen is, so I imagine he is heading off there to participate in a closely fought general election campaign.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Order. Before the hon. Lady intervenes, I will helpfully say—I know the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) always likes to be helped—that we are focusing on the narrow terms of the amendment. Consideration of election campaigns either in Southampton, Itchen or elsewhere is quite out of the scope of the amendments. Being the very fastidious and committed parliamentarian that he is, I know he would want to be in order.
I certainly would like to be in order, Mr. Speaker. I was expressing my disappointment that the Secretary of State, who is responsible for the Bill and the activities under it, was in his place momentarily but did not stay. Indeed, he was the person to whom the open letter to which I referred from Councillor Keith Mitchell was addressed. I admit that I went beyond the bounds by speculating about the reason why the Secretary of State may have left so soon.
I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with the long sparring game that I have had with the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). It goes back to when he was selected for Southampton, Itchen for the Labour party, before I was even selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate back in 1983. So I would not be surprised if he is fed up of listening to my voice. The hon. Lady is retiring at the general election and I have always regarded her as one of the more courteous Members of the House, but I am disappointed with the explanation she has given.
May I just say to my hon. Friend that I was sitting in the Tea Room just now and as soon as his name appeared on the annunciator, people immediately started rushing back to the Chamber to hear him? He is one of our finest commentators and this is a gross slur on the part of the Minister.
Order. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was trying to make an orderly intervention, but unfortunately he failed in the attempt. I know that when the hon. Member for Christchurch gets to his feet, he will not spend time dilating on those matters, but will focus his remarks very narrowly on the specific terms of the amendment, because time is being taken that might otherwise be taken by other hon. or right hon. Members.
I have never been one for dilating. On subject of time, it is important to recognise that it is only because some of us have insisted on having the matter debated, rather than letting it go through on the nod, that we are discussing it at all. I am conscious of the fact that it is important that we have a chance to explain the amendments and get a response about them from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the promoter of the Bill. I am not sure that the way things are timed out means that we will have long for a discussion on Third Reading. We will have to rest the matter there.
Amendment 1 relates to the primary Act—the Sustainable Communities Act 2007—under which local authorities were invited to submit bids. I have gone through the process that the local authorities went through and I know that they are expecting to get a decision from the Government on those bids. Indeed, the open letter that Mr. Mitchell sent to the Secretary of State at the turn of the year, when the short list was put forward, states:
“We hope that the process”—
of discussing the proposals—
“will be completed before the Easter recess so that councils can get on with the job of delivering for their local residents.”
He asked the Secretary of State to set up a series of meetings in January and February to that end. On Second Reading on 26 February, the Minister expressed lots of hope and expectation that progress was going to be made on delivering a response to the bids by this time—the last day of this Session. However, nothing has happened. In a sense, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is giving an excuse to the Government for further delay because clause 1 changes the applicable rules. By doing so, officialdom is given an excuse to say, “Well, we’ve now got to go back and look at the bids again using different criteria.” The Secretary of State previously had to say whether a proposal should be implemented, but now if clause 1 remains unamended, he can decide whether it should be implemented in whole or in part. That is a completely different concept. It is one thing to say that future bids should be assessed on that basis—indeed, that is covered in clause 2—but it is wrong in principle to change the rules at this stage of the game because such an alteration is retrospective and will be counter-productive. That change will cause a lot of disappointment to local authorities and those who are engaged in the bidding process with good will, as they had hoped something would be achieved.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who drove through the original Bill—I am pleased to see him in his place—were being frank, I think he would have expected to see some results from his efforts by the end of this Parliament. However, there have been no results. As with all these things, I suppose there may be a silver lining, which is that an incoming Conservative Government will be able to assess the bids de novo and come up with more sensible conclusions that might otherwise have not been reached. That does not alter my concern about the retrospective nature of clause 1, which is why I have tabled my amendment.
Amendments 5 to 15 relate to regulations. Amendment 5 states that if we are going to be prescriptive, we should be prescriptive in respect of the Secretary of State’s timetable. That amendment, which applies to page 2, line 15 of the Bill, would require the Secretary of State to consider each proposal and to decide
“within six months of receiving such a proposal.”
That seems to be a sensible element of prescription, because it puts the pressure on the Secretary of State to respond in a timely fashion. At the moment, the proposals are sitting on desks in the Department and nothing much is happening to them. We should at least learn from the past and ensure that, when we have future rounds of bidding, the Secretary of State has to respond quicker to the proposals.
We should pay tribute to the LGA for working so hard to go through all the original proposals and come up with a short list that sets out in detail the merits and demerits of each proposal and links them together in convenient categories—in other words, for doing a lot of the Secretary of State’s work. It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not respond in a timely fashion to such a proposal, but amendment 5 would ensure that in future the Secretary of State would have to so respond.
Amendment 6 would remove the provision—albeit a permissive provision—in subsection (3)(a) of proposed new section 5B that would require
“a local authority to take specified steps before making a proposal (which may, in particular, include a requirement to consult or otherwise involve the council of any parish which is wholly or partly within the local authority’s area, or to consult local persons”.
Surely we should trust local authorities to decide such matters. Obviously, if they do not consult and they do not demonstrate quite a lot of local support for their proposals, those proposals are less likely to succeed. Why do we need regulations to require them to consult? It just seems to be bureaucracy going too far.
Amendment 7 would remove from the regulations the requirement to specify
“the way in which consultation…is to be carried out.”
Surely we should allow local authorities to decide for themselves how to carry out a consultation. Why do we need regulations? This is bureaucracy and centralisation of the very worst sort.
Amendment 8 would remove the regulations that require
“a local authority to try to reach agreement with persons consulted under the regulations.”
It is far from clear to me what that means. As we know from dealings in this House, it is possible to get agreement between people with good will, but it is not always so. If local authorities want to put forward a proposal that has a lot of consensus, they should be able to do so. How can we require them to reach a particular type of agreement with people who have been consulted under the regulations?
Amendment 9 refers to the regulation that would require
“the local authority to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State”—
Absolutely. The great thing about local authorities is that they are elected and, therefore, accountable. Later, we will come to my amendment that relates to the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire to widen the definition of a local authority to beyond that of a local authority with elected members. If we wish to empower local authorities and democracy, we should ensure that we trust local authorities to get on and do the job for which they have a statutory duty. Subsection (3)(d) of proposed new section 5B, which would be removed by amendment 9, is, in any event, contradictory. Local authorities should either have regard to the guidance, or they should be required to comply with the guidance. I do not think that we can have it both ways. In any event, the provision is far too prescriptive.
Amendment 10 would delete paragraph (h), which, at the moment requires
“the Secretary of State to specify one or more persons who must be consulted, and with whom the Secretary of State must try to reach agreement, before making a decision in relation to a proposal”.
In other words, we are talking about the Secretary of State requiring himself to consult with somebody to try to reach an agreement, which is not at all clear. I know that this is, essentially, a Government handout Bill that my hon. Friend has been promoting with Government support.
If I am wrong about that, my hon. Friend should accept responsibility for the wording of paragraph (h) and explain it to us. I was trying to be generous to him. Given that this Bill has been given Government time today, I assumed that the Government were supporting it. Perhaps they are supporting it because they are embarrassed about their own failure to deliver on the original Act, and think that this will allow them to paper over the cracks.
Amendment 11 would remove paragraph (j), which currently requires
“the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament a report describing the progress which has been made in relation to implementation of the proposals.”
That is redundant because it is open to any Member of this House to put down a question to the Secretary of State and obtain an answer. We know from the way in which the Secretary of State and his Ministers have been responding that they have not been exactly precise in setting out the progress, but that will not be remedied by putting into regulations a requirement that they must publish a report describing progress. It would be much better to set a deadline, which is what amendment 5 proposes, of six months to sort everything out.
Amendment 12 would leave out subsection (6) of proposed new section 5B, which extends the definition of a local authority. It says:
“A reference in this section to a local authority is to be treated, where an order has been made under section 5C specifying persons or classes of person who may make proposals under this Act, as including a reference to those persons or classes of person.”
In other words, we are extending the definition of a local authority to include people who are not elected. My time in local government began in an era in which there were people called aldermen. I won my first election on Wandsworth council in 1974, and the first thing that happened was that the person whom I defeated was appointed alderman, which was not very good for democracy. I congratulated him and said that it was because of me that he was an alderman rather than a mere councillor. What we are doing in this Bill is extending the definition of a local authority, thereby effectively undermining the elected local authority members because we are, by implication, giving an equal or similar status to people who are not elected or accountable through the ballot box. That is a most unfortunate part of this Bill. It follows, therefore, that I am very much against proposed new section 5C, so my amendment 13 would leave it out. That brings me on to consequential amendments 14 and 15, which would follow as a result of removing proposed new section 5C. I know that you take a keen interest in such matters, Mr. Speaker, so I hope that you will appreciate that, in my submission, this Bill falls far short of the ideal. It is a pity that it is now being pushed through at the last minute without the chance of proper considered debate. I suppose that we still have time to divide the House on one or more of these amendments.
I look forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). It may be that such Divisions would be a sensible way to proceed. In any event, if this Bill goes through and gets its Third Reading today, are we expecting the other place to allow this Bill to have a Second Reading, a Committee stage, a Report stage and Third Reading all before the end of this Sitting?
If debating the amendments today achieves nothing else, I hope that it will draw their lordships’ attention to the fact that the Bill is far from perfect. If it has the support of those on both Front Benches, there is no reason why its contents could not be brought forward in a fresh piece of legislation in the next Parliament, if indeed anything is needed. All it really needs is an expression of intent. The Bill is really asking the Government to express an intent of good will towards the original Act. In all such respects, actions speak louder than words. We have seen the delaying tactics that the Government adopted in the implementation of the original Act and the proposals put forward under it.
I do not think that the world will be a better place for having the Bill on the statute book, but I will not go so far as to say that the ceiling would fall in as a result, because in the context of what we have to do in the House this is all relatively trivial. However, underlying it all is the fact that we have raised the expectations of hundreds, if not thousands, of people and organisations up and down the country who have put in bids under the original Act. Those bids have been shortlisted and the people are waiting for them to be resolved. Why do not we wait for those bids to be resolved before deciding on further legislation?
I am pleased to be here today because I thought that after the events of a couple of weeks ago we would not get the Bill before the House again. It is thanks to the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we have once again returned to this most welcome Bill.
Amendment 1 would remove the useful flexibility that the Bill introduces. In other words, instead of being able to make decisions on each of the 242 distinct requests contained in the 199 separate proposals that we have received under the Sustainable Communities Act, the Secretary of State would be obliged to decide on all requests contained in each proposal. Given that Oxford city council, for instance, submitted a proposal with 25 individual requests for action, amendment 1 would require us to take a blanket approach to all of them, which would mean that we could lose some good proposals. Also, instead of being able to introduce some proposals immediately and some a little later, we would not have the flexibility that the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) gives us. Clause 1 is a common-sense clause. It will speed up and enable decisions rather than slow them down.
Amendment 5 would get in the way of flexibility in the process for inviting, considering and deciding upon proposals. It would remove the flexibility that the Bill gives us and make the process for deciding upon proposals much less flexible. The amendment and a deadline fixed by primary legislation would give less opportunity for organisations such as the Local Government Association to influence the Secretary of State’s decision, and it could result in him deciding not to implement a complex proposal because he did not have the time to consider it in detail.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) mentioned extending invitations to unelected bodies. Parish councils might be on the lowest rung of local democracy, but in the areas I know well they are by no means the least important. We wish to see them included.
Parish councils are probably the perfect example of democracy in local government because they have to raise all the money they spend from local people and account for it. Would the Minister accept that the proposed new section 5C goes much wider than giving a power to include parish councils? It states that any
“other persons who represent the interests of local authorities as the Secretary of State thinks fit”
could be defined as local authorities, but it does not state that they have to be elected.
No, I must make some progress. Given the lack of knowledge of the number and complexity of proposals, it is not reasonable to set a deadline, because it would mean that the Secretary of State could go into default or would have to decide on proposals, which are extraordinary complex and affect many Departments, in a very short time.
We hope to issue the next invitation for proposals by the summer of 2011. Placing a date in primary legislation now would unduly restrict the Government and all those who want a say in how we move forward. The Secretary of State will inform the House by the end of the year of the latest date by which the invitation can be made.
The provisions within the proposed regulations, which would be affected by amendments 6 to 11, were the result of submissions of many of those who took part in the consultation on the first round. The provisions in the Bill are not prescriptive. They are a reminder to the Government of what local authorities and parishes feel are important in that process.
Amendments 12 to 15, and especially amendments 13 to 15, would deny the Government the opportunity to listen to the wishes of parish councils, which, as I have said, are an important part of local democracy. Denying the Government the power to invite anyone other than local authorities in any situation imaginable is neither an appropriate way forward, nor in the spirit of the Bill. With that in mind, I urge the hon. Member for Christchurch not to push his amendments.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and, I hope, to see the Bill through to a conclusion. I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to deal briefly with the amendments in detail and say one or two words of thanks.
I am grateful to the Minister and her colleagues for finding time to bring the Bill back at this late stage. However, I know, as she does, that that is no Government handout. The time and effort that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) puts into scrutiny is much appreciated by the House. Although it is not always the easiest thing to listen to, the House would be much the poorer without colleagues like him, as what he tries to do is important. However, he rather unkindly suggested that the Bill was a handout and I am sure he is aware of the grass-roots movement that inspired the original Sustainable Communities Act. The Bill has been inspired by the same movement, rather than the Government. The Government were not happy with the original Act and had to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do by colleagues from across the House and in a series of public meetings. The Government then embraced the idea and took it on. The idea for an amendment to the Act has come from the same grass-roots movement, as it saw one or two deficiencies in the original Act, which is what this small, amending Bill is designed to put right. It is not a handout.
My hon. Friend might well be correct that an element of embarrassment, perhaps about the time it has taken for the proposals to come through, has enabled the Government to be more generous in their interactions with me and with those Members supporting the Bill so that the current amendments could be brought forward today, but there is a distinction between that and a handout.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for having inadvertently slurred him by suggesting that the Bill is a Government handout. However, I am concerned about clause 1. The Government are already charged with reaching a decision on the proposals before them, and clause 1 would introduce more flexibility, as the Minister said. Are the Government themselves asking for this flexibility, or is it something that has come from my hon. Friend and his friends?
I shall come back to clause 1 and deal with that point in a second, if I may.
The Bill and the amendments reflect interest outside the House in trying to do something different in terms of local activity. I briefly pay tribute to those who have put so much work into the Bill: Local Works, which is so often represented in the Palace establishment by Ron Bailey, who made considerable efforts to move this project forward; the LGA, which has worked so hard on it; the Minister and her officials; and, in particular, colleagues in the House, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) who introduced the original Bill, and friends such as the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who put so much into this Bill. Its success is shown in the 100 local authorities who submitted proposals. There were 301 proposals submitted to the Government for consideration, 199 ultimately by the LGA.
The Bill has a sweep of support both in the House and beyond. If we can believe that, in these times, this kind of grass-roots activity can make an impression on Government, we are acknowledging that times are indeed moving on and that the new politics has a place.
One thing I share firmly with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is the wish that, in a few weeks’ time, it will be our colleagues on the Front Bench who will be charged with the onerous responsibility of dealing with delivery of the proposals that are currently with the Department—a wish that he and I share most fervently. I believe that at that time I will be able to encourage my colleagues on the Front Bench to take forward some of the ideas contained in the amendments. I shall return to that in a moment.
I am not universally hostile to the proposals by any means, but I am concerned about the definition of “local authorities”. Could my hon. Friend explain, as I believe he more or less did just now, the reference to those who
“represent the interests of local authorities as the Secretary of State thinks fit”?
Does that refer exclusively to local government associations? If not, it raises all kinds of difficult problems.
I do not think that the reference is exclusively to local government representative associations. The definition can be taken quite widely, and there are several representative bodies, not least the LGA and others, which might be covered by it.
I shall run briefly through the amendments. On the amendments to clause 1, I take the Minister’s view that the clause gives necessary flexibility in respect of decisions on proposals already submitted. I would like as many of those proposals as possible to be given the opportunity to come to pass. If that means that by being able to look at them in detail and decide that parts of some proposals are simply unworkable but other parts are workable, I do not think that it is a bad thing to have the flexibility that is in the Bill. That would have been wished for if the issue had been thought through when we considered the original Sustainable Communities Act. I am perfectly content that the clause gives that flexibility.
I am not completely hostile to the idea of a timetable. It is not in the Bill because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch knows, we have to take what we can get in the wash-up. I heard what the Minister said about including a timetable in the Bill possibly constraining the flexibility of the Department, but I am not so sure that it would not be helpful to have some final deadline. Otherwise, there is a risk that it could take a long time for proposals to come through, and there could be much frustration outside. I would have been quite amenable to a timetable clause being added to the Bill to provide a final stop line to ensure that things come forward. In the meantime, I accept the assurances given by the Minister that there is a sensible timetable.
One thing I would like to urge on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is that when he sits in a different office in a few weeks’ time, one of the first things he should do is look at the proposals that are being submitted to the Department, and produce an early timetable so that the public may know when decisions will be made, and so that friends in Local Works and others will know that an answer has been arrived at.
It would have been nice to have seen a timetable in the Bill, but I am not prepared to press the amendment, bearing in mind the circumstances today. I am not hostile to the idea and I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is cautious about allowing the Government too much leeway: they have used the present leeway to allow things to pile up and have not yet produced any answers, despite their good intent.
The rest of my hon. Friend’s amendments were, I fear, designed to unseat the Bill, and I agree and support the arguments made by the Minister. There are aspects of the guidelines on how local authorities might consult that are not too onerous on them, and one or two are very important.
A specific aim of those who brought the idea of the Bill to me, when I was drawn sufficiently high up in the Members’ ballot, was to include a reference to parish councils in the Bill, and, through that definition of parish councils, a reference to town councils. I have five town councils in my constituency, and some 54 parish councils. They are of immense importance in rural or semi-rural constituencies such as mine, and, as my hon. Friend was generous enough to acknowledge, parish councils are a firm part of the bedrock of our democracy. They very much wanted to be included formally in the Bill because, although we would like to think that local authorities always work as we would want them to—another regulation deals with how consultation might be carried out—it is not always the case.
My hon. Friend made a fair point about over-regulation. It is a point that he makes often, and his concerns are shared by many colleagues on this side of the House. However, at one and the same time, he wants a regulation to ensure that the Minister and the Department deal with things by a particular time, yet seeks to deny a regulation that would encourage authorities to consult in a particular way. My argument is that, occasionally, one wants regulation to do a particular job. In this case, encouraging active involvement with parish and town councils is exceptionally important, and I am pleased to see it in the Bill. Another regulation that is very important is getting authorities to try to find agreement with those who make proposals.
My final point on the amendments as a whole and on the Bill, in case there is no time for Third Reading, is that we have learned much in the past few years about the sense of unease and dissatisfaction outside this House with how the process of governance occasionally works. I believe that we in this place have all learned that we need to be as flexible as possible in responding to an ever better informed public. The inspiration for the original Act was the sense of frustration that people felt as they saw their immediate environment change around them. They felt that they had no say over what was happening. Their concerns included worries about a ghost-town Britain in which the high street would change and local and rural facilities would be lost. It seemed that no one in power would accept responsibility, and that nothing could be done.
The Sustainable Communities Act arose out of that sense of frustration. Now that it has been passed, that sense of frustration has eased. People see that the different ways in which to engage the Government, their local authority and the community around them are good things that will not go away. Those of us on both sides of the House will have to learn to engage with that kind of community involvement far more than we used to in the past.
Yes, the bottom line for local authorities is a good, well-run Conservative local authority that will deliver better for the people than anything else. However, under the auspices of such authorities, close working with communities and the inspiration that has been triggered by the Sustainable Communities Act and by this little amendment Bill will do the process no harm.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will withdraw the amendment. His concerns are legitimate, but perhaps they have been eased by what the Minister and I have said. I hope that the amendment are either withdrawn or rejected by the House, because I believe that the Bill as it stands will do its job and be effective for communities for many years to come.
I echo that concluding passage because it encapsulates why the official Opposition support the Bill and hope that it will pass today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), having given the matter his usual, diligent scrutiny, will withdraw the amendment. I endorse the support for the outside bodies that gave rise to the Bill and for Ron Bailey and his colleagues in particular.
My hon. Friend raised legitimate points, but it is not necessary that the regulations under the Bill be interpreted by the Government in a prescriptive or onerous way. The Local Government Association’s warning against that is legitimate. I assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that a Conservative Government would ensure that the regulations were interpreted in a proportionate and light-touch way and would put in place the timetable that he sought—whether it is in the Bill or not—because the principle behind it is important.
As an eminent lawyer, does my hon. Friend have doubts about the attempt to exclude the jurisdiction of the courts in judicial review with respect to the definition of who represents the interests of local authorities? It is very broad. Furthermore, apart from the exclusion point, proposed new section 5D provides extraordinarily wide powers for the Secretary of State or anybody else to add, subtract, alter and
“make different provision for different cases or for different purposes.”
The width of those provisions is rather over the top. Does he agree that we should be careful about that?
Like my hon. Friend, I might have drafted those provisions slightly differently, and I will make two points about that. First, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is right that one must be pragmatic about what can be achieved in the wash-up. My principal objective on behalf of the official Opposition is to see the Bill on the statute book. Secondly, even if that risk stands in the Bill, sensible approaches by Ministers can alleviate it. Were I and my hon. Friends in the shadow Communities and Local Government team in Government, we would listen carefully to the legitimate warning of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) about how the legislation should be interpreted. It may be that there will be further legislative opportunities in due course to tighten areas of ambiguity. In that spirit, I hope he accepts that I would prefer to have the Bill on the statute book as it stands so that we have something to work with and can think about those details.
Time is short so I will trespass no longer on the details of the amendments. They have raised issues that have been responded to sensibly and pragmatically by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I share his view that it is regrettable that the Government did not seize as fully as they might have done the opportunities in the original Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). None the less, this Bill is a step in the right direction and I am grateful that the Government have recognised that and supported it.
Lest we do not have time for a Third Reading debate, perhaps I can trespass upon your time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish the Minister, as I did in Committee, every good fortune for the future. I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so on the Floor of the House. I have enjoyed being her shadow and hope that I am able to enjoy being a substance in due course. Whatever happens, we wish her well for the future because she has dealt with this and other matters with unfailing courtesy.
The Liberal Democrats fully support this modest but important Bill, as we supported the original Act. Twenty-six years ago, I was elected to a district council. We would not have needed such proposals then, but times have changed. In the intervening 26 years, not only has the way in which the electorate engages changed, but there has been over-centralisation of this place under both Labour and Conservative Administrations. That must now be addressed and the Bill does so partially.
I am leaving the House today but hope that, whatever Administration are elected, they take local government issues seriously. The life of people’s towns and parishes in urban and rural areas is one of the most important things to them. The way in which they can engage will be assisted considerably by the original Act and the Bill. We want them to engage in the process and should not put up barriers to that by passing these amendments. There is a great deal of licence and flexibility, but the more that people can engage in the process and shape their own communities, and the more they recognise that they have a part to play and that things will not be directed by Government and Parliament, the more sustainable will be the communities in which we all live. I fully support the Bill and hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) will withdraw the amendment.
I support at least one of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), namely amendment 5, which would require the Secretary of State to take action on each proposal within six months.
I mean no criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the movement or the Bill because it is no doubt entirely worthy. However, there is a regrettable tendency with legislation, particularly Back-Bench legislation, for grandstanding to take place and for worthy causes to be trumpeted by the Government when they could take action by other means. We already have an Act that was passed in 2007. The Government could have taken action, had they wanted to. We are now told that another Bill is necessary to make things more flexible so that action may be taken.
The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch a service. But for him, such Bills would go through on the nod and with no proper scrutiny in the wash-up. The House listened carefully to his remarks on a series of amendments relating to proposed new section 5B(3). We are told that we have to make things more flexible, but subsection (3) will introduce all sorts of regulations that put more onerous burdens on local government. In a powerful point, my hon. Friend referred to the extraordinary paragraph (h), which states:
“Regulations under this section may, in particular, include provision…enabling the Secretary of State to specify one or more persons who must be consulted, and with whom the Secretary of State must try to reach agreement, before making a decision in relation to a proposal”.
When I spoke on the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill yesterday, I drew the House’s attention to a clause that was gobbledegook and paragraph (h) is another example of that. It means nothing. The Secretary of State, in one of the most centralised states in the western world, can do what he or she wishes.
We are, willy-nilly, on a quiet Thursday morning, passing meaningless legislation that gives the Secretary of State powers that he already has. Why are we doing that? We are supporting a Bill not to achieve something, but to make a point. We all believe in sustainable communities and want local councillors to be given the powers and individual responsibility that they had many years ago. If the Bill will achieve that, I wish it well. In the meantime, I hope that my hon. Friend will at least press amendment 5, as it will put the Government on the spot. It says to the Government, “If you really believe in this, when you receive this proposal you should take action within six months.” I hope that my hon. Friend will press the amendment to a Division so that we can make that powerful point.
I apologise to the House. I took the Chair during the debate and had not been able to appreciate the batting order that had been followed. I called the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) without being aware that the Minister had spoken earlier or that, although there had been Front-Bench contributions, she had asked to make further comments. I hope that within the three minutes that are left the Minister will, with the leave of the House, make a brief comment so that the hon. Member for Christchurch can conclude. I am sorry about that, but if the Minister will co-operate, I would appreciate it.
I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
With the leave of the House, I would like to reiterate the flexibility that the Bill gives us to carry out this important work, and the fact that the amendments would reduce that flexibility and make that work more difficult.
May I thank everyone who has participated in this debate? I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for their generous comments. I am not sure that they are well deserved, but there is something to be said for looking at these Bills in some detail, which is what we have been trying to do today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for what he said about amendment 5. Whether we trust the Government is a topical question at the moment. Yesterday we debated why we are not going to have the Back-Bench business committee. We trusted the Government and were let down. I propose to divide the House on amendment 5 because it will put pressure on the Government to come forward within six months with answers to the bids made, often with tremendous effort and time, by members of local communities. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 1.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
New procedure for proposals under Sustainable Communities Act 2007
Amendment proposed: 5, in page 2, line 15, at end insert
‘within six months of receiving such a proposal.’.—(Mr. Chope.)
Question put, that the amendment be made.
More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the proceedings were interrupted (Order, 7 April).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).
Question, That the Bill be read the Third time, put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.