[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 12 and 26 October and 10, 23 and 30 November 2015, and written evidence to the Committee, reported to the House on 7 and 15 September and 12 October 2015, on the Government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, HC 369, the Committee’s First Report of Session 2014-15, Devolution in England, the case for local government, HC 503, and the Government response, Cm 8998.]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee of the whole House
New Clause 7
English National Park authorities: general powers
After section 65 of the Environment Act 1995 insert—
“65A English National Park authorities: general powers
(1) An English National Park authority may do—
(a) anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of the carrying out of any of its functions (its “functional purposes”),
(b) anything it considers appropriate for purposes incidental (whether directly or indirectly) to its functional purposes,
(c) anything it considers to be connected with—
(i) any of its functions, or
(ii) anything it may do under paragraph (a) or (b), and
(d) for a commercial purpose, anything which it may do under any of paragraphs (a) to (c) otherwise than for a commercial purpose.
(2) Where subsection (1) confers power on an English National Park authority to do something, it confers power (subject to section 65B) to do it anywhere in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.
(3) Power conferred on an English National Park authority by subsection (1) is in addition to, and is not limited by, the other powers of the authority.
(4) In this section, and in sections 65B and 65C, “English National Park authority” means a National Park authority for a National Park in England.
65B Boundaries of powers under section 65A
‘(1) Section 65A(1) does not enable an English National Park authority to do anything which it is unable to do by virtue of a pre-commencement limitation.
(2) Section 65A(1) does not enable an English National Park authority to do anything which it is unable to do by virtue of a post-commencement limitation which is expressed to apply—
(a) to its power under section 65A(1),
(b) to all of its powers, or
(c) to all of its powers but with exceptions that do not include its power under section 65A(1).
(3) If exercise of a pre-commencement power of an English National Park authority is subject to restrictions, those restrictions apply also to exercise of the power conferred on it by section 65A(1) so far as that power is overlapped by the pre-commencement power.
(4) Section 65A(1) does not authorise an English National Park authority to borrow money.
(5) Section 65A(1)(a) to (c) do not authorise an English National Park authority to charge a person for anything it does otherwise than for a commercial purpose.
(6) Section 65A(1)(d) does not authorise an English National Park authority to do things for a commercial purpose in relation to a person if a statutory provision requires the authority to do those things in relation to the person.
(7) Where under section 65A(1)(d) an English National Park authority does things for a commercial purpose, it must do them through—
(a) a company within the meaning given by section 1(1) of the Companies Act 2006, or
(b) a registered society within the meaning of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014.
(8) In this section—
“post-commencement limitation” means a prohibition, restriction or other limitation imposed by a statutory provision that—
(a) is contained in an Act passed after the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or
(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force on or after the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;
“pre-commencement limitation” means a prohibition, restriction or other limitation imposed by a statutory provision that—
(a) is contained in an Act passed no later than the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or
(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force before the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;
“pre-commencement power” means power conferred by a statutory provision that—
(a) is contained in an Act passed no later than the end of the Session in which the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 is passed, or
(b) is contained in an instrument made under an Act and comes into force before the commencement of section (English National Park authorities: general powers) of that Act;
“statutory provision” means a provision of an Act or of an instrument made under an Act.
65C Power to make provision supplemental to section 65A
‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision preventing an English National Park authority from doing under section 65A(1) anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the regulations.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for the exercise by English National Park authorities of the power conferred by section 65A(1) to be subject to conditions, whether generally or in relation to doing anything specified, or of a description specified, in the regulations.
(3) Before making regulations under subsection (1) or (2) the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) such representatives of English National Park authorities, and
(b) such other persons (if any),
as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(4) Subsection (3) does not apply to regulations under subsection (1) or (2) which are made only for the purpose of amending earlier such regulations—
(a) so as to extend the earlier regulations, or any provision of the earlier regulations, to English National Park authorities, or
(b) so that the earlier regulations, or any provision of the earlier regulations, cease to apply English National Park authorities.
65D Procedure etc. for regulations under section 65C
‘(1) The power to make regulations under section 65C—
(a) is exercisable by statutory instrument;
(b) includes power to make different provision for different purposes;
(c) includes power to make incidental, supplementary, consequential, transitional, transitory or saving provision;
(d) may, in particular, be exercised by amending, repealing, revoking or otherwise modifying any provision made by or under an Act passed before the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2015 or in the same Session as that Act.
(2) A statutory instrument containing regulations under section 65C may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a statutory instrument that contains regulations only of the following kind—
(a) regulations under section 65C(1) that make provision for the purpose mentioned in section 65C(4)(b);
(b) regulations under section 65C(2) that make provision for that purpose or for imposing conditions on the doing of things for a commercial purpose;
(c) regulations made by virtue of subsection (1)(c) that do not contain provision amending or repealing a provision of an Act.
(4) A statutory instrument to which subsection (2) does not apply is subject to annulment by resolution of either House of Parliament.
(5) If a draft of regulations under section 65C would, apart from this subsection, be treated for the purposes of the standing orders of either House of Parliament as a hybrid instrument, it is to proceed in that House as if it were not a hybrid instrument.”” .—(James Wharton.)
This New Clause confers new general powers on National Park authorities for National Parks in England, along similar lines to those conferred on other authorities by Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Localism Act 2011
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
First, I should put on the record my gratitude and that of my colleagues for the representations made by hon. Members who were keen to see the new clause included in the Bill, and to support and empower their local national parks authorities to do the best job they can and to continue to contribute to the communities they represent. In particular, I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) and my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) and for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). I would like to add Councillor Gareth Dadd of North Yorkshire County Council, who made strenuous efforts to convince us of the merits of these changes and kindly arranged for me to meet representatives of the North Yorkshire national park authority and National Parks England.
In the light of this weekend’s flooding, I think it important to reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the statement that we have just heard, and I offer my sympathy to the people of Cumbria and other affected areas in recognition of the significant impact of what has happened there as a result of the unprecedented weather events.
Before speaking expressly to the content of the new clause and amendment, I would like to say a few words about the role of the national park authorities in water management in the context of what has happened this weekend, and about how the changes might assist them in further performing that role. Although national park authorities do not have responsibility for emergency planning, the planning decisions they make and the development control conditions they enforce can make a big difference to the demands placed on those who do have to respond during an emergency.
National parks have an important role to play in managing the water environment and helping with restoration work. For example, the floods of November 2009 caused severe damage to the rights-of-way network in Cumbria and the Lake District national park. Over 250 bridges were damaged or destroyed and 85 paths needed repair. The function-specific general power of competence that we are discussing with these amendments could be used to enhance the national park authorities’ ability to respond to flood emergencies by enabling them to enter into partnerships, to develop skills and capacity within small rural communities and businesses to assist with the responses needed, to develop specific skills to combat future flood management, and to adapt the network to improve flood resilience.
Given that national parks might cover one or more metro mayor areas—for example, the Peak District national park is partly in Greater Manchester and partly in South Yorkshire, two areas that might well have metro mayors quite soon—is there not a case for having some co-ordination for emergency planning to make sure that there is the same resilience and the same emergency planning in the different parts of the national park?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We want to see co-ordination, and there are already structures in place to deliver it and to ensure that different bodies work together to respond as efficiently and effectively as possible. From what I have seen happening in Cumbria and other areas over the weekend, a number of those bodies are working very hard to deliver for local communities. The hon. Gentleman puts an important point on the record. We absolutely want to see as much co-operation as possible, and we want to empower these public bodies to carry it out wherever possible. That underlies in many ways the purpose of devolution, so it is an apt time for the hon. Gentleman to put his comments on the record.
In the east midlands, there is the D2N2—Derby Derbyshire-Nottingham Nottinghamshire—which may or may not have a directly elected mayor. There is also the Sheffield city authority, which includes Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and various other district councils in North Yorkshire and indeed in North Derbyshire. In the middle of all that, there is Hardwick Hall and various other major buildings. What I want to know, now that the Minister has said that there should be the greatest co-operation, is how that can happen between the Sheffield people who are anxious to take over large areas of North Derbyshire and D2N2, which is also part and parcel of the same area? My guess is that there will be many more situations like that in Tory shires. What is the Government’s policy?
Devolution is a bottom-up process; it is done by consensus. I know that the hon. Gentleman will have a significant opportunity further to discuss some of the relevant provisions today, but where we see bodies that have the capacity to co-operate, we want to empower them to do so. We want to give them the levers they need to deliver such things as better public services and economic development. The first step towards that is to confer the powers that the bodies will need to achieve it. What the amendments do is to start the process of empowering our national parks authorities so that they can not only contribute on flooding and resilience, but better the offer that they can make to the public to improve the work they already do so well.
New clause 7 confers new general powers on national park authorities in England, along similar lines to those conferred on, among others, fire and rescue authorities and integrated transport authorities in chapters 2 and 3 of part 1 of the Localism Act 2011. I should make it clear to Opposition Front Benchers that those general powers are intended to enable a national park to do more and to do it better; they are not a back door to fracking or shale gas development, and will not affect the approach that we intend to take in that regard.
In England, our nine national parks include some of the country’s finest landscapes, beautiful vistas and exciting wildlife. They are part of our national identity. National parks protect those landscapes for future generations so that we can all enjoy them. They are the cornerstone of many rural businesses. The new powers for national park authorities will allow an authority to act as an individual could—with certain limitations—in relation to its functions. For example, a functionally specific power of competence will allow a national park authority to act through a company, and will allow authorities to trade in a broader way than they currently can.
National park authorities have themselves asked for that power, because they consider that it will enable them to act in a more entrepreneurial and innovative way. For example, they consider that they will be in a better position to enter into partnerships to support growth across our rural economy. Jim Bailey, the chair of National Parks England, has said:
“We are pleased to see the Government introduce this amendment. This will help National Park authorities to maximise opportunities to fulfil our statutory purposes”.
The measure will allow national park authorities to participate fully in devolution deals—an example is Northumberland national park authority's request as part of the north-east devolution deal—and to seek additional sources of funding to assist further their work in supporting rural economies.
It is important to note that a power of competence does not override existing legislation. National park authorities will therefore be bound by their statutory purposes: conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of an area, and promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area. It is also important to note that the power will not be used by national park authorities as an opportunity to start charging for entry. As all but a very small percentage of land in national parks is owned privately rather than by the national park authorities, they could have no legal basis for charging.
Let me also make it clear that the new powers will not be used to encourage or permit too much, or inappropriate, development. National parks are designated under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 for their natural beauty and opportunities for open-air recreation. Under the Act, they have the two statutory purposes to which I have just referred. The statutory framework of protection and consents will remain unchanged, and, in using their new powers, the park authorities will not be able to promote or permit activities that are incompatible with those statutory purposes.
The powers given to the Secretary of State, by regulation, to restrict the use of powers by national park authorities in a particular way relate solely to the new clause, and not to their existing powers. Other than those concerning the furtherance of national park purposes, which are retained, the new powers replace the existing general powers of national park authorities under the Environment Act 1995. The new powers are considered more extensive, but the old ones are being repealed to avoid overlap.
Amendment 51 is a minor and technical amendment to schedule 5. It contains consequential amendments to section 65 of the Environment Act.
We are making these changes in response to effective representations that we have received from a number of Members, and from National Parks England and national park authorities. I hope that they will be broadly supported by Members on both sides of the House.
Our national parks are precious national assets. Millions of people use and enjoy them every year. They are areas of protected countryside that everyone can visit, and where people live, work, and shape the landscape. We have 15 national parks: 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland.
In his autumn statement, the Chancellor included devolution to national park authorities in England, allowing them to lend, invest, trade, and set up co-operatives with businesses. That is legally known as the general power of competence. However, we know what is driving this change: cuts made by this Government. Since 2010, national park authorities in England have suffered cuts of up to 40% in their Government funding. Indeed, Northumberland national park is already renting out its spare office space—vacated by staff who have lost their jobs—where an enterprise hub has been set up.
New clause 7 would amend the Environment Act 1995 to provide English national park authorities with general powers to do anything they consider appropriate in carrying out their functional purposes. The new general powers in proposed new section 65A are similar to those conferred on other authorities by chapter 1 of part 1 of the Localism Act 2011. The new clause only applies to English national park authorities.
Proposed new section 65B limits the scope of the general power of competence in several respects. It does not allow English national parks to borrow money or charge a person for anything they do other than for a commercial purpose. That immediately raises concerns. The coalition Government’s attempt to privatise our forests was met with a public outcry. That plan was rightly defeated. This Government have attempted to open up our national parks to fracking, again causing a great deal of concern among the public, who value our precious national assets and have no wish to see them opened up to commercial ventures in that manner. We need strong assurances that the character of our national parks will be protected and that such important national institutions are maintained for the benefit of the public. We need a cast-iron assurance from the Government that fracking is not going to be allowed in our national parks.
We need more details on Government funding of national parks. We need more details on what the national parks are actually planning to do with the new powers. We cannot allow the commercialisation of our national parks by the back door. The future governance and accountability of our English national parks is an absolutely massive issue, which deserves proper debate. It does not belong here, in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, inserted at the eleventh hour with no time for the weighty issues raised to have a proper discussion.
Given that national parks are local authorities for these purposes, will the hon. Lady reflect upon the complete and deeply misleading red herring that she raises? After all, the fracking matter has nothing to do with the role of local authorities of any kind—national parks or otherwise —in relation to a general power of competence. Should she not welcome the ability of national parks to enter into joint agreements, for example with their district and county councils, which is precisely what this provision is aimed at? She is actually setting up a complete Aunt Sally in this matter.
Red herrings, Aunt Sallies: I am merely expressing the unsuitability of the new clause in application to this Bill. It has been brought in at the eleventh hour with the minimum of notice. It raises huge issues. I do not think the general public would agree with the hon. Gentleman that the worry about fracking in our national parks is a red herring. I certainly got a lot of correspondence about it when the Government were talking about it a few weeks ago, and I think we need a proper debate.
I do not know whether I could be clearer on this: the debate around fracking is perhaps for another day, but let me be absolutely clear that these clauses will not be a back door to fracking. They do not affect the issue of fracking with regard to national parks. I would also add very clearly that this is something that has been asked for by national parks. I would be interested if the hon. Lady could tell the House how many national park authorities she has spoken to before coming to oppose the new clause and amendment.
The Minister makes an important point. The Government have not given us time to respond correctly. I have not spoken to any national park authorities because the Government have not given us time to consult properly on this matter. No reference had been made to the new clause before now. Today the Bill’s Third Reading debate will take place, and the new clause has been slipped in at the eleventh hour. The Minister is being disingenuous if he seriously expects us to have been able to do a thorough consultation with all the national park authorities in England. If that is his approach, he is trying to set us up to fail. We value our national parks, and we want to ensure that we have a proper debate on their future. That is what we are asking for here.
As the MP for the Northumberland national park, may I say to the hon. Lady that this issue has been ongoing for many months? The powers of competence that are dealt with more widely elsewhere in the Bill have been the cause of enormous concern to the national parks as they have tried to get themselves into the arena of discussion. It is a huge credit to the Minister that he has come up to the north-east and spoken to those in North Yorkshire and to some of my colleagues at the national park in Northumberland to ascertain just how important the new clause—which is just an extension of those general powers of competence—will be. I hope that the hon. Lady will talk to the national parks, because they are absolutely passionate about having this freedom to get on and expand what they do.
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady does not agree with the cuts that have been made to the Northumberland national park authority. I am sure, too, that she would rather we had a proper debate on this matter instead of discussing a new clause that has been snuck in at the eleventh hour.
I understand that the hon. Lady has not spoken to the national park authorities, but that is not necessarily a reason to oppose the proposal. I have spoken to members of the board of the South Downs national park authority—Margaret Paren, who leads it, and Councillor Barry Lipscomb, who is a Winchester City councillor—and they very much welcome it. They think that this general power of competence will allow them to be full players at the table in the devolution bids that are so important in my area. I do not know what “Aunt Sally” means, although I remember her on the television, but this is nonsense. It is opposition for opposition’s sake. The Government should get with the plan here. Just because the Opposition have not talked to the national park authorities does not mean that they should vote against the proposal. I have spoken to the national parks, and they want this.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government should get with the plan. However, we are the Opposition. I am not opposing the proposal for opposition’s sake; I am opposing it because I think we need a proper debate on it. It could have a far-reaching effect on our national parks, which are loved and valued by the general public.
I will not take any more interventions. I have already given way to hon. Members.
The national park authorities are one part of the equation, and, as I have already said, we have not had time to consult them properly because this proposal was brought in at the eleventh hour. Surely any reasonable person would want—[Interruption.] Conservative Members had prior knowledge of it. I am sure that every reasonable person would agree that we need a proper debate on such an important issue. The national park authorities are not the only stakeholders involved. The public are the real stakeholders. Millions of people use and enjoy our national parks every year, and they should have their say. They would not thank us if we allowed this measure in through the back door.
Neither I nor any of my team are opposing the new clause for opposition’s sake; we are opposing it because we have serious concerns about the way in which it has been introduced. We will not agree to such a huge change in the governance and accountability of our national parks at only a few days’ notice and without a proper debate. If the Minister thinks that we are going to let this go through without a proper discussion, he is very much mistaken.
It is totally inappropriate that the new clause, which could bring about major and irreversible changes to our national parks, should be slipped into the Bill in this manner. The national park authorities are there to protect the environment for the good of the nation and its people. I call on the Secretary of State to withdraw the new clause. It does not belong in the Bill. If a discussion is needed about the future funding of our national park authorities, so be it, but let us have a proper debate. Let us give our stakeholders, the people, a chance to have their say, and let us not try to introduce damaging changes to our national parks by the back door.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
That was without any doubt the least-informed speech I have heard from a Front Bencher in the whole of my career in the House of Commons. I am sorry to say that to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), but she has simply not read the new clause and understood what it is about. It extends the power of general competence that applies to local authorities, which her party supported as a welcome thing when I introduced it as a Minister, along with my colleagues, to local national parks authorities; it does not affect planning in any way whatever. I am horrified that an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman does not understand the difference between the role of a national parks authority qua local authority and its role as a planning authority, which is not changed in the slightest by any of this. The Opposition’s approach is therefore worrying.
As the shadow Minister would not give way to me for a second time, I wish to put on the record the fact, which my hon. Friend will confirm, that we did have advance notice of the new clause. I met the South Downs national park authority on 13 November, when it made clear its support for the provision. It, like me, has had that much time to look at it. The Opposition may have been distracted by other matters, but that is a whole other matter—and, for the record, Aunt Sally was in “Worzel Gummidge”.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The troubling thing is this: applications for fracking, licensing matters and all that regime are not governed by a power of general competence in the slightest. The new clause has no effect on fracking of any kind whatever, and I regret to have to say to the hon. Lady that to suggest otherwise is either wilful ignorance or a serious piece of misleading the public.
The new clause gives local authorities that are national parks the same powers to deal with things as their district councils and county councils have. The point has also been well made that it enables them to enter into devolution deals, which again I believe the Opposition supported. So far, they are against a power of general competence, which they supported when we brought it in, they are against devolution deals in national parks, which they have supported, and they have set up an Aunt Sally that has nothing to do with the case.
I appreciate that the Opposition Front Benchers have been shuffled so many times that they probably do not have time to read an Order Paper nowadays, but the most cursory reading of the amendment might have given them some idea that their approach is totally off the case, it is against the views expressed by the Select Committee rightly and properly and it is against devolution. I am sorry to say that we heard a bizarre speech from the Opposition and they are taking a bizarre approach. If they divide the House on this, they are simply—
Is my hon. Friend aware that quite a campaign has been whipped up across the country about the possibility of fracking springing up in national parks as part of some dastardly plot by the Conservative Government to introduce fracking wherever they can find a national park? Does he think that perhaps the response from the Opposition is influenced in some way by that campaign?
I have always taken the view in politics that the further left you go, the greater the conspiracy theories get; I suspect that may have happened, perhaps with one or two honourable exceptions, to the Opposition Front-Bench team. But that has nothing whatever to do with what we are about. It has nothing to do with their ludicrous scare campaign. A simple amendment, whose principle was not objected to when the Localism Bill was brought through, is suddenly being seized upon for the most bizarre bit of political grandstanding by a bankrupt Opposition. The best thing they can do is find something to agree upon. Their approach would prevent a national park authority from entering into a joint venture with its district and county councils, although that is a perfectly sensible and reasonable thing to do. Anyone who speaks to people who have represented areas in national parks will know that one of their concerns was the inability to join up the service delivery between the national parks authority, the district council and the county council. That sort of thing was a regular issue upon the desk of any Minister.
The new clause enables that to be done through a simple, legal structure. It has nothing whatever to do with applications for planning permission for fracking and with the licensing regime for fracking. It is a sad and sorry day when an important and useful technical amendment is hijacked by one of the more bizarre bits of political boulevardiering that I have ever seen in my time in the Commons.
As chair of the all-party group on national parks, I do have some interest in this matter. Additionally, a third of Sheffield—the local authority in which my constituency is—is in the Peak District national park. The name “Sheffield” may conjure up past visions of lots of cutlery being produced, but much of it is very rural, very open and very beautiful.
I understand the concerns of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench about new clause 7, which is of some length and has been parachuted into the Bill right at the last minute. The Government had many opportunities to introduce it earlier, and to talk informally to my hon. Friends, which might have allayed some of their fears. In the end, though, it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose, and probably to be very suspicious of a Government who claim they have nothing but good intentions in proposing a four-page amendment.
Of course there is some suspicion, but let us look at what the national parks have been doing. They have told us at meetings that they would welcome the extension of the general power of competence to them—perhaps it was an oversight that it was not done in the first place. As I understand it, the new clause proposes that where national parks exercise functions in a national park area that are similar in nature to those exercised by a local authority in other places the local authority has the general power of competence, but a national park does not.
Everyone gets suspicious about fracking. Many people do not trust the Government on the issue. They think that, as the Government want to go fracking all over the place and national parks do not, the Government are probably happy to do it and have rather brought those suspicions on themselves. Perhaps the Government could make an absolutely clear statement that there is no way in which this proposed new clause gives any extension of planning powers or anything else that could possibly affect fracking in national parks.
I can assure the House that we had no idea that this new clause was coming. It is almost five pages long. The nub of our argument is this: the national parks should be single-mindedly protecting our environment, but this power of general competence allows them to engage in commercial activities to bridge the funding gap that the Chancellor has left them with. Does my hon. Friend not worry that that single-minded concentration on protecting the environment might be lost in the search for additional revenue as a result of the commercial powers that are being conferred on the national parks?
I see my hon. Friend’s concerns in that regard, but the reality is probably that many national parks do look at ways to raise revenue to help support their budgets. I share his views that national parks are subject to cuts and that they are finding it more difficult to do the job that we expect them to do with their much reduced resources. I think that they will look at other ways to raise funds. That happens anyway. I am not sure whether this new clause widens that possibility greatly. I understand that it simply puts the national parks in the same position as a local authority to try to fulfil their functions.
I wish to clarify that this proposed new clause has no impact on planning as it would affect national parks. It has nothing to do with shale gas extraction, or fracking. I hope that is clear enough for the hon. Gentleman, and that it will give him some reassurance about our intention, which is to deliver on a request from the national parks.
I am aware that the national parks have been asking for it, and I accept the Minister’s statement. Will he think about the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) on fundraising and the extent to which the powers of general competence could be used by national parks in any way that undermined their primary purpose, which is to look after the national parks, their beauty and the environment while ensuring they are a place where people can live and work? That is an important function of national parks authorities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again, and I can offer that reassurance. The primary purpose remains, as I said in my speech, that anything that a national park does must be in line with its statutory obligations. There is no legal basis for charging, and we are not looking to allow it. I hope that we might move to a position of greater consensus on the new clause, which I felt would be uncontroversial. I recognise the concerns expressed by hon. Members and I thank the hon. Gentleman for accepting my interventions and giving me the chance to put some of these matters to bed.
Order. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has for some minutes now been poised rather like a sprinter, but he suffers from one disadvantage relative to the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), whose constituency houses Exmoor, namely that the right hon. Gentleman beetled into the Chamber a little after the hon. Gentleman. We will reserve the right hon. Gentleman as a specialist delicacy and reach him in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I have never felt disadvantaged by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
As you correctly point out, Mr Speaker, one third of Exmoor national park is in North Devon, and a beautiful part of the world it is. Before I go on with my prepared remarks, which I admit are pretty much a verbal tourist brochure, let me say that I do not recognise a lot of what was said from the Opposition Front Bench about the new clause, particularly the comments about its being slipped in and about insufficient time being given to speak to national park authorities. I, in common with all my hon. Friends, I am sure, had no notice at all. I was first alerted to the wording of the new clause on Thursday afternoon, and since then I have had time to have a detailed email correspondence with the chairman of Exmoor national park, Councillor Andrea Davis, my office has spoken at great length to managers at National Parks UK and two hours ago I came off the phone from a lengthy conversation with the chief executive of Exmoor national park, Dr Nigel Stone. If I can do that, I am sure that with all the voluminous resources available to them, those on the Opposition Front Bench should surely have been able to make some cursory inquiries about what the new clause is all about. It appears that they failed to do so.
Having spoken to those people, I can say that it is the national park authorities and managers who want this to happen. Opposition Members do those national park managers a great disservice by alleging some of the things that they are. They imply that in asking for the new clause those managers will in some way use the powers for nefarious purposes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Opposition Members need to be careful about what they are alleging because in my experience national park managers have nothing but the best intentions for managing our national parks, particularly in Exmoor.
That leads me on to extolling the virtues of Exmoor and why new clause 7, in particular, will be so valuable. One third of the national park is in my constituency and it includes the beautiful, rugged coastline that not only provides opportunities for many leisure activities but is very important for our environment and ecosystem. In the conversations I have had with them, the chairman and chief executive of Exmoor national park have been absolutely adamant that Exmoor in particular would benefit from the measures included in the new clause. Let me give some specific examples of why they believe that it would be beneficial and why they welcome it.
First, there is great pressure on the provision of housing for local communities in Exmoor and other areas of North Devon. Until now, national park authority managers have been hamstrung in the conversations they have been able to have with developers to ensure arrangements for local, affordable housing. Nevertheless, the new clause is not a carte blanche to say that all development will be allowed, and, as the Minister rightly said, nothing in it will allow that to happen.
Currently, it is difficult for national parks to enter into any sort of meaningful relationship with developers. For instance, they cannot set up a joint enterprise, and they could not engage with a developer who was seeking to undertake commercial activities in North Devon. The new clause will allow national park authorities to enter into an arrangement with a developer, so that land for commercial activity can remain in the ownership of the national park. That will mean that the park retains—and indeed gains—some financial advantage that has not been possible until now. I heard a sedentary comment from the Labour Front Bench that national parks want to make money, but what is wrong with that? What is wrong with national parks being able to raise funds to carry out further excellent work? Opening the commercial world in that way to national parks can only be good for Exmoor.
Another example is visitor attractions. Every year, Exmoor enjoys a large number of visitors who come for its rugged beauty and for the coastland and inland moor areas. The new clause will allow national park authorities to enter into commercial arrangements to ensure that more people enjoy those visitor attractions. It will attract people to the area and ensure that when they are there they have the best possible visitor experience. That is enormously important.
When I asked the chief executive of the national park to sum up for me in two sentences why he welcomes new clause 7—indeed, it is welcomed by all national park authorities—he said two things. First, at a time when we all have to save money, it gives national park authorities more options to ensure that they are viable going forward. Secondly, the new clause will give national parks the power to make things happen in a way that has not been possible until now.
I warmly welcome the new clause. It is also welcomed by the heads of Exmoor national park—I have spoken to them about this issue in great detail since Thursday. All other national park authority managers welcome it, and I know that they have been in conversation with the Minister. I warmly welcome that because the new clause will be good for Exmoor, and good for the rest of our national parks.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for drawing such attention to the fact that I “beetled” into the Chamber, as you put it, rather late, and I apologise for that. I also apologise for the fact that unfortunately I am going to beetle out of it again rather early, for the same reason that I was late, namely Defence Committee business. I am delighted to have the opportunity of this small window to try to reassure those on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that they will take my reassurances seriously, as I was one of only three Conservative Members to vote against the scheme for privatising the forest estate, which the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) referred to in her remarks. I am not one to accept on trust everything about forests that the Government put forward.
Having said that, the Government deserve a big pat on the back for this measure. It is often said that the Government do not listen, but this is a classic case of their having listened. [Interruption.] I would be grateful if those on the Opposition Front Bench also listened for a moment, because I am directing my speech at them in an attempt to be helpful.
The chair of the New Forest national park authority, Mr Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, is a former official verderer of the New Forest and very highly thought of by all those who live and work in the forest and are concerned with its management and protection. He contacted me some time ago to ask if it would be possible to persuade the Government to include such a provision in the Bill in Committee. Sadly, that stage had just concluded, so it shows extraordinary flexibility and willingness to listen by the Government in general—and by the Under-Secretary in particular—to manage to include the provision.
I fully sympathise with the Opposition spokesmen, because new clause 7 is a lengthy provision, and it is their job to scrutinise measures, whether they are long or short, but particularly if they are long. I should therefore like to try to reassure them about new clause 7 by reading two brief extracts from a document supplied by National Parks England specifically for use in our debate. It says:
“National Parks England (the umbrella body for the NPAs) warmly welcomes the tabling of New Clause 7 by Ministers and hopes that you”—
“will be able to speak in support of it at the Report Stage debate of the Bill on Monday 07 December 2015.”
It then gives a long list of the reasons why it supports the extension of powers, which are similar, it points out, to powers given to many comparable bodies. It ends by referring specifically to the new clause:
“New Clause 7 follows the legislative format established for other public bodies. National Parks England supports this amendment and would encourage MPs to speak in support during the Report Stage debate on the Bill.”
I understand the difficulty in which Opposition spokesmen find themselves, given that a clause of such complexity has been tabled at short notice. I hope that I have been able to reassure them that national parks themselves warmly welcome the clause. I do not think that it is a conspiracy. I have had occasion in the past to point out conspiracies when they crop up, but I do not think that this is an occasion for concern about conspiracies—on the contrary, it is an opportunity to congratulate Ministers, including the Under-Secretary, on listening, being flexible and making a change at, indeed, the eleventh hour. That change deserves to be made if we are to show our trust in the judgment of the national park authorities themselves.
I do not intend to speak for long. I merely wish to record my thanks to hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. We began in a contentious place, but we have, I hope, moved towards consensus. I acknowledge the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who has been vociferous in making the case and with whom I have exchanged a significant quantity of correspondence, for bringing this to the Government’s attention and suggesting that it be included in the Bill. The measure is welcomed by national parks and by many hon. and right hon. Members. I hope that it will be welcomed, too, by shadow Ministers and that we can move forward in a more consensual way in the rest of today’s debates. Regardless, I commend the changes to the House. They are welcome and they are important.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 7 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 1
Local Government Constitutional Convention
“(1) A convention is to be held to consider and make recommendations on the constitution of local government in the United Kingdom.
(2) The Secretary of State must make regulations to—
(a) appoint a day on which the convention must commence its operations;
(b) make fair and transparent rules about how the convention is to operate and how evidence is to be adduced;
(c) make further provision about the terms of reference prescribed under section (Local Government Constitutional Convention: terms of reference); and
(d) specify how those who are to be part of the convention are to be chosen in accordance with section (Local Government Constitutional Convention: composition).
(3) The date appointed under subsection (2)(a) must not be later than 31 December 2016.” —(Mr Graham Allen.)
This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Local Government Constitutional Convention: terms of reference—
“The convention must consider the following terms of reference—
(a) the devolution of legislative and fiscal competence to local authorities within the United Kingdom;
(b) the reform of the electoral system for local government;
(c) constitutional matters relating to local government to be considered in further conventions; and
(d) procedures to govern the consideration and implementation of any future constitutional reforms in relation to local government.”
This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.
New clause 3—Local Government Constitutional Convention: recommendations—
“(1) The Local Government Constitutional Convention must publish recommendations within the period of one year beginning with the day appointed under section (Local Government Constitutional Convention).
(2) The Secretary of State must lay responses to each of the recommendations before each House of Parliament within six months beginning with the day on which the recommendations are published.”
This new clause creates the means by which every UK citizen can engage in a national public discussion of devolution, local government, governance and electoral systems and make recommendations and receive a response from government and parliament to that national debate.
New clause 4—Local Government Constitutional Convention: composition—
“(1) The Local Government Constitutional Convention must be composed of representatives of the following—
(a) registered political parties within the United Kingdom,
(b) local authorities, and
(c) the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
(2) At least 50% of the members of the convention must not be employed in a role which can reasonably be considered to be political.”
New clause 5—Commission on devolution of fiscal powers and taxation—
“(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a commission on devolution of fiscal powers and taxation to local authorities.
(2) The Commission shall consider the following issues—
(a) the desirability, impact and process necessary to implement an Income Tax rate of 10p in the pound on English tax payers;
(b) the desirability, impact and process necessary to give English Councils the same fiscal and taxation powers as those devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the 2012 Scotland Act, and
(c) any other issues that the Commission considers relevant.
(3) The Commission shall produce a report covering the issues listed in subsection (2) no later than 31 December 2017, and shall make such recommendations to the Secretary of State as it deems necessary.”
This new Clause would establish a Commission to consider the possibility of England local authorities being granted the same fiscal and taxation powers already devolved to Scotland in the Scotland Act 2012.
New clause 8—Combined authority functions: cool off period—
“(1) The Secretary of State shall amend any order made under a provision of this Act which transfers a power to exercise of a function from a constituent part of a combined authority to a combined authority, to devolve responsibility for that function back to a constituent part of that authority, if the following conditions are met—
(a) A constituent part of a combined authority requests that the Secretary of State amend an order to return responsibility for the exercise of a function to the constituent part of the combined authority from the combined authority, and
(b) Such a request is made within one year of the first local government election held in the constituent part of the combined authority since the original order was made.”
The intention of this amendment is to create a cooling off period for the transfer of any power to the level of a combined authority. If a constituent part of a combined authority requests that a power is returned to it within one year of next elections held in the constituent part, then the Secretary of State must amend the relevant order to return power to the constituent part.
New clause 10—Governance arrangements for local government: entitlement to vote—
“In section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (local government electors), in subsection (1)(d) for “18” substitute “16””
This Clause would re-instate the provision in the Bill, as brought from the Lords, allowing votes for 16- and 17-year olds in local government elections.
New clause 11—Review of fire and rescue services in combined authorities—
“(1) The Secretary of State must, within 15 months of this Act being passed, publish a review of the fire and rescue services affected by the provisions of this Act.
(2) The review must make an assessment of the extent to which the provisions of this Act affecting fire and rescue services have worked safely and efficiently for the protection of the public over the first 12 months from this Act being passed.”
This Clause would require a review, after 12 months of the Bill being passed, of the fire and rescue services to make sure the new system is working safely and efficiently for the protection of the public.
New clause 13—Fiscal and financial powers—
“Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish plans for further devolution of fiscal powers to local authorities in England, including—
(a) an equalisation model related to the retention of business rates, to ensure local authorities with lower business rate income are not negatively impacted;
(b) greater local authority control over local tax rates and discounts;
(c) provision for combined authorities to set multi-year finance settlements.”
This new clause allows the Secretary of State to ensure devolution continues beyond current devolution deals by setting out plans for further fiscal devolution and greater local freedom and stability in relation to budgets and tax rates. The clause also ensures a model is put in place to ensure authorities with lower business rate income do not lose out from the phasing out of central government grants.
New clause 14—Cooperation with peripheral authorities—
“No later than three months after the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall publish guidance to be considered by combined authorities while exercising a devolved function, in order to—
(a) have regard for any significant direct impact of decisions taken by the combined authority on neighbouring authority populations;
(b) encourage cooperation between combined authorities and their neighbouring authorities so as to encourage local growth;
(c) enable greater economic cooperation between combined authorities and their neighbours within a travel-to-work area.”
This new clause asks the Secretary of State to publish guidance to ensure neighbouring authorities are considered when devolved functions are exercised, and encourage economic cooperation between authorities within a regional economy or travel-to-work area.
Government amendments 4 to 6.
Amendment 58, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, at end insert—
“( ) The transfer of local or public authority functions to combined authorities shall not be dependent on an order being made under subsection (1).”
This amendment makes clear that devolution deals must not be dependent on a combined authority having a mayor.
Amendment 2, page 2, line 13, at end insert—
“(2A) An order under subsection (1) may not be made unless the proposition that the combined authority have a mayor is approved by a referendum of the electorate of that combined authority.
(2B) The Secretary of State shall, by regulations, establish the procedures to be followed in conducting a referendum under subsection 2A.
(2C) Before making a regulation under subsection 2B, the Secretary of State must consult the Electoral Commission.”
The intention of this amendment is that elected mayors will be introduced only if that proposal has been approved by a referendum of the residents of the combined authority. The rule for the conduct for such a referendum shall be made by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Electoral Commission.
Amendment 57, page 2, leave out lines 21 to 26 and insert—
“(7) An order under this section providing for there to be a mayor for the area of a combined authority may be revoked or amended by making a further order under this section; this does not prevent the making of an order under section 107 abolishing the authority (together with the office of mayor) or providing for a constituent part of the combined authority to leave the combined authority and to resume its existence as a separate local authority.
(7A) An order under this section providing for a constituent part of the combined authority to leave the combined authority and to resume its existence as a separate local authority must make fair provision for a reasonable and proportionate division of resources between the former combined authority and the seceding local authority.
(7B) Where a combined authority has entered into a contractual arrangement with a third party and an order under this section is made to enable a constituent part of a combined authority to resume its existence as a separate local authority, that separate local authority shall be deemed to be a contracting party to that agreement unless an alternative agreement is reached with the third party.”
The intention of this amendment is allow for a constituent part of a combined authority to leave a combined authority without the combined authority being dissolved, with provision for “fair terms” for the leaving party (i.e. their resource is calculated on a per capita basis, or similar.) and the impact this may have on contractual arrangement with third parties.
Government amendments 7 to 25.
Amendment 59, in clause 10, page 12, line 32, at end insert—
“(1) Within 6 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the performance of the Localism Act 2011 and a review of the general power of competence provision in relation to its use by combined authorities.”
This amendment introduces a review of the use of the general power of competence by combined authorities.
Government amendments 26 to 29.
Amendment 1, in clause 15, page 17, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) all local authorities in a mayoral combined authority commencing a community governance review of their whole local authority area within two years of this Act coming into force.”
This amendment introduces further measures to support the creation of new local councils with mayoral and combined authorities required to conduct a community governance review within two years of the Act coming into force.
Amendment 56, page 17, line 23, at end insert—
“(4A) Regulations under this section, so far as including structural or boundary provision in relation to a non-unitary district council area, may be made if at least one relevant local authority consents.
(4B) Local authority in this case is defined as—
(a) a non-unitary district council whose area is, or forms part of, the non-unitary district council area;
(b) a county council whose area includes the whole or part of the non-unitary district council area.
(4C) Relating to 4a and 4b
(a) “non-unitary district council area” means the area or areas of one or more non-unitary district councils;
(b) “non-unitary district council” means a district council for an area for which there is also a county council;
(c) “structural or boundary provision” means provision about the structural or boundary arrangements of local authorities in regulations made by virtue of subsection (1)(c).”
The intention of this amendment is to allow the government to make changes to boundaries of local authorities if it has the consent of at least one relevant local authority.
Government manuscript amendment (a) to amendment 56, after subsection (4C), insert—
“(4D) Subsections (4A) to (4C) expire at the end of 31 March 2019 (but without affecting any regulations already made under this section by virtue of subsection (4A)).”
This amendment provides for the provisions in subsections (4A) to (4C) of clause 15, allowing structural and boundary provision in relation to a non-unitary district council area if at least one relevant local authority consents, to expire at the end of 31 March 2019.
Government amendments 30 to 33 and 36.
Amendment 3, in schedule 1, page 37, line 3, leave out paragraphs 4 and 5 and insert—
“4 (1) The mayor is to be returned under the simple majority system.”
This amendment would require the mayors of combined authorities to be elected using the simple majority system, also known as “first past the post”.
Government amendments 37 to 45, 50 and 52 to 55.
One of the difficulties involved in the debates we have had on this so-called constitutional Bill is that they have taken place on the Floor of the House. If we were upstairs in Committee and having detailed debates about particular places and particular boundary issues, the Minister could say, “The hon. Gentleman has made a very good point. I will take it away, talk to one or two authority leaders and issue a few words of reassurance.” On the Floor of the House, however, given the rather clunky weapons at our disposal—such as a Division of the House—they become much bigger issues. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on bringing the devolution process to the House, but rather than it being seen as the first step of many, it is lapsing into the good old confrontational stuff that we seem to enjoy so much on the Floor of the House.
Even under that structure, however, we can do a number of things in the Chamber this evening. We need to seek a more consensual way forward and understand that devolution is an organic process and that it will evolve. Once the deals in England have been concluded, they will make progress and other demands will be made. People will see that they can do things that they could not do before. They will look at neighbours who have concluded deals and say, “I’d like to try a little bit of that. I think I’ll talk to the Secretary of State.” The Secretary of State may well suggest to some places, “Things have been done by another place that you could also do.” To other areas, the Secretary of State and/or councils may say, “Perhaps we bit off a little more than we could chew. Let’s take half a pace back, let this settle and then come forward with other proposals in the future.” That process is not very amenable to debate on the Floor of the House of Commons. Almost by definition, it is better done, first, in Committee, and secondly, by the key players—council leaders and Ministers—talking openly and transparently to take forward the process.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very thoughtful speech. Does he not agree that the fact that devolution is being driven at pace by the Scottish agenda means that there is no time to have such a convention on the big devolution to Scotland, and is it not time for England to have matching devolution if Scotland is going to get so much?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about moving at pace and then immediately suggests that England should have what Scotland has. I would go with the latter of his contradictory points: in such devolution Bills, England should have everything that has been obtained by the Scottish people. To round out the package, England should in particular have not just the powers but the financial capability to make the powers real.
I will talk later about new clause 5, which says that we can have income tax assignment to England, in just the way it pertains to Scotland, without civilisation as we know it falling apart. I would add that that would renew and strengthen the Union, which will need to happen in future decades, as a federal entity in which the nations of the Union work together very closely as a family, but all retain a degree of income tax in their areas to make their own country work effectively.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view about financial powers going alongside the responsibility for providing services, but does he not agree that there is a case for devolving responsibility for income tax to below the England level? Most local services in Sweden, for example, are run through tax raised locally, rather than at national level.
I am delighted to hear the Liberal Democrats proposing something in opposition that, sadly, they did not propose when they were a key member of the coalition Government during the past five years. Before Labour colleagues smile too much, however, the previous, Labour Government also did very little on this matter. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) says that they did. Obviously, I would never be so disloyal as to underline such remarks by repeating them on the Floor of the House, but—
Indeed, Mr Speaker. We all have scars and sins that are best left unrevealed; otherwise that can turn into rather a destructive process. If we look at the constructive process initiated by the Secretary of State, there is a way forward. To finish my answer to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), double devolution has repeatedly been raised by colleagues from all parts of the House in different ways. Let me restate that it would be ludicrous for England to go the way of Scotland, where there is devolution down to Holyrood, but we can hear the sucking sound—Ross Perot used to hear a “sucking sound” in the United States from Mexico—of powers being sucked up from the localities in Scotland into Holyrood. We do not wish that to be repeated in England, which means, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that there must be a proper localisation of power if the devolution bandwagon and evolution are to continue.
I would like to put a number of items on the record, but I will not discuss my new clauses at length because we have gone around the houses on those issues before. I just want to say that if we are devolving in England; if we have devolved in Scotland; if a majority of people’s votes in England do not count and perhaps ought to be made to count in a different way; and if we see, as we are seeing with the Strathclyde commission, an anxiety about the powers of the second Chamber: if all those things are happening and we did not have a Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee—imagine if such a thing existed—it makes a lot of sense to have a steady, careful, citizen-led convention that discusses all those issues. Party leaders should at least commit to give the views of a citizens convention airtime on the Floor of the House through the discussion of draft Bills.
It makes sense to take a slightly broader view when discussing these changes and to consider what our democracy ought to look like. The threats are considerable and the action we take should be swift in countering those threats. There should therefore be a broad-brush review of where our democracy lies. That is what is proposed in new clauses 1 to 4, which are in my name. New clause 5 takes up the point about having financial powers to go alongside that.
I turn to what is a difficult question, because it is a detailed question, in respect of amendment 27, to which the Minister will speak. I tempt him to respond to my view on what might be done with the amendment. Devolution deals are so important to those who run local authorities and those who care about local authorities that, because boundaries might change, functions might change and mayors might be imposed, there is a great deal of anxiety in certain places in the country about the precise detail of the deals and how they might work.
I fully understand why the Government tabled amendment 27. It makes sense within the terms of what they are trying to do. They are rightly trying to have a level of flexibility in respect of devolution deals. However, there are particular difficulties in and around Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and in respect of the Sheffield deal that is being discussed. I say to colleagues that we are at the beginning of a long road. It is not perfection that we seek today, but progress. We can secure progress, provided that we discuss this matter in a consensual way. The Minister may wish to respond to what I say now. If not, I hope that he will do so soon.
I am sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State will agree that any changes in local governance that are enabled by the Bill must be achieved through local consensus, with the relevant partners coming around the table to agree a negotiated position. Given that, I draw their attention to the suggestion in amendment 27 that districts that form part of a county could join a different combined authority, without the need for any negotiation with, consensus within or consent from the county council. That would be deeply divisive in many areas and undermine the very consensual approach the ministerial team has consistently advocated in this House. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister provide the House with a reassurance that the amendment will not give districts the right to walk away without local consensus and that any changes would be made through a negotiation between district and county, facilitated if necessary by the Secretary of State?
I intend to speak at greater length on this issue, but as the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to do so I would like to make it clear that the amendment gives any council, including districts, the permission to request to be removed from or added to a combined authority. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will review the case put forward by a council and make a decision on whether the request can proceed, but I can reassure the House that any such decision would, where possible, be made only following consultation and negotiation with relevant parties. In all cases, we would endeavour to seek and secure the consensus that I think has characterised many of the discussions we have had in a range of places so far, and which is so important in underpinning the Government’s approach to devolution more generally.
I am sure that those words will have been heard throughout the Chamber and, more importantly perhaps, by all those who care about, or are in positions of authority in, local government. I very much hope that they take the message that the Government and the House are keen for there to be progress on devolution, and that it should occur on the basis of consensus, interaction and negotiation facilitated by the Secretary of State and the Government.
The people who have interacted with the Secretary of State and the Minister will make their own judgment on whether the Secretary of State can be trusted on these matters. As far as I am concerned, however, the Secretary of State has got us to this position on devolution, which, as I mentioned earlier, was not possible under the previous coalition Government or the previous Labour Government. Is it perfection? No. Is it genuine progress? I hope the answer to that is most definitely yes.
All this consensus can sometimes feel a little bit disconcerting, but I think it is a good thing. The fact that the Minister has underlined and put it on the record, in respect of Government amendment 27, that consensus would have to be achieved—this is not about particular councils having vetoes or unilateral capability, but a negotiated process—is a very important step.
I can barely believe that my hon. Friend would be anything other than consensual. In recent weeks he has perhaps been known as being on the provisional wing of the Labour party, but his innate character is that of seeking consensus. I agree very strongly, as I always do, with my constituency neighbour. I hope colleagues throughout the UK adopt a similar view and take us forward on this issue.
Is my hon. Friend concerned that there are absent voices from the consensus thus far, in the shape of the public, who are not always involved or even aware that these kinds of deals are going ahead? I realise it is difficult, but do their voices not need to be captured somehow, too?
To an extent, their voices have to be captured by those who seek elected office, whether in this House or in the locality. Devolution is just one part of a broader democratic settlement. It is essential that it is not just the great and the good who are involved. As I outline in new clauses 1 to 4, there has to be the most tremendous unprecedented outreach. A citizens convention must go way beyond even what we saw in Scotland, either in the referendum campaign or in its own citizens convention, and use all the modern techniques of social media, technology and electronic polling, so that people can feel ownership. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that unless we build that in, and unless people feel that a proper debate has been had, the process could be stressed and fractured when people feel that the right thing has not been done. I would argue, therefore, as with new clauses 1 to 4, that we will need a broad-based exercise involving an unprecedented level of public participation in order to settle our democracy not just for the next four years but so that it holds for 100 years after that. That cannot be done on the back of us alone making these decisions.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek your advice on a matter of order, although I do not know if I am entitled to do so in the middle of a speech. There are amendments on health. Should we talk about those matters now or wait for a natural break?
The hon. Gentleman asks a perfectly reasonable question, and, just for once, it is a question that the Chair can answer. The answer is no. The matters relating to health are in the next group, of which the lead amendment is new clause 9. We should discuss health at that point.
That is very helpful, Madam Deputy Speaker. In that case, I will limit my final remarks to a brief consideration of manuscript amendment (a) to amendment 56, which bears my name. Amendment 56, which I wish well, seeks to provide some welcome flexibility to allow for the organic growth and development of our devolution proposals. The Secretary of State, who needs to be reassured that the process will not drag on forever, has proposed a manuscript amendment that puts an end date on discussion. Colleagues and local authorities will have an opportunity, a gateway, a window—whatever metaphor we wish to use—in which to make representations. That process will not drag on forever, but there will be a lot of time to make those representations, which seems very appropriate. On that basis, I am pleased to have added my name to amendment 56.
This large group of amendments covers many other areas, including issues on which I could speak at some length, such as votes for 16 and 17-year-olds and a governance review. The latter will be very important. I believe that there are now 34 or so devolution deals. As we develop those, there will be much best practice, which, by definition, we cannot learn from mid-process, around what has been devolved and how, and around how local authorities can use their powers. It will all be at different levels and different speeds—because, again, devolution means people doing their own thing, not taking a one-size-fits-all approach—but there will be a place for a gathering and sharing of best practice by local government so that the next set of deals, building on the pre-existing deals, can be done in the best way.
We do not currently have an institution that can do that. Despite the excellence of the officials in the Department, we do not have what local government might regard as an independent institution to take that forward. It makes a lot of sense, therefore, to have a review at an appropriate time. It might not look that way to the Secretary of State, who is battling through a set of deals with lots of interested individuals—and that can only be his main priority—but, when the dust settles, it will make sense to have an adjunct to the Local Government Association, or whatever local and central Government come up with, to make sure that all the learning from the first set of proposals is carried over to the next set.
With that, I shall draw my remarks to a close. We now have a set of devolution deals, and the boulder is rolling forward. We need to keep the momentum going, so I hope that everyone will wish the Bill well.
I begin with new clauses 1 to 4, which propose the establishment of a local government constitutional convention. We had the opportunity to discuss these provisions on our first day in Committee, and as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said then, they include the nuts and bolts of this body, as proposed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which the hon. Gentleman chaired in the previous Parliament. He now draws on the wealth of the knowledge that he acquired from his chairmanship during that time. His intention has been, in part at least, to ensure that some of his observations and experience could be read by anyone who feels that the concept of a constitutional convention is something that could be recommended to the House. I hope he feels that he has been successful in that aim. I have certainly enjoyed the debates we have had on the issue, and I recognise his tenacity and consistency in putting his case before us.
I do not consider it necessary to go through in detail every stage of the possible effects that new clause 1 could have, but it is important to recognise that the hon. Member for Nottingham North has made a number of points that draw on his experience and that inform the debate on devolution. However, as has been the case in previous debates and in Committee, I am not yet persuaded to go as far as to include new clause 1 in the Bill at this time.
My right hon. Friend tempts me to go further than I can in the specific context of the Bill, but I think he has been above averagely consistent on that point and very clear about his position. He has put it clearly on the record today, as he has before, and the fact that he has done so is welcome.
I look to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, for advice on whether you would like me to comment on the other amendments in the group, which I would be happy to do, although I have not yet heard the comments of hon. Members on them.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that we have had such a productive and healthy debate so far, it would be appropriate for me to respond later to the specific points that hon. Members raise. I therefore look forward to the opportunity to speak again as we progress through this stage of consideration.
I shall speak specifically to Government amendment 27. The proposals for combined authorities are welcome. They are essentially about local authorities coming together where they wish to combine their approach, their workings and their functions to deliver better services and, hopefully, greater economic growth for the residents in their areas. The idea was pioneered in Manchester. The one fundamental difference between Manchester and some of the other areas that we are considering is that Manchester has had a number of authorities that have worked together over a period of time and these happen to be the authorities that were part of the old Greater Manchester metropolitan area. There were 10 districts that formed that old Greater Manchester metropolitan county, so they have always had a sense of being together and working together over a number of years. They are also unitary authorities that all have the ability to make their own decisions about whether they come together, how they do so and what they do to form the combined authority. It is a relatively simple and easy arrangement in constitutional terms.
The difficulty for some other areas is that the constitutional arrangements are slightly different. Obviously, I am now going to refer to my own area. Sheffield contains the four districts which used to form the old South Yorkshire metropolitan county, and which have worked together to varying degrees, and with varying degrees of success, since the counties were abolished. They came together to form what is now the Sheffield combined authority.
To an extent, the same applies to Leeds, which contains five districts that used to be the West Yorkshire metropolitan county, and which have been working together as a combined authority. There are, however, some differences, which have been recognised at various times by parties on both sides of the House. Sheffield contains not merely the four districts of south Yorkshire, but five other districts which form part of either Derbyshire county or Nottinghamshire county: Derbyshire Dales, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire, Bolsover and Bassetlaw. They are not part of the old South Yorkshire county, but they are very much part of the local economy of the Sheffield city region—the travel-to-work area.
That has been recognised in a number of ways, and I remember when it was first recognised. I went to the first meeting between the leaders of those nine councils, which took place at Meadowhall shopping centre, and which had been called by David Miliband when he was number two in his Department. I am not sure which Department it was, but it was probably the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I expected a reaction from the districts outside south Yorkshire—I expected them to think that Sheffield Big Brother was going to take them over—but the leader of Bolsover district council said, “Actually, it is quite good that we are involved in this.” He said, “I know that not everyone who lives in Bolsover will have a job in Bolsover, and that many people have to travel to work in Sheffield. What happens in Sheffield matters to us, and how people transport themselves from Bolsover to Sheffield matters to us. It is right that we are sitting round the table having discussions and being involved in the decision-making process.” Those were wise words, which have stood the test of time.
The coalition Government adopted a similar approach. When they formed the local enterprise partnerships, they recognised that the historical regional boundaries were not always appropriate. I know that the previous Secretary of State had a thing about regions: people almost had to cross themselves, or put money in the Department’s swear box, if they mentioned them. He was not always right in damning the regional spatial strategies and blaming them for every evil on the planet, but I think he had a point nevertheless, in that the old regions did not necessarily represent local economies and the way in which areas worked in day-to-day life.
The districts of south Yorkshire were in the Yorkshire and Humber region, but the districts in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were in the old East Midlands region, and that often did not work because the two regional development authorities did not always speak to each other. That was a fundamental problem for the Sheffield regional economy, which the last Government recognised when it created the LEPs and allowed them to create themselves across the old regional boundaries to reflect the travel-to-work areas and the local sub-regional city region economies.
We now face a challenge. So far, the districts in that position in North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire have, to an extent, been able to have it both ways. They can continue as districts, as part of the two counties, but they can also be non-constituent parts of the combined authority in Sheffield. Ultimately, however, the districts will have to make some sort of choice.
We are to have an elected mayor in the Sheffield city region. We have had discussions and arguments about that, but it is going to happen. Should the people of Chesterfield, Worksop or any other parts of those districts be able to vote for the mayor in Sheffield, who will be in charge of transport in that area, or should they not be able to vote for the mayor, who will then cover only part of the travel-to-work area with his or her transport responsibilities? That strikes me as illogical, because it will not bring about a combined authority that really covers the city region and the travel-to-work area.
Is it possible that the people of Chesterfield will not have a vote for the mayor because Chesterfield will not become part of the Sheffield city region combined authority—although, under the proposals, the mayor will be involved in discussions and decision making about economic development matters that affect Chesterfield, even if it is only a non-constituent part of the combined authority? I do not think it reasonable for an individual who has not been not elected by the people of Chesterfield to have a say in what happens there.
What the amendment does is ensure that the districts of North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire will be able to make their own decision about the long-term position—about where they think they fit and where their future lies—without the county councils’ having a veto. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), I hope that that will done by means of consensus and discussion. No one wants Chesterfield to feel that it is no longer part of Derbyshire county or Bassetlaw to feel that it is not part of Nottinghamshire county, for many other purposes.
The hon. Gentleman is advancing a powerful argument. He is absolutely right about consensus. He is also right about the fact that businesses do not recognise local authority boundaries. Surely, when we talk about devolution, we must talk about it on the basis of economic rather than political areas, but there is a danger of our being sucked into those political areas.
I entirely agree. In the end, of course, a district council as a whole will have to go to an area, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the focus should be on what works for the economy in terms of job creation, growth and the development of skills, and on ensuring that the necessary transport links exist.
I hope that the Minister will clarify one important point. There may ultimately be a decision for the Secretary of State or the Minister to make on these matters. The districts in North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire, or some of them, may well decide to become part of the Sheffield city region—I hope that they will, because I think that it makes economic sense—but it is nevertheless possible that Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire will form another combined authority, an N2D2, and that there will then be a conflict between the two decisions.
I understand from the amendment that it will be up to the Secretary of State to decide which combined authority the districts should join, because they cannot join two; the people in those areas cannot have a vote for two elected mayors in different combined authorities. I hope when he decides that he will indicate that his key criterion will be what is right for the local economy—that point was made by the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy)—and right for developing skills, for economic growth, and for the development of a proper transport strategy for those areas.
I absolutely hear what the hon. Gentleman says. We must do what is right. If devolution is to be successful, it must recognise the boundaries that are, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer pointed out, more than political: the economic boundaries and the community boundaries. We must take account of what local people want. I am sure that, in exercising whatever powers he has when discussions on the Bill have concluded, the Secretary of State will first seek to build that consensus, as he has throughout the devolution discussions, but will then seek to ensure that the deals that are done will stand the test of time.
I think I agree with the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but we might well grant the elected mayors powers to replace the police and crime commissioners, and if, for example, Chesterfield chose to join Sheffield rather than Derbyshire, the people would presumably lose the right to vote for the person who holds their police force to account. I am not sure that, in those circumstances, the Secretary of State could make his decision solely on the basis of economic powers.
That is an added complication. At present, three separate police and crime commissioners cover the Sheffield city region: one for south Yorkshire, one for Derbyshire and one for Nottinghamshire. Those issues might be considered at some point way down the line, but the leaders of the Sheffield combined authority have— sensibly, in my view—decided not to incorporate the police and crime commissioners’ powers in their devolution deal, probably because that would lead to exactly the sort of further complications to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. They have confined their deal to economic, transport, skills and growth issues, which are precisely the issues to which the Secretary of State will have to give particular consideration if there is a decision to be made about which combined authority the districts are to go into.
I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that we live in an extremely complicated country both culturally and economically, and one of the things that has bedevilled attempts to devolve powers to local authorities has been searching for the perfect boundaries. The perfect boundaries do not exist. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is better to devolve than to spend for ever looking for those perfect boundaries?
Absolutely, and therefore I support the principles of the Bill, but having said that, and while agreeing with my hon. Friend, if we can do something to improve the devolution process, which this amendment does, we should be looking to do that as well. I want devolution to happen, but I want it to work. There is a danger in the Sheffield city region proposals that, without those North Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire districts, and without a true reflection of the whole travel-to-work area, the devolution will not be as economically successful.
I accept in the end that it is a matter of consensus, however. This amendment allows those districts to express their own view about where they think their economic future lies without pulling out of the county for all other services. It allows devolution to go forward without a veto from the county over the particular issues of economic devolution and transport powers. It makes a lot more sense for the Sheffield city region. It also offers the same opportunities for the same way forward for the West Yorkshire combined authority and probably for the west midlands as well.
I shall be brief. I am pleased to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, not least because I thought one of his closing lines summed up our objective here this afternoon: we want devolution to happen, but we want it to work. I want to speak to new clause 8 and amendment 57 in my name and also touch on amendment 2 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), all of which share exactly that objective.
Dealing with the question of consent and the referendum contained in amendment 2, it seems to me that if this process is to work it is essential that it should have the consent of the people who are going to be governed under these new structures. If the argument can be made for the new structures and new form of governance, the Government ought to have the self-confidence to give people a direct say on the changes that are about to be introduced. From a Greater Manchester perspective, I think it is entirely possible that the Government could put a case that would persuade people that the new arrangements should be approved in a referendum, but the very act of withholding that opportunity for them to express their will and to show real consent for what is being done in itself sows the seeds of difficulty and discord and makes it less likely that the new arrangements will work.
I agree wholeheartedly. I devoutly hope that Ministers even at this late hour will recognise that it is very much in their own interests and those of the Government, and entirely in the interests of the people of the combined authority areas which may face these new arrangements of governance, to accept the point. I am especially hopeful given the sterling work my hon. Friend the Minister did in the last Parliament trying to ensure that people had the opportunity to give consent on the arrangements surrounding our membership of the European Union. I know he will recognise that, given his deep commitment to democracy, it would be entirely consistent for him to recognise the wisdom of the proposal.
New clause 8 is in tune with the essence of the Bill and the essence of the Government’s intentions. There are very few of us on either side of the House who would argue with the proposition that it is generally better for power and decisions to be exercised as close to the people as possible. It is almost invariably better for decisions, including spending decisions, to be taken more locally, and new clause 8 seeks to place an extra protection in the Bill: a safeguard seeking to limit the occasions on which the legislation could be used to permit devolution in the wrong direction. That is not really devolution at all, of course. Rather, it is the opposite of devolution: it is the capacity that exists in the Bill as it currently stands for powers to be moved up, away from the people and away from local authorities which currently exercise powers, to the combined authority or to mayoral authority level. It is a very modest measure—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) endorses that view, and I was surprised at just how modest my aspiration had become during the course of this process, perhaps due to the endless courtesy and charm of the Secretary and State and the Minister.
All new clause 8 seeks to do is ensure that, if a local authority decides to transfer a power to the mayoral level, there would be a cooling-off period before it became permanent, and crucially that a local election must be held before such time that that transfer of power away from the people in the wrong direction—this anti-devolution—can become permanent. That is a modest but important safeguard, and I hope Ministers will accept it would be in their interests and the interests of good governance to incorporate it.
Perhaps the most important measure in this group is amendment 57, which sits, almost naturally, as a part of a couplet with the proposition for a referendum. In a way, if we do not have one of them, it becomes even more important that we have the other. If the Government are not going to consult the people directly on the new governance arrangements that will apply to them by allowing a referendum, it is even more important that the arrangements set out in amendment 57 should be incorporated, which would allow a local authority, in the event that the new arrangements do not work in the interests of that local authority area, to seek at a future date to leave, with a fair distribution of both the liabilities and assets of the combined authority.
I have sought to ensure proper fairness and a reasonable arrangement in the unlikely eventuality that a local authority would reach the point where it was convinced that the new arrangements were not in its best interests. That would provide the necessary reassurance to people that this is not an irrevocable step, and that if it does not work, there is a way out of it. Perhaps most importantly, it would also place a real discipline on an elected mayor and ensure that the holder of that office would at all times seek to behave reasonably and reflect the interests not just of the majority of the area of the mayoral authority, but of the whole of it. The risk that an elected mayor may at some point in the future seek to govern in a way that is clearly contrary to the interests of any one part of a conurbation would be massively greater if the Bill were to proceed unamended. Again, I very much hope Ministers will recognise that the Bill would be strengthened and improved by amendment 57.
I want to speak in support of new clause 10 and to make a brief comment on amendment 7. The new clause seeks to reinstate in the Bill, as brought from the Lords, the provision to allow votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in local government elections. As a matter of principle, I support the idea of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, whether in national elections, local government elections or referendums. I supported the case for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the Scottish referendum. I have also argued the case, along with many others, for them to be able to vote in the European Union referendum, because it is their future that we will be debating.
In the context of the Bill, I strongly support the case for 16 and 17-year-olds having a say, for goodness’ sake, in the election of their local councillor. I find it extraordinary that the Government oppose the proposal so strongly. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has indicated that there is a debate to be had on the subject, and that we might explore it more fully on other occasions, but how long does this have to take? Those 16 and 17-year-olds can join our armed forces to defend the country, they can marry and they can pay taxes on their income if they are in work, yet they cannot have a say on how those taxes might be raised, on the extent of them or on how they might be applied. As citizens they ought to have the same rights as the rest of us enjoy, and I urge the Government to think further on this.
We often make points about the low turnout among those young people who are entitled to vote, and about the low engagement in the political process. I made the point in our previous debate on the issue that young people are very interested in a range of political issues, but there is no doubt that in many cases many of them are disengaged from the political process. If we are to seek to change that, surely giving these young people the right to a say in the political process would help. The turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum, at about 75%, is indicative of a level of interest in the issues, which the Government ought to recognise.
David Willetts, the well respected former Minister in the coalition Government, has made a point about the breaking of the generational contract. This is a serious concern. Political parties tend to focus a lot of their attention on the interests of older people, who of course tend to vote. I would argue that there is a lack of attention being paid to the interests of young people, particularly 16 and 17-year-olds, who have no vote at all.
I am getting confused. A few seconds ago, the right hon. Gentleman was trying to convince the House that 16 and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote because such an enormous number of them had turned out to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Now we are told that we are ignoring them because they do not turn out to vote. Will he just clarify which of those two arguments he would like us to accept?
We saw in the Scottish referendum that, if you seek to engage with young people, they will respond. They turned out in record numbers. I understand from the study that took place following the referendum that the turnout was 75% among that age group. I also made the point, however, that there is a lack of engagement with the political process as a whole among young people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me on that. I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to change that by getting young people to feel part of the process and to participate in it. If we give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote, it sharpens their minds and focuses their interest because they have an opportunity to participate in the political process.
The right hon. Gentleman is making his arguments very well and I do not want to take him to task over them, but I want to ask him a question. Presumably the Bill will again end up in the House of Lords, as the European Union Referendum Bill has done. Does he think it is the place of unelected people in the House of Lords to make a decision on this question, or should it be reserved to the House of Commons?
I continue to argue strongly that we should have a democratically elected second Chamber, and we sought to achieve that during the coalition Government. Sadly, Conservative Members managed to block that long-overdue reform. [Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is agreeing with me from a sedentary position. But we are where we are, and because Conservative Members ensured during the last Parliament that we still have to put up with an unelected second Chamber, it will just have to do the job as best it can. It is a revising Chamber and I hope that it will again make the argument that 16 and 17-year-olds should have the right to vote. I hope that I have responded adequately to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh).
David Willetts made the case strongly that there had been a break in the generational contract. I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to address that serious issue and to ensure that all political parties start to show a real interest in the interests of young people. If 16 and 17-year-olds had a vote at local and national levels, there is no doubt that the parties would focus more attention on their interests.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the interests of young people are not properly reflected, partly because they do not vote, but he then said that giving the vote to even younger people who were even less likely to vote would somehow change the way in which the Government operated. I just do not understand the logic of that. Will he also tell us what is so special about 16? Why not choose 15? Is this about paying tax? We have to draw the line somewhere. What is the principle on which he is basing his argument?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, I of course accept that this is an arbitrary line. The current age at which people can start to vote is also arbitrary. We have chosen to make it 18. My argument is that we can reduce it because people aged 16 and 17 have rights and play a significant part in society. For example, they can join the armed forces, they can work and pay taxes on their income and they can marry. Those are all significant rights and responsibilities, and if they have such rights and responsibilities they ought surely to have a say in the election of our national Government and in the election of local authorities as well.
If the right hon. Gentleman were charged with a serious offence, would he really want 16 and 17-year-olds serving on the jury and deciding on his guilt or innocence? I certainly would not. We are talking about a certain level of maturity, and the line we have drawn is an appropriate one. If we would not want a 16-year-old sitting on a jury deciding whether or not we went to jail for 10 years, I suggest that we would not want to let them play a part in the election of the Government of the country.
With all due respect, I think that that is a distraction from the issue we are debating today. I repeat my argument that if 16 and 17-year-olds are able to join the armed forces, pay taxes on their income and marry, which are big responsibilities and rights, they ought to have a say in the election of their Government, either at national level or locally.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that some of the Conservative Members’ arguments do not quite stack up? Maturity is not necessarily to do with age, after all. People of any age can be deemed to be immature, yet they can still serve on a jury and vote in elections.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady about that. The argument made by Conservative Members could be used, by logical extension, to deny democracy entirely or to deny trial by jury. I seek to oppose both those logical extensions and to make the case again for 16 and 17-year-olds to have the right to vote. In this Bill, we are talking about their having a say in the election of their local councillors, for goodness’ sake. If the Conservatives seek to deny 16 and 17-year-olds such a basic right, in their own local community, I strongly oppose them on that. The Government say this issue deserves further discussion, and I welcome that, but why can they not just get on with it, accept the principle and legislate for it today?
I rise to speak to amendment 2, which stands in my name and those of a number of right hon. and hon. Friends. As a former councillor in Stockport, I draw people’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The purpose of the amendment is clear: to ensure that a referendum is held in a combined authority area before any mayoral model of governance is adopted. I am pleased that a number of colleagues have felt able to support it by putting their names to it, and I know that a number of others have some sympathy with it. I thank the Secretary of State for his courteous understanding of my concerns. Such a generous and fair approach is, as colleagues from across the House will attest, typical of the thoughtful and decent man he is.
I extend a similar tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who has handled my reservations with good humour and more than a degree of tenacity, and I thank him sincerely for that.
My motivations for tabling the amendment are several. First, this is very much a local issue of concern, given that my constituency is part of the Greater Manchester area, which has been earmarked for an elected mayor in 2017. I can discern no real demand for this innovation among my constituents—indeed, there is a certain degree of reservation. However, despite their and my scepticism, I am prepared, as I argued on Second Reading, to accept that perhaps there is some demand and so I am perfectly willing to let the people have their say at a referendum, in order to allow them to express their view emphatically. Of course, the outcome either way would be something I would respect entirely.
Although not wishing to prejudge the outcome of such a referendum, I remind the House that directly elected mayors were in recent memory rejected by a number of constituent boroughs of Greater Manchester—Bury and Manchester itself—and subject to widespread rejection across the country in 2012. I thought the Conservative party’s policy at the time was absolutely right: mayors in metropolitan areas should be introduced only if there was a referendum and assent was given. The policy of holding a referendum was correct three years ago and I contend that the opportunity to have a democratic decision at a referendum remains equally valid today.
My overriding concern is, I expect, understandable to many colleagues with shared experience in local government: when new models of local government are seen to be imposed on areas, even if more carrot than stick is used, there the danger lurks. Some will still see the Local Government Act 1972 as an act of municipal desecration, with the break-up of centuries’ old counties and the formation of false constructs, but, aside from mocking the quaint fustiness of those dinosaurs—I do not refer to anybody in this House—we should take a valuable lesson from it: people should feel a sense of belonging to the area in which they live. Furthermore, as this amendment proposes, they should feel a sense of ownership over the formation of entities that govern them.
I am trying to work out what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve by this amendment. Is he just probing the Government? They have made it clear that devolution deals, as negotiated, will go ahead only with an elected mayor. Is he working on the assumption that if the population turn down an elected mayor in a referendum, the whole devolution deal for that area will fall?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My amendment seeks not to ensure that such devolution deals fail, but that the mayor is not a prerequisite of such a deal. I am at variance with the Government on this issue and I would like my amendment to be included in the Bill.
I wish briefly to go through some of the new clauses and amendments. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) makes points in new clauses that have been made before in previous debates. His new clauses 1, 2, 4 and 6 include Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom. As local government is entirely devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and the UK Parliament has no scope in that matter, he has perhaps made an oversight in his proposals. In new clause 6, he wishes to make local councils in England equivalent to the Scottish Parliament, which also is not quite appropriate—after all, they are not the same things. The Scottish Parliament is a Parliament, rather than a local authority, and they are very different items.
The hon. Lady is misunderstanding me and I need to clarify my remarks. I am not at all equating a local authority with the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the Scottish Parliament, which is one of the Labour party’s greatest achievements. Donald Dewar and all those people who were in the citizens convention have created, often without the co-operation of the Scottish National party, a magnificent institution. I just have a degree of jealousy that the powers that have rightly gone to Scotland are not coming fast enough to England and to those of us in the rest of the Union. If we are Unionists, we think that the good things that can happen in one country can happen in all countries of the Union.
The hon. Gentleman’s new clause 5 refers to
“the desirability, impact and process necessary to give English Councils the same fiscal and taxation powers as those devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the 2012 Scotland Act”.
That seems to me as though he is drawing a comparison between the two, and I am not convinced that is entirely appropriate.
The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) eloquently put the case for new clause 10, and I, too, absolutely support votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. It is a shame that the Government are not taking the opportunity at least to trial it in local government, as it would be a worthwhile trial. If they are not prepared to bring forward comprehensive legislation to change the franchise for all elections, it would be nice if they were willing on this occasion at least to try it in this way, because it is very much worthy of examination. It has worked well in Scotland; the 16 and 17-year-olds who were given the vote on the referendum were very engaged and have remained engaged. Those who were younger were not able to participate but they still had greater interest in the democratic process as a result—they paid attention. A lot of them felt very aggrieved that they were not able to participate, but, as was said earlier, the bar has to be set somewhere and 16 is a reasonable place to put it. That has worked well in Scotland and I very much encourage it here.
On new clause 12, it seems reasonable to review how the NHS is treated in the devolution deals. It seems reasonable to see how that is working, and perhaps more powers need to go across if things could work better.
On amendment 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), and amendment 58, I have lot of sympathy for his comments about the imposition of mayors on local authorities. Some of the evidence that we heard in Committee on this issue suggested that it is perhaps not being fair to local government to say, “You must take a mayor in exchange for these powers.” I have a lot of sympathy for the points he makes. As I said earlier in this process, the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city region deal did not require a mayor in Scotland, so it is not a blanket policy of the Government to apply this provision in every circumstance. I believe that the Duchy of Cornwall has not had a mayor imposed upon it at this stage. Evidence was given in that respect in Committee.
On amendment 3 and the supplementary vote system, I am not sure that that system is necessarily the best one for electing anybody. I have been elected under the single transferable vote in Scotland and under first past the post here, and I believe that the first- past-the-post system is far from ideal in terms of democracy. I cannot understand why anyone would want to put first past the post back into an electoral system—perhaps there will be more explanation of that later—when the majority of research suggests it is the least fair way of electing people to any system of government.
I thank you for your time, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is all I have to say today.
I shall speak to amendment 56 and the Government manuscript amendment to it. Although I added my name to the amendment, the original proposal came from my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who apologises for not being present in the Chamber today. As the House will appreciate, his constituency has been very badly affected by the weekend floods.
I wish to make a few points on my hon. Friend’s behalf. Amendment 56 provides for a very modest change that would give greater flexibility both to the Government and to local communities. Where there is a clear wish for change, a county could achieve it in a much more efficient manner and without too much delay. The amendment seeks to build on existing legislation in relation to changes to boundaries. I am talking about not radical change, but easier changes that both Government and local people support.
My hon. Friend hopes that these changes can be applied to his own county of Cumbria, where they are badly needed and widely supported, as they would improve local government and lead to cost savings. I note that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) spoke in favour of this amendment. I hope that that sentiment will also be expressed by the Opposition Front Bench and that we can proceed on this matter with consensus. With that, I hope that the House will support this amendment.
I wish to support some of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) and to try to give more information to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) to explain why I am in favour of first past the post.
Briefly, let me talk about referendums and why I have attached my name to amendment 2. It seems that there is a slowly developing theory of referendums in this country that fits in with a parliamentary democracy. It is that those of us who sit in this House, who admire this House and who approve of how our constitution works, have a great affection for the understanding that we are representatives and not delegates, and that we are here to exercise sovereignty on behalf of the people for a five-year period before returning it to them in toto at the end of that period. That is the well-established constitutional position. Against that, and in sympathy with that, there is a developing view of where referendums are useful, and moving from useful to becoming essential; and that is to do with the structures of government. The reason for that is that there is a permanency in the structures of government that outweighs the normal level of legislation with which we deal.
It is quite right that Scotland had referendums on its decisions on independence and on establishing a Parliament in the first place, because those are effectively permanent decisions, irreversible and unchangeable without the consent of the Scottish people. Likewise in Wales, the Welsh have had referendums on their Assembly, as has Northern Ireland, too. With regard to local councils and changes, if the structures are to work they need to go with the grain of popular consent. Authority, when it is used, needs to have a legitimacy that is based in democratic consent. When that consent was not given in the Local Government Act 1972, there was a great deal of hostility to what was done because it did not meet the requirements of local people. Against that evolving doctrine of referendums there is, inevitably, the Government’s view of referendums, which I characterise, perhaps unfairly, as being, “We will have referendums when we think we will win them, but if we think we won’t win them, it is a bit too dangerous, so we won’t take the risk.” It is a pity that the Government have not taken the risk with these new structures. Let us take the Mayor of London as an example. The Mayor of London has enormous popular consent, even when it was Ken Livingstone, let alone now that it is the great man, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson).
That is exactly the point I am making. That is why there has been affection for the Mayors, even from people who do not share their political sympathies. It is felt that they have a legitimacy to do what they have done. I voted against having a mayor for London, because I thought that another tier of government was quite unnecessary; we already have far too many. However, because London had a referendum and the referendum was won, there is a legitimacy. The great city that I neighbour, the city of Bristol, elected a mayor, having decided to do so through a referendum. Therefore, the people of Bristol have invested in that office and given legitimacy to it. I cannot think of anything worse than having an elected mayor covering Somerset, and I would oppose it tooth and nail. The watchwords will be, “Somerset will fight, and Somerset will be right.”
May I suggest something that might be even worse to my hon. Friend? It is that the outcome of the amendment might be that there is no mayor, but a new combined authority with devolved powers being run by a politburo of leaders of other councils, the policies of which people will have no direct say in.
If Madam Deputy Speaker will indulge me, I compare that with the Council of Ministers in the context of the European Union. It has democratic legitimacy derived from its constituent parts, whereas a mayor imposed, without a referendum, lacks that fundamental legitimacy. It is more like the President of the European Commission. To have a system that has an imposed mayor is to move away from legitimacy.
Just to continue that thought, will my hon. Friend not join me in having some concern that the people who will be taking the decisions, spending the money and exercising the power will not have been elected for that purpose, but for some very different position on a very different authority that could be on a much smaller scale?
I do not accept that. I am not a big-is-good advocate. I think that small can well be beautiful. The individual leaders of councils are the doughty defenders of the interests of the population that has chosen them, and they are in their way like Members of Parliament in that they represent a specific area and a specific interest, and they can combine with others to see how decisions can be made. I see no lack of democracy in a group of people coming together, each one of whom has an individual mandate. Indeed that can be a better democratic mandate than having a highfalutin mayor.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech very much and following it closely. He may be interested to know—he may already be aware of this—that in Greater Manchester, which is really the point of origin of many of the things that we are discussing today, the combined authority has worked extraordinarily well, and that those elected council leaders have worked very well together. It seems odd to many of us that we should move from a structure that is working well, and to which nobody has any objections, to the imposition of a completely different structure without popular consent.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Imposing structures does not give them legitimacy. What gives them legitimacy is that they should be built from the ground upwards. Fundamentally, that is a Conservative view of how Governments are constructed. I am talking about the little battalions coming together to do big things jointly, rather than a hierarchical system that says, “We know what’s best for you.” That is the approach of those on the Opposition Benches. The socialist approach, as it is now, once again, a Socialist party, is about telling people what to do and giving them the figures who do it. The Conservative evolutionary approach is to allow people to come together, each one of whom individually has legitimacy to do things. I absolutely accept his point that combined authorities have worked by consent and that they do not necessarily need super-mayors or metro mayors put on top of them. If that is done without referendums, we will be back here in 20 years’ time—[Interruption.] I very much hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is still here in 20 years’ time so that we can discuss these important matters.
I do not think the Prime Minister had any intention of making me the Secretary of State for Health, but now that he has heard from the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he will not.
We will return to the legitimacy of these changes if there are no referendums. Although the Government might well push the provisions through and order these mayors to be appointed, if there is not that validation through referendums the component parts of the super-areas will chafe. They will say, “We are paying taxes to pay for the centre of a city to which we have no real link. We would rather be run from Whitehall than by these funny people in a town hall with whom we have no real link.” The referendum lock follows the grain of the developing referendum theory of government in this country and will ensure that the process is more successful in the long run. In opposing the amendment, the Government are probably being short-termist.
I promised the hon. Member for Glasgow Central that I would come on to the amendment about first past the post and why I have put my name to it. I am very grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove proposed it, and had he not done so I would have tabled my own amendment. I believe in first past the post as the fairest electoral system. I think that people get what they vote for rather than what they do not vote for. They get what they most like, not what they least dislike. The fundamental problem with proportional systems is that nobody gets what they want. Everybody gets something else, because the votes go off in all sorts of different directions.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. They got exactly what they wanted. They got a referendum that decided that they would remain part of the United Kingdom and then they voted for champions to come to this place and represent them constituency by constituency. That is how first past the post works. I wish that they had all voted Conservative; it is a great shame that they did not. The system worked effectively to represent what most people in Scotland wanted. Sadly, most people in Scotland did not want the Conservatives to have 56 MPs. How that aberration could have come about, I do not know, and I am sure that in time it will change.
It was indeed worse in 1997.
However, the majority in each constituency, or at least a plurality in each constituency, got exactly what they voted for and not one of the three Unionist parties in those constituencies was able to compete. That seems perfectly fair.
I was going to say that it was because of my efforts in Glenrothes in 1997, but I think that that would be untrue. I would be accused of misleading the House. I think it is to do with the fact that we have a fantastic leader of the Conservatives in Scotland and an inspired Secretary of State. The two combine to make Conservatism in Scotland the coming force. However, that strays from the main topic of why first past the post is a preferable system. It is important to have a victory for the most popular rather than the least unpopular. It encourages the most charismatic figures and people who have a strong party affiliation to stand. That is important.
I am not a great believer in having huge numbers of independents running our great cities. There is a danger that if we take people outside the party system they do not have a particular badge to stand under and it is not clear at the outset what they represent, other than independence. They have no fall-back as regards having someone senior in the political system to get in touch with to guide them.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I totally disagree with everything that he is saying. Does he not think that there is a risk that with first past the post in local government one can end up with a complete one-party state, as has happened in some Liberal Democrat councils, some Conservative councils and, indeed, some Labour councils? The net result is a sort of rotten borough with poor local government and no accountability.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Having one party in office forever can create its own difficulties, but I think that that is less likely to happen with a mayor than with a local council with individual councillors. A mayor stands both as a party figure and as an independent figure. That is undoubtedly the case with the mayoralty for London, and the Conservative and Labour figures who have fought successfully have done so by being semi-detached from their parties and building up their personal following. That would happen in other places, but it clarifies the issue and is more straightforward if we have first past the post and whoever is most popular wins.
To go back to the developing theory of referendums, I also think that first past the post is what the British people voted for. We had a great referendum under the coalition Government of which the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) was a very distinguished part, and in that referendum the electorate blew a very large raspberry at electoral reform. They said that they did not want the alternative vote system but wanted to stick to first past the post.
For a Government who have an opportunity to correct what was previously put in place and to go for what the electorate not only want but have voted for is fundamentally democratic and proper, and ties in with my original theory of referendums. It is the right of the people to decide who governs them as well as the structures of government and how they relate to them. The individual Members, mayors and councillors are then entitled to operate those levers between elections. How people vote, for whom they vote and the regions for which they vote ought to be determined by referendums. We have had one in support of first past the post, and we have had one supporting a mayor for London and a mayor for Bristol. It is a mistake to ignore the very first of those votes and an error not to give people the right to vote on their own structures in future.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I gently remind the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) that although I did not want to interrupt him when he was in such rhetorical form in his intervention, matters concerning the health service are in the next group of amendments. The House so much looks forward to hearing what he has to say then, but that will be after we have finished debating this group of amendments, having heard Sir Edward Leigh.
It is of course a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), with whom I normally agree. I quite understand his enthusiasm for referendums, which in one sense surprises me, because a traditionalist like him would normally have opposed the concept of referendums. He would have opposed them in the past because it was felt—this point has been made many times in the House of Commons—that they were a fundamentally unparliamentary device that has often been used by Governments who are dictatorships to impose extreme changes on society.
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, however, because in recent years referendums have been seen as a fundamentally conservative force. Generally, the people vote against change. I understand his arguments and I understand why the Government are wary of accepting any amendment promoting a referendum, because they have looked at what has happened in the past, particularly in the north-east, where people voted against change. The Government are determined to drive change forward and fear that if there is a proposal for a referendum, people will usually vote no. This is a very interesting argument.
I want to dwell on amendment 56, which was tabled by my hon. Friend—and indeed real friend—the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). Normally I agree with him about most things, but on this occasion his amendment concerns me, and I want to make a few points about the situation in Lincolnshire and give the Minister the opportunity to reply.
My hon. Friend represents north-east Lincolnshire, and I represent Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire is a very conservative county. It is so conservative that the Gainsborough constituency—which I am proud to represent—has had only three MPs in 90 years, and all three have been Conservative. People do not like change in Lincolnshire, and they are wary of any device such as that in amendment 56. The Government appear to have accepted the amendment, albeit with a sunset clause, and it is quite unusual for a Back Bencher to table an amendment that the Government then accept.
People in Lincolnshire—and, I suspect, other rural counties—want to proceed by consent, which seems an admirably conservative point of view. Normally, proceeding by consent means dealing with the tried and tested, and taking things forward together. Many people are scarred—this has already been referred to—by the events of the 1970s, when ancient counties were swept away. There were different enthusiasms then. They may not have been in favour of elected mayors, referendums or unitary authorities, but everything was done on the basis of Heath-ite efficiency. We now know that that drive towards Heath-ite efficiency was fundamentally wrong and unpopular, and it imposed Whitehall centrist ideas on what local people wanted. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) is here. As a result of 1974, we created the ludicrous county of Humberside, destroying Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire—what madness. We know that is not the right approach.
Speaking as a Conservative—not just as a party politician, but as someone who tries to understand Conservative values—I appeal to the Minister to proceed with great caution and to take people with him on this matter. Now, elected mayors are all the rage, but a few years ago so were police and crime commissioners. We had a mixed history with that—low turnouts, lack of interest, and not necessarily democratic accountability.
Lincolnshire County Council is generally well run, popular, and has been in place for 130 years. The district councils have been in place for more than 40 years. It is not for me to speak for local councillors in Lincolnshire, but since they cannot speak in this place and have only me to say these things, I hope nobody minds if I say that we do not want a solution imposed on us. What worries me about the amendment—and the Government’s ready acceptance of it—is that, as the county council and district councils recognise, in terms of unitary authorities, elected mayors and devolution, we do not want a bruising battle over many years between district and county councils about which should be abolished.
We want to proceed by consent and to get together. We are happy with the idea of central Government devolving more powers to a county such as Lincolnshire, but we recognise that we are not Manchester, Birmingham or London. We are a large, quite poor county with a low rate base and a scattered population. There is no question that we could run the NHS or anything like that; we are not in the business of devo-max. We want to leave the present structure in place with district councils and county councils, and perhaps form a new body on which those will be represented. We would then accept new powers for that body. That is how we want to proceed by consent. Given many of our discussions so far, I am worried that in our rush for change and innovation, we may ride roughshod over what local people and councillors want. Being sensible people and knowing their area, they generally want to proceed slowly, cautiously, and by consent. With that, I feel that I have made my arguments and I will let others speak. I am sure they will be far more interesting than me.
I am in the unfortunate position of not only having to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), but disagreeing with them both. I always thought that if I disagreed with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I should sit down and think again. In this case, however, I disagree with his arguments, because I think that when electing an individual who will have significant powers, we should try to ensure that they are elected with a larger proportion of the vote than is required by first past the post.
I suspect that no one would want some kind of extremist to win a powerful mayoralty in a fluke election where there were 14 candidates and the winner ended up with 16% of the vote. I accept that that is unlikely, but it would be a horrible situation. I am sure that the people of France, having seen their election results over the weekend, are glad that they will have a run-off in their presidential election. If the Front National were to win the first round, people will get a chance to elect a non-extreme president. I disagree with my hon. Friend, because when electing an individual who will have power, I am not sure that first past the post is the right answer. We should have the system currently used for the London Mayor and police commissioners, where there is a run-off after the original vote to ensure that the person who wins commands 50% of the vote.
I also disagree with my hon. Friend that not having an elected mayor is the least worst thing. If we are to devolve significant amounts of money and power to a new body, that body must be accountable directly to the people. We need people standing and being elected on the basis of how they will use that power and money.
When people elect a leader of a district council that has a small £10 million budget and mainly does planning and refuse collection, I am not convinced that they will be thinking, “The party I am voting for will choose the leader of the council and will effectively have a veto over the new super body that covers at least two counties in my area.” That is not accountable to the people, and I think it is bad for democracy. We risk recreating the police authority model that we did not think worked, but on a much larger scale and with more powers. That would be a retrograde step for our constituents’ democratic accountability over key public services, and that is why I do not support the amendment.
On amendment 56, I am a supporter of devolution to English regions. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) made the right arguments, because areas such as Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire do not have a long-standing, coherent geography that makes people think, “That’s a natural body of government I identify with.” We must proceed carefully, and ensure that we produce Government bodies that people identify with and say, “Yes, I see a coherent natural fit. That is where I look to for decisions to be taken.”
The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that some parts of north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire might feel better suited to the Sheffield region than to Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. I am pretty certain that Amber Valley, which runs along the boundary between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and has the strapline “The Heart of Derbyshire” sees itself firmly in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire area, rather than somewhere else, but it is right for individual local districts to have the democratic right to say, “We represent our people, and we think that that region is the right place for us to be.” If people vote for that, that is what should happen, and there should not be a veto from a higher authority that covers a different area.
In exercising that right and making that decision, the Secretary of State should try to achieve consensus, consider the broader picture, and ensure that we do not achieve some strange, farcical democratic situation where, if the people of Bolsover choose to go with Sheffield, they suddenly have no say in holding their own police force to account because that is handled by the elected mayor for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. We must proceed with caution regarding what powers go to the mayors. If they are mainly economic powers and interests, and perhaps transport, perhaps elected mayors should not replace the police commissioners if we are to vary the geography, as that could be a dangerous step.
I know that people in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire are keen to replace their police and crime commissioners, but I am not sure how one person can hold to account two different police forces. That seems a little strange, because someone could be using one mandate to hold to account two forces with very different policies. We must think carefully about such functions. We ought to think properly about the geography, not just rely on some historical, centuries-old set of local government boundaries that may not make sense in the modern world. We should step back and think about what a good system of local government would look like if we added that extra tier. I am not sure that our constituents would thank us if we had four different tiers of local government.
My constituents in Heanor or Ripley elect 21 town councillors and 45 borough councillors. They elect two councillors to the county council, which has more than 60 councillors. I am not sure that they will fancy electing a new mayor and another tier of government, and paying for all that as well. I am not sure that many of them understand exactly what functions those three council tiers have, and what a fourth one on top would do. They would probably think that all four had some role in economic development and regeneration, largely because that features significantly in most of the election literature that we see.
If we are going to have this devolution we ought to step back and consider whether it is a sustainable, effective and efficient system of local government that our constituents can understand and support. Should we use this Bill as the driver for looking at changing that local government system, perhaps with unitary councils and a new elected mayor for a larger region? I put my name to amendment 56, which would make it easier, where there is consensus in an area, to create those new unitaries. It would not allow one small district to cross two counties to block the whole thing and reject the unitary authority. If there were consensus, that proposal should be allowed to proceed.
I am not sure about the drafting of the amendment, which would allow the Secretary of State to create unitaries if only one council wanted that. It would be perverse for the Secretary of State to have such a power if one of the nine districts in Derbyshire was in favour and the county council and the other eight district were against. Where the majority of districts and the county council are in favour, or if all the districts but not the county are in favour, the Secretary of State could use that power to create unitary authorities, which would be a more efficient, cost-effective and effective form of local government overall. I welcome the fact that the Government appear to have accepted amendment 56 with the change proposed in manuscript amendment (a). If the Lords accept the proposal, perhaps they should consider whether the consent of only one authority is the right model. Perhaps the power would be fairer if it were half the authorities, or two thirds. Apart from that, I commend amendment 56 to the House.
I am concerned about amendment 56 and the Government’s acceptance of it, albeit subject to the proposal in amendment (a).
The reasons for my concern go back some time. Twenty years ago, before I was privileged to be a Member of Parliament, I served on the Local Government Commission, which looked at structures of local government in England, including at whether councils should switch from a two-tier structure to a unitary one. The method we adopted in those days was to invite local people and councils to submit evidence, and to hold public inquiries and hearings on the evidence. It was very much a bottom-up process. That was decided by consensus in the commission. In due course, it made recommendations to the Government, which were adopted by Parliament if changes were involved.
In Dorset, which I have the privilege of representing in Parliament, there was a lively debate about whether Poole and Bournemouth should become unitary authorities, with Dorset County Council remaining a county council and a two-tier system operating in the rest of the county. In the end, it was agreed that Poole would become a separate unitary authority, as would Bournemouth, but the remainder of the county council area would be two-tier, with Dorset County Council dealing with the main services such as education and social services, and the borough or district councils dealing with the services closest to the people.
Nothing that has happened in the 20 years since leads me to believe that people in Christchurch, East Dorset or Dorset are anything other than content with the current arrangements. When there was all this talk about the possibility of change being forced through by the Government, I was assured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that nothing would happen to change things in Dorset unless it had the wholehearted consent of the councils concerned. On that basis, a half-baked proposal introduced by Poole, with support from Bournemouth, to try to set up a new unitary authority incorporating Christchurch and East Dorset, could not work. Dorset County Council understandably said that it would mean that part of its area, which enables it to provide good services and make economies of scale, would be taken away and no longer be included in Dorset county. The line, which the Secretary of State articulated to me very persuasively, was that there was no need to worry, because nothing would be imposed from the centre. It was something that would only come from the bottom up.
That is where we were until today and the inclusion of amendment 56 on the amendment paper. I assumed that the amendment did not have Government support, and I had not applied my mind to the question of opposing it. I assumed, on the basis of what I had been told, that it would be opposed by the Government. Much to my amazement, I found that a manuscript amendment had been tabled, suggesting that the Government were going to accept amendment 56, albeit on the basis that it would only be in operation until 31 March 2019, which coincides with the end of the current period for district councils. The terms of office for all the district councils that were elected last May expire at the end of March 2019.
That is the effect of the Government amendment, and they have not provided any detail about the criteria that they will use to exercise their significant power to intervene against the wishes of one or more local councils in, to take my county example, Dorset.
May I take the opportunity, as presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), to confirm that it is indeed the Government’s intention to build that consensus? We are not going to impose change on areas that do not want it. However, we have been persuaded, that, as proposed in amendment (a), areas should not at the same time be prevented from being part of devolution deals. We are seeking to build consensus, not impose change on areas, but we should have the flexibility to ensure that we can deliver the deals that local people want.
I am grateful for that, so far as it goes, but will the Minister explain how he will deal with the situation in, for example, Dorset? The county council wishes to retain control over the area that it currently governs. If one or more district councils in that county council area wish to enter into a unitary arrangement with, for example, Poole and Bournemouth, who will prevail? Is it going to be the will of the county council or is it going to be the will of, for example, Christchurch Borough Council? In my constituency, a number of councillors serve on the borough council and on the county council. To which group will the Government pay heed, or will they say, “Because there is no agreement, there can’t be any progress”, which I understood was the Government’s policy?
Of course we want to find consensus. Tempted as I am to go down the route of discussing individual proposals in too much detail, there is no intention to set out here or at any other time some sort of rule that would allow districts always to determine what happens, or counties always to determine what happens. We want to talk with local areas, take representations from those local authorities and local people, from local enterprise partnerships and, of course, from hon. Members representing those areas to build a consensus as to how best we should go forward with this process. The Secretary of State will apply a statutory test, which I will talk about later, but I hope I can at least give my hon. Friend that reassurance.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, so far as it goes, but basically he is saying that the Government will now decide. A few months ago the process was to be bottom-up, driven by the local councils: if they wanted change, they would be able to introduce change. Now we are told that nobody will be able to dictate, neither a borough council nor the county council, but ultimately the Government will decide. This is a significant change of Government policy, announced in the form of a manuscript amendment to amendment 56.
This is an interesting triangular discussion and it is terribly important. What I think my hon. Friend is looking for, and what I am looking for—again, the Minister can intervene on my hon. Friend—is an assurance that if either Dorset County Council or one of the district councils does not want change, that would effectively be a veto, and the same would apply to Lincolnshire and other rural areas. In other words, change would proceed only by consensus. The Minister says he wants to proceed by consensus, as I understand it, and that is extremely important. Again, he can intervene on my hon. Friend.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his suggestion that we might be able to find a modus operandi between the two of us, who are very concerned about this, and the Minister, who I know is doing his best to give us assurances which will enable us to support amendment 56, as amended by the Government, rather than dividing the House on it. I am happy to give way once more to the Minister if he is able to give the sort of undertaking that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough was suggesting he might like to give.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I will talk more about this issue when I speak to the new clause and amendment later. It is important to be clear that this is not about allowing areas to veto. We want to allow flexibility to build that consensus. The Government’s intention is to work with local areas to deliver economically sensible areas of devolution, with structures that sit beneath them that allow those things to be delivered and that potential to be realised. So it is not about giving one area or another a veto or taking a particular mandated approach; it is about having the flexibility to deliver what different areas need. That is what the amendment allows, which is why we are looking at it so closely and are keen to see it discussed further and delivered as part of the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I am afraid that what he said goes against the position that we have already established, which was explained to me by the Secretary of State—namely, that the Government were not pushing any of this agenda, but that this agenda could be promoted by individual councils if they wished and if they had the agreement of their neighbouring councils. Now we are told that it no longer depends on their having the agreement of their neighbouring councils, but that the Government will intervene if they think the consent of a neighbouring council is, for example, being unreasonably withheld. That has not been spelled out yet in the legislation, but it is implicit in what the Minister says—a completely different proposition from what we had before.
This is a sensational change in the Bill, because up until now we had been told that the Government were neutral and that they were enabling councils to do what they want. If this measure goes through as the Government obviously want it to do, one of the consequences is that between now and 2019, in counties such as Dorset, instead of getting on and running local services for local people, the councillors and their officers will be preoccupied with arguing the toss about new structures—structures which, as I have already said, were established 20 years ago and have not been criticised at all. Small councils such as Christchurch Borough Council—the ancient borough—are threatened with losing their independence. Likewise, East Dorset District Council is threatened with losing its independence, ultimately at the whim of the Government.
This is all done, supposedly, in the name of devolution, but a district council is a highly devolved body because it is close to the local people. It decides those all-important planning applications in accordance with the wishes of the local people. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) in his place. He will know that one of the reasons that Bournemouth has great tower blocks on its clifftop is that for many years it has had a different planning policy from that of Christchurch, which has an equally delightful clifftop but has not wrecked it by allowing enormous tower blocks on it. That is why Highcliffe is still an attractive place in which to take a holiday, like Friars cliff and other places in Christchurch, which are gems on the south coast.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically robust speech. I am slightly concerned that he does not seem to be taking account of the fact that there is a very good photograph of the four leaders of the four local authorities that he refers to, shaking hands about wanting to explore coming together in a new formation. Surely localism is exactly what the Government are doing—providing them with the opportunity to do that. True localism would be for us to let them get on with it.
It is interesting that the opposition leader on Poole unitary authority said he thought it was important that this issue should be dealt with by the people of Poole and that there should be a local referendum. That was pooh-poohed by the leaders of Poole and Bournemouth. My hon. Friend refers to leaders, but we must ensure that the leaders accurately reflect the wishes of local people. At present they have no plans properly to consult the people of Christchurch, East Dorset, Bournemouth or Poole. They are just rushing into some discussions. If those discussions are given the extra momentum that the Minister wants to give them by accepting amendment 56, they will create enormous anxiety among the people in my area.
Christchurch and East Dorset have recently had a local plan inquiry. They now have a new local plan, under which they are able to preserve most of the green belt in their area. My constituents are very jealous of the green belt. Why is it that Poole and Bournemouth want to get their hands on the land in East Dorset and in Christchurch? It is so that they can impose their planning policies on the green belt and expand outwards into our area. That is the perception of my constituents and that is why they are so concerned about it. Up until today, I have been able to say, “Don’t worry. That is never going to make any progress,” because I know for a fact that Dorset county council regards as anathema the idea that it should have two boroughs within its two-tier system taken away from it, because that would make Dorset county council less viable. I had assumed up until now that that would give Dorset county council a veto and therefore that none of these half-baked ideas would make any progress.
The situation is very difficult, and it is pretty clear that the Government are making decisions on the hoof. It is almost a fag packet job. I live in and represent an area that is involved in two of these structures. One of them is dominated by Sheffield and the four adjoining council areas of Barnsley, Rotherham and so on. That is now attracting the attention of at least three, maybe four, councils in north Derbyshire—Bolsover, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire and possibly Derbyshire Dales. On top of that, there is the D2N2 power structure which covers Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It is time that the Minister got to his feet and explained precisely what will happen if Sheffield demands the powers that currently reside with Derbyshire County Council around transport and takes them away from the county. We have got two power structures both vying for the same thing. Although Dorset is complicated, this is even worse.
I instinctively think that the hon. Gentleman is right. I say that not only because I have on my wall at home a picture of his constituency that was presented to me by his council when I was a junior local government Minister—a picture that I chose—but because I think that his experience means that he understands the complexity of these issues and their potential impact on ordinary people.
The Government can sometimes give the impression that they get rather intolerant of those us who want to raise issues such as this.
I have tried to follow this closely but I may not have understood amendment 56, which I am trying to square with the assurances from the Minister. If his assurances are right, why would the Government support amendment 56, which will allow the imposition of this if only one affected local authority says so?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and perhaps the Minister will reply to it. If we are talking about genuine consensus—in other words, agreement between local authorities—then we do not need amendment 56, which is designed to enable the Government to intervene when some local authorities do not do as the Government think they should be doing. That is essentially what this is about. We might as well face up to the reality that this is a very centralising part of the Bill because it brings power back to the Government to enable them to change the structures of local government boundaries in areas such as Dorset.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), if amendment 56 is accepted, could it not, despite the promises from the Minister, be used as a lever against a recalcitrant council to say, “You’d better fall into line or amendment 56 will be brought into play”?
My right hon. Friend knows all about levers, having been a deputy Chief Whip. That is exactly how I envisage this power being used. I am sure that that is why there was an attempt to smuggle it through at the last minute. Now we are, I hope, exposing it for what it is, which is a power grabbed by the Government to try to ensure that they can have the final word and beat their stick against a council that is not doing as they wish it to do.
Absolutely. I am very supportive of that amendment, but I have not yet had a chance to talk about it because I am so concerned about amendment 56 and amendment (a). I am not going to restate the case about the referendum, but I think it is a necessary safeguard.
If we look at the history books we see the unintended consequences that can flow from local government reorganisation. It was only because Wandsworth council started a campaign to abolish the Inner London Education Authority that education was given back to the inner-London boroughs, which were then able to gain economic growth as a result of having good-quality education within their boundaries. The same thing happened with the Greater London Council. The Greater London Council was interfering in the lives of the boroughs in inner London and outer London, so those in charge of the boroughs at the time persuaded the Conservative Government to abolish it. As a result, parks such as Battersea park are run by the local authority—Wandsworth council—rather than by a remote authority for Greater London.
If we are not going to put proposals like this to the electorate, we must have the necessary safeguards. None of this stuff was in our manifesto. There was no suggestion that a Conservative Government were going to restructure local authorities so as to try to squeeze out small councils that are closest to the people. If we are not going to test this in a general election and amendment 56 is going to be on the statute book until the end of March 2019, it is all the more important that we should be able to have the safeguard of a referendum—the very safeguard that the Poole People party and the Liberal Democrats have sought, in vain, from the leaders of Poole, Bournemouth, East Dorset and Christchurch Borough Councils.
We are on the threshold of a big spat at local government level between different councils at different tiers and different councillors with different personalities and political parties. This threatens completely to preoccupy local government for the next three or four years. We will look back and say that this all started with the Government wanting to interfere in areas where they should not be interfering at all. They should be trusting local councillors and local people to decide what is best for them. They should not be taking away from Dorset County Council or East Dorset District Council, for example, the power to veto any proposals to change the boundaries in which they operate.
I very much hope that the House will not accept amendment 56 as proposed to be amended by the Government but will push them back to their previous position, which was that this is genuinely for local councils and local people to decide, and the Government are not going to interfere.
And at length, it has to be said.
I want to tell the House about something that happened in the East Riding of Yorkshire. For many years, people who think about these things have looked at the boundary of the city of Hull and thought it is too constrained and has too little of the hinterland within it. A lot of people thought that it would make sense for it to be expanded, but East Riding of Yorkshire Council is a very successful council and the residents are relatively happy with it. The city of Hull announced that it would set up a commission to look at the boundaries—in effect, at the possibility of Hull expanding outwards. It did so with little or no involvement from East Riding of Yorkshire Council. The response of the council was to call a referendum for the surrounding communities of Hull to see what they thought. This was a one-off referendum: nothing else was going on at the same time. One might think that the arcane issue of boundaries could occasionally capture the public imagination, but generally people would just accept a sensible top-down solution given to them by leaders and Governments and so on.
We need to be careful. I do not have the figures to hand, but, off the top of my head, there was a 75% turnout and a Ceau?escu-esque election result—96% said that they did not want the expansion to go ahead. I mention that in the context of amendment 56 and the argument that, because not all councils are quite in line, perhaps all they need is a little push to get a sensible result. We should be remarkably sensitive to how strongly the population can feel about such things.
Expanding Hull is not an utterly absurd idea—it is not necessarily evil. People sat quietly, the letters of the local papers were not full of it and nobody talked about it in my street surgeries, yet when they were asked 96% of three quarters of the population said, “No, no, no”, to the three questions. I add that to the debate to illustrate just how sensitive we ought to be and how easily this could spiral out of control and cause political difficulty and real dissatisfaction.
It leaves me in a position of having profound doubts about amendment 56. I really appreciated the Minister’s interventions setting out what the Government want to do. The police reorganisation under the previous Labour Government was top down and people did not like it. It is not that we are neutral—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was wrong to say that the Government have always said they would be neutral. The Government have a position and a vision, but I think it is much smarter to offer reassurances and tell people that, whatever we think, we are not going to push it on them, because we have seen that that does not work. People have to consent to it. There will be difficult council leaders who we will think are being a pain because of their own individual interests, but we should bind our hands and restrain ourselves from just pushing them aside. We need to listen and say to everybody, “Unless you can bang heads together yourselves and get a consensus, we’re not going to come piling in, because we’ve seen where that ends up.”
It might be a Labour Government’s instinct to think that they know better than the people, but it should be a Conservative Government’s instinct to recognise that they do not know better and that even if, in their opinion, the people are wrong—and history might show that they were wrong—it is the people who get to decide, and if they feel strongly about something that should be respected.
This group includes a number of new clauses and amendments, so I want to focus primarily on those in my name and those of my hon. Friends, although I will also touch on some of the others as I go along. I do not want to detain the House for too long and there is quite a lot of ground to cover, so I shall try to romp through it at a reasonable pace.
New clause 10 proposes votes at 16. The Government seem to be a little confused on this issue: the Secretary of State has said that there is a debate to be had; the Minister for the northern powerhouse says there is not; and the Prime Minister is against it altogether. Yet we know that the Government are considering it for the European Union referendum and that they supported it for the Scottish referendum.
There are more than 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK. They can get a job or an apprenticeship, get married, pay taxes and join the armed forces, but apparently they are not responsible enough to be able to vote for their local councillor to take decisions about the local services in the area where they may well have bought a home and live with their family. The Bill is the ideal place to bring about change. Incremental change is how the British constitution develops, and allowing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in local elections seems to me to be a good place to start.
The Electoral Reform Society argues that lowering the voting age will improve registration rates. Nearly 90% of eligible 16 and 17-year-olds registered for the Scottish independence referendum, and a high proportion of them took part in it. Research in other countries suggests that the turnout rate for 16 and 17-year-olds is higher than that for 18 to 34-year-olds. Establishing the habit of getting involved and voting in elections at an early age makes a lot of sense if we want people to continue voting throughout the rest of their adult lives. The Scottish referendum set the precedent. It is unreasonable to extend the vote in one part of the Union and not in another. Local elections suffer from low turnout, so that is a good place to start, but if the Minister thinks that this is not the time to introduce the change, perhaps he can answer the question: if not now, when?
On new clause 11, the Government have been very unclear about plans to devolve fire and rescue to mayors or police and crime commissioners, but we know that the Home Office is pushing for it and it is included in the Greater Manchester devolution deal. Our new clause calls on the Secretary of State to publish a review of how the Bill affects fire and rescue services. As we have seen over the weekend, and as we heard in the flooding statement earlier, the fire and rescue service is doing an incredible job, despite extremely severe cuts that have limited its capacity and reduced the number of jobs by almost a third. The cross-party Local Government Association believes there is “no pressing need” for police and fire services to merge. Any changes of the kind being considered will heighten public concerns about safety. The new clause would simply add a level of scrutiny and oversight to the provisions, so I hope that the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Minister will welcome and support the proposal.
Since 2010, local government has faced cuts of 40%, and last month’s spending review imposed a further 56% reduction in central support to councils. We know there will be changes to business rates once they are localised, and we were promised details in the autumn statement about how an equalisation mechanism would work, but no such details were given. Councils have simply been left to plan their future budgets in the dark, despite cuts on a scale that they have never been asked to deal with before. The LGA has warned that local authorities are struggling, and that is even before the spending review hits them. Lord Porter, the Conservative chair of the LGA, says:
“We know we’ve got probably 12 or 14 councils that are very close to the edge now.”
They need to know what is going to happen to them in future if they are going to be able to avoid falling off the edge of that particular financial cliff.
The funding settlement is deeply unfair. The 10 most deprived communities have suffered cuts that are 18 times higher than those made to the least deprived communities. Councils with the highest rates of children in care have suffered cuts that are three times higher than those made to councils with the lowest number of children in care. Although Labour councils are disproportionately hit by the cuts, they are also the ones that are protecting front-line services. Tory councils have shut half their youth services since 2010.
The unfair funding settlements are made worse by England’s local government finance arrangements, which are among the most centralised anywhere in the industrialised world. Councils lack the freedom to innovate so that they can spend on local priorities. Even London, which currently is more devolved than anywhere else in the country, is reliant on central Government funding for three quarters of its revenue. That is far higher than 30% in New York and just 25% in Berlin. London is the world’s greatest city, and yet this Government insist on keeping it on far too tight a financial leash. The Communities and Local Government Committee concluded that local authorities in England
“have limited control over local taxation and, as a consequence, rely…disproportionately on central Government funding.”
Our new clause 13 does not prescribe a particular settlement, but calls on the Secretary of State to publish plans for a package of fiscal and financial devolution that addresses three areas. First, on business rate retention, councils need an equalisation mechanism to ensure that those communities with the least capacity for economic growth are not left to sink. Labour supports the localisation of business rates, but it has to be done in a way that incentivises areas to grow, without penalising areas that have less capacity to do so at the time or in the future.
Ministers promised at the Dispatch Box that details of the equalisation mechanism would be made available during the autumn statement, but that did not happen. It still has not happened and we have not been given a date by when it will happen. We simply cannot allow rich communities to get even richer while everywhere else struggles to provide basic services. The new clause calls on the Secretary of State to introduce an equalisation mechanism to ensure that the least well-off are not hammered by the change.
The hon. Gentleman, as an expert in this area, will be aware that people in rural areas are on average poorer than people in urban areas. He will also be aware that his Government—the Government of his predecessors—left a system in which there was 50% more support per resident in urban areas, which are wealthier than rural areas, than in rural areas, and that it is more expensive to deliver services in rural areas. It is no surprise that we are not seeing the same reductions in services in rural areas as in cities, because such services do not exist in the first place. His party left it that way. Are Labour Members now committed to a fairer system?
The hon. Gentleman seems to support my case for a fair equalisation mechanism, which I am pleased to hear.
Secondly, on greater local control over tax rates and discounts, England has one of the most centralised funding arrangements anywhere in the world. Whitehall takes the key decisions on council tax, which means that it is barely local at all. The previous Secretary of State capped rises, while the Chancellor is now encouraging councils to push up council tax to make up for his cuts. Labour wants the Government to publish plans to introduce greater local freedom over tax rates, banding, valuation and discounts.
Thirdly, on multi-year finance settlements, every successful organisation needs to be able to plan for the future, and local authorities cannot plan complex services without knowing what level of funding is available to pay for them. As powers are devolved from Westminster, local authorities need to know that they have the resources to exercise those powers properly. Local enterprise partnerships could operate more effectively if they had longer-term funding streams. Indeed, the regional development agencies, which LEPs replaced, could make single, three-year funding agreements, while LEPs have access to a smaller budget, with too many small funding pots and with constraints on their use. We want to make sure that combined authorities do not suffer from the same problem. Our new clause 13 calls on the Secretary of State to publish plans to allow for multi-year funding agreements, which would give combined authorities the resources and time to ensure financial stability, and allow them to make better long-term decisions about local services.
On new clause 14, we welcomed in Committee the proposal that new sub-national transport bodies must consult adjoining authorities before taking decisions. On transport, the Government have recognised that the devolution of powers to combined authorities concerns neighbouring authorities that do not wish to, or cannot, join a combined authority. That is an important principle, but it extends to areas beyond transport, and the Minister’s response to our amendment in Committee was disappointing. The Minister said it was not “necessary or appropriate”, so perhaps he will reconsider and support this new clause. For example, local authorities on the periphery of the Greater Manchester combined authority have concerns about health service decisions that will affect them, but which they are unable to influence. We want to give them the right simply to be consulted. If the Government are prepared to concede that such authorities should be consulted on transport, then why not on health or other key services?
Whatever the Government say, they are imposing mayors by making them a non-negotiable condition of devolution for metropolitan areas. We believe that the spirit of devolution demands that local areas should choose their own model of governance instead of having it imposed from the centre. If areas want a mayor, that is fine, but it should also be fine if they do not want a mayor. Government amendment 7 and related amendments are disappointing. They will allow the Secretary of State to impose a mayor on a combined authority even if one or more constituent councils do not want one. It is no surprise that the Local Government Chronicle wrote about amendment 7 under the headline, “Boost to government powers to impose elected mayors”. The Government are acting in opposition to their own claims to support local decision making in that respect.
If the powers are agreed to this evening, they must be used with extreme caution. Where a potential combined authority is divided on the details of a deal, which it may well be, local co-operation must be the preferred way forward. I would welcome a statement by the Minister or the Secretary of State to that effect. Our amendment 58 would reintroduce the change made in the Lords, stipulating that devolution deals cannot be made dependent on having a mayor. That view has support from Members on both sides of the House, as we have heard again this evening.
On amendment 59, we discussed the general power of competence earlier. The Localism Act 2011 introduced the general power of competence, which was intended to give local authorities more power and freedom to innovate. That is a good idea, but LGA research shows that the power is
“limited by significant constraints set by central government”,
and that local government needs far more independence from interference by central Government. The constraints the LGA identifies are financial, structural and regulatory. Our amendment encourages the Secretary of State simply to review the power of general competence to learn how to make it more effective and to encourage greater take-up than the disappointing level so far.
Finally, on Government amendment 27 and associated amendments, amendment 27 would allow districts to join combined authorities without the consent of their county authority and vice versa. Our general approach to the Bill is that decisions should be in the hands of the local area and the local people affected. That has shaped our view on models of governance and on the amendment. Districts or counties should be free to join combined authorities if that is their preference.
We want the Secretary of State to confirm that he is aware of and understands the risks and will build in appropriate safeguards, especially in relation to manuscript amendment (a) to amendment 56, by which the Secretary of State will take the power to impose a decision. That seems a little draconian, and we need to hear that it would be used only in extreme circumstances. Authorities outside the arrangements need protection to ensure that they can remain viable after any change is made. We would welcome assurances from the Secretary of State that the powers will be used only in exceptional circumstances, and that seeking consensus will always be the priority. Will the Minister also confirm that where districts that are part of a county choose to participate in a neighbouring combined authority, their electors will still have a vote in elections for the county council, the authority in which the district lies?
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on those points. I give notice of our intention to test the will of the House on amendment 58, which would allow devolution deals to be agreed without the pre-condition of accepting an elected mayor, and on new clause 10, which seeks to lower the voting age for local elections to 16. In our view, these changes would greatly strengthen the Bill, and I hope that they will succeed.
The watchword throughout the debate in Committee and, indeed, today has been “consensus”, but I never thought that it would be consensus between the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). That goes further than I anticipated we could achieve.
I will give way when I touch on some of the points discussed earlier if the hon. Gentleman wants to comment at that stage.
As I have already spoken about new clause 1, I want to talk about new clause 5. It proposes that a commission be set up to consider devolving tax and fiscal powers to local level. I well know that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is an advocate of devolving power from central Government, so he will be familiar with the successive inquiries that have covered similar ground to what he proposes. I therefore do not think that a further inquiry into tax power devolution to local government would serve a particularly useful purpose at this time, although I recognise, as always, his consistency and eloquence in bringing such matters before the House. I hope that he will not press his new clause 5 when we reach the end of this group of amendments.
Given that there is now no need for an inquiry, since there is a precedent in Scotland—I congratulate Scotland on being able to retain an element of income tax—there is nothing in the water in England to stop us having income tax assignment as well. On the basis that there is now something stronger than an inquiry in the form of a precedent, approved by the Treasury and by this House in the Scotland Act 2012, I gladly agree not to press new clause 5.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I recognise what he says. There are complexities in devolving such matters to local government, but I am sure he will continue to argue, as such matters are discussed, that he wants those complexities dealt with in reality, rather than just in theory.
New clause 8, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), would provide a cooling-off or probationary period for the conferral of functions from a local authority to a combined authority. I know that my hon. Friend has raised that matter in discussions during previous stages of the Bill, and that it is of great interest to him.
I can see the attraction that the flexibility to reverse a conferral of powers might have for an individual local authority, but there are considerable downsides. The very fact that the combined authority might be responsible for those powers for only a year or so might be conducive to little action being taken under what would perhaps be perceived as a temporary conferred function. The combined authority would almost certainly be reluctant to base any investment or other major activity on a function that it could lose in a few years’ time. Moreover, partners, whether businesses or other public bodies, would almost certainly be reluctant to enter into arrangements that could so quickly be reversed. We consider, therefore, that it would be very doubtful that activity within that probationary or cooling-off period of any such conferral of powers would give a realistic picture of how a combined authority might operate in the future or of the full range of improvements that might be achieved.
We consider that a better alternative, if local authorities are not sure whether they wish to confer a specific power, would be for them to trial such joint working across the area of a combined authority through informal arrangements, such as a shadow combined authority or joint committee. Those models are available to local authorities and combined authorities without the need for secondary legislation to be made. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West not to press new clause 8 to a Division of the House.
New clause 10 seeks to reinsert the clause that was inserted in the other place to amend section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to lower the minimum voting age from 18 to 16 for the local government franchise in England and Wales. We debated that provision at length when we last met in Committee, after which we agreed to remove the clause by a significant majority of 95. The message was clear then and it remains clear now.
We have discussed quite widely the age of majority and the things that 16 and 17-year-olds are able to do or are prevented from doing by law. It has been suggested that because young people are politically engaged, and quite rightly so, they should be given the vote. That is a conclusion with which I do not agree. The debate has exposed the wider truth that there is a range of views, many of which are enshrined in legislation, that can best be described as encompassing the transition from childhood to adulthood. There is probably no clear point at which a person becomes an adult, but it is at 18, not 16, that society normally draws the line.
Any change to the entitlement to vote must be considered properly. We should not make piecemeal changes to the franchise. We cannot make changes and simply assume that there will be no implications for other areas where our laws and our society treat 16 and 17-year-olds differently. The voting age for UK parliamentary and local elections is set at 18. The age that is used in most democracies is 18. The Government have no plans to change it. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) reminded the House last time we debated this matter that we have no manifesto mandate to do so. Recognising that the shadow Minister says that he intends to test the will of the House on this issue, I encourage all hon. Members to support the Government and oppose the reinsertion of this clause.
New clause 11 requires that the Secretary of State must, within 15 months of the Bill being passed, publish a review of the fire and rescue services affected by the provisions of the Bill. The new clause is not necessary. Devolution is about enabling local areas to determine how best their services are delivered. It is therefore only right that fire and rescue authorities, in agreement with local partners, should decide how and when to review and assess how the provisions of the Bill may affect fire and rescue services. I remind hon. Members that the requirements of the fire and rescue national framework will continue to apply. With those explanations, I hope the Opposition will not press the new clause.
Turning to new clause 13, we are already taking major steps to devolve local taxes and have only just set out plans for a radical devolution of fiscal powers. By the end of the Parliament, the local government sector will retain 100% of local taxes to spend on local government services. For the first time in decades, local areas will see the full direct benefit of business rate growth in their local area. We will also grant new powers to directly elected mayors and to authorities. We will give all local authorities the power to reduce business tax rates to support businesses in their areas. As was confirmed in the spending review, we will set out detailed proposals in due course. In the light of that, I hope the House will agree that this new clause, which would require the Secretary of State to set out a framework for further devolution of fiscal powers, is unnecessary. I hope, therefore, that the shadow Minister will agree not to press it.
New clause 14, which was tabled by the Opposition, would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance to combined authorities on co-operation with peripheral authorities. I do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate. Before making orders establishing a combined authority and orders devolving new functions to such an authority, the Secretary of State must consider that to do so is likely to improve the exercise of statutory functions in the area or areas to which they relate. Additionally, Parliament must approve such orders.
The new clause seeks to provide a further requirement about how, once established, a combined authority should go about the exercise of functions devolved to it. As with local authorities, combined authorities must have regard to all relevant considerations in taking their decisions. Just as local authorities cannot be blind to the impact of their decisions beyond their boundaries, nor can combined authorities. Neither local authorities nor combined authorities can be ignorant of what happens beyond their borders. We do not have these provisions for local authorities and it is the position of the Government that we should not impose them on combined authorities. Therefore, the new clause is neither necessary nor appropriate. I hope that the House will agree.
Amendments 4, 5 and 6 were tabled in response to an amendment tabled in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West. The first of those amendments will ensure that the Secretary of State’s annual report on devolution to Parliament includes information on the extent to which powers that have been devolved to a mayor remain exercisable by a Minister of the Crown. Amendment 5 is a consequential amendment to amendment 4, while amendment 6 defines the phrases “combined authority” and “Minister of the Crown”. Although it is the Government’s intention that functions should be devolved as widely as possible, there may be circumstances in which they should be exercised either jointly or concurrently. With those explanations, I hope that hon. Members will accept amendments 4, 5 and 6.
If amendment 58 were accepted, it would mean that any transfer of functions to a combined authority must not be dependent on the combined authority having a mayor. In its intent, it is similar to the provisions of the old clause 3, which the Committee voted to remove from the Bill by a majority of 81. That provision imposed a specific requirement that a mayor could not be a precondition for transferring functions to a combined authority. As I told the Committee, that provision was at odds with our manifesto commitment, and amendment 58 is too.
In our manifesto, we committed to
“devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.”
We are not forcing this on anyone or on any place. Whether an area has a mayor is a matter of local choice. However, if an area wants to have a devolution deal of the scale and ambition of Greater Manchester’s, we do expect a mayor to be part of the deal. The effect of amendment 58 would be to stop our pursuing that manifesto policy. It would potentially put the whole future of devolution at risk of challenge. It is an amendment to which we are wholly opposed and that we hope will not be successful should the House choose to divide on it.
Amendment 2 provides that a combined authority mayor can be established only after a referendum. I listened with great interest to the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset was, as ever, persuasive and eloquent, but on this occasion, I am afraid to say, he was not quite persuasive enough. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations governing the conduct of such referendums and to consult the Electoral Commission before doing so. We had an interesting debate on the first day of Committee about this very matter. I recognise that I was repeatedly challenged by Members from both sides of the House about the degree of choice for local areas.
While I do not seek to reopen that debate, I must make it clear again that the Bill does not give the Government the power to impose devolution or a model of devolution in any area. The decision to approach the Government with a proposal for the devolution of powers and the decision on the degree of devolution required are entirely local ones. By the same token, we have always been clear that where areas make that approach to negotiate the significant transfer of powers, like the powers agreed with Greater Manchester, we would expect a mayor to form part of the mix, as that provides the levels of leadership and accountability that are necessary to ensure the effective delivery of such a deal.
To clarify for my hon. Friend, areas will not be forced to be part of a devolution deal. If a mayor is part of a devolution deal and a local council does not want to be part of it, the council will not be forced by anything that the Government intend to do or can do to be part of that combined authority or devolution area. It is a matter of building local consensus and giving local people the choice.
So if a council is part of a combined authority and it objects to there being a mayor, but the majority of members of the combined authority vote for a mayor, the council will leave the combined authority and will not be any part of any combined authority or of the mayoralty.
My hon. Friend is correct. Where an existing combined authority and a number of the local authorities within it want to make a deal but one or more do not, we want flexibility so they are not forced in any way to enter into a deal with which they do not agree, but are instead able to leave and not be part of that devolution deal.
Holding a referendum on the narrow question of whether there should be a mayor risks not fully recognising the choice that is to be made. It also fails to recognise the role of those who have been elected by people of their area to represent them, and to make the necessary decisions to safeguard their wellbeing and the prosperity of the area. Of course, those democratically elected locally will want to have regard to the views of communities and businesses in their area, and of the voluntary sector and those who live and work there, but we should have the confidence in those who are elected in those areas to grasp the opportunities that the Bill makes possible, to consider the degree of devolved power that is appropriate and deliverable in each of their areas, to enter into negotiations with Government and, in what is a fast-moving environment, to take the decisions that will best deliver the economic growth and development they have already been mandated to deliver.
Our democratic traditions do not demand the approach provided for by the amendment, although I recognise the ingenious way in which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset argued that we were perhaps transitioning to a place where they would. I do not think we are in that place yet. Indeed, the approach we have in the Bill, on the choice for a combined authority mayor to be made by councils, is exactly the same approach that is open to councils for choosing a local authority mayor. For those reasons, we cannot accept the amendment.
It is entirely a matter for the Isle of Wight whether it would like to be part of any devolution deal. That would not be imposed on any area. Which areas we would want to see a mayor in as part of a deal, would depend on the deal and what was being asked for in the discussions that took place. There is no single fixed model that we would look to apply, cookie cutter-like, to different communities, but I assure my hon. Friend that if the Isle of Wight did not want to be part of something and felt it would not serve its interests, there is nothing in the Bill that would allow us to compel it to do so.
Amendment 57, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, would enable a local authority to leave a mayoral combined authority, and, should that happen, provide for a fair division of resources. The existing combined authorities legislation, section 106 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, and the Bill already enable an order to be made to remove a local authority from a combined authority with consent from the area, agreement from the Secretary of State and approval from Parliament.
There would, of course, be a number of practical issues to deal with before making such an order: for example, setting up alternative operational arrangements, working out how to divide budgets and any contractual arrangements. However, the 2009 Act and the Bill provide for that. If an order is made to remove a local authority from a combined authority, it must specify an authority to become the local transport authority. The Bill provides further powers to enable such an order to transfer combined authority functions to another public authority or to be ceased.
We consider that the provisions provide all the powers and flexibility necessary to enable a local authority to leave a combined authority, where that is wanted locally; where the Secretary of State considers that to do so is likely to improve the exercise of statutory functions, and has regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities, and to secure effective and convenient local government; and where Parliament approves the making of such an order. With those assurances, I look to my hon. Friend not to press the amendment.
I now turn to amendments 7, 8, 13, 15, 18, 19, 20, 26 and 54. The Bill already enables one local authority to be removed from a combined authority if it does not wish to agree to the combined authority’s proposal to adopt a position of mayor. I look to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, who I know from his earlier comments has a particular interest in this matter. The amendments extend the provisions and would mean that, if one or more councils within a combined authority do not wish to adopt particular aspects of a devolution deal, but the combined authority and other councils within it do, then the area of the combined authority is changed to remove the council or councils that do not wish to participate.
I would like the Minister to reassure the House that the emphasis will be—I think the shadow Minister made the point in his contribution—on consensus and that we should only get to the point of imposing this if all else fails. Will the Government issue guidance to ensure that the emphasis is on local agreement?
The emphasis is absolutely on local agreement and consensus. There is no power to impose devolution structures on areas that do not want to be part of devolution. Indeed, the amendments will ensure that areas that do not want to be part of a deal are able to leave that combined authority should they wish to do so. The amendments give greater flexibility to existing combined authorities to implement devolution deals, and to build further on the flexibility of the enabling approach in the Bill.
On amendment 9 and amendments 11, 12, 14, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29 and 50, they are designed to simplify and harmonise the Bill’s provisions relating to the consents needed locally before powers can be conferred or exercised. We have tabled them in response to issues raised during earlier stages of consideration of the Bill in the House. They will standardise the provisions, so that the default position would require the constituent authorities and the combined authority to consent before secondary legislation is made. An exception is that for the dissolution of a combined authority, the consent of a majority of the constituent local authorities is required before such an order can be made. This simply retains the status quo.
I will now speak to amendments 27, 32, 33, 52 and 53, which further increase flexibility within the Bill’s provisions to enable combined authorities to be established and functions conferred. We are bringing them forward in response to our discussions in Committee, where some hon. Members outlined particular challenges in their areas. As is clear, the amendments do not in themselves change any combined authority in any place, but provide the flexibility to allow agreements to be made and delivered.
The Minister will know I have already referred to the fact that there are two different contending authorities or joint authorities in our area. One is Derbyshire and Nottingham, D2N2, and the other is Sheffield and Barnsley. There are several unitary district councils associated with that bid. Sheffield may want to take highways and transport from Derbyshire County Council. The unitary authorities of Bolsover, North East Derbyshire, Derbyshire Dales and Chesterfield are all involved with that county council in relation to social services and various other matters. We therefore need an assurance from the Minister—I know he has just been talking to the Secretary of State—that makes it clear that for Derbyshire County Council the circumstances, in electoral processes or in any other way, will not change. Is it yes or no?
I think the assurance I can give the hon. Gentleman is that what is done will proceed by consensus. We will look to talk to local areas about the different deals they want. The temptation in debates on Bills such as this is to look at the individual deals in individual areas. The Bill will enable us to have maximum flexibility to respond to local demand and local desire for devolution to deliver deals that will stand the test of time. I am unable to talk in detail in this particular forum, given the amendments and new clauses we are discussing, on what is proposed specifically in individual areas or the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but I would be very happy to meet him to discuss any particular issues he wants to raise. I can assure him that the intention is to find consensus and build on it to deliver the devolution agenda.
We need to ensure we get the safeguards and assurances on amendment 27, so that however well-meaning it is—I do not doubt what the Minister is trying to achieve—it will not have knock-on consequences for county councils in areas where we are trying to deliver devolution deals based on economic, rather than political, grounds.
My hon. Friend has discussed with me outside this Chamber some of the issues of interest to him in his area, for which he is an effective advocate. I can absolutely assure him that the intention is to find consensus and the right solutions for each area. We need flexibility in the Bill to deliver that. Where there are real concerns, far from being ignored they will very much be heard and acted on. I know some of the issues he raises in relation to his area. I am happy, as always, to meet him and his colleagues to discuss them as things progress, but there is no desire to do anything to areas—indeed, quite the opposite. This is about areas asking for things that we can then deliver. The Bill will give us the flexibility to deliver them.
I need to make progress as I am very conscious of the time.
I thank hon. Members for tabling amendment 59 relating to the Localism Act 2011. The amendment would not only impose a requirement to publish a report on the performance of the Act but require the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the general power of competence in relation to its use by combined authorities. The amendment is not necessary.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is making an articulate exposition of his position, for giving way. Were some districts in a county area to attach themselves to a great city, would he envisage the possibility of the county taking a different shape—in other words, Derbyshire or any other county in the same category ceasing to represent all the areas they currently do?
The intention is to deliver what local areas want, and therefore the Bill gives us the flexibility to ensure that the county would not need to be reshaped, but equally, where that was wanted, it would give us the flexibility to deliver it. That is the point of the Bill, as an enabling Bill. We want to proceed by consensus, because that is how devolution will last.
Amendment 1 would enable the Secretary of State to make provision in secondary legislation to require all local authorities in the area of a mayoral combined authority to undertake a community governance review within two years of the Act coming into force. Whatever the merits of “parishing” an area, I do not believe the amendment is necessary or appropriate. I recognise the desire for further devolution and for the devolution debate to continue, including on the role of more local decision making and parishes, but this is not the time or place to go down the route set out in the amendment. I hope, therefore, that hon. Members will agree not to press it.
We will be talking about that with the LGA and other interested parties, but we are still in the process of delivering those deals and it would be against the spirit of devolution were we to announce the format for such a forum. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s comments, however, and the value that such a forum could bring. I am happy to put that on the record. It is our intention to have those discussions and to develop something that has broad agreement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who cannot be with us today because of the terrible flooding that has afflicted his constituency, has tabled amendment 56, which would enable the Secretary of State to use a fast-track process for unitarisation or boundary changes in a particular area. I suspect I am going to take a few interventions on this amendment, but I wish to highlight this point: it enables a fast-track process and streamlines the use of existing powers; it does not bring in powers that do not already exist. He tabled a similar amendment on the first day of the Committee of the whole House, with a view to ensuring that no one council could effectively veto such a change, however sensible and supported such a proposal might be.
My hon. Friend wished to see a way of preventing one council from denying change that might be in the best interests of the wider area. We have heard further arguments today about the proposition, particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills). When we debated this last time, I made clear our approach: if such a governance change were to be made, there needed to be a level of consensus across the area and that we are not in the business of imposing change on any one. That remains our starting point and our intention.
I know the Minister does not want to comment in detail, but, moving from the general to the particular, what would happen if Lincolnshire County Council, for example, wanted to use amendment 56 to fast-track the procedure, but one or more districts objected to a unitary authority? Do I take it that nothing in amendment 56 would make it easier for the district councils to be overridden by the county council?
The powers already exist for the Secretary of State to review and change local authority boundaries and create unitary authorities—to do many of those things that hon. Members have talked about with concern. This is a streamlining amendment that makes it more straightforward to deliver things where there is the desire; where it is important, as part of a deal; where there is consensus; and where the Secretary of State, having applied the statutory tests, is satisfied it is the right thing to do in the interests of that area. It is a welcome amendment, therefore, and I hope that hon. Members will support it.
I am struggling to square the amendment with what the Minister has just said. There is no talk about streamlining or tests. The amendment simply states that if one council is in favour, all the others can be pushed aside. That is what the amendment says. Our job is not just to listen to reassurances from Ministers, however brilliant, but to look at the words of the Bill, and the Bill appears to give great power to the Secretary of State. If he has that power already, I do not see why we need it in an amendment; if he does not have it already, I am a little reluctant to give it to him.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it remains the case that a council or group of councils can now, regardless of the Bill, ask the Secretary of State to implement a proposal for structural change through the traditional processes of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, even where not all councils agree or where there are competing proposals for different councils. He has those powers, but only as part of a convoluted and lengthy process. This is not about forcing unwanted change on areas just because we have the power to do so; it is about enabling the flexibility to deliver the right devolution deals for areas and in a timely and flexible way. I know that hon. Members have raised concerns, but there are none the less statutory tests that have to be satisfied in doing that. This place would need to approve any change, but the fast-track process, with its significant safeguards, is a welcome one.
The new process would still require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a report on the fast-track process, including on matters he has taken into account when deciding to use it, and I reiterate that it could not be used without Parliament’s approval. Having carefully considered and weighed the arguments; having listened to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle and others; and having considered the need to ensure flexibility if we are to make devolution last, we have decided to support the amendment. We have tabled a manuscript amendment so that it is for a trial period and not something that would necessarily last in perpetuity; none the less we welcome the flexibility in the amendment.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Secretary of State would not, under any circumstances, force change on a local authority against its will, and is really only interested in encouraging local authorities to talk to each other? He said, at the beginning of his remarks, that the starting point remains that change will not be forced on any one but suggested that ultimately the Government wished to have the power to force it.
I remind my hon. Friend of my earlier comments: those powers already exist. The Government’s intention is to find consensus, to build on the local desire for devolution and to deliver lasting devolution to areas that will benefit from it. Those powers are already there. This is about ensuring we can deliver, in a timely way, the devolution that local areas want, but I can absolutely reconfirm the Government’s commitment to seeking and building on consensus. That is how devolution will stand the test of time.
Amendments 16, 30 and 55 ensure that criminal liabilities of a public authority can be transferred to either a local government or combined authority on the same basis as other liabilities when public authority functions are conferred. Amendments 17 and 31 amend clauses 7 and 16 respectively and allow references in a transfer order or regulations to be made to a formal document, such as guidance, which can be amended from time to time.
Amendment 36 is a technical amendment substituting the original word “jointly” with the new word “concurrently”. The change is necessary to ensure that certain transport functions being carried out by strategic transport bodies and local authorities can be undertaken concurrently rather than jointly. Amendment 3 would change how mayors for combined authorities should be elected. We have debated this matter at length. We believe that, where we are electing an individual to exercise significant executive power, the voting system for which we have made provision is the right one, and that therefore the amendment should be rejected. Finally, amendments 10, 37 to 43, 45 and 44 are necessary to bring the Bill into line with the arrangement in London. They provide clarity and consistency in respect of mayoral deputies with police and crime commissioner functions.
I hope that hon. Members will accept the Government amendments and reject Opposition amendments and that the House will continue broadly to support the delivery of devolution, on which there is so much consensus and support.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 9
Consultation on changes to healthcare provision
‘(1) Part 4 of the Local Authority (Public Health, Health and Wellbeing Boards and Health Scrutiny) Regulations 2013 is amended as follows—
“(1) In section 20 (Interpretation) insert after “for which there is a country council (a);”—
“(c) combined authorities and each constituent part of a combined authority””—(Mr Graham Brady.)
This amendment requires that constituent parts of combined authority are consulted on any major healthcare reorganisation in their area in addition to the combined authority being consulted. It also allows constituent parts of a combined authority to refer any such reorganisation to the Secretary of State for Health without such a referral having to be made by the combined authority to which they are part.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 12—Review of devolution of health services—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within 15 months of this Act being passed, publish a review of health services devolved under the provisions of this Act.
(2) The review must make an assessment of the extent to which the health services devolved under any of the provisions of this Act have maintained standards and, in particular, of the quality of services and outcomes achieved by those devolved health services over the first 12 months from this Act being passed.”
This Clause would require a review, after 12 months of the Bill being passed, of the impact of devolving health services in order to make sure that standards and the quality of services and outcomes have not declined.
Government amendment 34
Amendment 60, in clause 17, page 19, line 30, at end insert—
‘(2C) The Secretary of State may revoke health functions from the relevant local authority under subsection (2A) only following advice from an independent panel, whose membership must include representation from local government and the NHS and which is to be convened as and when necessary.”
This amendment would safeguard the devolution of health functions by ensuring that any revocation of these functions is done under the advice of an independent panel, whose membership includes representatives from local government and the NHS.
Government amendments 35 and 46 to 49.
It might help if I indicate now that at the appropriate time I shall seek the leave of the House not to press new clause 8 and amendment 57. Ministers should not take that as indicating that I am entirely satisfied with the responses I have received, but I may be able to find other ways of expressing that dissatisfaction.
The immediate reason for tabling new clause 9 and why I am so concerned about this aspect of the Bill is that we already have a live example in Greater Manchester. I shall not go into huge detail, but because of the difficulties relating to the Healthier Together proposals for the reorganisation of hospital services, the matter will be decided by judicial review this week.
The new clause was tabled in the hope that we can frame the legislation in such a way that proper protection can be given to local authorities and local communities to ensure that this sort of development is not necessary in future. Should, furthermore, the judicial review overturn the existing proposals, it is important to ensure that they cannot simply be imposed in a different way.
The crucial problem is that the existing combined authority arrangements have combined the overview and scrutiny functions of individual local authorities. With the potential downgrading of the University hospital of South Manchester, for example, the usual route of going through Trafford’s or Manchester’s overview and scrutiny committee and referring the matter to the Secretary of State, asking for it to be put to an independent reconfiguration panel, was not available because the overview and scrutiny function was exercised not at the individual local authority level but at the combined authority level.
The Minister for Community and Social Care looks confused, but I assure him that when I had discussions with the Secretary of State he advised me that this was the route to be taken. I then took it to Trafford council, which said that it did not have the overview and scrutiny function and that it was exercised at the combined level. That is the nub of the problem. Significant parts of a conurbation such as Greater Manchester, which may in due course become a mayoral authority, might have no recourse, should a significant reorganisation of health services be proposed that was evidently not in the interest of the local community.
It is a simple proposition that I make in new clause 9. The Minister and I have had some extremely constructive conversations prior to this point, and I hope that he will reassure me that some measure will be introduced—if not today, via a Government amendment in the House of Lords—given that changes to these aspects of the Bill might be made through Government amendment 34. There is, I understand, a peg on which to hang that provision. All I am looking for is the simple reassurance that the Government will ensure that there will always be a route for an individual local authority to make the kind of reference that would have saved enormous cost, uncertainty and trouble in Greater Manchester had it been in place as of today. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and any reassurance that he might give.
I would like to comment on this group, which includes my own amendment 60. It is relevant to what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) has talked about in moving his new clause 9. My anxiety is that the welcome devolution that is taking place—the precedent of devolving health powers to localities is particularly welcome—suggests something of “the Empire striking back”, with the Whitehall Leviathan seeking to place a caveat on the devolution of health powers. What is being set up is the ability of the Secretary of State to revoke health functions from the relevant local authority.
I fear that somebody in the Department of Health might not approve of a devolution proposal within a given area. Let us say that the cities of Nottingham or Manchester—or indeed anywhere represented by hon. Members in their places for this evening’s debate—wished to do something innovative and interesting on public health because it matched the demography in the area. What it might not match, however, is the view of people in the Department of Health. Such people might have a one-size-fits-all masterplan that they would like to impose on everybody.
My difficulty is that if we allow the Secretary of State to pull back to the centre any of these powers, there will be no safeguard in law to prevent that from happening. The Secretary of State could attempt to launch an effort at devolution, but we see again and again what can happen when the dead hand of Whitehall lies upon local government and the charitable and voluntary sectors. A year could be granted to get on with it, with a local authority either allowed to raise its own money or be given some money. If, however, the Department does not like it, it could be pulled up by the roots.
I should not be, but I am tempted to respond. If that is the hon. Gentleman’s concern, why should the Secretary of State sign the order agreeing the devolution in the first place if it does not fit in with his masterplan? If he is going to take back the powers in due course, why would he give them away in the first place?
The Secretary of State does have the power to pull back those experiments and those efforts at devolution. That is why I am bringing forward my proposal. If the Secretary of State is not concerned, he would have no worry about the ability of an independent panel to say, “Hang on—give these guys the amount of time they need to experiment” rather than have to deliver to a Whitehall timetable. That amounts to a contradiction in terms: devolution on the one hand, with the Secretary of State pulling things back into the centre on the other hand. My proposal—which I am sure the Minister can understand—is for the establishment of an independent panel, which would not consist of the Secretary of State and his advisers, but would include representatives of local government where the devolution was taking place and representatives of the national health service. That would enable the medical side to be looked at effectively, and separately from the Secretary of State. It would end the constant process that has driven devolution: the interference of Whitehall, often in the very short term, because someone somewhere in the Department of Health—some unknown person—does not like what is being done in the locality.
Is not the fundamental point that the Bill that we are about to pass may remain on the statute book for many years? The current Secretary of State may be fully committed to devolving these powers, but a future Secretary of State might wish to suck all of them back to Whitehall.
That is always a problem, but in that eventuality, if the amendment were passed, an independent panel would keep an eye on it to ensure that, if the Minister were not the one who is in the Chamber now but someone more malign than he, it would be possible for the independent panel to blow the whistle and say, “You have not given people in this particular area”—whether it was Enfield, Stoke or anywhere else in the country—“a chance to prove that this part of the devolution of the health service is working effectively. You have a particular view”—perhaps in connection with the need to react to a scandal or a financial problem—“and you are not acting on the basis of the good of the people in the area, but retrieving from them their ability to devolve effectively and use health powers effectively.”
The Minister looks puzzled. I am at a loss to understand why he would not want that safeguard if he were not the Minister involved. If he were a humble Back Bencher like the rest of us—which he was, not so long ago—he might be a little concerned about the fact that someone in the Government might not have people’s best interests at heart because he or she had a bigger, broader plan in mind. That is the opposite of devolution.
I am seeking to create an obstacle—it may be a flimsy barrier, but perhaps the mouse can squeak at the steamroller—to prevent this aspect of devolution from disappearing once again into the black hole of Whitehall, given the power of Whitehall and the massive centre of gravity that it constitutes in our tremendously over-centralised political system.