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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 5 July 2022

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Ninth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mr Peter Bone, Sir Mark Hendrick, Mrs Sheryll Murray, † Ian Paisley

† Andrew, Stuart (Minister for Housing)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† O’Brien, Neil (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 5 July 2022


[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Before we begin, I have some preliminary announcements. Please keep mobile devices on silent mode. No food or drink, except for water, is permitted during Committee sittings. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if hon. Members emailed their speaking notes to It is hot in here today, so hon. Members are welcome to remove their jackets, if they so wish.

Clauses 22 and 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24

Power to provide for election of Mayor

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.

We are moving to the business end of part 2. There are eerie echoes of the business end of the test match not so far over the road; we have two Yorkshiremen at the crease. I implore them to be perhaps less Illingworth and Boycott, as we have seen so far—immoveable objects—and perhaps more Bairstow and Root, with a bit more action and flexibility. I will offer them a few reverse sweeps, if they would not mind accepting one or two of them—although I think in this metaphor that makes me Virat Kohli, and I would not wish to wear that mantle.

This clause is important: it lays the basis for introducing an entire new tier of politicians in this country, in significant numbers, so it cannot pass without comment. I want to make a couple of points about clause 24 and schedule 2, and I hope that the Minister can address them when he responds to the debate. As discussed on Thursday, these provisions introduce combined county authorities on a mirrored basis with combined authorities. For many people in this country, the visible manifestation of combined authorities is the directly elected Mayors who lead some of them. On a mirroring basis, the clause provides the opportunity for a combined county authority to be led by a directly elected Mayor. In the months to come, I think there will be a great deal of interest in the individuals who stand for these offices and are elected, and in what they do.

There is much to be proud of in the record of those directly elected combined authority Mayors. In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has taken unprecedented action to end homelessness. Tracy Brabin is authoring a creative new deal to harness the power of creative industries in driving growth across West Yorkshire. Her evidence was important in informing our proceedings. Similarly, in our proceedings last week, we spoke in great detail about how essential transport is to levelling up. Perhaps that is why Steve Rotheram is leading efforts for bus franchising and leadership of essential local transport across the Liverpool city region. Dan Norris is leading admirable efforts in house retrofitting as part of the £50 million green recovery plan in the west of England. That is just the tip of the iceberg of exciting efforts that Mayors leading combined authorities are making in their communities.

Clearly, there are benefits that have been identified by those communities in selecting their model of leadership: direct accountability, ease of engagement with the private sector, and ease of engagement with central Government. Our position is that where it is what communities want, it can be an effective model. Where it is what local leaders and their communities have chosen, it can work very well for them. We support communities that want to have Mayors to be able to get them. We will discuss shortly how the reverse of that is true; where communities do not want them, we think they should have that option. We will discuss that when debating the following clause.

I want to press the Minister for clarity on schedule 2. It may well be my misunderstanding—I will be glad if it is—but I would like clarity particularly on paragraph 2(2) of schedule 2. Schedule 2 is inserted by clause 24(4), and sets the rules for the election of a Mayor. Paragraph 2(2) of schedule 2 governs the timings of elections. At the moment, it says:

“The first election for the return of a mayor is to take place on the first day of ordinary elections of councillors of a constituent council to take place after the end of the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which the regulations under section 24(1) come into force.”

As the process has been explained so far, the Bill will complete Committee stage at some point in the autumn. The remaining stages will be dealt with; it will then go to the Lords. There will then be a period of negotiation, as we understood from the Minister last week, between the Department and the 10 areas that have been called forward to pursue deals with the possibility of having a directly elected Mayor. We know that at least half of those areas have indicated an interest in that. There was a sense from the Minster that that would take a little bit of time. After that, regulations would be laid and debated in this place in the usual fashion, and then, according to paragraph 2(2) of schedule 2, six months after that there will be the next set of local elections. I am not sure if that is right; I wanted to probe that.

There are two reasons I am not sure about that. First, for some of the areas specified in the White Paper, at least one of the constituent councils—setting the districts aside—that signed up to the combined county authority will elect by thirds, whereas some, such as Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, will not because both local authorities only do all-outs. That would be distinct from, for example, Derby and Derbyshire, where Derbyshire does all-outs and Derby elects by thirds. There might be some eagerness, as we have seen, for that deal to be a collective one, but that is not necessarily the case. If there were two distinct and different deals between Derby and Derbyshire, and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, that would currently mean different election dates. The first date for the election of constituent councillors in Derby would fall a year before, in 2024, than it would in Nottinghamshire, which would be in 2025. That does not seem right to me.

Secondly, perhaps peeling back the curtain on local negotiations in my community, I understood that 2024 was the target date for the first mayoral elections. The Minister said last week that 2023 would be too soon. That would mean that areas that were not electing by thirds would be waiting until 2025. I cannot believe that is the desire of the Government. That would be a longer wait than they would wish. I am sorry to put some politics into that, but that also would create a skewing effect in turnout. If combined authority elections were held on a county council day, where the implication is that they are some sort of combination of a country area and a more urban area, we know it will have a skewing effect in those elections if one set of electors have multiple elections and the other does not.

I think that that is likely to prove problematic in negotiations for the Minister. If the constituent authorities signing up think that it is the case that they will be at an unnatural disadvantage, I do not think that is very desirable. In general, that might not be very desirable. One of two things is true in this case: either I have misunderstood this, which is definitely possible; or the Minister intends to alter it in regulations later so that, notwithstanding paragraph 2(2) of schedule 2, we could still set the date at 2024. I hope that the Minister will either correct me, or at least assure me that the intention is as communicated to those whom he is negotiating with, otherwise we will have to divide on the schedule.

In the spirit of unity and collegiality, which has marked the tone of the debate in Committee over the past few weeks, as a Lancastrian I wish the Yorkshiremen at the crease in Edgbaston all the very best. I still dare to believe, although there are two wickets and it could all go horribly wrong, could it not? However, let us focus on the matter at hand.

This is an important area for all of us. The Government have clearly set their heart on having a Mayor at the head of CCAs around the country and that being their chosen model for delivering devolution. I want to press the Minister to understand that that must not be something that is forced on communities. We must not be in a situation in which elected Mayors are deemed to be an essential, otherwise devolution deals would not be permitted.

I worry for lots of reasons, some of which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham North. Many Mayors of all political colours do a great job around the country, and it is a mode of local government leadership that can work—it sometimes does and sometimes does not. The people of Bristol have demonstrated to us that it might not work for everybody. There is still time to reflect and think, “That’s not the way we wish to go as a community.”

The fundamental thing that I would like the Minister to state, in response to the debate on this particular aspect of the Bill, is that the Government will not make an elected Mayor a mandatory, compulsory element of any kind of devolution deal in any part of the country. There are reasons why communities might reject or not wish to have—or not benefit specifically from having—a directly elected Mayor as their mode of local government leadership.

For example, many people feel, as I do, that the election of a single Mayor to lead a local government area can personalise and trivialise politics. It can undermine collegiality, in which people from different parties and communities reach common decisions. It makes consensual outcomes with all political and geographical views properly represented much less likely. It can also distance local government from the people it is meant to serve. It feels to me to be part of a movement that is making local government less local.

If a councillor representing 2,000 or 3,000 people has direct access to the cabinet or executive of a local authority, a local person is much more likely to see that councillor, who is more likely to be someone they bump into at a supermarket, in the pub, at church, in the street or what have you, and to be able to hold them to account. Such a councillor is much more likely to absorb that person’s views and perspectives than a Mayor who represents hundreds of thousands of people. A Mayor makes local government less local, and what is the point of local government if it is not local?

One of the problems with communities such as mine—we have just gone through unitary reorganisation in Cumbria, with the two new authorities of Cumberland and of Westmorland and Furness—is that, in both authorities, parties were elected to run them that were clearly opposed to the mayoral model. To use us as an example, it would be very peculiar and anti-democratic if the Government were to make any kind of devolution deal contingent on the people of those communities having to accept something that they had just rejected only a few weeks ago.

That is the fundamental thing. It is not that there should never be Mayors. As the Committee can tell, I have my views—on whether I think that on the whole directly elected Mayors are a good form of local government—but I can absolutely see the case for them in some communities, if those communities choose them. The fundamental point to make about the clause is that the Government must not seek to enforce something on—or, in effect, to bribe—a community, by saying, “Yes, you can have your devolution deal, but only if you accept this model of local government.” That is not devolution, and it would be unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in his response.

I concur with the hon. Member for Nottingham North that it is a pleasure to have an all-Yorkshire Front Bench on this third day of the test—sorry, I mean on line-by-line scrutiny. He will recall that some years ago, Yorkshire allowed people who were not born in Yorkshire to play for the team, and I should break to him the news that my colleague the Housing Minister was born in Wales—“Greater Yorkshire” would be the definition here. However, I agree with him on the pleasures of this wicket-by-wicket, single-by-single approach to going through the legislation. I have never been accused of being a flair player, but I hope I can answer his questions.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made a typically sensible set of observations. I will answer a number of them. For the first time, through the framework in the White Paper, there is an option to have a devolution deal without a Mayor, so that option clearly is there; it is possible. We are clear about that, and that may well the right thing, as either a transitional or permanent step, for a number of different places. However, the Government have made it clear that they will go further for places that do have a Mayor because then there is that accountable leadership.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points about the importance of collegiality. In the best functioning mayoral combined authorities, that still very much does happen. We have a clearly accountable front person in the form of the directly elected Mayor, who is a wonderful face for the area on the world and national stage and someone who can be held to account by voters. Where these things work well, there is still a great deal of cross-party collegiality going on below the surface, as it were.

The hon. Gentleman argued that the decision making was a less local model. I would challenge that a little, in so far as decision making for many of the existing combined authorities was already happening at that city-regional basis. Most of these places, after the abolition of the previous elected governments in 1986, had quangos running transport, for example, across the city region. It is just that nobody was directly elected and accountable for the decisions of those quangos.

To take a controversial example, in West Yorkshire there were two failed attempts, led by Metro, to create a tram for Leeds. However, it was not obvious to any normal voter who they should hold to account for those two previous attempts, because no one was elected. It was a quango—the kind that the hon. Member quite rightly complained about in previous sittings.

On the Opposition Front Bench, I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said on the important role that Mayors are playing around the country. On the specific point that he raised about election days, the first election of the Mayor will take place

“on the first day of ordinary elections”

for the constituent councils, which is the first Thursday in May. That is how it is written in schedule 2. Areas do not have to wait until the next scheduled election. It is that date—the first Thursday in May is the day of ordinary election. I hope that that answers the hon. Member’s question on the meaning. I do not blame him at all for asking the question; there is a particular meaning in law for that day.

I am grateful for that clarity. That will be enough for me not to labour the point. However, I hope the Minister might take that away and think about it, because the Bill refers to

“ordinary elections of councillors of a constituent council”.

I might have misunderstood, but that implies that it is not just ordinary elections, as in just “the first Thursday of May”, which might have been a better way to put it.

I am very happy to look at that. I think it is to do with the language of the legislation sounding a particular way, but I am very happy to take that point on board and think further about it.

Question put and agreed to. 

Clause 24 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill. 

Schedule 2 agreed to. 

Clause 25

Requirements in connection with regulations under section 24

I beg to move amendment 60, in clause 25, page 20, line 32, at end insert—

“(2A) But the Secretary of State must not make regulations under section 24(1) in relation to a CCA’s area if the constituent authorities of that area have requested that powers be conferred by the Secretary of State without the establishment of a mayor.”

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State providing for a CCA mayor without the consent of the constituent authorities of that CCA.

If the previous clause stand part debate was my love letter to Mayors, this is slightly the opposite. As I said, it is right that communities that wish to harness the value of an elected Mayor are able to do so. I have no doubt that many will choose that, and it is right that they are able to. However, it is not right that those that would choose not to do so are forced, compelled or coerced to have one when that is not their real wish. I fear that that is the effect of the White Paper.

The table on page 140 offers three tiers of powers to local leaders. I will reiterate what I said last week: the greater coherence that that table provides is welcome. What we have at the moment is a very messy, unclear set of devolution deals for which there is no real sense of commonality or of direction. At least here there is a greater sense of structure. It will be much easier for people to understand our devolved settlement following the use of those three tiers of powers and their deals.

As per the Local Government Association’s briefing,

“Level 1 areas will have access to three core powers: the ability to host Government functions best delivered at a strategic level including more than one authority, the opportunity to pool services at a strategic level, and the opportunity to adopt innovative local proposals to deliver action on climate change.”

That is a modest set of powers, and it is unlikely that communities will wish to stop there.

Level 2 areas get a little more, including

“control of appropriate local transport functions, ability to introduce bus franchising”,

which is, no doubt, one of the major prizes of devolution, and

“the ability to provide input into Local Skills Improvement Plans”,

which is also a major prize,

“and Homes England compulsory purchase powers.”

They therefore get more, and I think there is a lot in there that will attract local communities to request it from central Government.

It is in the level 3 areas that the real opportunities lie, because they

“will have access to the largest set of powers”—

the same as the level 1 and 2 deals, but also a significant range beyond that—

“including the ability to consolidate existing core local transport funding into a multi-year integrated settlement, devolution of locally-led brownfield funding, mayoral control of Police and Crime Commissioner…functions where boundaries align and the ability to introduce a mayoral precept”,

and possibly a supplement on business rates if there is local interest. For communities that are interested in devolution and greater local powers—which I think is the vast majority, if not all of them—level 3 is likely to be the most attractive.

The Minister said in his summing up of the previous stand part debate that the fact that an area could have levels 1 and 2 without a Mayor showed that it is possible to have devolution and a devolution deal without having to accept a Mayor. That is true, but the reality is that in order for communities to get the full powers—which will be assigned to many but not all—they have to accept a directly elected Mayor, and there is no good functional reason for that. It is important to recognise that that is a point not of functionality but of taste and choice by the Government.

My hon. Friend gets to the nub of the challenge. Although we as politicians can understand all this while sitting in this room, we need to construct a massive communication piece for our constituents across the country, so that they can understand the difference between the tiers of government and the powers that they can access. We are getting such a patchwork—I call it patchwork Britain—and our constituents are not able to grasp what is in, what is out, and where those powers and accountability lie. That could place us in a difficult situation, with a lot of work being duplicated as well. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need clarity not only on how this translates to people, but on the lines of accountability? I am thinking in particular of how people can give voice to what they want, because the proposals are even more confusing in that regard.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There is an inevitability about this ending up as a patchwork, not least because we have inherited a patchwork today. But there is strength in that, too. If local communities want to access the fullest powers, they should have that chance to do so, but if they do not, they should be able to make that choice as well. We will not always be able to move at the pace of the slowest, as the Minister mentioned frequently on Thursday. One of the best ways to work around that and to avoid the local confusions about accountability that my hon. Friend talks about is for it to be something that the local community really wants. There will be greater understanding if it is something it has asked for. There will be much less understanding when it is a process that has happened to them—police and crime commissioners are a good example of that—rather than with them. As a result, the thing exists in splendid isolation and engagement falls, which is not good.

The Minister made a really good point about the desire, which I think is universally shared, for local decision making. He used really good examples of things that would have previously been operated by quangos and unelected bodies, and said that they should be operated locally by people with a local connection, a local mandate and local accountability. I completely share his view. I do not understand, however, why that has to be part of a new tier. Why cannot it be part of the tier used to create a combined authority? That, by definition, is closer to people because it serves more localised electoral wards? Again, I would be interested to hear about that in the Minister’s summing up.

This is not necessarily for legislation, but it will aid us in our formulation. We need clarity on the end point. We are talking about tiers 1, 2 and 3, but is it envisaged that everyone will eventually have fully devolved powers regardless of whether they have a Mayor or not? How long would that journey take? It could be five or 10 years. Alternatively, if tiers 1, 2 and 3 were to apply to separate authorities, what would that mean for this place, because we would be legislating on behalf of just a few authorities, which does not seem right either? Understanding the end point will be absolutely crucial for how we progress the legislation.

I hope that the Minister will explain what the end point is, because it is an interesting question.

In Thursday’s debates, I got a sense that my affinity with the White Paper, certainly in relation to this issue, is closer than that of the Government, and that is because I want everybody to be able to access the fullest range of powers, but to also have the choice of stopping short of them if they wish. That will be a matter for local conversation, but I do not think that we heard during Thursday’s debates that that is quite what the Government want, because they still want to reserve for themselves the provision of negotiating directly and separately. That does not enhance the approach; it only creates greater confusion.

I want to probe the functional reason why a county combined authority has to stop at level 2, while the distinct and different level 3 powers mean that an area has to be led—it is unavoidable and axiomatic—by a directly elected Mayor. I do not understand that. The one explanation of substance, as the Minister mentioned last week, is that police and crime commissioners must be directly elected. I am willing to concede that and will address it shortly, but I am unsure about everything else that is in column 3, as distinct from columns 2 and 1. They include defining the key travel route network; prioritising rail relationships; multi-year transport settlements; the long-term investment fund, which is the real prize in all of this, and I will cover it shortly; designing employment programmes; establishing development corporations; devolution of brownfield funding; partnership with Homes England; public health responsibility where there is interest in it; a precept in council tax; and the supplementing of business rates.

I put it to the Minister and the Committee that those could all be delivered by a combined authority. There is nothing so specialised or individualised that the powers should be exercised by an individual rather than by geographical partners who have chosen to collaborate in the collective interest, with each having derived a mandate from the local ballot box. I will reflect shortly on the important points about acting in consensus and being collegial, as we heard in our evidence from Mayor Andy Street. The way in which he talked about that was admirable. Why does that require a super-person at the head of it to make it go, if it is not what communities want? My contention is that there is no functional reason for that; it is a matter of choice and taste for the Government. And I think that the matter of choice and taste for local communities is as important—frankly, more important—than central Government’s choice and taste.

We should not lose sight of the fact that local councils deliver, too. I was looking at the latest set of The Municipal Journal awards, because it is nomination season for this year. And there is Plymouth and its culture-led recovery; Lancashire delivering during the pandemic; Swansea delivering through its social housing programmes; and Bromley driving health and care integration. All around the country we see local authorities of all tiers delivering for their communities every day. We fail the public conversation and we certainly fail the political conversation if we laser in on individuals who are Mayors, who are doing brilliant work, as I have said, and create that as distinct from councils, because councils themselves are doing great work. It would be better to see council leaders more visibly represented, whether in the media or in the public debate more generally, because up and down the country those local authorities are delivering for communities every day. And they have done that in incredible circumstances. They have been starved of money for 12 years; the context is significant cuts set against increasing costs. But they have adapted and come through for their communities, and their reward seems to be a new tier of local government whether or not they really want it.

I also put this to the Minister. The major, compelling case in relation to tier 3 is the police and crime functions, because, for reasons of statute, that necessitates a Mayor—although there is something undesirable in bad legislation from previous years tying our hands in the future. But that should be a point of choice for communities. If the final tipping point between having only a combined county authority, with basically all the tier 3 powers, and having a mayoral combined county authority is whether or not to take on police and crime functions, I put it to the Minister that the majority, if not all, would stop short and would choose the combined county authority without a Mayor taking on police and crime functions.

Let us be frank about what is happening here: this is about finance. It is always about finance, but this is especially so. This is about line 11 of table 2.3 on page 140 of the White Paper. This is about a long-term investment fund with an agreed annual allocation. All our communities desperately need and deserve this. They have seen it taken away, year on year, for 12 years, and now they want it back. At the moment, they are having to dance for it, through this ridiculous stream of beauty parades to try to get just a little bit of it back. And as we have said in relation to previous clauses, even the winners in those contests are losers, really.

However, this is a chance for communities to try to get some of the money back, and get it on an agreed footing, over a number of years. For those who are making decisions locally, that is really the No. 1 thing—the ability to have a sense of what is coming, so that they can plan and use it most effectively. But there is an asterisk at the end: rather than it being given to them by right, even though clearly the money is there and the Government wish to give it, it is given only if they choose a model of leadership that suits central Government rather than necessarily local communities. That is apparently a negotiation, but it does not look like one to me.

My hon. Friend is coming to the nub of the matter. If we look at the issue of the police and crime commissioner or, as in the case of North Yorkshire, the police, fire and crime commissioner, we know that the funding of that post is separate in the way in which that works out in the funding formula, so there is no need to aggregate those particular issues if finance is the driving force behind it. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point about the piece of accountability, but Tracy Brabin told us in her evidence that taking a public health approach to policing is not necessarily a PCC function per se, but a wider function of local governance in all its tiers and variations.

I am grateful for that intervention. I thought that Mayor Tracy Brabin made a very compelling case. On the reverse of that, in the north-east, police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness makes a very compelling case as to why it is important to her that PCCs are involved in both health and education as a way of prevention. My only interest in this is in local communities being able to make that choice. If they decide that it is best assembled in one place, that is fine by me; that is no problem whatever. But I do not think that it should be, essentially, foisted on them as part of a negotiation that I think is anything but that.

I fear that the Government are stuck on two things. First, they wish to make engagement as simple as possible—for themselves, frankly. I know it must be incredibly hard to negotiate a deal for county combined authorities with multiple local authorities, different interests and all the history that comes with these things—goodness knows, in Nottinghamshire we have a lot of history—but these things are supposed to be hard sometimes. They are significant and they change communities, so sometimes they ought to be done the hard way and agreed by multiple parties representing all those different parts of the community and all that history. That is actually a good thing.

That leads me to what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said. I much prefer the idea of collegiate working and coming together for a shared interest. Where that cannot be the case, it cannot be the case, but those leaders of all political persuasions and of none will want to do the best for their communities. If we give them the powers to do so, they will do their best for their communities.

I also fear—we have probed this in previous amendments on equalities, and there are a couple of similar amendments to come—that the great man of history theory is being pushed forward again. The idea that the individual actions of individual men compel the collective forward is out-of-date bunkum. It is rarely individual genius that changes the world. It is the ordinary actions of ordinary people coming together that creates the extraordinary, and multiple leaders acting together can also deliver just as well. It comes back to the central point that it is not for us to say, because those local communities can make the decisions. If this really is about devolution, we should let those communities decide.

The amendment would correct this overreach. The point is simple: if these powers are important enough to help shape places and improve communities, and local areas can organise themselves to form a combined county authority, they should have access to those powers and the resources to exercise them, whether or not they take the structure the Government wants. That would be the effect of the amendment, which would alter clause 25.

This important subject gets to the heart of the motivation behind the Bill. What is it all for? Are we trying to level up different parts of the United Kingdom so that we can make best use of the opportunities available, fulfil the talents of every person and community within the United Kingdom and not waste that talent? Or are we trying to make things neat and tidy for the Government so that they can control things centrally? If it were the former, we would not be having this conversation, which makes me suspect it is the latter.

I was pleased for a few moments when the Minister said it is possible to have a devolution deal without a Mayor, but then that was followed by a whole bunch of “buts”. If a community wants a little devolution deal, it can have it without a Mayor, but if it wants a full-fat deal, it has to have a Mayor. Surely local communities should be presented with two choices, rather than just “Like it or lump it”. They should be asked, “Do you want devolution and do you want a Mayor?” They should not be told, “If you want devolution at level 3 and to have those kinds of powers, you must have a Mayor.”

I concur with the hon. Member for Nottingham North that there is no obvious functional reason—it seems totally arbitrary—to say that that must be the case. The Government say, “Well, that way we can hold people to account better”. Local democracy, local elections and the electorate hold people to account. Mayors and councils are not and should not be accountable to the Government. They are accountable to the people who did, or did not, elect them within their electorate. If we cherish local democracy, that is where the power will lie.

It feels like this issue is not about accountability at all, but about control. If a community decides that the model of local government it wishes to have does not include a Mayor, but it has the appetite, resources and infrastructure to handle and deliver the highest level of a devolution deal, what right has Whitehall to tell it that it cannot? That is not levelling-up; that is condescending to every single community in the United Kingdom. We are talking not about accountability, but control. We asked last week: who is this Bill for? Is it for the people or is it for the convenience of Whitehall? Given the Government’s insistence that devolution deals will not be extended in their fullest form to places that will not have a Mayor, it is pretty obvious that this is a Bill for the convenience of Whitehall and not for the people.

This is a really interesting debate, and it is good to be able to have it in public. Let me be blunt: nothing is hidden here. We are clear that the Government’s view is that we prefer the mayoral model. Although it is possible to get a lower-tier devolution deal without one, there is no secret that our preference is for the mayoral model. Let me explain why.

Clearly, we could devolve all these powers—do all these things—to an unelected committee. We could have said, “Let’s take the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester—AGMA—give them all the powers that we have now given to the mayoral combined authority. You just sort it out among yourselves. You can have a committee of the 10 of you, and you can decide among yourselves—perhaps by a majority vote—and then make those decisions.” All those things are totally feasible, and we could do that. It is a perfectly viable model. However, it is not the model we prefer, for various reasons—this goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. It is not for our convenience, but for the convenience of voters in these places. If we have just a committee, how is that committee held to account by a normal voter?

Let us take the Greater Manchester example, with 10 local authorities. We have got to choose where the new tramline is going to go. Is it going to go to place A or place B? The committee meets, there is no Mayor, and it decides the tramline is going to go to place A, not place B. I do not like that, as a voter; I wanted it to go to place B. What do I do, and who do I hold to account? Perhaps my local authority leader. I go to my local authority leader and she says, “I voted for place B, sorry, but I got outvoted.” What am I supposed to do now? Do I vote against her or for her at the next election? There is no one for me to hold to account if things are run by a committee.

I believe in steel-manning, not straw-manning, my opponent’s argument, so I could say, “No, what we want is not a committee. We want voters to have a say over what happens in these combined authorities, and what we actually want is to go back to the metropolitan county councils. We want to have an assembly.” It is perfectly viable, but let us be clear that that does mean quite a lot more politicians. It is a less sharp, less clear model for most voters than a mayoral system, which is why the mayoral system is the dominant model around the world: everyone around the world has city Mayors and knows that model. Inward investors know and understand that model. There is a phone number and people know who they are picking up to: is it Judith, is it one of the Andys? People know who they are supposed to speak to. We have clear accountability and clear leadership. Sometimes there are tough choices to be made. Consensus is a good thing—we always want maximum consensus—but in the end, we often have to choose between A and B. Having a directly elected mayor who knows that needs to be done, and to have programmatic government, not the lowest common denominator log-rolling and horse-trading, lets people make that decision and be accountable to the public. It gives visibility to the world.

One reason why Labour was right in 1998 to create a directly elected Mayor for Greater London was that in its absence we had a big committee—a big quango—with decisions made without anybody really being held to account. For the same reason that Labour created a directly elected Mayor for the capital, we have done it for the other cities that did not get one before 2010.

On a point made by the hon. Member for York Central, this is a long-term game. We want to do go further and further with devolution. One of the missions in the levelling-up White Paper is:

“By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.”

We want to keep going and going. The question I have about the unelected committee model of devolution is, once we start to do more and more high-powered things, more and more functions come out of Whitehall and more and more controversial decisions are taken—and take longer—at the local level. Is that a model that can really hack increasingly controversial decisions in the long term?

Evidence from the OECD finds that fragmented city governments—not having that tier at all—leads to worse economic outcomes. I think we are all agreed that a tier is needed to work together across local authorities and city regions. The only question is how the accountability then works. I wonder how many of the places that have now got Mayors would really want to go backwards. A lot of them resisted having a Mayor. They resisted very strongly. Even on the morning of the Greater Manchester devolution deal, one of the local authorities still had questions about it. Now that those cities have Mayors, who seriously thinks that it would be a good idea for them to go back to having just an unelected committee or a quango, and for them not to have either of the Andys or Ben Houchen providing inspirational leadership and working locally in a collegiate and cross-party way? Do people really think that would be an improvement? I wonder about that.

We have had a really good discussion. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I fear that neatness and tidiness for central Government, rather than for communities, is dominant, which raises the question, who is this for?

The hon. Gentleman asked what right Whitehall—or central Government, or however we might characterise it—has to make such distinctions, and I agree with him. We are talking about two different sets of profound powers that will shape places and—I think there is broad consensus on this—improve and enhance the lives of local people, but one community will have access while another will not, because the Government have made the election of a politician a sticking point. The Minister has made it clear that that is the Government’s preference, but it is a fundamentally distorted vision of devolution. If the powers are to be so impactful, all communities should have access to them.

To be clear, is the Opposition’s preferred model an unelected committee or assembly-type model? What do they prefer to the mayoral model?

The Minister has never heard me argue for the assembly model—a red herring that he introduced to the debate—and I think the characterisation of committees as “unelected” is unhelpful. He has heard me argue over a significant time for the powers set out on page 140 of the White Paper to be available to county combined authorities. If they choose to be led by an elected Mayor, that is their choice and I would absolutely support it.

I think that is where we will end up in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, although, as I have made clear, it is not my preference—perhaps by repeating how against it I am at all stages, I am attempting desperately to ensure that I never end up a candidate. Nevertheless, that has been my view throughout. The difference between my position and the Minister’s is that I have no intention of foisting mine on other people, whereas the Minister clearly does.

The Minister started by saying that he prefers the mayoral model—that is wonderful—and he made a strong case for it. I advocate that he take that case to the people of Leicester and Leicestershire, and given how persuasive he is, maybe he will succeed in convincing them. That would be an example of the process working well, and I would support his efforts in principle, if not in substance. But let us address this point about unelected committees, which as I said, is a bizarre characterisation. Let me put it this way: the Minister has introduced 60 clauses to create county combined authorities, and that has been important for this Bill Committee, which, by his logic, is unelected. In reality, the constituent members of those committees have very much stood for election and they lead their local authorities. I do not have any problem with that democracy. If four elected leaders meet for a pint after work, do they suddenly form an unelected committee and their democratic mandate ceases? I think they are still elected, and if they misbehaved that night, they would be treated as if they were. The idea that such committees are unelected is for the birds, frankly.

The Minister said—I am not sure that I agree—that this is for the voters. That is excellent news. In that case, I do not think he has anything to fear about what is established as the local preference. Why do something for someone if they do not want it?

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an inherent contradiction in the Minister’s argument? The Bill deliberately hands significant powers, particularly the spatial development strategies in schedule 7, to CCAs—or the unelected Assemblies—but denies them to mayoral combined authorities.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In fact, many of the arguments that the Committee has heard in the first few days will undoubtedly be used in reverse for the next few days. When it comes to planning, I do not think that is the Government’s intention. We will see those arguments again, but in reverse.

The Opposition have spent several days complaining that our devolution model is too messy. This morning they are complaining that it too neat and tidy.

At no point have I complained that this is too neat and tidy. I am saying that Ministers are seeking convenience; not that the settlement is too neat and tidy but that Ministers are pursuing a life that is neater and tidier than it is ever going to be.

I was hugely discomfited by the Minister’s final point about the M10 Mayors. As I have said, I have family in Manchester who love that model and it really works for them. That is great. Andy Burnham is doing a brilliant job, and that can be said throughout the M10. The Minister’s idea is that many of those communities resisted Mayors but, as it was better for them, we can now say, “Gosh, don’t they see our extraordinary wisdom and they wouldn’t change it.” If that is his preference for devolution—they will like it when they understand it—we are getting off on the wrong foot.

In the communities that resisted it, the leaders of local authorities had lots of questions about it, because they were bringing into existence a new directly elected body across the city. That is no small thing. It was creating somebody who would be in the same space as them. Of course they had all kinds of questions about it. Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think it would now be better for them to get rid of those directly elected Mayors for those large cities? Does he really believe it would be better without them?

I have literally just said that I doubt that that would be the case, but it is for those communities to decide, not me, and I have no intention of doing so. This is about devolution and localism, which will have to take a local flavour and function. The Minister started by saying that the leaders of the communities had resisted, and now that they had questions. I would hope they would have questions. I am saying that there is no value in ramming these things through, or the idea that people later will really see the benefit. That is how we get progress but people do not feel better—because things are done to them. In many ways, that explains why community power is absent in the Bill.

On the place A to B tramline, there will always be a challenge with these things. The Minister talks about having to go back to constituents who want to hold us accountable for a decision we did not make, may have voted against or did not argue for. That is what Parliament is. I have been here five years and have barely ever won a vote. I have to go back to my constituents frequently and say, “Yes, I understand it is terrible that we have skyrocketing inflation, you do not have access to decent housing and the rise in violent crime is awful. I voted against things that caused that to be the case, but the majority voted for it.”

The idea that the existence of an individual suddenly creates that unanimity or direct ability to change is challenging, not least because voters’ decisions are multifactoral. There is an argument for a presidency in this place, which I certainly do not share, but we might wonder why we need so many Ministers if we could just consolidate them in one individual. I cannot agree with that. I have made my point and I will press the amendment to a Division, because there is a substantial difference between the two Benches.

The Minister started by saying that he prefers the mayoral model. That is absolutely fine. Every community that prefers that model should have access to one—I completely support that—but I do not think that every community that does not prefer that model should have to have it.

I want to clarify that spatial development strategies are available to MCAs, and several are already doing them.

We will have many days to consider that in great detail and at great length to establish those facts.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26

Deputy mayors etc

I beg to move amendment 33, in clause 26, page 21, line 4, after “mayor’s” insert “statutory”.

This amendment would clarify that an appointed deputy is a statutory one rather than a sole one.

Clause 26 provides for deputy Mayors etc. It states that a Mayor of a county combined authority must appoint one of the members of the authority to be the Mayor’s deputy. The amendment seeks to make it clear that that is an in law deputy, and offers flexibility for other deputies, too. We agree that it is important that deputy mayors are part of the structure of a CCA, but I am probing whether that provision needs to be tightened, so that we are clear it is the statutory deputy, so that it is akin to a model that works elsewhere.

As we have seen already with the mayoral system in England, and the Bill provides for the practice to continue with CCAs, Mayors have the authority to delegate certain functions to a member or officer of a CCA. That has been alluded to frequently in the clauses we have discussed so far. That provision allows various mayors to delegate certain policy areas to chosen individuals, who may not have an electoral mandate, and may have been private citizens. I have no issue with that practice because it has allowed bright minds and very talented people to play a role in delivering good policy.

There are important executive functions that a deputy Mayor may have to exercise in the case of illness or incapacity, and possibly they should be viewed separately. The amendment inserts the word “statutory” after “mayor” and before “deputy” so that the Bill spells out that it is the Mayor’s statutory deputy. That elected person will exercise important functions of the Mayor—their duties and responsibilities in the case of illness or incapacitation. That creates a clear delineation in terms of the portfolio of the deputy Mayor and the precise executive role that that statutory deputy Mayor may be required to fill. Such a role exists in the Greater London Assembly, where alongside a range of deputy Mayors who cover various policy areas, there is a designated statutory deputy Mayor. They take on the executive role of the Mayor when that person is unable to fulfil their duties or there is a temporary vacancy.

It may well be that, in substance, the delineation is not necessary, but I want clarity from the Minister that the Government agree that, broadly, that is how the clause operates, and that is how the system is likely to operate in the future.

I think this is a sensible amendment. If we are to have Mayors, I am not against their appointing deputies. That sounds a perfectly sensible thing to do. In the previous debate, the Minister made an interesting and well-presented point about why a mayor is better than an unelected committee—a committee of directly elected councillors, serving smaller areas, who are more likely to be in touch with those areas. Will the Minister contrast and compare his concern for there being a committee making decisions—all of them directly elected—and executive functions being given to a deputy mayor who has been appointed by somebody else? I see a clear equivalence, and a reminder that it is entirely democratic and appropriate for decisions to be taken in a more collegiate way, and not just by one person being elected and then appointing other people to serve executive functions under that person.

The amendment has no effect on its own. As set out in clause 26, the role of deputy Mayor of a CCA is created by that provision. It is therefore already statutory. The clause mirrors the provisions for county combined authorities, creating consistency across the two models. The role of deputy mayor is critical in supporting the effective delivery of the Mayor’s responsibilities and a deputy Mayor would act instead of the Mayor if that person is unable to act or the office of the Mayor becomes vacant. There is no need to add the word “statutory” to what is already a statutory role. Therefore I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham North agrees to withdraw the amendment, although he may want to talk more about the point when we discuss amendment 34.

I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that there is certainly an irony and a contrast between the two debates. Nevertheless, I think it is implied—frankly, it says it on the tin—that once we go for the mayoral model, that is what we choose with it. Again, if that is what a community wants, that is the right thing to do.

I will address the Minister’s points. To be fair, if it is in the statute book, it is probably statutory; I would be willing to concede that point. However, I have had the opportunity to make that clear. Nevertheless, the assurances from the Minister were plenty. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 34, in clause 26, page 21, line 4, at end insert—

“(1A) The mayor may appoint more than one person to be a deputy Mayor, in which case references in this section to “the deputy Mayor” should be read as “a deputy Mayor”.

(1B) The mayor may only appoint as a deputy Mayor a person who is qualified to be elected and to hold office as the mayor in accordance with paragraph 7 of Schedule 2.”

This amendment would allow mayors of CCAs to appoint as many qualified deputy Mayors as they wished.

Again, this amendment deals with deputy Mayors; as the Minister has perhaps divined, this amendment shows where I am going with this issue. I am interested to hear the Minister’s views on it and I will seek his reassurances in relation to it.

As we have seen with existing combined authorities, deputy Mayors can fulfil a really important role in overseeing the different policy areas that lie within the remit of a combined authority. With this amendment, I want to probe the Bill and any guidance that follows from it, perhaps as set out in regulations. The intention of the amendment is to provide for multiple deputies.

Amendment 34 would allow Mayors of county combined authorities to appoint as many qualified deputies as they wish to. I believe that this amendment would improve the Bill and the functions of such deputies, by making it clear at the outset that they should exist, and that the post of deputy Mayor is a proper and senior role, which might be helpful in future.

As democratically elected officials, it is entirely right and proper that Mayors should have the power to appoint individuals to the position of deputy Mayor, should they wish to do so; again, as I said, I think that that is on the tin when we sign up for this model. We ought to trust a Mayor’s judgment and indeed respect their mandate to allocate such positions appropriately, matching individuals to portfolios that will maximise the delivery of good policy and improve the overall functions of the CCA. Obviously, should those decisions prove not to be good ones, there will be accountability.

Making it clear that the Mayor has the power to appoint these individuals will perhaps help them to find those individuals who want to take on the job, because—again—they are real and enshrined roles. This might not need to be in statute, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister the history of combined authorities in this area and how he feels they have evolved, and how he thinks this system will work in practice, either in regulation or in guidance.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on amendment 34. There are a few points that I want to make, building on the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North.

First, the title of deputy means that the deputy Mayor will deputise for the Mayor and, as we heard in the previous debate, they will not have a democratic mandate behind them. As a result, we are missing an opportunity to have greater democracy built in at local level, because deputy Mayors will be appointed and the person appointed may never have been elected to any tier of government, yet will carry huge responsibilities and powers. If, for instance, the Mayor is not able to participate in an activity because of serious illness or something like that, clearly the functions of devolved government will continue and unelected deputy Mayors will fulfil those functions.

In particular, I want to pick up on the issue of the number of deputy Mayors that there could be. Of course, there will be a range of roles that they could assume, at the determination of the Mayor. However, there is one thing that I really want the Minister to consider and respond to. In an age where we absolutely and rightly need to think about equality of opportunity, it is about the diversity of the team around the Mayor and the people deputising for the Mayor. For instance, could there be a job share in the role? The legislation does not signify whether there could or could not be a job share, but I think we would want to see that opportunity open up.

That would be more inclusive and would perhaps allow more people to participate in or take on such a role, or there could be a number of senior functions, which somebody working part time—I think we all know what “part time” in politics means—could take one function and somebody else could take another function, with both of them accountable to the Mayor. That could broaden opportunity and the diversity of the team, so that it is more reflective of the local community.

Individuals may have a specific set of skills. For example, we have seen the role taken up in relation to policing, and there could be other formats, such as if somebody has expertise in transport or other functions. There are therefore opportunities within the Bill, but it is silent on how diversity could be a part of these roles and how it could enhance the model and address the democratic deficit. I would be really interested to hear the extent to which the Minister thinks the role could expand to reflect that diversity, which we will discuss shortly.

Clause 26 requires the Mayor of a combined county authority to appoint a deputy Mayor from among the constituent members of the CCA. The deputy Mayor would act in the stead of the Mayor should the Mayor be unable to act or should the office of the Mayor become vacant.

We consider the amendment unnecessary and inappropriate. It is unnecessary because, as we will see shortly, clause 27 enables the Mayor to delegate general mayoral functions to members of the CCA. Members of the CCA can be given subject portfolios—the responsibility for a particular area, such as transport—and would be held to account for it. Such members may have a title—for example, cabinet member for transport or skills portfolio holder—that reflects the terminology and practice in local government.

As the Mayor is required to appoint a deputy Mayor and is able to delegate functions to other members, there is no need for an additional role within a CCA or for any member of a CCA other than the statutory deputy Mayor to be titled deputy Mayor. The risk is that the amendment might result in all CCA members having the position of deputy, which could be confusing and could be a problem if it is necessary to be clear about who the deputy Mayor is so that they can stand in if the Mayor is incapacitated. We think the amendment is not necessary or appropriate.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way as he was about to conclude. Just to be clear, the Government’s intention is that deputy Mayors will be members of the county combined authority, and there will not be provision for a Mayor to appoint and give responsibilities to a deputy who is a private citizen.

We discussed in previous sittings the role of the non-constituent and associate members of the authority, which is the way of getting in expertise from outside. Perhaps a transport specialist could come in through that route, but we need someone who is clearly the deputy in case the Mayor is suddenly not available any more. As part of collegiate working, which we have described previously, it is already very common for portfolio roles to be given to members of the combined authority.

I am really grateful for that discussion. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said—this relates to amendment 35 in my name—we should seek to use these roles as a way of broadening the pool of those who have access to power for very good reasons relating to representation. We will probe that when we debate amendment 35. I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. There are bits of it that I still do not understand, which I will cover when we discuss the next amendment, but hopefully he will help me. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 26, page 21, line 23, at end insert—

“(7A) The Secretary of State must produce and publish an annual report on the diversity of the deputies appointed under this section. This report must include—

(a) the age of all the deputy mayors,

(b) the gender of all the deputy mayors, and

(c) the ethnicity of all the deputy mayors.”

This is the final amendment proposed to clause 26. This discussion is similar—although not exactly the same—to those that we had on amendments 18 and 29 about how important broad representation is for our democracy and how important it is that our democratic institutions reflect the populations they represent. I think there is pretty broad consensus on that. We recognise the strength that proper representation brings to our democratic institutions, and the risk that unrepresentative institutions will make poorer decisions and decisions that lack legitimacy. It is important that we take every opportunity to promote positive representation in our democracy.

The amendment is relatively light touch, and adds to the provisions on deputy Mayors. It states:

“The Secretary of State must produce and publish an annual report on the diversity of the deputies appointed”.

It goes on to specify a number of protected characteristics. The Minister has previously considered taking that even further, and we would welcome any such discussion. The details would be updated annually and made public and accessible to all.

A similar provision on reporting on diversity is already on the statute book—it has been since the Equality Act 2010—but has yet to commence. That would enhance these measures. The Minister did not quite address in our earlier discussions whether he plans to persuade colleagues to commence that provision to try to augment the work on the Bill. Section 106 of the Equality Act requires political parties to publish diversity data on candidates standing for election to various bodies. It would be good for deputy Mayors to be included in that list, and I would be interested to know whether there are any plans to commence that provision.

That brings us to a point that emerged in our previous discussion. I may be being a little bit slow to pick up the thread, but I want to be sure about this. At the moment, we will have a statutory deputy who will be a constituent member of the combined authority, and if the Mayor is incapacitated or ill, the deputy Mayor will take over the role. I think I heard that they can also take on a portfolio. I would be grateful for clarity on that. Other constituent members of the combined authority can take on portfolios—we know that, and that is mirrored in the experience of the combined authority in Manchester, where all the leaders carry a portfolio. That seems a very good idea to me.

We have discussed private citizens, and the amendment is particularly pertinent to private citizens. Leaders of councils, as we discussed in relation to amendment 29, are what they are; the diversity there is possibly an issue for local authorities, rather than for the county combined authority in and of itself, although I am sure it would still have a view.

The Minister talked about non-constituent members and associate members. If a Mayor was seeking to add a Deputy Mayor for Transport who is a transport expert, could they be made an associate member, which would probably be more desirable—I am getting myself in a twist here—where that is their individual mandate rather than an organisational mandate, and then make that person the Deputy Mayor for Transport? Could they do the same for an air quality specialist and make that person the Deputy Mayor for Air Quality; or a skills specialist, and make them the Deputy Mayor for Skills?

This is a point of interest, not necessarily a point of political argument, and I would lean towards Mayors being able to choose what they wish to do, but that situation would create a tier of people, and it would be interesting to understand how well that tier reflects their communities and Britain. A reporting requirement does not seem terribly onerous, so I hope that the Minister will support the amendment. I would especially appreciate clarity on how he sees the system working.

This is an important issue. As the Government move to make local government less local and larger, with fewer representatives, they seem to be motivated by two things. The first is convenience—neat-and-tidiness. The second is a belief that it is popular to say to the public, “Look, we have fewer politicians,” but it is not popular to say to the public, “Your councillors and elected representatives will be fewer in number and they will represent so many more of you that you will never see them—and, by the way, the chances are they will be from a far less diverse range of backgrounds.”

Who deputy Mayors are, what backgrounds they come from and how diverse the range of people in those positions are is important and, as we have said in previous discussions, it is important that we analyse and research in a deep and broad way the impact of changes in local government on diversity, not just those in this Bill, but those that have taken place over the past decade or so. Anecdotally, it is obvious that if we move from a situation where each councillor represents 3,000 or 4,000 people to a situation where they represent 10,000 or 15,000, or where Mayors or deputy Mayors represent hundreds of thousands of people, we massively narrow down the kind of people who have the time, the freedom and the space in their lives to carry out those roles.

Fundamentally, to put it bluntly, we will end up with blokes—mostly early-retirement blokes.. That is definitely the evidence of my eyes. It will squeeze out people with family or caring responsibilities, people who have to work for a living and so on. That is what is happening. The Government should be aware of it and should be seeking evidence to see the extent to which that is happening for these roles and more broadly in local government, because local government represents everybody. When they know the scale of the problem, they can take action to alleviate it.

I want to build on the points that have been made. One of the things we need to remember about deputy Mayors is that, unlike previous roles we have discussed, they are appointed, rather than elected. As we know, with appointments, there is always the risk of unconscious bias creeping in. Having transparency and accountability is therefore really important when looking at issues of diversity.

If we are creating a new tier of governance across the country, we do not want to repeat the old mistakes we have seen in this place or in local government, where the figures are quite shocking. We do not want it to be the end of this century before we see equality between men and women in local government. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that across our political systems and systems of governance, we are seeing and driving equality around all protected characteristics. I fear that if we are not putting these basic and rudimentary measures in legislation at this point, we risk at this stage of transformation slipping back into bad old ways. I would not want to see that. We are a country that embraces diversity and we should do that within our governance structures as well.

Clause 26 requires the Mayor of a combined county authority to appoint a deputy Mayor from the constituent members, so the Mayor of a CCA could not make—to answer the question directly—a non-constituent or associate member a deputy Mayor. Constituent members will be nominated by the constituent councils and are usually the council leaders, who have been elected at local authority level. It is only right that the membership of the CCA is decided locally by those who best know their areas. CCAs and their constituent members will be independent of central government.

Amendment 35 requires the Secretary of State to report annually regarding certain demographic information about the persons appointed to be deputy Mayors of a CCA. We think that the amendment is not appropriate or necessary. CCAs, their Mayors and their constituent members will be independent of central Government. The Government do not believe they should require CCAs to inform them of the specific make-up of their deputy Mayors.

The Mayor, with their democratic mandate, will appoint one of the constituent members as a deputy Mayor. As a public and statutory position, it will be totally transparent who has been appointed as the deputy. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about this being a bit of a march of the blokes. That is a fear with individual elections, and it is what tends to happen. He made some very strong arguments about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central is right in saying that appointments can go either way: they are either an opportunity to rectify gaps or they can end up, through unconscious biases, continuing to widen those gaps. I think the Minister’s answer has clarified the point and rendered my amendment moot. From what I understood, the deputies are going to be constituent members of the authority; that is a significant distinction from what happens in London and with the Mayor of London. In many ways, combined authorities and combined county authorities do have significant distinctions from the set-up in London, so that is not an inconsistency, but it is important to understand. My fear is that there will now be a march of the tsars. The Mayors are going to end up with lots of different tsars as a way of trying to get that extra talent in, as advisers and as additionality. I wonder about that.

If we trust that the constituent members will hold portfolios, which sounds like a good idea—as I say, the way that it operates in Greater Manchester seems like a good idea—taking on those leadership roles individually does not sound that different. Again, I am not sure that having a Mayor has added anything to it functionally, unless that is really what we want for all those important figurehead reasons, so I am still no more convinced by the Minister’s point about the necessity.

Given the really important clarity on who can be a deputy and who cannot, I am happy to withdraw the amendment. However, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, we will really need to monitor the situation because it is likely to lead to lots of very interesting innovations in the time to come. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27

Functions of mayors: general

I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 27, page 21, line 28, at end insert—

“(1A) Where the Secretary of State makes provision under subsection (1), they must also publish a report setting out the impact this change will have on the delivery of levelling up missions.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact of changing the powers available to a mayor on the delivery of levelling up missions.

This amendment highlights the possibility of the Secretary of State’s regulating not only function, but who should undertake that function. Accountability is important, and I would argue that having clear lines of accountability is essential. However, clause 27 feels very much like the tail wagging the dog: the Secretary of State is micromanaging the Mayor, as opposed to letting the Mayor determine who would be best placed to undertake such functions. What functions they are is not clear in the Bill, and subsection (1) maintains the mystery, but I am sure the Minister will say how they will be determined in the devolution deal. However, who executes them should be at the discretion of the Mayor, as there will clearly be a diversity of knowledge and skill at the mayoral office level, and indeed in the wider team. I can understand the Secretary of State’s wanting the Mayor to be accountable for such functions, but to say that only the Mayor can carry them out is operational meddling from the centre.

When writing the amendment, and ahead of the sitting on Tuesday last week, I had understood that levelling up was to be a sustained agenda for tackling the grotesque injustice of inequality by identifying disparity and then using a range of solutions—through economics, transport, housing, spatial planning and so on—to bring justice to an area. I have to say that the Government’s explanation of clause 1 has now left me in doubt. I compare it more to the 1997 New Labour pledge card, with 12 missions rather than five and a tick box to deliver the Tory manifesto commitments that sneakily go beyond these and into an eight-year programme, but there is little to look beyond.

Aligning the purpose of tiers of Government is important if the country is to head in one direction. If everyone rows in one direction, we are more likely to get there, which is why it is important that there should be alignment nationally at CCA level and locally in addressing the ambition to rid this country of inequality—not least as we are the second most inequitable country after the US according to academics, including Pickett and Wilkinson. As we discussed on Tuesday, having levelling-up missions in central Government—including the sustainable development goals at a global level—and then differentiating priorities at a local or mayoral level means that we move forward more slowly than we would if we marched in step. Therefore, ensuring the delivery of missions nationally, and by Metro Mayors and their teams, gives us an opportunity to progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North is a lot closer to this subject than I am, but as he is working on Labour’s ambition for Government, which could come as soon as the autumn, I trust that we will want alignment of function with our national ambition to address the inequalities that our society presents. I am sure we will want a sustained framework that sets a path of ambition for 50 years rather than just eight, and that we will seek to account for the threads that run between the national and the local. I am sure that Labour would not want to place such control on politicians at the devolved level, and would trust them to deliver their work in the most appropriate way to achieve the outcomes that we long to see. The amendment seeks to achieve that by bringing alignment with those levelling-up missions and accountability behind them. That is why I would like the Government to accept it.

We believe the amendment is unnecessary. The Secretary of State may confer functions on the Mayor of a combined county authority only if they consider that to do so meets the statutory test of

“improving the economic, social or environmental well-being”

of some or all of those who live and work in the area. As our 12 missions show,

“improving the economic, social or environmental well-being”

is at the heart of delivering levelling up. The process for conferring mayoral powers, including the statutory test, is already set out in clauses 42 and 43, for the establishment of a new mayoral CCA, and in clauses 44 and 45, for the conferral of functions on the Mayor of an existing mayoral CCA.

Regulations conferring functions on a Mayor will of course be considered by Parliament. The explanatory memorandum accompanying these regulations will explain why the powers are being conferred, the views of consultees and how the statutory test is met; Parliament will have ample opportunity to consider the impact of conferring any powers on the Mayor of a CCA and whether they will achieve levelling up.

In addition to the information provided by the explanatory memorandum accompanying the regulations being laid in Parliament, clause 2 requires annual reporting on the progress of the delivery of the levelling-up missions. That will include the achievement against our local leadership mission, which I mentioned earlier—namely that by 2030, every part of England that wants a devolution deal will have one, with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified local funding settlement.

Coming to the nub of the issue, that ability to confer powers is certainly highlighted in clause 27(1). However, why does the Minister believe that the functions are exercisable only—I stress the word “only”—by the Mayor?

Making some of the functions exercisable by the Mayor is at the heart of what we have been doing with devolution. If we are going to have the debate that we had earlier, I should say that the whole point of a Mayor is to have certain functions. If the hon. Lady is probing that, she is in a sense going back to the debate that we were having earlier today about why an area should have a Mayor.

The amendment is about a reporting requirement. As I have just set out, there are already substantial reporting requirements on why any powers are conferred on the Mayor. There is also reporting on progress on the devolution agenda, as part of clause 2 and the mission that we are pursuing, so there is already the kind of reporting that the amendment argues for. I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw it.

I very much agree with the thrust of the amendment; the case that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central made was very strong. It makes us think that these missions should be a central theme running through the programme of work. That programme may, at times, look different in different parts of the country, in terms of how it is exercised, but those fundamental goals, challenges and missions are a collective endeavour. That brings me back to my fear, certainly regarding the earlier parts of the Bill, that the Government feel they have to take all this on themselves. That is, first, an unnecessary level of burden and, secondly, not likely to succeed.

We accept that government is a very difficult business, and at times a fine series of balances. I would argue that this Government make things look particularly hard, but that might be an issue for a different day. However, for Ministers in this Department—one might except the Minister for Housing; there is, after all, a reason why they change every year—[Laughter.] I do not wish that for the Minister who is here today; I hold him in high regard and he can stay until the next election.

However, the rest of the Minister’s ministerial colleagues really could have a slightly lighter time if they just equipped, in terms of both money and power, local authorities to deliver on their goals and then let them get on with it. They would look brilliant; they would look like sensational, revolutionary change-bringers and they could have their feet up for the entire time. That does not seem like such a bad deal to me.

Instead, what we get is this over-centralisation and this lack of trust; it is all to be commanded and controlled from the centre. I am afraid that that just does not quite get things done. The amendment would actually push us into making a further step towards what we hope Ministers want, which is to get the responsibility, the power and the opportunities out to communities, under that shared framework of goals. That would be a positive thing, and there is an awful lot to recommend the amendment.

What the Minister said about the explanatory memorandum is welcome, but I say again—this is a theme throughout all our debates—that the Government have not been able to produce an impact assessment for the Bill, and we sit here, day after day, talking about it. We are led to believe that the Minister has a strong belief in the impact of Mayors, but he cannot evidence that in a conventional way. We have heard a commitment from the Minister. When the decisions are being made on regulations for setting up combined county authorities, I hope that we will have the right information to explain and understand the impact of the decisions that we make.

I want to make a couple of points in response to the Minister’s comments. From what is in the legislation and the Minister’s words, it feels as though central Government are just not willing to let go and are still trying to hold on to something without seeing the full devolution: “You can have those powers, but we are going to make determinations about them.” In time, I trust that that will settle and the Government will have more confidence and trust in the system of devolution that they are setting out, but it feels as though they are trying to hold the line and keep control.

More worryingly, as we move through the Bill clause by clause, it seems that the agenda around levelling up is unravelling rapidly. That is a deeper concern if we are going to address the real injustices that our constituents face. They desperately need the Government to step up to the plate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28

Procedure for direct conferral of general functions on mayor

I beg to move amendment 36, in clause 28, page 23, line 40, at end insert—

“(2A) Where the Secretary of State makes regulations to which this section applies they must notify all other mayoral and non-mayoral CCAs of this.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to notify all CCAs if they make regulations directly conferring general functions on a Mayor.

This is a return to a common theme. We are desperately seeking to encourage the Government to stay true to the White Paper so that all communities have access to the fullest range of powers. The clause provides a process, via regulation, for powers to be directly conferred on the Mayor by the Secretary of State following agreement with that Mayor. When that happens and a Mayor suddenly gets a new and novel power, we want a requirement on the Secretary of State to notify all combined county authorities that that has been done. I will not repeat the arguments that I have made previously, but we want that so that other authorities might seek to take on similar powers, if that is what they would value for their community.

My hon. Friend’s amendment is really important. We know that London holds the power and wealth of our nation, but we are talking about authorities around the country, the CCAs, that are more distant from London and where there is greater inequality, poverty and lack of opportunity. Not even to report on powers will mean more divergence rather than addressing the inequality, so we could be in a worse state when trying to address the disparities.

I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point. What I am seeking to put in place is a virtuous cycle of communities taking on powers that will be impactful. Others will see that that can be done, and that might be one of the missing pieces in their puzzle. They might take it on themselves, move forward and take on greater responsibilities. That would be a very positive thing. It is a relatively light touch obligation. It asks for nothing more than the circulation of information. It does not oblige a community to take on powers. However, I think it would certainly be to the improvement of devolution.

This is a very worthwhile amendment, which helps us to explore how we can play into local communities’ hunger for power and control over their own destinies. There is a real sense in many communities—I will speak specifically for rural ones, but this applies right across the country—of people being fed up with things happening to them, seeing things going wrong in their communities and feeling a sense of powerlessness: “What can I do to affect this?”

I will share two experiences. On Saturday, I was in the heart of the lakes, around Hawkshead and Ambleside, talking to tourism businesses struggling to find staff. We have a huge workforce crisis in all of rural Britain, but particularly in the lakes and the dales. We were talking about the things that it would be great to do locally to provide local affordable housing, caps on the number of second homes and limits on the number of holiday lets. That would provide places for a working-age population that is not earning tons of money to be able to live and preserve those communities.

Yesterday morning, I was in the village of Burton, with a good news story: we were beginning some work on developing an affordable housing project in the village that will underpin the sustainability of that community. However, I was talking to the housing association about how difficult it is to replicate that around the area, given the weak planning rules that do not allow them to take advantage of what might be the possibility of building 100% affordable settlements around a community like mine.

Those are all issues that we could tackle if we had the power. I think that communities are hungry for power and the ability to make a difference for their own futures. If the Government are sharing any power with the Mayor, then I want every other authority to know about it so that they can clamour for it too. I am not particularly critical of there being a lack of symmetry in devolution and in the models by which it is delivered. That is not because I am a fan of things being a mess, but because I am a fan of communities making their own choices.

Communities should not be forced to accept a particular model to gain powers that will give them power over their communities and the way in which their economies are run. To reflect that hunger, we must feed it so that everybody knows what is possible and on the table, and they can think, “Well, all right, we’d like those powers too.”

Opposition Members have argued that the process in which new powers are given to CCAs should be transparent and public, and it will be. The processes that lead to the conferring of powers on a Mayor of a CCA are transparent and public. The Mayor must consult the constituent councils of the CCA regarding any requests for additional powers and then report those views to the Secretary of State when submitting their request.

If the Secretary of State agrees to a Mayor’s request, the functions to be conferred will be set out in regulations and then debated here. They must then be approved before they can be made. In considering those regulations, Parliament will have an explanatory memorandum and various other reports explaining why various powers are being conferred. It will therefore already be a public and transparent process—nothing can be hidden—so we regard the amendment as unnecessary.

I would argue that there is a difference between something not being hidden and its being shared. The points that colleagues have made were very good, and I would echo them. The point and thrust of the issue is to try to ensure that all areas know what is available to them and to give them the chance to reflect on and maybe ask for it themselves to improve their approaches to tackling all the challenges they face.

Of course, as the Bill says, the decisions will be made through a regulation and be taken by a Committee of Members in this place. However, I say gently to the Minister that I would not take that to be full publication. It will be published in a reasonable way—we have no doubt of that—but the idea that busy communities, county combined authorities or Mayors will instantly know that that has happened is not quite the same thing.

I hope that, at least, the Minister will reflect on the need for it to be understood what further powers that maybe even go beyond the White Paper might be available in future to county combined authorities. However, for the moment, I am happy to withdraw the amendment and not labour that point today. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29

Joint exercise of general functions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29 provides for the joint exercise of general functions. It allows the Secretary of State to make provision via regulations to be entered into in relation to general functions of a Mayor for the area of a combined county authority. Under subsection (2), that could include the Mayor being

“a party to the arrangements in place of, or jointly with, the CCA”.

It also talks about the membership of any joint committee, its chair, the appointment of its members and its voting powers. Could the Minister give us an example of how he sees that working in practice and what things the Government have in mind for the use of that power?

I am not sure that I understand the hon. Member’s detailed question. I will try to understand it. Let me speak to what the clause does, and if that does not make things clear he can come in. We have talked about the flexibility of the CCA model, enabling the Mayor and the CCA to operate effectively and take decisions for the benefit of those who live and work in the area. Clause 29 continues that flexibility. It enables regulations to be made so that a CCA Mayor can jointly exercise any mayoral general function, such as on transport, with a neighbouring local authority if both parties agree. Such regulations may set out the detailed operational arrangements, such as membership, chairing, voting powers and political balance requirements for a joint committee. I hope that hon. Members will agree that enabling the Mayor of a combined authority to work collaboratively with neighbouring local authorities—something various Members have argued for in previous sittings—would be a positive measure, and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30

Functions of mayors: policing

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30 allows for the conferring of police and crime commissioner functions on the Mayor of a combined county authority. I think it is important that something as significant as this does not go through without debate. Again, this is the core aspect of tier 3 powers, which makes the case for a mayor in those cases. Again, we understand the need for the measure to be in the Bill, but we want to hear from the Minister how he thinks this will work in practice.

This is not without precedent. These clauses mirror combined authorities, and those combined authorities in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire have a Mayor with police powers, and of course the same is true in London. It can be done, and it can be done safely. I am less sure about whether there is widespread desire for it. As I say, if it were the determining factor in tier 3 between taking on a Mayor or not, there may be quite a range of decisions taken.

We heard in both oral and written evidence—I genuinely thought it was admirable—about the culture of collaboration and joint working across the West Midlands Combined Authority. It is clear that it has been able to build consensus on virtually everything, except this point. That was quite revealing in and of itself. Again, it is those sorts of powers that local communities often talk about, such as economic levers, transport levers, housing levers and issues relating to net zero, rather than policing. Again, where communities want this, we are happy for it to be an option where desired. The reality is that it is complicated because of the unavoidable point of footprints for police forces, which do not elegantly overlay with even natural geographies, but definitely not geographies of combined authorities. I cannot imagine a situation where they are likely to converge without a lot of pain and disruption.

There will be some places—the West Midlands ironically being quite a good example—where the footprint probably matches up quite nicely, and clearly that is the case in Greater Manchester too. I want clarity from the Minister. Is his intention to use these powers where there is strong demand and where the geographies are suitable? As I say, I think that is likely to prove challenging. What is the Minister minded to do in situations where there is enthusiasm to take these powers on but the natural communities do not work, or maybe there is a police force that covers a small part of a county combined authority? How would that work in practice?

It is important to get clarification on this issue, and in particular on the extent to which a decision will be taken by default if we end up with CCAs that include more than one police authority area. There are good reasons why some police authorities are relatively small, in terms of population size, such as the vast rural nature of the area they serve, and it would seem wrong to go through a process of effectively deciding a police authority merger by default. I know there is more to it than that, but we need to be given clarity on how that might transpire, so I would be grateful for that clarification.

While I am on my feet, I wish to apologise to you, Mr Paisley, and to the rest of the Committee, because I am off to see a primary school from Kendal. I will leave the Committee for a moment or two, or perhaps longer. I apologise.

Clause 30 enables the Mayor of a combined county authority to have the functions of the police and crime commissioner conferred on them if that Mayor requests it. The Mayors of the Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire combined authorities already exercise PCC functions in their areas. Committee members will remember the evidence session we held with Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, in which she talked about the advantages of having those powers aligned with the other powers she was using—for example, using her powers over transport and her PCC powers concurrently to improve women’s safety.

Clause 30 and the linked schedule 3 offer that same option for CCA Mayors if the local authority and policing boundaries align, and if they feel that taking on those functions will help them deliver more effective policing for their area, where that is agreed between the area and Government. The clause and schedule mirror the combined authority provisions for the conferral of PCC functions to ensure that if a CCA Mayor takes on those functions, the process of conferral and the way they are exercised on a day-to-day basis is consistent with those too. As with all regulations on CCAs, these regulations will be subject to parliamentary approval. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3

Mayors for combined county authority Areas: PCC functions

I beg to move amendment 37, in schedule 3, page 206, line 34, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from conferring only partial Police and Crime Commissioner functions on the mayor.

The fun is always in the schedules, is it not? I like to get into the detail and understand some of the reasons why certain approaches have been chosen. Schedule 3 introduces the arrangements that allow for Mayors of combined county authorities to take on police and crime commissioner functions in the way that the Minister has set out. As I said, this is a complex matter, particularly due to geography. I do not think the Minister quite addressed the complexity issue. Again, I would be interested in his thoughts about how that is likely to work in practice, certainly for footprints that clearly do not match up with police force footprints. That argument has been made already, so I will not repeat it.

The thrust of amendment 37 is to not make the devolution of those functions any more complicated than it already is. Paragraph 2(1) of schedule 3 allows the Secretary of State to

“by regulations provide that the mayor may exercise in the CCA area—

(a) all PCC functions,”

—that is all the functions, as the Minister has described. As I say, that has been done elsewhere, and it seems to be beyond debate. However, I want to probe sub-paragraphs (1)(b) and (1)(c), which provide for

“all PCC functions other than those specified or described in the regulations, or…only those PCC functions specified or described in the regulations”

to be devolved. Basically, the Secretary of State can by regulation devolve partial police and crime commissioner powers. First, that is unduly fiddly, and it might create an unwise divergence between Mayors. Either an individual has police and crime commissioner functions devolved to them, or they do not.

I too am curious about the measures and the inclusion of paragraph 2(1)(b) and (c). My concern echoes the debate we had earlier: how there is an obligation under the Bill to have an elected Mayor, because they are taking on and subsuming the role of the police and crime commissioner. It feels as if here we see the role chopped up into little pieces and, as a result, only a partial role taken on. If so, why would there still be the obligation to have an elected Mayor?

As my hon. Friend says, the taking on of the PCC seems to be that sort of totemic tipping moment, making this question all the more compelling. I am interested in a case in which sub-paragraph (1)(b) and (c) were used, in which only some police and crime functions were devolved. Does that mean that the pre-existing police and crime commissioner would continue to exist alongside the Mayor? Are we creating some confusion, if we have a PCC and a Mayor with some police and crime responsibilities? I am not sure that is desirable. Again, that might create variance between Mayors. I am not minded to support the provision, but I might be persuaded if we were clear what sort of circumstances it would apply to and what powers we might not want to give, and if we had clarity on the point about other PCCs.

The schedule provides detail setting out the areas where the Secretary of State either may or has to make regulations to enable a transfer of PCC functions to a CCA Mayor, and provides the framework and arrangements for them to exercise those functions day to day. It is important that CCA Mayors can exercise PCC functions if the authority and policing boundaries align, and if they feel that taking on the functions will help them deliver more effective policing for the area.

I apologise, but it is helpful that the Minister used the “boundaries align” phrase. Is that a complete alignment of boundaries?

Yes, I think it is, implicitly. The levelling-up White Paper talks about how, if the boundaries did not quite align and there was a strong desire locally for that, we would look at the geographies over time and whether it was worth changing them in order to make them fit. I stress that that is probably a long-term function. Broadly speaking, this is keeping the mayoral combined authority and CCA models aligned, because the power already exists, although it is not being used in the MCA legislation.

Over time, the PCC role has expanded and evolved, and it continues to do so, and the Bill would allow the Home Office at a future date not to devolve all PCC functions, if that were not appropriate in future. At this point, I cannot specify in exactly what circumstances that might arise—it might be to do with edge cases where there is desire to do some policing-adjacent things through transport, of the kind that Tracy talked about—but so far those powers have not been used. At the moment, I do not think that there is an intention to use them. I am aware of no examples of active discussion of any such thing.

As I say, however, the PCC role is evolving over time, as is that of the different combined authorities. We are just holding open that possibility for the future. Were we to explore that future, the possibility of the processes that we have talked about so far in this sitting—things going through Parliament with explanatory memorandums and so on—would all apply. At the moment, this is just holding things open for a potential future, in case there is a desire to do things in this kind of space.

The Minister knows that I do not give an awful lot of shrift to the argument that we need to do such things because that is how they are in combined authorities. The Minister has chosen to establish a separate class. If we merely had to adopt the same arrangements as combined authorities, basically we should have moved the 60 amendments and simply agreed them. The Minister has chosen to legislate differently, and therefore I believe that the amendment needs to be treated on its own merits.

Similarly, I do not give an awful lot of shrift to the idea of leaving the door open for things that have not been used before in mirroring powers, so that they might be used later for an unspecified purpose. That is not a strong reason to keep something in statute, so I will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

I beg to move amendment 38, in schedule 3, page 207, line 23, leave out paragraph (a)

This amendment would allow the person who is appointed deputy mayor under section 26 to be appointed as deputy mayor for policing and crime.

This is the dangerous bit. I am going to torture the cricket analogy one last time, even though it really does not stand up to it: we are just seeing out the final over before lunch, so I will try not to nick one here if possible.

Paragraph 3(1)(a) of schedule 3 states that the Secretary of State may

“appoint a deputy mayor in respect of PCC functions”

but that that person cannot be what I have called in previous debates “the statutory Mayor”. More than anything, I am keen to know why that measure, which amendment 38 would delete, was included. It may be that the statutory deputy could hold a role outside their normal duties that would mean they were not eligible to take police and crime functions, and could not stand for police and crime commissioner—just as a Member of Parliament cannot be a police and crime commissioner—but I am not clear what that role would be. Short of an unavoidable hurdle, I wonder why we are reducing the options rather than letting the Mayor choose which of their eligible candidates would be best for the role.

The single-word answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is: workload. Clause 30 enables the Mayor of a combined county authority to have the functions of a police and crime commissioner conferred on them, subject to their consent. It includes provisions on the employment of a deputy Mayor for crime and policing, and the rules that govern who is eligible.

The role of the statutory deputy Mayor of the CCA is, as we have discussed, to step in should the Mayor become unable to act or if the office of Mayor is vacant. As we said earlier, the deputy Mayor, as any other member of the combined county authority, may assist the Mayor or be delegated a portfolio to lead for the CCA—that could be transport or all manner of different things. The deputy Mayor is also likely to be a leader or another senior member of the constituent council, so is likely to have plenty on their plate. The role of the deputy Mayor for crime and policing is to dedicate constant focus and attention to the vital areas of crime and policing.

Those are both clearly significant roles, and it is difficult to see how both could be delivered by one person without insufficient attention on policing or the responsibilities of deputy Mayor suffering.

Is the intention for the role to go to a private citizen, not a constituent member of the authority?

The CCA member also holds an elected position for a specific portion of the CCA area, so they are a constituent member. The Mayor’s PCC power covers the entirety of the police force in the CCA area. That could cause confusion about the democratic mandate that the CCA member has—when compared with the requirement of the deputy Mayor for crime and policing—to support the Mayor, who has been elected to represent constituents from across the whole police force area.

Let me encapsulate it. Why do we have to have a deputy Mayor for crime and policing? Because PCC is a full-time job, and in most of the country outside the MCAs, it is a stand-alone job. There are many advantages to bringing those two things together, as the Mayor of West Yorkshire told us, but it works best when there is a high degree of delegation to a deputy Mayor for crime and policing who can drive forward all that work so that the Mayor can provide strategic join-up between that and other functions. We would still have someone whose full-time job is to do all those things. If we tried to combine the two roles, however, it would be just too much workload for one person.

The point about workload is well made. I understand now that the portfolio of deputy mayorships will be held by constituent members of the authority, but I am still now sure—maybe that is my fault—whether the deputy Mayor for crime and policing is a constituent member before their appointment by the Secretary of State.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two oclock.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Tenth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mr Peter Bone, † Sir Mark Hendrick, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Ian Paisley

† Andrew, Stuart (Minister for Housing)

† Atherton, Sarah (Wrexham) (Con)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

Gibson, Patricia (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

† Henry, Darren (Broxtowe) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Maskell, Rachael (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Mortimer, Jill (Hartlepool) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

† O’Brien, Neil (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Pennycook, Matthew (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)

Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

Bethan Harding, Adam Mellows-Facer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 5 July 2022


[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill

Schedule 3

Mayors for combined county authority Areas: PCC functions

Amendment proposed (this day): 38, in schedule 3, page 207, line 23, leave out paragraph (a).—(Alex Norris.)

This amendment would allow the person who is appointed deputy mayor under section 26 to be appointed as deputy mayor for policing and crime.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 31

Exercise of fire and rescue functions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

It is a pleasure to resume proceedings with you in the Chair, Sir Mark.

These seven clauses deal with a significant change in policy, because they enable the fire and rescue functions and the footprint of the county combined authority to be transferred to the Mayor. I think that significant change deserves debate and recognition. Many of the arguments about clause 30 and the similar delegation of police and crime functions read across to fire and rescue functions, so I do not intend to duplicate them.

I am not sure that I have detected a huge demand for the transfer, nor a sense that fire authorities are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. If there is local enthusiasm to take on those functions and consensus can be built on that, it is for those communities to argue for that rather than me. I would be interested to learn from the Minister what the business case for such a change looks like. Part of the problem of the lack of an impact assessment is that we do not know the impact of the proposed change, nor the upsides that we can expect from it. What is the take-up?

My questions to the Minister are similar to those that I asked about clause 30, and I hope that I will receive similar answers. I take it that this is about local choice and that any change can only be made where there is local consensus. May I take it that the same proviso about geography applies in this case as did under clause 30? Generally, will the arrangement operate according to coterminosity, and work elegantly, rather than trying to make something fiddly work which is not likely to succeed?

Clause 31(2) refers to the involvement of the chief constable of the police. In recent years, it has been a Government policy decision to blur the distinction between fire and rescue and the police. I am keen to hear the Minister’s answer about that involvement. What safeguards will be in place to handle those two organisations, which have separate functions, so that there is at least some sort of distinction between them, certainly in the finances but also, in some senses, on the policy? A case needs to be made for any such involvement because I do not think it is automatically a good idea.

Clause 31 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations to allow the Mayor of a combined county authority to whom police and crime commissioner and fire and rescue functions have been conferred to delegate fire and rescue functions to the chief constable of the police force for the area. It further allows the chief constable to delegate those functions to both police and fire and rescue personnel, and through it enact what is known as the single employer model.

Those provisions are designed to provide the option for Mayors of CCAs to exercise fire and rescue service functions under the single employer model where they also exercise PCC functions, if they feel that allowing the chief constable to run both operational services will help them to have a stronger role in public safety and to deliver more effective emergency services for their local area. That is the rationale that the hon. Member for Nottingham North is seeking.

It is an equivalent provision to section 107EA of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which made that option available to Mayors of combined authorities when Parliament approved its addition via the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The change is basically about enabling the benefits of blue light integration between the two services.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 32 to 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 38

Mayors for CCA areas: financial matters

I beg to move amendment 52, in clause 38, page 33, line 32, at end insert—

“(c) for and about alternative funding streams (including grants from the Secretary of State) for fire and rescue services if constraints on revenue-raising mean that there is a threat that fire and rescue safety standards may not be maintained in the area.”

This amendment enables the Secretary of State, in circumstances where mayoral revenue raising powers are insufficient for the provision of a safe Fire and Rescue service, to make alternative provision to fund the services, including a grant from the Secretary of State.

I think it is right to declare a number of things. First, North Yorkshire is in deep discussions about a devolution deal. We want to see that progress successfully, but at the same time we face a real challenge with our fire and rescue service. I want to talk about the reality of what we are debating, to ensure that we place it with the right safeguards, which are absolutely essential.

North Yorkshire was one of the first authorities in which the fire and rescue service combined with the police and crime commissioner function. At one point there were just four authorities in that position. Therefore, North Yorkshire has probably the best experience of how that combination works. I must say to the Minister that there have been some benefits from such a combination, such as cost savings, in particular arising from back office integration. That helps with public funding, which must be a positive because that is public money. However, when we look at the reality of what is happening now in the service, we have a very different story to tell.

My amendment is designed to keep the public safe and ensure that there is sufficiency in the service to retain sufficient fire appliances, to operate them safely and to have crew in the vicinity. This is about making sure that the funding flows work. Right now, I am expecting a meeting with the Home Secretary to discuss the matter. If the authority is devolved, I may be looking in a number of different directions to achieve the sufficient funding required to keep my community, and others, safe.

To highlight the challenges ahead of us, we are looking at the removal of night-time cover from Harrogate and Scarborough fire stations, as well as the removal of a second fire appliance. In my community, Huntington’s fire station may be pared back because of funding deficiencies. That means that response times will increase by seven minutes and 59 seconds—eight minutes of burning fire could cause a lot of damage. It is important to consider the issue in the context of today’s debate, because if it takes 16 minutes in total to reach a fire in my constituency, 31,000 residents will be impacted as a result of that change. That is quite significant.

Colleagues will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to go into all the ins and outs of the North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, but the sufficiency of the service will be subject to constant challenge. We will be looking ever more at how we can share resources and integrate roles, but there comes a point when the very viability of the service is challenged, and the public is put at risk. That is the point we are at now. If we are to see this integrated into a devolution deal, the money will have to be ringfenced and the community safeguarded, or else we could see a disaster.

In North Yorkshire—this also applies to other Members’ constituencies—we have a mixture of urban and rural. The reality is that North Yorkshire is the biggest county by geographical area, which puts stress on the service. It is not all bad news. The Home Secretary came forward with a fix to this for eight authorities that had kept their reserves. They got additional flexibility around the precept and so were able to fully fund their services and have sufficiency and some headroom for protection. North Yorkshire had spent its reserves and so was not awarded that precept flexibility.

Because of the geographical nature of North Yorkshire, it is now just about the worst-funded fire authority in the country. If there is no flexibility from the Home Secretary and Government, the result is that my constituents’ lives will be put at risk. Their homes could burn. Across North Yorkshire it can get tinder dry at this time of year and we see fires breaking out. It could have a catastrophic impact and put firefighters at risk, as well as the environment and so much more. Who will be responsible for bailing out a service is a serious consideration. Because we will not have proper governance over the funding of the service, as it will be under the new authority, will we keep cutting and cutting, increasing the risk to the public and ultimately placing them in danger?

It is part of a devolution deal, whether the police and crime functions and fire and rescue come together in one role and how that will work out, but it is important to consider where that funding is going to come from. I am really concerned. That is why my amendment is so important. With the scale of the outstanding deficits, if we are going to pare back now, we will see increased energy costs, higher maintenance and issues around salaries, which have not yet been negotiated. The service needs new equipment, uniforms and insurance—the list goes on. That all has to come out of a zero balance. Therefore, being able to get the assurance that when there is devolution there will be sufficiency is going to be really important to ensuring that there are protections.

It could be argued that for a few years there will be greater cost savings. That could be the case, although I am not sure much more could be got out of the service. But the cuts in York, Scarborough and Harrogate will have a significant impact. In fact, only Cambridgeshire and Essex are now worse funded, and actually they have more reserves than North Yorkshire. That is the financial situation.

We need a resolve. The resolve comes in my amendment, which seeks to utilise the efficiency savings we can gain. That has clearly already been done—as has the back office shared facilities and the usual reserves. At that point, do we put the public at risk? Under a devolved authority, what we are talking about is the very homes we are trying to build being put at greater risk. That seems somewhat ironic within itself. Or do we provide that ring of protection around our fire and rescue essential service—emergency services, as we know it? Putting those constraints there is absolutely important.

My amendment would add one paragraph to the Bill. It highlights that if there are constraints around the funding, there will be means of revenue raising that will ensure that the safety standards are maintained in an area. That would essentially be either a grant or flexibility around the precept. That precept flexibility has already been exercised for eight authorities, so we know that is a mechanism that could be triggered. However, that was determined by Whitehall. If it is to be determined by a devolved authority, what would that look like, or will a Mayor have more opportunity in order to protect the community? I would like to understand how that would work functionally, and how we keep those communities safe.

As things stand, we are at the precipice of cuts to our fire and rescue service. On the negotiations, I am really concerned that no one will want to take on the risk, particularly if the first thing on their desk when a Mayor comes in is dealing with the financial mess of the fire and rescue service. Surely that is not what the Government are seeking. Trying to get a resolution and the right protections, and giving powers to ensure that such a scenario can be dealt with, must be of prime importance.

I ask the Minister to look carefully at the amendment and ensure that provisions can be made—it is only an enabling amendment, after all; it is not prescriptive. Where there is a threat to public safety and safety standards, and the safety of our firefighters, who put their lives on the line every day, it would enable sufficient funding to see them through this dangerous situation in North Yorkshire. I trust that the Minister can respond positively and help address our serious concerns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her excellent amendment, which gives us the chance to have an interesting conversation about having a backstop to ensure that our fire and rescue services are funded and safe. The reality she has injected into the debate is helpful for our considerations.

Reducing fires is a tricky business. Over the past 20 years it has been a significant success story of Government. The incidence of fire that fire and rescue services attended peaked at 1 million in 2003-04. Within 10 years that figure had halved. That is set against an increasing population. The number has held about the same for the last eight years. It is a real success story for Governments of different persuasions.

There are a number of factors. First, there is the more effective and efficient operation of fire and rescue services and those who work for them—they have done a great job. Then there is the very virtuous circle that, as incidents that have to be visited have reduced, the firefighters have used their time for early intervention activities, such as fire safety checks for vulnerable people, which have been a really good way of reducing the incidence of fire. That is very good for public safety, for the individuals and for resources. It has created a virtuous circle.

Changing diets have also had an impact—there are not as many chip pan fires as there were 20 to 30 years ago. There is better regulation of products, which are less likely to catch fire these days. That is set against a significant growth in the technologies we use at home. There are lots more electric-intensive items, but the appliances are better and they are regulated better. A whole mixture of developments have resulted in a spectacular reduction in the incidence of fire.

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. North Yorkshire fire service does household and wellbeing checks. There has been no reduction in the scale of rescue, including from road traffic accidents. I am sure that the Minister occasionally hears on the West Yorkshire airwaves about the challenges and regular accidents on the A64. York also experiences flooding, and the fire service is involved with our rescue boat. Tragically—more so at this time—the fire service also addresses issues of river safety and suicide, so its responsibilities are far more expansive than just dealing with fires. It was remiss of me to not refer to those matters earlier.

I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the chance to do so; what she says is very much true. Of course, the traffic on our roads has only grown over that period, so as my hon. Friend says, those incidences are likely to be something that we will always need a service for, and we are lucky to have the ones that we do. However, given that this is so multifactorial, the challenge we face is to work out what we can safely afford to change, and certainly what we can afford to do from a financial perspective. Have we reduced fires to a new normal, or are we suppressing and dampening them through our activities? We would only know the answer if we pulled resources out, and the reality—and this is really important for the purpose of this amendment—is that there is not an awful lot of money to take out of the fire service.

The Minister talked about the possibility of chief constables taking on leadership of the service. All those points have been well made and, as he has said, are mirrored in the 2009 Act and on the face of the Bill. However, combining senior management achieves some savings, but not an awful lot in the grand scheme of things. It obviously creates the advantages of colocation, but it does not mean that the services sit on top of each other, so they still need the space, although they may get some aggregation benefits. Then we start looking at going back to retained firefighters, which suits some communities but will not suit others. Finally, we are left with the two areas where savings tend to come from, which are a reduction in appliances and short crewing.

On the appliances front, I live just near junction 26 of the M1, which is a very busy place for the rescue functions that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central talked about. We currently have two appliances there, which means that fire cover is a challenge for the rest of the community. Every five years or so, we have to fight off a proposal to reduce the number of our appliances from two to one. I expect that we are due another proposal soon. It is one of the earliest political campaigns I got involved in. Like the football World cup, it comes around every four years and we keep succeeding. Long may that be the case, because reductions create gaps in fire cover. Some of the gaps that my hon. Friend talked about are significant, and these are things that people feel very strongly about, in terms of the money they pay in taxes and the support they would like to have. That is a challenge.

There is only so far that services in distress can go with appliances. It is kind of possible to have half an appliance, but not really because it does not give services the same financial benefit. When a service is down to short crewing, firefighters are asked to deal with really dangerous situations that they have not been trained to deal with, and the best health and safety and work modelling does not suggest that that is the way to do it. We should be very careful about entering that space. There needs to be a backstop. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, we would not want to use it routinely, but it would be helpful if the Bill made that provision available. The Minister may say that there are other ways to deal with this. If so, we will listen with interest, but my hon. Friend’s point is well made and I think that our constituents feel very strongly about it. She has made a strong case.

This is a very helpful amendment, and one that I hope the Minister will take seriously. As has been said, huge strides have been made over the past few years in reducing the numbers of horrific incidents. That has happened for a lot of reasons, including the fire and rescue services focusing on fire prevention work and on seeking proactively to educate homes and businesses on the need to avoiding risks, as well as all sorts of other structural factors that have already been mentioned.

In my part of the world, we are dependent on people who are not full-time firefighters. That is not just retained firefighters—I will come back to them in a moment—to whom we owe a particular debt of gratitude. The work of mountain rescue and bay rescue services, integrated with the fire and rescue service, provides a unique perspective and a reminder that we try to use all sorts of innovative ways—voluntary ways, often—to meet the need to protect the community, despite a lack of resource.

Among the reasons why the amendment is important is the fact that we need to understand that if we are considering a fire service that is predominantly retained—particularly in rural communities, in places such as Sedbergh, Staveley and many other communities that I represent elsewhere in Cumbria—it will only have a retained pump. That is all it has. With a declining workforce, the change in housing tenure over the past few years, which has become radically different in the past two, and a shrinkage of the working-age population, we are running the risk of having no one available to take on those roles. In those circumstances, it makes sense for the fire and rescue service, and Government working with services around the country, to look at ways of augmenting communities where it is simply not possible to find the people to staff a retained pump and, therefore, to keep the community safe.

I am proud to be a Cumbrian MP. I also represent Westmorland and old Lancashire. I am, however, Yorkshire’s secret MP, because I represent Sedbergh, the dales, Garsdale and Cowgill—we border North Yorkshire. There are huge distances between places out there, from the lakes to the dales. Yes, the incidence of fires that we now encounter is low, compared with a couple of decades ago. Lots of people should take credit for that, including Governments of different colours and, in particular, the fire service.

However, the distances that need to be covered to get from the fire station to the fire are vast. If a retained firefighter is on their farm and drops what they are doing to cover that distance to get to the pump, only to find that there are only two other people who have got there at the same time, they then have to make a call about whether it is safe to attend the fire. There are only three of them who managed to get away from work, and there are only five people on the list in the first place. They have to think: “What do we do? Do we scramble Kendal and get a full-time pump? That is another 10 miles away.”

The amendment would allow the flexibility to create and provide funding to ensure the provision of a full-time pump for communities that, under normal circumstances, might not qualify under the funding formula, so that we are not putting rural communities, in particular, at risk.

The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case in support of the amendment. We are entering a period of increased drought; with climate change, that situation is likely to get worse. We are seeing more and more fires across our moors. That in itself is surely reason not to see cuts on such scale, which will devastate the service and put firefighters at risk.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. We are the wettest bit of England. We need to be, because of the lakes—we have to keep them topped up. Nevertheless, Members will remember that in the past few months there were flash fires at Cartmel Fell, which raged for a full weekend and took many pumps to get under control. I am massively grateful to those who got those fires under control.

With that changing weather, we can go from very damp weather to very dry weather for long periods. In areas with lots of forestry and agriculture, there is the potential for flash fires, which can cause death and damage to wildlife, livestock, homes, businesses and families—human beings. We therefore need to be all the more aware of the fact that we cannot allow the technicalities of funding formulas to get in the way of keeping our people safe.

I am extremely sympathetic to hon. Members campaigning on local services. I know that the Home Office has been engaging with the North Yorkshire fire and rescue service specifically on these issues. In 2022-23, the North Yorkshire fire and rescue authority will have core spending power of £33.5 million, which is an increase of £1.4 million or 4.5% compared with 2021-22. As of 31 March 2020, North Yorkshire held £4.9 million in resource reserves, equivalent to 60% of its 2020-21 core spending power. According to its draft 2020-21 accounts, total resource reserves increased by £8 million by 31 March 2021, an increase of £3.1 million or 62%. The issues that the hon. Member for York Central has raised, which are very important, are certainly being looked at.

I come narrowly to the specific point about the clause and the amendment. Clause 38, to which the amendment applies, is vital to enable mayoral combined authorities to finance their activities. It enables regulations to be made about the setting of a Mayor’s budget and enables a Mayor of a CCA to fund mayoral functions through raising the precept on council tax under section 40 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. That replicates the comprehensive funding provisions for a combined authority Mayor set out in the Local Government Finance Act. The existing provisions apply to all mayoral functions, including the operation of a fire and rescue service, in exactly the same way as for a combined authority. It is only a Mayor acting on behalf of a CCA who may issue a precept to fund mayoral functions.

We think the amendment is unnecessary. It seeks to provide the Secretary of State with powers to issue grants to fire and rescue services, but that is not necessary because the Secretary of State already has existing powers to provide grants to fire and rescue services under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003. As such, the amendment is not required, and I hope it will be withdrawn.

I thank hon. Members, including the Minister, for their contributions. Our problem with the Minister’s case is that the precept is capped—it is limited—and therefore it will not prevent the ongoing revenue deficit that the North Yorkshire fire and rescue service faces. That deficit will simply be moved into the new devolved authority of North Yorkshire, and as a result we will yet again be in that challenged position. This is a matter that still has to be resolved, and after listening to the Minister’s response I am not convinced that an adequate solution has been put forward to protect the public—that is what this is about—the service and the firefighters, and ensure people can sleep at night.

We have heard about the multiple calls on the firefighting budget and the fire and rescue service, and the situation is getting worse year on year. We have not seen grants coming out of the Home Office. We have been talking about the challenges in North Yorkshire for well over six months. In fact, it was the back end of last summer when we started talking about wanting more flexibility around the precept to raise more funding, but it was capped at the 1.99% that the authority was given. In contrast, the eight authorities I referred to got the bail-out, the flexibility and the support from the Home Office. There will therefore be a draw on the local authority to provide sufficiency if the Home Office does not, because no one will want to be new in the role of Mayor and take on such a liability.

I want to press this amendment to a vote, because it shows how important it is to protect the public and have fire safety and public safety at the forefront of legislation.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 39

Alternative mayoral titles

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I promised the Committee a debate on alternative mayoral titles when we were talking about changing the names of county combined authorities, and I would never knowingly not keep a promise of such magnitude. I will be honest: I am not very excited by alternative mayoral titles, whatever the right hon. Member for Pudsey might say—not least because I have a lot of confidence in the collective wisdom of the British people. Being a proud Nottinghamian, I know that if someone were to become the Mayor of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire and then pursue an alternative title that was too grand to befit their status, they would face significant judgment from some very straight-talking people. In the end, it would not work out well for them. I have confidence that title inflation is not something that the British people are likely to look at fondly.

I do not want to detain the Committee for long, but I have three questions for the Minister. Frist, will he indulge us by letting us know what demand there is for alternative mayoral titles and what conversations he has had with communities that wish to have them? I understand that some demand might result from having different geographies and make-ups, and I am interested to hear about that.

Secondly, we had the first part of this debate when we discussed clause 15, which relates to county combined authorities changing their names. Clause 15(2)(c) has a requirement for the CCA to vote by a two-thirds supermajority for a change of name. Under clause 39(3)(c), the resolution to have an alternative mayoral title needs to pass with a simple majority. I did not have a lot of interest in the first proposed usage of the supermajority. A supermajority does have it uses, but only by exception. I am not sure that clause 15 makes a compelling case for one, but that has been disposed with. Why, however, has the Minister chosen to diverge in this way?

Finally, clause 39(2) provides a list of alternative titles, including county commissioner, county governor, elected leader and governor. Clause 39(2)(e) then introduces the possibility of having

“a title that the CCA considers more appropriate than the alternative titles mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (d), having regard to the title of other public office holders in the area of the CCA.”

I read that as meaning “any other title”, essentially, but I am keen to hear from the Minister that that is what is meant.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to read it as “any other title” that is locally wished for, having respect for the fact that there may be other people with such job titles in the area. He asked about where there is demand. A number of places that we are talking to about devolution deals are thinking about using non-mayoral titles, particularly in non-urban areas and where people feel that “Mayor” may not be the correct term for them. They may prefer leader, governor, commissioner or some of the titles that we have discussed.

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would ask why a supermajority is required to change the name of the institution but not the title of the directly elected leader. The difference is that many people will have made legal contracts with a CCA, so changing it is a fundamental and non-trivial thing to do, because it would require lots of other consequential changes. We talked in a previous sitting about the need for the stability of the institution. This is a more novel and more experimental area. I do not expect that we would see lots of constant changing and chopping of the name of the directly elected leader, but we think that that is an important part of devolution.

I have a further question about this measure and how we could end up with such a variety of names in different devolved areas: a county commissioner in one place might be a county governor, a governor, a Mayor, or who knows what we might end up with under subsection (3)(e). That could be more confusing for the public. We have already talked about a range of powers and a range of tiers; we now have a range of names, in a whole spectrum of shifting powers and accountabilities. Does the Minister believe this measure to be a necessary step? Does he recognise that it could lead to more confusion than trying to address the very issues he probably intended it to address originally?

I believe it to be a necessary step in the Bill. In previous sittings, I set out that our particularism, our respect of local circumstances and our bespoke nature are features, not bugs, of our devolution agenda. This clause is a further part of that, making the title of the directly elected leader reflect the desires of local people and the history of the local area, and to fit in with local circumstances. It is therefore of a piece with the nature of how we are conducting the devolution agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 39 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 41

Power to amend list of alternative titles

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Bearing in mind the Minister’s answer that clause 39(2)(e) in essence allows any title to be chosen, if that is the will of the county combined authority, what is the necessity of this clause? It allows the Secretary of State by regulation to change the list of those potential titles. There is an argument to say that there is not much point to having them on the face of the Bill, if a CCA can just choose what they want anyway—but perhaps it is shaping the conversation, in which case I understand that. Given the powers for county combined authorities to choose any name they wish, I find it hard to understand any value in reserving the ability to change the list by regulation. That seems very much after the fact. I am surprised and wonder why the Minister is so keen on the clause.

It is entirely to shape the conversation, as the hon. Gentleman says. It is to give a list of suggestions that may be appropriate, while also allowing others to go for different things if they consider that appropriate locally.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42

Proposal for new CCA

I beg to move amendment 53, in clause 42, page 38, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) prepare and publish a report setting out the results of the consultation.”

This amendment would require the authority or authorities submitting a proposal for a new Combined County Authority to make the results of the public consultation publicly available before submission.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 54, clause 43, page 39, line 12, at end insert—

“(3A) If a public consultation has been carried out under subsection (3), the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report setting out the results.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make the results of the public consultation on establishing a Combined County Authority publicly available in a report.

Amendment 55, clause 44, page 40, line 9, at end insert—

“(c) prepare and publish a report setting out the results of the consultation.”

This amendment would require the authority or authorities submitting a proposal for changes to Combined County Authority arrangements to make the results of the public consultation publicly available before submission.

Amendment 56, clause 45, page 41, line 13, at end insert—

“(3A) If a public consultation has been carried out under subsection (3), the Secretary of State must prepare and publish a report setting out the results.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make the results of a public consultation on a proposal for changes to Combined County Authority arrangements publicly available in a report.

The theme of this group of amendments is incredibly similar and something that Labour Members have been raising throughout the passage of the Bill to date, particularly in Committee. My amendments are seeking to provide greater transparency with the publication of final reports. Amendments 53 and 55 call for a report to be published following consultation. They appear to be such minor amendments, but they are so important to public scrutiny. In turn, such scrutiny builds public confidence and accountability, which our communities deserve because of impact the Bill will have on them. Publication of such reports on the consultation will also enable local politicians to see their contents and to use the information provided. That is what we want to see at all levels of government.

Amendments 54 and 56 refer to clauses 43 and 45, and would enable any announcements from the Secretary of State to be set out for public scrutiny. Again, they are important amendments that enable us to uphold our democracy and demonstrate that it is overt and transparency. To see the contents of such reports is an important democratic right, because the more information that is put in the public domain, the more scrutiny and accountability can be exercised and the more confidence built behind that. That ensures that if matters come to light, they can be addressed. That is all about good governance. I trust that Members can support the amendments.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central on her amendments. The importance of public interest, public consultation and engagement has been a theme of our recent discussions, because it is important to make sure that the proposed structures are introduced with the backing of the public, so that they have a stake in that and understand the role and responsibilities of those bodies. In turn, that means that the public can understand how those bodies are working in the public’s collective interests. That gets to the root of trying to do things with people rather than to people. I am anxious that the changes are likely to drop out of the sky on to people rather than being something in which they have been part of the conversation.

In an earlier answer, the Minister said that the purpose of the bodies was to serve voters. In that case, it is really important that those voters are brought along and that their views are listened to, whether on less significant matters such as what the Mayor should be called or really significant matters about what powers should be sought, how they are exercised and what the leadership should be. All those conversations should be bottom up rather than top down, but I am afraid that we have not reached that point in the Bill.

The amendments offer a good opportunity to add some of that consultation, so I hope that the Minister is listening.

In looking forward to changes in the way in which local government will be organised in the future, we are bound to reflect on how things have been done in the past.

In Cumbria, we are working hard to ensure that the reorganisation to unitary authorities is a big success, and the early signs are positive. It is worth bearing in mind that there was a consultation, and that fewer than 1% of the public engaged with it. We can glean that the massive majority felt it was not necessary to reorganise local government in Cumbria. People in the southern part of Cumberland object to being lumped in with Westmorland and split from the rest of Cumberland, and people think we would be far better off with smaller units of local democracy. After all in Scotland, where it is an entirely unitary local government landscape, there are unitary authorities with as few as 17,000 people living in them. In England, there is no recognition of the similar rurality need for smaller authorities.

Many people also thought, “We are going through a pandemic, what a stupid time to be rearranging the deckchairs.” If there is a need for local government reorganisation they thought that surely now was not the time to do it. We are where we are, and we will make a success of it—we are determined to do. These are important amendments, because they remind us again that we need to scrutinise the motivation behind the Government’s proposals. Who are these proposals for? The Government are minded to reorganise local government to bring in new CCAs, Mayors and all the rest of it, but unless we are clear that the public want those changes and the Government are responding to that, it is yet more evidence that this approach to local government reorganisation is about fixing Whitehall’s desire for control and convenience, rather than about listening to local people anywhere in the country.

We discussed in a previous sitting the new combined county authority model and the associated consultation requirements. At that time, I set out our commitment to ensuring that whenever a CCA is established, its boundaries change or, if it is being abolished, that the local public are consulted on the proposal.

Clauses 42 to 45 set out the requirements, including public consultation, associated with establishing, changing or dissolving a CCA. They include the preconditions for any regulations with those effects to be made. One such condition is for the area or CCA to undertake a public consultation on the proposal to establish, amend or dissolve a CCA. A summary of the consultation responses must be submitted to the Secretary of State alongside the proposal, and the decision to submit it must be taken at CCA or council meetings, which are held publicly. As such, that summary of consultation results will be publicly available.

Another condition is the specific duty on the Secretary of State to consider whether, prior to making regulations, further public consultation is needed. Indeed, the absence of a public response to an earlier consultation might give rise to further consultation—that addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. If the Secretary of State makes such regulations, they must publish an explanatory memorandum setting out the results of the public consultation. As a result, although we totally agree with the sentiment behind the amendments, they do not add anything to the requirements that are already provided for, and I hope that they will be withdrawn.

I appreciate the contributions that have been made by hon. Members. The points about accountability were absolutely right. We have seen a reorganisation of local government in North Yorkshire, and the districts were not supportive of it and felt that it was very much imposed from the centre. Being able to see the rationale and the thinking is important, and that is what these simple amendments would allow. I am happy to withdraw the amendment for now, but I reserve the right to bring it back at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 43

Requirements in connection with establishment of CCA

I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 43, page 39, line 23, at end insert—

“(5A) When the Secretary of State makes regulations under this section they must publish an accompanying statement stating—

(a) whether or not the CCA has access to the fullest conferred powers, and

(b) if not, the reasons why not.”

I will be brief, because this is a counterpart conversation to discussions that we have had before. The amendment would enhance the clause by putting in a requirement to report on whether a combined county authority has access to the fullest conferred powers, and if not, an explanation for why. That would help the Government to maintain their stance in the White Paper, in which they seemed to want to offer such measures by 2030. It would perhaps be a positive step if we did that a little quicker.

The amendment is not appropriate for two main reasons. First, it uses the term “fullest conferred powers”, which is undefinable and incalculable. Our devolution framework does not provide a minimum offer, and our local leadership mission and desire to deepen devolution mean there is no upper limit to the conferral of powers, nor should we seek to impose one.

On a point of order, Sir Mark. Could the Minister speak a bit slower? I do not know whether it is the acoustics in the room, but I am finding it quite difficult to hear what he is saying.

Yes, the Minister does speak quite quietly. Is Hansard picking it up? Okay, good.

Are some people finding this not thrilling? That is absolutely outrageous—we are getting to the really exciting bits. I will try to enunciate better. It is perfectly reasonable that the hon. Lady asks me to do so.

It will be appropriate for different CCAs to have different functions due to the different circumstances and priorities in their areas. We have had that same argument a number of times in Committee. Whatever functions are to be conferred will be done by regulations, which will be considered by Parliament and cannot be made without parliamentary approval. In considering the regulations, to rehearse some of the points already made, Parliament will have an explanatory memorandum and other explanatory documents explaining why the powers are conferred, the views of the consultees and how the conferral meets the statutory test of improving economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

I hope that given those explanations, the hon. Member will withdraw the amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I got a little more than I bargained for. I admire the Minister’s characterisation of the Government’s devolution agenda as “incalculable”. I have some doubts about that. I argue that the Minister has set out quite defined and calculable strata in the White Paper, so I am slightly surprised that it would be impossible to know whether a combined county authority had the maximum powers. That is possibly a point of difference. We are in the strange position that our alignment with the White Paper is greater than the Government’s, but I am sure that point will come up again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 44 and 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46

General power of CCA

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I will not speak for long on the general powers of combined county authorities. The explanation is very well set out in the explanatory notes to the Bill, which is a handy read about how we have landed here in local government legislation.

I want to push the Minister on how he thinks this provision would work in practice. Will Royal Assent be the day the Government give a clear signal that, once we have conferred functional purposes on combined county authorities, they will be left to do those things? Will that be the case even if the outcomes might sometimes not be the ones the Government think are best, but the inputs and outputs are in pursuit of local goals as decided by local decision makers? At some point there will be a Minister who says that that is not the case; I wish to have it in my pocket that this Minister thinks that it is the case at this stage.

I wonder if I could crowbar something in? Within the combined county authorities there will be housing powers. There is reference of course to a lack of borrowing powers, and I want to push back on that. On both sides of the House, we often talk about the chronic need to build more affordable and social rented homes. Many councils retain ownership of council housing, and I was pleased that one of the upsides of the new authority in Westmorland and Furness is that, because Barrow never got rid of its council houses, our new authority will have a council housing department. That is really positive.

I know that there are fingers on the public sector borrowing requirement, and there are reasons why the Government are reluctant to give authorities’ council housing departments the ability to borrow in order to build the homes we need, but that is clearly wrong. If the Government want to empower local communities to build the houses we desperately need, they are going to have to give housing authorities the power to borrow to build them.

In general, the hon. Gentleman’s question takes us a bit beyond the scope of the clause. However, the narrower part of it, which connects up with the good question put by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, gives me an opportunity to explain what the clause does and does not do.

The clause does not give a combined county authority unbridled power. It gives it the power necessary to do anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of carrying out any of its functions—its “functional purposes” in the law. That might include undertaking a feasibility study as a preliminary stage to an infrastructure project. The clause sets out boundaries and limitations for a combined county authority’s exercise of its powers.

These are therefore broad powers, but there is still a requirement in law that they are related to the carrying out of its actual functions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 48

Power to make provision supplemental to section 46

I beg to move amendment 41, in clause 48, page 43, line 11, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from conferring different general powers on different CCAs.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 42, in clause 49, page 43, line 37, at end insert—

“(4) Where the Secretary of State makes provision under subsection (1), the same powers must be offered to all other CCAs subject to the consent of the appropriate authorities under subsection (2).”

Where the Secretary of State has conferred a general power of competence to one CCA, this amendment would require them to offer all CCAs the same powers.

My notes are as extensive as saying, “Same principle.” I might have to do a bit better in my explanation, but that is probably a sign not to speak for long on this clause either.

Clause 48 gives the Secretary of State the powers, essentially, to make clause 46 work—the ability to provide for the exercise of functional purposes. That argument was well made by the Minister and agreed with by all. What amendment 41 would do is leave out subsections (3)(b) and (c), as a way of saying to the Secretary of State that this power should not be conferred unequally. We should be conferring these powers as and when necessary to CCAs—I made that point earlier. As an alternative, under amendment 42 to clause 49, the Secretary of State must offer a general power to all if it has been offered to one. Again, that is in line with arguments that have already been made, which I will not repeat.

I will be brief, because we have discussed these matters a number of times. The Committee has come to recognise that there will be asymmetry and that the powers will evolve at different times and in different authorities. That is the nature of devolution, and it is positive because it means local areas are in control of their own destiny. Capping those powers will have an impact on the economic ability and drivers of an area and will result in socioeconomic loss. Restraining local authorities in reaching their potential could mean that we do not see the growth and opportunity that a CCA could bring.

The amendments would enable more parity but also ensure that CCAs do not have different powers or descriptions. We want more symmetry in the ability to attain powers, and we will no doubt keep labouring the point at later stages of the Bill, because it is fundamental to devolution and who controls the process. The amendments very much go into the detail of that.

I add my support to Labour’s approach. I am not fixated on symmetry in terms of what devolution looks like across England, but like the hon. Member for York Central I am obsessed with symmetry of opportunity. The amendments would help to raise the bar and raise the expectations of all authorities so that they can see what powers they can aspire to.

If we do not have something like the amendments, and some communities, because they have a Mayor or for other reasons, are offered greater devolution—it is often more delegation than devolution—more powers and more responsibilities, that is not levelling up. It is quite the opposite: it is building privilege into some parts of the country over other parts of the country, and institutionalising privilege. Broadly speaking, it will be institutionalising privilege for urban and metropolitan areas that have city deals, Mayors and the highest levels of devolution and delegation of responsibility. Not allowing all parts of the country to opt in to having the greatest level of devolved powers, should they so choose, is a recipe for creating the need for a different kind of levelling up some time not very far in the future.

This is indeed a continuation of the debate we have been having over several days now. We have stated our belief that one-size-fits-all arrangements of the type provided for by amendment 41 are antithetical to different areas having different functions and progressing at different speeds.

The effect of amendment 41 would be that, regardless of the functions conferred on different CCAs, unless the CCA has had conferred on it the broader general power of competence under clause 49, the conditions imposed on what can be done in pursuit of those functions will have to be the same. That would be an overly rigid approach, in practice requiring all CCAs to be at the same level before any conditions could be changed. That outcome, however unintentional, would not fit with our area-led and bespoke approach to devolution.

The general power of competence, introduced for local authorities by the Localism Act 2011, would allow a CCA to do anything an individual can do that is not prevented by law. For example, if a CCA does not have housing powers, the general power of competence would enable it to buy a house on the market, but it would not enable it to compulsorily purchase that house.

Amendment 42 would require the offer to all areas, implicit in this clause, to confer the general power of competence, if it is appropriate to their circumstance and if they want it, to be restated wherever it is so conferred. That requirement is unnecessary.

We have been clear that if a good case exists for any power to be conferred to any area as part of a devolution deal, we are open to proposals to do so that are in line with the devolution framework. Further, it could be unhelpful and inappropriate to be required to make an unconditional offer that might not be universally appropriate. To date, only three combined authorities have asked for this to be conferred, which we have done.

Both amendments seek to bind matters that should always be the subject of an individual agreement between the area and the Secretary of State, which Parliament will then have to approve. All variations will be public knowledge and the rationale for them will be subject to parliamentary debate informed by explanatory memorandums.

I was very taken by the Minister’s comments about an area-led process. It does not feel like this is area-led; it feels Secretary of State-led—the Secretary of State will determine what the powers will be. Would the Minister consider an amendment that facilitated a more area-led approach at a later stage of the Bill? If there were a more à la carte opportunity and authorities were ready to take on greater powers and responsibilities, could they assume those powers, as opposed to having to renegotiate a deal, which could be quite a bureaucratic process? They could access what other authorities have accessed, in a timely way. Would that be a suitable amendment to the Bill that was palatable to the Government as we move forward?

Without wishing to repeat all the arguments we have been making over the last several days, I would argue that this is the à la carte approach. We are resisting a one-size-fits-all approach in which, if a power is offered to one area, it must be offered to every single area, and in which people can move only at the speed of the slowest. For all the reasons I have already set out, we will continue to resist that approach.

I do not think this is about a one-size-fits-all approach by any means. It is recognition that different authorities will be—

Order. These are very long interventions—almost small speeches. You can speak after the Minister to make these points. Please be as brief as you can.

Thank you, Sir Mark. I was building my case, but I appreciate your guidance. I simply seek a different mechanism by which authorities could take on greater responsibilities, because it seems it is either full negotiation or a denial of being able to pick to expand. I wonder whether there is a halfway house that could be palatable to the Minister.

As Members will have noticed from us having done six or seven devolution deals to continue to deepen deals we have agreed, and from the fact that we are working on deepening the devolution deals for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester Combined Authorities, we are prepared to go further all the time. That brings me to the end of my remarks.

The Minister knows that the Opposition approach is neither one size fits all, nor slowest pace. I concede that amendment 41 probably does not serve in that regard because it would have a restrictive impact. I take the criticism of the amendment, but the same does not apply to amendment 42, although I am not inclined to press it to a vote.

The Minister used the characterisation “à la carte”. I thought that was the whole function of the White Paper. He instead talks about individual agreements, which I think is part of the reason we have the complicated set-up that we have now. I thought the whole purpose of the White Paper was the pursuit of the goal of everyone having the uppermost powers if they so wished. Individual agreements are clearly not going to be the most effective way to do that.

We are left in this curious situation where we seem to be more interested in and attached to what is in the White Paper than the Minister is. The point has been made, so I will not push the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 49 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 50

Incidental etc provision

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Again, I will not detain the Committee for long. Clause 51, certainly, is very much a standard clause. I wondered, however, for the sake of our understanding and perhaps with reference to combined authorities or what the Minister might foresee for combined county authorities, generally what the provisions look like. What sort of properties, rights and liabilities are transferred? I am interested in a real-world example.

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman. Clauses 50 to 54 are basically technical provisions needed to make the CCA model work. Clause 50 grants the Secretary of State the power to make incidental, consequential, transitional or supplementary provision in support of regulations made under this chapter. I am happy to set out some examples for him in slow time.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 50 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 52


I beg to move amendment 43, in clause 52, page 45, line 16, leave out “may” and insert—

“must, within 6 months of the day on which this Act is passed,”.

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to produce guidance on the establishment and operation of CCAs within 6 months of this Act receiving Royal Assent.

We are about to reach the end of chapter 1 of part 2, which relates to the formulation and mechanics of combined county authorities. Much of what will pass in the rest of part 2 is consequential and not much to debate, so this will be the last opportunity to make some points. I did not want to miss that opportunity, particularly on guidance.

The discussions we have had, and the mechanics of the organisations as laid out by the Minister, show that the CCAs are fiddly entities. There is much to be established, with Mayors, deputies, changing geographies, changing names, police functions, fire functions and much more. As detailed in the White Paper, at least 10 places are foreseen as potential partners for combined county authorities, so there is likely much to be understood in guidance.

I hope that my amendment is not necessary. It changes the provision allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance to one compelling them to give guidance. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the intention is to have guidance, because clearly there will be a need. I have suggested “within 6 months” of Royal Assent. That is not something to fall out over, but I am keen for a commitment that guidance will follow and to know when it might do so.

The clause grants the Secretary of State the power to issue written guidance about anything that could be done under or by virtue of chapter 1 of the Bill by a combined county authority, combined authority, county council, district council or integrated transport authority. The relevant authority must have regard to any guidance given in exercising any function under this chapter.

The amendment, as we understand its intent, is misplaced. The reference to guidance in the clause relates to the requirement for an authority to have regard to the guidance in exercising a function conferred or imposed by virtue of chapter 1. I can undertake that areas wishing to establish a CCA will be made familiar with the processes required of them during their devolution deal negotiation. We will help them to do all those things. Officials will continue to work closely with area officials to ensure the successful implementation of deals and the establishment of CCAs.

The Secretary of State has no immediate plans to issue guidance. The ability to do so via this clause provides maximum flexibility should the issuing of such guidance ever be appropriate. I hope that reassures hon. Members.

I am a little surprised that the intention is to provide guidance in a kind of ad hoc manner directly from officials to area officials. It would seem to me valuable for that to be a common and publicly shared thing, not least so that the public can understand it and get the sense that these processes are being done transparently, rather than in phone calls that they do not have access to. I am a bit surprised by that. I will not labour the point by pressing for a Division, but perhaps the Minister will reflect on it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clauses 54 to 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 71

Capital finance risk management

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to consider amendment 45, in clause 195, page 196, line 33, at end insert

“but the Secretary of State must formally consult representatives of local government before making such regulations”

This amendment would delay the implementation of clause 71 until a formal consultation has taken place with local government representatives.

Clause 71 proposes to give the Secretary of State significant powers to intervene in a local authority, including limiting borrowing and/or directing a local authority to sell specific assets. Such an intervention would follow a review that could be triggered by assessment against specific financial formulae, the thresholds for which are to be set by regulation after the Bill has received Royal Assent. It is slightly difficult for this Committee to understand the wisdom of that without knowing those thresholds. That goes with the lack of an impact assessment and, in this case, incomplete information, which makes the ability to judge quite difficult.

The local government family have expressed concern about this, including concerns voiced by their membership body, the Local Government Association. I understand that the measures relate to Government concerns about councils’ approach to capital and borrowing, and we need to set that in context. As the LGA highlighted in an intervention last week, rising energy prices, rising inflation and national minimum wage pressures are set to add £3.6 billion in unforeseen extra cost pressures on council budgets by 2024-25. That is on top of the £15 billion cut to council budgets by central Government over the previous decade. Councils are simultaneously managing significant spending reductions and growing demand for services, certainly in adult social care and child social care—both sectors are significant growth lines on local authority budgets.

The reductions in central Government grants since 2010 have understandably led councils to look for new ways to generate revenue in order to secure services in the long term and move towards greater self-sufficiency. Indeed, that was the direction, and the characterisation of the period between 2010 and 2015, and the Secretary of State at the time—now the noble Lord Pickles—was saying, “Commercialise, commercialise” so that councils could become financially self-sufficient, on the understanding that central grants would whittle away to nothing. They are well on that trajectory.

Councils have been pushed into that sort of commercialism and borrowing. There is also a case about place making. Councils have made investments to contribute to their local economy and their environment, such as building new houses, introducing energy efficiency improvements and providing necessary infrastructure such as schools and roads. There is a growing conversation about high streets and town centres—a significant part of this legislation. Again, councils would love to enter that space so that there is a public interest in how landlords are motivated on our high streets.

Councils have to follow strict rules and assessments, as required by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s prudential code for capital financing in local authorities also needs to be followed when making borrowing and investment decisions. Those rules have been reviewed and updated in just the past few months.

Given that framework and the new rules that councils already have to follow, I am keen to hear from the Minister a clarification on what the enhanced intervention process is likely to mean in practice. It is crucial that the proposed changes do not have unintended consequences, and there is a danger that a strict, hard-and-fast, formula-based approach, as hinted at in the Bill, could have wide and perhaps unintended implications, particularly if there are any problems with the thresholds and the metrics that the Government have not yet identified in terms of how they work in practice. They may not be proportionate to the scale of the issue that the Government are seeking to address.

I understand that the Government have said that the stated intention is only for a handful of councils to be affected, but if the levels are not set right or if the calculations are not done effectively, I dare say that the trigger point could tip an awful lot together at the same time, because there is generally quite a lot of herding in this sort of space.

The purpose of the amendment is therefore to ask the Government to undertake full engagement with local government, including full consultations with councils and their representative bodies before enacting the regulations. The advice from councils and the LGA would assist the Government in preserving that legitimate and important concept of prudential borrowing, which we would all support, while ensuring that the new arrangements genuinely address the Government’s concerns.

The Government recognise the importance of prudential borrowing and local capital investment for economic growth, improved public services, and meeting local priorities such as housing delivery. That is why we need a robust system that supports the benefits of local decision making and allows for sensible investment, but also that safeguards taxpayers’ money and protects the local government finance system.

In recent years, a small minority of local authorities have taken excessive risks with taxpayers’ money: they have become too indebted, or have made investments that have proved too risky. To give some examples, local authorities have engaged in investment activities in markets they know nothing about, such as energy companies, and lost tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Some have not had the governance structures in place that would enable them to make, or assure themselves of, investment and borrowing decisions. Some have borrowed up to £1 billion when they have only had a core spending power of just over £10 million, and others have not set aside funds to pay off their debt when it becomes due. The National Audit Office reported that 20.8% of local authorities’ property acquisitions in the period 2016-17 to 2018-19 were outside of their region. In summary, there have been a number of problematic activities, which clause 71 seeks to address. The Government have been consistent and clear in their messaging that they will take action to address such activities as needed.

The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have reported on the risks to the financial system, and the need for urgent action to address them. The Government are making changes to the capital system to support good decision making and constrain risk, but they must also have the powers to directly address excessive risk where necessary and appropriate. The changes will provide a flexible range of interventions for the Government to investigate and remediate issues where capital practices have placed financial sustainability at risk.

To be clear, the Government have no intention of restricting the activities of local authorities that operate responsibly. We are clear that measures must be as targeted and proportionate as possible to protect local services and taxpayers, while letting the Government mandate remedial actions where needed.

However, as the examples I have given show, the need for action is pretty clear. The metrics and thresholds that will underpin the new powers will be set in regulations, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, and we will of course engage with sector experts and local authorities and consult widely as we develop those regulations to ensure they are fit for purpose. That is exactly our intention, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, and it is why I hope the Committee will support the clause.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, and for the oblique references he included in it—there was a well left Easter egg, which I was able to find very easily. In return, I might say—equally obliquely—that if such local authorities had not been more than £60 million worse off in real terms over the past four years, some of those decisions might not have been made. I also say that such concerns have not stopped Ministers in the Department, or indeed the Minister himself, from seeking to bestow more powers and resources on those local authorities, so there must be some limit to the concern that the Minister would have in such cases, were they to occur. I would also suggest that significant mechanisms are already in place, as the Minister has hinted at and as I know very well myself.

However, the Minister has given a generous assurance, one that will be welcomed by the sector, which will be very keen to take part in that process. On that basis, we are happy to support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 71 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 72

Long-term empty dwellings: England

I beg to move amendment 61, in clause 72, page 81, line 4, at end insert—

“(za) in section 1(b), leave out “the relevant maximum” and insert “300”;

(zb) omit subsections (1A) to (1C);.”.

This amendment would raise the maximum level at which local authorities can set council tax on long-term empty dwellings.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 78, in clause 72, page 81, line 9, leave out “1 year” and insert “6 months”.

This amendment would reduce length of time before the Local Authority could charge the higher rate of Council Tax on long-term empty dwellings.

Amendment 62, in clause 73, page 81, line 28, leave out “100” and insert “300”.

This amendment would raise the maximum level at which local authorities can set council tax on dwellings occupied periodically

Amendment 63, in clause 73, page 81, line 31, at end insert—

“(c) the dwelling is available to let for less than 252 days and actually let for less than 182 days in any 12-month period”.

This amendment would increase the threshold at which properties are liable to be charged council tax.

Amendment 81, in clause 73, page 81, line 33, leave out “one year” and insert “six months”.

This amendment would reduce length of time before the Local Authority could charge the higher rate of Council Tax.

The country is currently in the depths of a severe housing crisis, with a lack of supply of affordable homes and opportunities for young people and families to get on to the property ladder. Members across the House will know from our casework just what a profound challenge that is, and how damaging the lack of affordable homes is for younger generations. Its impact is felt all over the country and across all communities in some way, but I think the problem is particularly acute in our coastal towns and holiday hotspots. Steep price rises due to a considerable trend in people buying second homes are having a significant effect on local housing markets in such places. This trend has only been accelerated and exaggerated by the pandemic, as working patterns have changed.

Local residents in holiday towns, particularly those with families going back generations in their home town, are being squeezed out of the housing market and forced to look elsewhere, as property is bought for second homes, rather than to help locals get on to the property ladder and have somewhere to house their families. As fewer properties become available and local supply is reduced, house prices rise inexorably and local people are forced to contend with the vicious circle of a lack of supply and rising prices.

There is a significant problem. The housing crisis will be played out in days to come. There is a desire across the House to address it. At this point, I am particularly talking about holiday hotspots and coastal towns. Tight-knit communities are being hollowed out and left like ghost towns for significant parts of the year, outside of holiday seasons. We have heard stories of village pubs boarded up and the village shop on the brink, such is the lack of custom. Whole primary schools are closing, as there is a generation of lost children. Unfortunately, our local authorities do not have the right tools to really grip the situation and protect their local communities.

That is why it is welcome that clause 72 is in the Bill and that the Government are entering into this space and sees it is as their responsibility to allow local authorities to place a 100% council tax premium on long-term empty dwellings or dwellings occupied only periodically. However, the Opposition do not think that goes far enough to give local authorities real power to make the right decisions for their communities. Amendments 61 to 63 seek to improve the Bill in that way.

The offer in the amendments is for 300% as the premium, rather than 100%, as introduced in amendments 61 and 62. That applies to long-term empty dwellings and dwellings occupied only periodically. That means unused properties or second homes, frankly. We think that enhanced premium would be better. We have a recent comparable example in Wales. The Welsh Labour Government have been pioneers in this area. These amendments seek to introduce for England the recent changes we have seen in Wales.

Amendment 63 proposes that the threshold at which a point of dwelling is liable for business rates instead of council tax is raised substantially, so that those with second homes who seek to circumnavigate council tax by letting their property for just a short amount of time are no longer able to do so. At present, those who intend to let for 140 days and actually let for 70 can access a loophole whereby they will then qualify to pay rates instead of council tax.

Amendment 63 seeks to raise that threshold to 250 days and 182 days respectively. This would not only close the loophole for those seeking to avoid council tax; it would also provide—I think this would be beneficial for all concerned, including those who have holiday lets and want to operate them in the right way—a better delineation of what is a genuine holiday let, with lets provided all year round by a genuine business contributing significantly to the local economy and therefore legitimately qualifying for a business rate. As well as that being right for ordinary residents and people in general, it is also better for business that it is a level and fair playing field. A proper business with holiday lets would not be affected by an increase in the threshold.

I think we can deliver a win-win for coastal towns and holiday hotspots. By acting to close this loophole, we will get more empty homes back into productive use, while raising additional revenue to support local services, keeping council tax down and putting money into the local economy too. Indeed, that is pretty much verbatim what the Department website said when announcing the proposals for a 100% council tax premium. I think we are in the same place conceptually; it is more about the level. Again, these things would not be obligatory—they would be for local decision makers—but let us trust them, entrust in them the power to protect themselves from the scourge of empty and second homes, and empower them to fix their local markets for younger people, so that we can maintain our thriving coastal towns and villages for generations to come.

Last week we covered the report from the Rural Services Network, which showed that if rural England was a separate region, it would be the most needy of all the geographical regions on the Government’s metrics, and this issue is one of the reasons why. We have a housing catastrophe in many parts of our country, especially in areas that we might call holiday hotspots. Although the problem does not affect rural areas only, it is principally found in rural or coastal areas, as well as in our historic towns and cities.

In the communities that I represent, before the pandemic 83% of homes in places such as Elterwater were not occupied, and well over 50% of homes in many other communities were not permanently occupied. Since the pandemic, estate agents in Cumbria estimate that between 50% and 80% of all house sales have been in the second home market. A crisis has become a catastrophe, and we do not have time to stroke our chins and issue calls for evidence when it is blindingly obvious what the problem is and what the solution is. One of the solutions has to be tax based.

When a community loses a permanent population, it simply dies, which is obviously tragic for the people who remain there. The census data released in the last few days shows that the retired section of our community in the south lakes has increased by 30% over the last 10 years, and that there has been a huge drop in the number of people in the younger age groups. That is miserable. It means that families are broken up, that communities that should be vibrant are not, and that areas soon lose their school, pub, church, bus service and shop. All those things cease to exist if there is not the footfall and the permanent population to underpin them, but a community also completely loses its workforce.

One of the huge problems across the country, but particularly in places such as my constituency, is that we have seen a decimation of the workforce as long-term rental properties become short-term—principally Airbnb—holiday lets. As houses that were family occupied or locally occupied become second-home boltholes, we see an evaporation of the working-age population. I have a couple of quick stats—I cannot remember whether I have mentioned them in Committee, because I mention them regularly in other places. A survey of its members by Cumbria Tourism showed that 63% of tourism businesses in the lakes last year had to operate below capacity because they could not find enough staff.

What does that mean for our economy? The £3.5 billion tourism economy in Cumbria could be an awful lot more, but we are not working at capacity because we cannot find the staff, and this is one of the reasons. People find themselves in a ridiculous situation whereby they might rent a holiday cottage in the lakes or the dales—a nice place—for a week or so, but they end up not being able to get a bite to eat. Why? Because the cottage that they are renting was the chef’s house last year. All these anecdotal issues lead to an overall picture of a serious problem that the Government surely know about, because many of us have raised it time and again, but are doing precious little to rectify.

We have the potential to use council tax as a mechanism to ensure that people do not use the loophole of renting out their second home for 70 days a year, then qualifying as a small business that does not pay any council tax or business rates. That is not acceptable. Thousands of people who own homes in my constituency use that loophole, but it should be closed and we should increase the number of nights that someone has to rent out their property before it counts as a business. We should even consider charging council tax on all holiday lets and be done with it. We are not saying that every council must do that; we are saying that authorities should have the power to do so. If the Bill is about empowering communities rather than telling them what they must or must not have, we should give councils that power, because it can make a huge difference. If we were to treble the council tax for Coniston alone, we would raise just over £1 million a year from that one village. What could it do with that money? It could pump-prime affordable housing projects. It could subsidise its primary school and secondary school so that they had the resources to match the number of kids that they should have in the first place. It could support the post office and rural bus services. All those things could be done.

If the Government were actually concerned about levelling up rural England—places such as Cumbria and all the other places that have been put under pressure by the housing catastrophe caused by the explosion in second homes and holiday lets over and above the numbers before the pandemic—they would accept amendments such as these.

I rise to support amendments 61, 62 and 63 and speak to amendments 78 and 81. The rural economy has been eloquently described, but I want to talk about my city of York, which is a centre for visitors—we had 8 million pre-pandemic and I am sure we will climb back up to that number again.

The staycation economy has driven a new clientele into our city. In what we are calling an “extraction economy”, investors from London and the south-east are purchasing properties as second homes—whether for private or Airbnb use. Already we can see the inequality building. What is happening is not levelling up. Investors are extracting not only properties from people in my city but the money they get from the properties, which goes back to London and the south-east.

We are left all the poorer, and that means that many in my community are without any housing whatever. In fact, people have been going door to door offering cash to residents in social housing. They say that if the residents purchase their homes under right to buy, they will buy the house from them. I have heard stories of people paying up to £70,000 more for a property that is then used in the investment economy, rather than for people in our city.

The housing crisis could be controlled if the Government put curbs on such activity and ensured that properties were not only developed—we will come to that—but were available for people locally. I have the same challenge to the local economy that we have already heard about in this debate. The hospitality, retail and tourism industry is so strong in York that we do not have enough people to work in it—not least because the pay is low. The overpricing of properties is heating up the market and then pushing people out. |On top of that, there is the problem of the reduction in available stock.

The issue also impacts our public services. We cannot get the social care staff or recruit to our NHS because there is nowhere to live. Families and young couples trying to buy their first home save up for their mortgage, only for that opportunity to be snatched by someone sweeping in and buying up the property. They are having to save up more and more but never realise their aspiration of owning a home.

We are beyond a crisis point: this issue is impacting on the economy, pushing families away, gobbling up residential housing for purposes for which it was not developed in the first place, and destroying communities and the infrastructure. People can now walk down streets in York where four, five or six properties are either second homes or holiday lets, and that, of course, is breaking up the community.

The worst situations that I am hearing about are of families pushed out of the city by section 21 notices. They have to take their children out of school and go to live miles away. What is happening across our communities is really destructive, so we need to put the right deterrents in place. We may have to go further than even these amendments are calling for to try to fix the challenge.

I would argue that a council tax rise of 200% or 300% in the first instance is a modest measure. Wales is the first place to have introduced this kind of rise in council tax, but it still has not been sufficient to deter people from purchasing second homes in Wales. Often the purchasers are asset-rich people who saved a lot of money during the pandemic, so having to pay an additional £3,000 or £4,000 a year is something they build into their costings. Those who go into other sorts of property—for example, leasehold property—are already paying thousands of pounds a year in management costs for the right to live in the property, so actually these are small measures compared with the excesses and headroom that the purchasers of these properties are expecting. The measures will provide resources for local government, for which this is a win-win—both getting the money in and creating a sufficient deterrent. That is why we should give local authorities the powers to decide, should they have need, to impose the additional levy on second homes and ensure that it works for their community. Of course, we would argue that local authorities do not have to do that, but having the option available is important.

Amendment 78 is about how to better determine the duration of occupancy that applies, taking it down from one year to six months. The housing market is moving fast at the moment, so this option should be considered as a way to address the issue far faster, especially in properties that are not primary residences, and to benefit the community by deterring the purchase of second homes. Pacing it, making the increased council tax not mandatory but optional, is really important. Shortening the timescale is appropriate.

Clauses 72 and 73 provide definitions around empty properties. We know that there has been some latitude in how that has worked for businesses that have emptied their property to avoid business rates, but it also works for residential dwellings. It is important that we maximise the opportunity to bring the properties forward and implement the curbs and protections needed in the local area.

Amendment 81 would enable a billing authority to make its determination in six months, rather than a year, so that the authority could see the financial award in-year. That will be important to balancing finances while giving local authorities enough revenue to inspect the properties to determine whether they are occupied or unoccupied, which will enable them to ensure that they get the right levy on the properties to pay the additional council tax for which the amendments call.

I am sympathetic to many of the points made by Opposition Members. The Bill tightens the tax treatment of empty second homes to free up those homes for use by the community. The question is one of balance, of course.

Broadly speaking, the amendments would make the premium paid on second or empty homes more punitive. I absolutely understand the issues that the amendments raise, but they risk unintended consequences for our communities. For both second and empty homes, the amendments would shorten the time before a premium could be applied, and increase or bring forward the maximum that the council could choose to impose. We all want homes to make a positive contribution to the community, but we need to get the balance right between dissuading behaviours that none of us want to see and accidentally catching legitimate uses of properties that benefit communities. The Government believe that homeowners should have sufficient time to take steps to bring an empty property back into use. There is no hard and fast rule for calculating that period, but our judgment is that 12 months gets that balance right. A reduction to six months, as proposed by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, would create a number of challenges where there are very good reasons for a property being empty for a reasonable period, such as substantial refurbishment or a delayed sale. Often, family life is complicated, hence our judgment that 12 months gets the balance right.

For the same reason, an empty property has different impacts on the local community, depending on why and for how long it has been out of use. The Government believe it is appropriate to allow councils to increase the council tax premium in stages that reflect the length of time a property has been left empty, rather than imposing it immediately at the six-month point. We understand and sympathise with the point that a high concentration of second homes can hollow out communities, but they can also benefit local economies and tourism, allowing people to work in and contribute to the local economy and return to a family home in another part of the country.

I will give way in a moment, but I will make some progress first. We have already introduced a higher level of stamp duty for the purchase of second homes, and the Bill could double the council tax bill for those properties, providing additional council tax income for councils to invest in local services and communities. We are investing £11.5 billion in the affordable homes programme, delivering up to 180,000 affordable homes. The Bill includes provision for the Secretary of State to adjust the level of the second homes premium in the future, but we need to see the impact and assess the evidence before considering different arrangements in the council tax system.

Wales has been mentioned a couple of times. So far, only three authorities in Wales are using the 100% premium, and the 300% premium will start only next spring. The hon. Member for York Central said that it was not a sufficient deterrent to stop purchases. The truth is that we do not yet know that because it has not come into effect. We do not know how many authorities will use it and what its effects will be. She talked about these being small measures, but it is useful to talk about what it means in cash terms—pounds, shillings and pence. If, in a place like North Norfolk, we took a typical council tax band D property at roughly £2,000, going to a 300% second homes premium would mean a council tax bill each year of £8,120. In Scarborough, it would mean a bill of £8,386. In South Lakeland, it would be £8,242, and somewhere like Dorset it would mean an annual bill of £9,160. These are not trivial sums of money, and it is right for us to consider the impact of the initial measures of the 100% precept before we decide to go further.

We are contemplating radical measures, and we are dealing with a catastrophe. We are doing our very best—surely we should be—to get the stable door shut before all the horses bolt, and if we ponder and contemplate our navels any longer, there will no horses—no community—left whatever. The problem will have solved itself by fulfilling the terrible prophesy of where I fear we are heading. If the Minister is taking this incremental, cautious approach, might he consider letting national parks be the pilots? I have asked both the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District national parks. They are both up for it. They would bite his hand off if he offered them the opportunity through their constituent local authorities to double or triple council tax on second homes just within their own boundaries.

My fellow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, is doing roundtables to explore the different possibilities on that point. I am sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says about the scale of the problem. We are seized of it, and there are multiple things we are looking at to tackle it. On the numbers I read out, if someone has a £9,000 council tax bill for a band D property—never mind an expensive fancy property—that is a non-trivial sum of money. That is quite a lot of money for a band D property.

The hon. Gentleman says, “brilliant”, but the people who made a long-term commitment to those communities and who face a £9,000 tax bill would be unlikely to have the same reaction. However, as the hon. Gentleman says, they are one local stakeholder, and there are others as well.

However, as the hon. Gentleman says, they are one local stakeholder, and there are others as well. Our argument, which I think he understands, is that although we will have the powers in the Bill to go further and to do the 300%—we will not need to legislate again—it is sensible to look at the effects of things before making further adjustments. [Interruption.] I think he is keen to speak before I turn to amendment 63.

The Minister is very kind. In a Committee such as this, I should not be chuntering from a sedentary position when it is easy to get up and contribute, particularly when he is generous with his time. I will chunter standing up, if I may. Those are not trivial sums—they might be impactful and make a difference.

Now, do I feel for somebody with a second home? There are plenty of people who do so. I remember, as a kid, “Not the Nine O'clock News” taking the mickey out of the awful things happening in parts of rural Wales—“Come home to a real fire; buy a home in Wales”—and I absolutely do not want the tone of this discussion to be one of demonising people who have second homes. This is a property-owning democracy and people have the right to use their money the way they wish.

However, true Liberals stand for the rights of those people whose rights have been trampled on by others, and there is sometimes a balance. If we have people owning properties in communities, and those communities dying out as a consequence, we must do something. Either we can change planning law, which might also limit the issue—we should do that too—

Order. This is a very long intervention. If you want to speak after the Minister—

I simply want to say that a large sum of money would act as a disincentive, and given the crisis that it would tackle, it is worth considering; it is worth looking at pilots to do this in the first place.

I think the hon. Gentleman has in a sense answered his own question, in so far as there are indeed multiple policy tools that we can use to tackle something that we regard as a very serious issue. We are absolutely seized of the fact that, in particular parts of the country, there are hotspots that need action.

I think hon. Members have heard the argument that I have set out. On this issue, we will have the power to go further in the Bill—even further than we are already going, which is pretty far—but we would like to see the evidence and make our plans in the light of evidence, rather than simply jump to that now, given the large sums of money involved.

Turning to amendment 63—

I will just get on to amendment 63 first. Second homes are furnished properties for domestic use by someone who has their main home elsewhere. Owners may occasionally let that property out, but second homes are primarily for personal use. I think I understand what the hon. Member for Nottingham North is trying to get at with these amendments—he is thinking, I think, of some of the changes to use classes, and things like that, which happened in Wales. Again, that is something that we are actively looking at. It is a serious thing to look at.

On this amendment, there is a blurring of two different things. The hon. Member is bringing in questions about how long a second home can be let out before it should be treated as a business. He will be aware that, at present, where an owner intends to let their property out for short periods, totalling at least 140 days in the coming year, it will generally be treated as a holiday let and liable for non-domestic rates. Properties liable for non-domestic rates would not be in the scope of the second homes council tax premium. I therefore think there was a blurring of those two different things.

Alternatively, the hon. Member may be seeking to increase the thresholds under which a property is treated as a holiday let. Following consultation, the Government have recently taken action to strengthen those thresholds. From April 2023, holiday lets must have been rented out for at least 70 days in the previous year, on top of being advertised for 140 days, to be liable for non-domestic rates. The amendment does not change that, so I am not sure that it has the effect the that the hon. Gentleman wishes.

Additionally, the recent consultation on a similar proposal in Wales demonstrated that there is a real risk that genuine self-catering businesses, making an important contribution to local economies, may not be able to meet the new higher thresholds. I am sure that is something none of us would wish to see.

Broadly, the new rules coming into force in April in England strike a balance between requiring proof of letting and marketing and protecting genuine businesses in a variety of different circumstances. There are, of course, a wide variety of circumstances. We are providing for holiday lets operating in a range of different circumstances, not just those in the most popular tourist destinations. Our rules also provide for new businesses—those just getting going—rural lets, and those with more restricted letting seasons, while protecting the system against possible abuse. We will of course keep those thresholds under review, but we should understand the impact of the forthcoming changes before we take any further action.

To summarise, we are sympathetic to many of the points that have been made and we are taking action in this Bill on many of those points. On some of the points, we will have the powers to go further, but before doing that we will want to look at the evidence. On other issues, although we are looking at the boundaries between the short-term let and the second home, we think there are probably different and better ways to get into those subjects than the amendments. We therefore hope that the amendment will be withdrawn, notwithstanding the fact that we are actively looking at many of those issues.

I am sorry that the Minister did not take my interventions, because I had some points to make in response to his speech. First, on the assumption that the properties used as second homes are in band D, many are in band B, and therefore will be paying £1,440 in council tax. The sums he talks about could be about half, if not more.

The hon. Lady should recognise that that is symmetrical—some of the properties will above band D; therefore the numbers will be much higher even than the £8,000 to £9,000 figures I have been quoting.

I am talking about the impact that is having on my city of York. Many of those properties are in band B—they are smaller properties that people purchase because available properties are few and far between. Even if it was band D, we are only talking about £1,852.45 council tax. It will vary across the country, and that is why giving more powers to local authorities to make those choices is important. The financial deterrent in York will not be there with 100% council tax. As a result, those properties will continue to be purchased and the measures will have little impact. That is why it is important that the Minister has an understanding of the breadth of challenges faced in different communities.

I am looking forward to the Housing Minister coming to York for a roundtable to look at the Airbnb situation. We have specific issues and it is about the pace with which they are occurring, in a holiday destination. That is why the pilot should not just be in rural areas but in cities that are holiday destinations, because it is having a massive impact. There needs to be a bit more reality in the Government’s analysis.

The other point that I wanted to take up with the Minister in an intervention was the benefit to tourism. I would like to see the evidence of that, and to know the basis on which he made that statement. In York we now have an unregulated tourism market, versus a regulated tourism market of the traditional B&Bs and guesthouses that are losing trade at such a rate that they are going out of business. That is having a negative and incredibly destructive impact on our tourism industry. These measures will not provide sufficient deterrence against the impact on our city.

I appreciate that the Minister’s analysis may be in particular areas of the country, but it will not touch our city. That is why I urge him to carry out more research and to understand the different impacts on different communities in the country. We need to ensure that my local authority has the ability to put the right deterrent in place at the right level in order to deter this extraction economy that is, bit by bit, destroying the context and fabric of our city, our industries and people and families. For that reason, I urge the Minister to reconsider.

I appreciate that the Minister is referring to planning, which I mentioned as another means of controlling, limiting and even reducing the number of second home owners and holiday lets, to create a higher proportion of permanently occupied dwellings in communities such as mine. We will deal with that later in the Bill. He said that there are a variety of mechanisms —yes there are, so let us use them, and he is one of them.

It could be argued that planning is a slightly blunt instrument, but there is nothing more blunt than an unregulated and failing market that is killing my communities. The Minister speaks as if that is something that we have only just discovered. It is not; it has been going on for decades, and has become catastrophic in the last couple of years. As geographers and geologists would tell us, erosion takes places over a long time, but one day, when there is some really bad weather, a whole piece of cliff falls into the sea.

That is what has happened to the housing market in communities such as mine in the last couple of years. The situation is already terrible: 83% of homes in Elterwater are second homes. I can name lots of other places with similarly high levels of homes that are empty all year round. People have the right to own and visit their second homes, but their right compromises the right of a much greater number of people to own even a first home. Sometimes, rights and liberties clash, and that is when we have to decide whose side we are on. Are we on the side of people who have plenty of rights already, or the side of those who have nothing? I am on the side of people who have nothing and who want to have a home and make their communities vibrant.

As the hon. Member for York Central mentioned, the tourism economy and its leaders are not in favour of the situation, and they want action. They will say, “Yes, holiday lets are a key part of our tourism economy, but if you get to the stage when there are so many of them that there is no community left for people to visit, and the workforce cannot afford a home anywhere near to where they work, so that the economy just suffers and ceases to function, that is problematic.”

I appreciate the Minister’s sympathy, but it is not enough. The Government say that they are looking at and investigating this, and that the Housing Minister has his roundtables. That is all very welcome, but we know what the problem is and what some of the solutions are. The frustrating thing is that the Bill is a golden opportunity to do something about the problem, rather than kicking it into the long grass and stroking our chins while our communities die.

This has been an excellent debate. The contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central and from the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, have offered excellent explanations of how the problem manifests itself in two different communities with similarly profound effects.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, as I was absent for what I hope was an imperceptibly short part of his speech. I was startled to read in the notes that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central made for me that vacancy rates in his part of the world are 50% to 80%. That is extraordinary; what a profound impact it must have.

I was interested in the Minister’s response. We do not intend to press the amendment to a Division. I am glad that, through amendment 63, that is still an active process. If there is a better way than the one we have suggested, we would very much be up for doing a deal. The principle is settled and agreed; it is the level that is in dispute. The Government have settled on 100 days in the interests of balance. Perhaps that is a case of test and learn, which I think is something that will be littered through the next set of proceedings. There are circumstances in which that approach is a good one, but there are others in which it is used as a comfort instead of being brave. We will not always know which of those things apply; in this case, I wonder if it is the latter.

The Minister is right to say that they are non-trivial measures to bring in, and there will be a non-trivial impact on those who are affected, but as hon. Members have said, the impact is already non-trivial. The measures are definitely not an order of magnitude greater than the problem, because the problem is really significant. I will not press the amendment to a Division, because we will have opportunities to pursue the matter as the Bill progresses, and this exceptionally important problem will not go away. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Miss Dines.)

Adjourned till Thursday 7 July at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

LRB13 Mayor of London

LRB14 City of London Corporation

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill (Sixth sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Hannah Bardell, Philip Davies, † Esther McVey, Graham Stringer

† Bowie, Andrew (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)

† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)

† Churchill, Jo (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

† Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)

† Duguid, David (Banff and Buchan) (Con)

† Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Howell, John (Henley) (Con)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)

Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)

Lewis, Clive (Norwich South) (Lab)

† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)

† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)

† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)

Huw Yardley, Abi Samuels, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 5 July 2022


[Esther McVey in the Chair]

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill

Clause 6

Application for precision bred confirmation

I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 6, page 5, line 31, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

Clause 7 stand part.

Clause 8 stand part.

Amendment 31, in clause 9, page 6 line 33, at end insert—

“(iii) safeguarding the health and welfare of those animals that are no longer deemed to be precision bred;”.

This amendment would require regulations conferring power on the Secretary of State to revoke a precision bred confirmation relating to an organism to include provision to safeguard the health and welfare of any animals which would as a consequence of such a revocation no longer be deemed precision bred.

Amendment 12, in clause 9, page 7, line 9, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.

Clause 9 stand part.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair again, Ms McVey, as we continue this interesting discussion. You were part of the evidence sessions.

We come to a series of clauses about precision bred confirmation, and we have a number of amendments that largely relate to how Parliament scrutinises the secondary legislation. As we argued this morning, we think that far too much is being pushed off into secondary legislation. Even within that, too much of the secondary legislation is subject to the negative procedure, so it will go through without any scrutiny. I will not repeat the broad points about why we think that is not the way to do it, as they are familiar to most people.

Clause 6 concerns the applications for precision bred confirmation. The Government will be given powers to make secondary legislation that prescribes the form and content of a marketing notice and the information that is to accompany one. It is really important that the advisory committee, the welfare body and the Secretary of State have all the information they need to come to an informed decision on both the release and the marketing of precision bred organisms. Frankly, I am not comfortable —and I do not think many others will be—giving the Government a blank cheque to determine what information must be provided. I understand that it needs further consideration and thought, but it seems to us to be too significant an issue not to merit proper scrutiny in this House. Amendment 11 simply tweaks it to make the clause subject to the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure.

Clause 9 allows for the revocation of a precision bred confirmation. Again, that is a very important matter, and I have a series of questions, which I touched on in the discussion before lunch, about how these decisions are arrived at. What triggers them? What is the information? What is the process? As one begins to think it through, one can see that there is really not a lot of detail in the Bill as it stands. It is not clear to me, and I hope the Minister can go through in detail some examples of how all this might work.

If the Government are no longer satisfied that a precision bred organism is indeed precision bred—perhaps it has become apparent through some complaint or some new science that it does utilise genetic modification technologies, which require a higher level of regulation, or perhaps some adverse impacts have come to light—we appreciate that they would need to be able to revoke an authorisation, and we support that, but I cannot quite see in the real world how that situation arises. It would be really helpful for me and, I am sure, others if the Minister could walk us through an actual example. In what circumstances would that happen? Does the Minister anticipate that there will be challenges, and that the Government might lose and therefore have to step back? In that case, it is right to have a procedure for dealing with this. It would be useful to know quite what the thinking was behind it. We need proper scrutiny of some of these powers, and amendment 12 would make the clause subject to the affirmative procedure to ensure proper scrutiny takes place.

When a precision bred confirmation is revoked, even though we cannot entirely envisage how it will work, it is important that the Secretary of State has a process to safeguard the health and welfare of those animals—we are talking about animals in this case—that are no longer deemed to be precision bred. We took advice from Compassion in World Farming on this, which gave evidence in the evidence sessions. It says that where that is the case, it will be because the organism has either been mischaracterised or the genome is no longer stable, which, in their view, may create health and welfare risks. Again, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on whether that is that situation is envisaged. That raises the question of what to do with the creatures that have been created through this process and how to bring the breeding of the line back under the appropriate regulations.

What I am saying about this amendment goes right back to the beginning, when we were nervous about embarking on the animal route without knowing more detail. As one begins to look at the detail in the Bill for dealing with some of these issues, without knowing the wider thinking, wider background and wider regulatory framework, it is quite hard to comment on the potential unintended consequences and how they might be dealt with. The reason that this matters to all of us is that animal welfare matters. I hardly need remind the Minister of her Government’s 2019 manifesto commitment, which I helpfully have before me:

“High standards of animal welfare are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. We have a long tradition of protecting animals in this country, often many years before others follow. Under a Conservative Government, that will continue”

—well, quite. We fully endorse that. In the spirit of that commitment, I hope that the Government will welcome amendment 31, which would require the regulations that make provision for the procedure to be followed if the Secretary of State proposes to revoke a precision bred confirmation to include provisions to safeguard the health and welfare of any animals that are no longer deemed to be precision bred.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. Amendment 11 would provide for further parliamentary scrutiny on the marketing notice. The amendment is not necessary, as this power cannot be used to deliver a substantive change in policy; it is merely to prescribe details that are technical and administrative in nature, such as the form of the marketing notice or the information that must accompany that notice. I worry that what the hon. Member for Cambridge is seeking is because these regulations are as yet not in place. We have gone over the fact that we will look to work with experts and stakeholders and so on in order to ensure that we have the right guidelines so that we can move forward.

The criteria for defining a precision bred organism is set out in the Bill. We will continue to seek expert, independent advice on the technical details before any regulations are brought before Parliament. It is appropriate for the technical detail which demonstrates how the given organism meets these criteria to be specified in regulations and for such regulations to follow the negative procedure, as there may be an appropriate time for them to be added to.

In amendment 31, the hon. Gentleman proposes placing a duty on the Secretary of State when revoking a precision bred animal confirmation to safeguard the health and welfare of animals. All vertebrate animals are already protected by extensive animal health and welfare legislation, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence either to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering or to fail to provide for the welfare needs of the animal. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 include specific requirements to protect animals when bred or kept, prohibiting breeding procedures that

“cause, or are likely to cause, suffering or injury”.

The regulations further state that:

“Animals may only be kept for farming purposes if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of their genotype or phenotype, that they can be kept without any detrimental effect on their health or welfare.”

The protections provided by these regulations would apply to an animal where a precision bred confirmation relating to that animal had been revoked. Those welfare requirements cover all animals. With those protections already in place, we see no need for anything further and I urge the hon. Member to withdraw the amendment.

On amendment 12, I stand by what I have said before on the use of parliamentary time. The key proposition that a precision bred confirmation should be capable of being revoked is set out in the Bill.

Clause 9 sets out a pathway by which a precision bred confirmation may be revoked. It is a criminal offence to market genetically modified organisms without prior consent, and we believe that companies will continue to be incredibly careful to avoid mistakes. However, to provide a belt-and-braces measure, in the unlikely event that a GMO goes through the procedures under this Bill and is marketed as a precision bred organism, the clause establishes a transparent process for dealing with such an eventuality. That is important for consumer confidence and transparency.

Clause 9(4) addresses conferring additional functions on the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. The ability to seek scientific advice on any relevant new information that comes to light will be an important component part of this process. The clause states that we will need the help of outside experts to ensure that we move forward appropriately.

I am afraid that I am still not entirely convinced, for a number of reasons, going back to some of the points I made just before we broke for lunch. There seems to be a closed, narrow group of people making these decisions. What ACRE—this group of eminent people—is being asked to do is to make a judgment on whether something that has been submitted to them is a PBO.

Following our discussions on the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022 a few months ago, ACRE released guidance on how the process would be approached. The guidance is quite technical, to put it mildly, and it is thoughtful and nuanced, and has quite a lot of caveats. Obviously, the guidance is not before us today, but it is relevant, because it is what ACRE will consider—there are no additional terms of reference being introduced in these clauses. There will not be a simple, clear-cut process and that probably explains why the Government have introduced this method for revoking confirmations, because more science and more evidence can come to light.

My worry is that it feels like a discussion between a very small group of people. If we are trying to address the question of public confidence, which is key, it does not seem to give the degree of reassurance that people seek. If one were being kind and generous to the Government, as obviously I would be, one way to provide that reassurance might be to bring forward secondary legislation so that it is discussed, rather than just being passed without discussion, as we know many statutory instruments are all the time. We think it is worth looking more closely at the procedure and making the secondary legislation subject to the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure.

Although the Minister did respond to my invitation to give us an example, I am still not really very clear quite how it would happen. What happens to the animals—we are talking about animals here rather than plants—in those circumstances? I appreciate that there are existing protections, but the question is whether any additional protections are needed given the new set of procedures available, and how that should be handled. That seems to be worthy of further interrogation.

I say no more than that. I see no need to divide the Committee on the amendments. I am happy to withdraw them, but the conversation has been useful and I hope that the Government will think about some of the things as they bring forward their proposals. The more one looks at the measure, the more potential issues arise. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 to 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Meaning of “relevant animal”

I beg to move amendment 33, in clause 10, page 7, line 12, leave out—

“means an animal which is a vertebrate”

and insert—

“has the meaning given by section 5 of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022”.

This amendment would make the definition of animal from the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 the relevant definition, rather than that from the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 34, in clause 10, page 7, line 13, leave out subsections (2), (3) and (4).

This amendment, which is consequential on Amendment 33, would remove the provision to extend the definition of “animal” to include (further) invertebrates, which would instead be provided by section 5 of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022.

The amendments in this group are relatively straightforward, the Committee will be glad to hear. We are interested in looking at the relationship between the Bill and the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, which some of us were involved in, discussing it in this very room only a few months ago. To our joint delight, it received Royal Assent in April.

The Act defines “animal” as

“any vertebrate other than homo sapiens…any cephalopod mollusc, and…any decapod crustacean”.

Members may remember the debate about the definition, which was based on a Government amendment, if I recall, after a report commissioned by them to review the scientific evidence for the sentience of cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. The London School of Economics published that review in November last year, after which the Government made their amendment to the animal sentience Bill to reflect the most up-to-date understanding. Despite that, however, clause 10 of this Bill defines animals only as vertebrates.

There are all kinds of exciting jokes that one can make about vertebrates and all the rest of it, but I shall resist that today. We also note that the clause does not exclude homo sapiens explicitly. Basically, our issue is about trying to align the definitions with the most recent piece of legislation to have gone through the House.

The clause also makes provision for the Bill’s definition to be extended to include invertebrates if the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is extended to include them. It therefore seems to pose rather a strange system involving two different definitions of “animal” in law: one from the 2006 legislation and the other from the very recent legislation. We still seem to be waiting to get our definitions in line.

As an aside, given that the Government’s aim of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act was to recognise the sentience of animals in law, we are slightly surprised that the Animal Welfare Act has not been extended to reflect the Government’s latest stance. Regardless of that, it seems that the Bill should use the most up to date definition, that is why we have tabled amendment 33, and we think that amendment 34 is consequential on that, to replace the definition of animal in the Bill to the one from the 2022 Act. It is possible that it was mistake—that happens—or an accidental oversight, which we think could be rectified if the Government were to accept the amendment. If not, it would be useful to hear the Government’s explanation, and I invite the Minister to give it.

The hon. Gentleman proposes that we change the substance of the definition of relevant animal from that in 2006 Act to the more recent definition in the 2022 Act. Although we do not feel that the amendment is necessary, I am really grateful for the opportunity to put down on record our reasons for that.

Clause 10 defines relevant animal as a vertebrate for the purpose of welfare protection measures in clauses 11 to 15. That is line with the definition of animal in the 2006 Act—the core legislation that establishes the practical rules for individuals and businesses that handle, keep and care for animals in this country. For that reason, it is the right definition to apply.

It is worth noting that the definition of animal in the 2022 Act sets out what type of animals the animal sentience committee can consider when carrying out its work, but it does automatically not extend the definition of animal in the 2006 Act. We totally accept that it will be more than likely appropriate to broaden that definition so it is important to note that in clause 10 we allow a provision for regulations to be made to extend the definition of relevant animal, if the definition of animal in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is extended to include invertebrates of any description. Any amending regulations that extend that definition would be subject to the affirmative procedure in the House, and therefore subject to debate and approval by both Houses before being made.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government, like the Opposition, were very pleased that the sentience Bill received Royal Assent, but the next step is to carefully consider the implications of extending the 2006 Act to include cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans because that will include implications for how they are caught and handled, treated and transported. The Government are working constructively with industry and stakeholders on this issue; I assure the hon. Gentleman of that.

I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman but the appropriate definition of animal is that which sits in the 2006 Act, although I agree that the extension of that definition is in process. It is not correct, however, to say that the definition in the 2022 Act would sit appropriately in this legislation for the reasons I have cited.

I am grateful for the explanation, although I am not entirely sure that I am convinced by it. It seems to me to be a slightly curious way of proceeding. At the end of it, I am not entirely sure whether it means that cephalopods and decapods are protected under the Bill or not—possibly not, as it stands. I understand why the new regulations have practical implications, particularly for the fishing sector, and why they need to be thought through carefully. I can see why there might be complications, although that is more to do with the animal sentience Act than it is to do with the Bill.

We will come back in a moment to the question of the relationship between the animal sentience Act and the Bill. It is an interesting one, because it goes to the heart of the concern that we on the Labour Benches have: that the various structures that are in place to make decisions, give expert advice, and so on may no longer be quite right. During the evidence session, we heard the suggestion that there may well be people within Departments who are already thinking along those lines and looking at ways in which those structures may be updated. That, of course, creates some difficulties for us, because we are looking at the legislation as it stands today. I do not want to sound like a broken record, but that is the problem with trying to second-guess the thinking of the Government when they are so vague on some of these animal welfare issues.

There is considerable interest in the whole question about cephalopods and decapods, and we think it would be more consistent to have a unified approach. On that basis, I am afraid we will test the opinion of the Committee by pressing amendment 33 to a vote, although we will not feel the need to move amendment 34.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

As discussed, clause 10 defines a relevant animal as a vertebrate for the purposes of the welfare protection measures in clauses 11 to 15. That is in line with the definition of an animal in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is the core legislation that establishes the practical rules for individuals and businesses that keep, handle, or care for animals in this country. I commend the clause to the Committee.

I will be brief, given that we have just discussed the amendments. I stand by the comments we have already made, but I am grateful that regulations made under subsection (2) of the clause will be subject to the affirmative procedure. We will doubtless be back here on another day, discussing this issue again.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Application for precision bred animal marketing authorisation

I beg to move amendment 13, in clause 11, page 8, line 25, leave out “negative” and insert “affirmative”.