HC Deb 21 July 1994 vol 247 cc613-21 1.30 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

To have two Ministers on the Front Bench for a debate of this sort is a work of remarkable supererogation. It gives me the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on arriving in his new position.

This is an ambitious subject for a short debate, so it will inevitably be perfunctory. The House has become increasingly interested lately in its own proceedings. That is good, because Parliament is losing its power as the world becomes a global village. One result of that is the emergence of the European Union. Despite the Canutes who again this morning have been trying to brush sand in the direction of the incoming tide, it is clear that power will continue to move gradually away from this place and towards Europe.

So far, our reaction has been petulant and ineffective. Mostly, decisions in the European Union are made by the Executive, and are reported, sooner or later or not at all, to this House. The European Parliament has just been given new powers. I hope that it will use them particularly to call the European Executive to account. There is fraud, there is incompetence and there is the sheer difficulty of enforcing regulations; there is plenty for the European Parliament to do. Will it do it? What will our response be?

No serious attempt has yet been made to forge and maintain links between Members of Parliament here and Members of the European Parliament. We are now entitled to one free visit a year to the EU—an act of astonishing generosity. No attempt has been made to provide video conferencing facilities between ourselves and Members of the European Parliament. As far as I can ascertain, there are virtually no serious institutional joint committees—yet increasingly our fate and that of the European Pat-Lament are interwoven.

We are always told that there are problems of time; as a matter of fact, we could have much less to do here, and we could make much better use of Members' time. The worst feature of the British system of government is the Government's under-use of Back Benchers of all parties. Why cannot we work out a timetable to allow Back Benchers to play a serious role in Europe on the United Kingdom's behalf? It seems to me that the United Kingdom system demands more and more legislation about less and less.

The Chamber is a good forum for debating issues of public concern, but it does so far too rarely. We could debate issues such as euthanasia or genetic engineering, but we leave far too little time for that, even though these topics command considerable interest among the British public.

We also face a new menace: the media. There is a new threat of harassment—of scrutiny beyond the norm—if any Member of Parliament raises his head above the parapet in an attempt to check the media. Of course, it is all done in the name of accountability to the public, but it is actually counter-productive. What the public need are Members of Parliament who are increasingly willing to defend their constituents and institutions from the overmighty media. A new balance must be struck.

The word "privilege" has been misunderstood; it should enable Members of Parliament, as the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said last night, to serve the public free from restrictions. In a way, one of the most sinister developments has been the advance of Berlusconi. I have nothing against him—I do not know him at all—but for someone to make their way to Parliament basically on the back of owning a massive media empire and a couple of football teams is dangerous, and we need to consider it more closely.

The Government's reaction to the erosion of powers is to interfere ever more closely in the lower tiers of government. In principle, the Government claim that they have delegated powers to national health service trusts, schools, housing associations and other organisations. If they had the courage of their convictions, how good that would be. Their nerve, however, has failed. At every turn, they have imposed constraints on their creatures.

NHS trusts still operate in the shadow of Whitley. They cannot hire and fire consultants without incurring ludicrous costs. They are severely limited in making their own arrangements on contracts. Schools, having been set national curriculum targets, are still not free to choose how to reach them. Even hours of teaching are prescribed, despite recent research that shows there is no correlation between the hours spent teaching and the results achieved. The methods of teaching are frequently prescribed and one of the results is that professionals feel deskilled.

An enormous amount of power has been removed from local authorities. Planning appeals are so widespread that they emasculate planning committees. The capacity to raise income locally has been circumscribed. The right to be significantly different from neighbouring authorities has, effectively, been largely undermined. The public pressure for uniform standards has been allowed to triumph over the encouragement of local democracy.

That brings me to the local government review, a policy development that I deeply regret. If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, this is it. Instead of asking what local government in the 21st century is for, we have leapt in to change the machinery of local government. No serious debate has been held on the balance of power between central and local government. No attempt has been made to link local government with the health service, despite the shift from institutions for care towards care in the community.

No serious attempt has been made to recognise one of the biggest changes in the United Kingdom: the growth in the sophistication and education of the public. The effect of that change is everywhere, yet instead of making coherent attempts to harness it for more responsible local government, we have let it be funnelled almost exclusively into pressure groups and single-issue lobbies which are increasingly distorting national policies.

Like everywhere else, Kent is faced with recommendations from the local government commission which resemble the mule of antiquity, which it was said had neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity. We must choose between structures that set citizen against citizen, councillor against councillor, and that split the county's Members of Parliament down the middle.

It was a great pity that we were excluded from even considering a county council with scaled-down powers. I have been proud of Kent's reputation for good policing, good fire services and innovative social services. I fervently hope that the changes that will be forced on us will improve them, but I wonder if they will.

Given the size and homogeneity of the Medway towns, it is difficult to argue that they should not become a unitary authority, and people there are keen that that should be so, except the Gillingham Liberals, who apparently have infuriated the Rochester upon Medway Liberals by stuffing leaflets through their doors condemning them for supporting unitary status.

So vicious has the fraternal dispute become that I gather that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is to be asked to parachute in and to sort it out, if he can spare the time from sorting out Bosnia. We know that the Liberals say one thing in the south-west and another in the south-east, but to have two Liberal groups saying different things within a mile of each other adds a new piquancy to their inability to get their act together.

I should be glad if my hon. Friend the Minister could reassure us that, whatever the final outcome of the Local Government Commission deliberations, Kent will be able to continue to command European Union resources as part of a Euro-region and will not be jeopardised by a reduction of its present size. We have had a considerable inflow of valuable money from the European Union as we have developed as part of a Euro-region, and I would be deeply sorry if any change in the local government set-up put that very valuable development—a development that is indispensable as we are the home of the British end of the channel tunnel—at risk.

There is yet another dimension to this constitutional upheaval. The hon. Member who is just about to be proclaimed the leader of the Labour party has promised a Scottish Parliament within a year of any Labour election victory. That is a very interesting promise. How will that Parliament be formed? What will it do? What will be its impact on this Parliament? The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) suggested the other night that Stormont provided a precedent, whereby hon. Members from Northern Ireland were allowed to vote on English matters and in Northern Ireland took part in exclusively Northern Ireland debates. Northern Ireland constituencies were quite large, whereas Scottish ones are generally considerably smaller than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I would find any such arrangement for Scotland wholly unacceptable and I do not believe that I would be the only English Member of Parliament to hold that view. If Scottish Members of Parliament were to sit in a Scottish Parliament to debate Scotland's health, education, social services, roads or any other subject and I could have no vote, I certainly would not accept their voting on England's health, education, roads or similar subjects.

If Scottish Members of Parliament are not to take part in a Scottish Parliament, what will it do and who will sit in it? It does not sound like a particularly useful undertaking and I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) explain to the House exactly what this promise, on which so many Scottish hopes have been built, will mean in practice.

I believe that the time has come for Madam Speaker to set up a commission to examine the future of this ancient Parliament and to equip it for the 21st century. We are muddling along in this place. It seems that there is some value in having a change in sitting hours.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I wonder whether the hon. Member thinks that the Minister who will reply is responsible for all the subjects that he is covering.

Mr. Rowe

I tabled the subject of my debate; I did not choose the Minister to reply to it. I have enormous confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister, whose knowledge of the constitution is extraordinary. I certainly imagine that he will share some of my anxieties about the future of this ancient Parliament, which, unless we address the matter in a coherent, sensible and radical way, will simply become a talking shop with little effect on the Executive.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I appreciate that this is an Adjournment debate, but the hon. Gentleman is not being fair to the Minister. I hope that he will bear that in mind.

Mr. Rowe

Of course I accept the rebuke, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I am entitled to say that part of my unease about this country's constitutional arrangements, whether national or local, stems from the aggrandisement of the Executive at the expense of Parliament or local authorities. We cannot expect the Government themselves to address that. It is up to the House to pay considerable attention to these matters because we were sent here to represent constituents to whom the shape and form of local government is of little concern. Every person who comes to my surgery with a grievance is mistaken about which layer of government is responsible for it.

The Government hope that, as a result of the deliberations of the Local Government Commission, the number of tiers will be reduced and people will get it right. If the Government believe that they are fooling themselves, because people who come to my surgery do not know whether Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security or housing or roads departments belong to a particular tier of local government.

Instead of looking all the time to the machinery of local or central government, we should increasingly address the definition of the role of government in a world in which money, information, armaments and everything else can move across frontiers at the drop of a hat.

The telegram totally changed the nature of diplomacy. Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was the last British ambassador to declare war on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty. After that, information was sent home by telegram for discussion by the Foreign Secretary. The communications revolution, the increase in education and sophistication among the population and the way in which decisions are taken around the world have completely altered the nature of the role and authority of government. The relationships between local and central government or between this Parliament and the European Parliament should be urgently addressed.

1.47 pm
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your attempts to make sure that I answered only to my brief, but perhaps I will take the liberty of being slightly discursive. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke about the European Union and the European Parliament. I spent 10 years in that institution so I can reflect to some degree on its competencies in relation to the House.

It is a mistake to believe that power and responsibility exist in defined chunks, and that an absence of power and responsibility here necessarily adds to them somewhere else. I have never believed in the thesis that giving more power to the European Parliament necessarily means that an equivalent amount of responsibility is removed from this or another national Parliament.

There is a real problem in the European Union over accountability for decisions. It depends on the Council and the areas of competence. I have always believed that the way to address that may lie much more in trying to elaborate some of the party links between Members at Westminster and Members of the European Parliament and to appeal via the party network rather than the parliamentary network. But with the best will in the world, the different working methods of the two establishments make that difficult.

For example, some continental Parliaments do not meet on Mondays. There are group meetings at which members of Government, Members of Parliament and Members of the country's European Parliament and perhaps senior party members discuss policy. That forms the network, the link. It is not a parliamentary link, it is a political link, which appears to be effective. One never knows, there may be things that we can learn from continental practice, in the same way as certain activities in the European Parliament, such as Question Time, have been adopted from the traditional practices effective in the House.

So, if I do not believe that there is a fixed body of competence, which must be divided like a cake between our Parliament and the European Union or its institutions, for the same reason I do not believe that that concept is true in our relationship with local government. I shall not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent in pursuit of the health service or other such areas—I sure that he understands why—but I shall look at the areas for which my Department is competent. The urban development corporations, for example, were established to deliver a particular result: to try to assemble land in areas where there was a tradition of decay and dereliction, to try to do that efficiently and to accelerate some of the set planning procedures. Of course, local representatives sit on those bodies.

In my hon. Friend's county of Kent, on the border with the east Thames corridor, we are not adopting that technique, but we are deliberately working through the local authorities. We have brought them together in those terms, for we are shortly hoping to launch our planning strategy for the east Thames corridor, and we have deliberately sought to use the expertise and the competence of traditional, existing institutions. Up to now, touch wood, it is working very efficiently. I hope that we will manage, despite the particularity of the various councils and their obvious competing interests in attracting investment, to succeed in achieving a strategic concept in that whole area.

My hon. Friend mentioned planning and the appeals. It is important to acknowledge the role of the planning function and especially the local plan. We have a regional planning strategy, which is one of the unsung success stories of planning. People find that strategy very helpful. Again, local authorities play the central role in the conferences which bring that decision-making together and that has laid down the broad strategic thrust for developments. Indeed, the south-east regional guide was published relatively recently. We shall boil it down to a local plan.

If the local authorities settle down and produce their local plan, it enables them to give a clear idea of what sort of development they find acceptable. That gives us runway lights. We never say exactly what will happen, but the plan's purpose is to set a framework—the runway lights —within which decisions can be made so that there is a great certainty among everybody concerned about the development which may or may not take place. The elaboration of the plan gives local government—if it uses it sensibly in the manner intended—significant competence in that area.

I shall turn to the role of local government. If we had been holding this debate 120 or 130 years ago, we would have been talking about the creation of modern local government as a task of getting to grips with the unbridled and uncontrolled urbanisation which was the hallmark of the industrial revolution. We would have been talking about providing basic services such as sewerage, water, lights and effective sanitation. Those tasks brought into being Chamberlain's Birmingham and the municipal authorities in Leeds and Manchester; the great urban areas. The task of the Victorian era was the provision of basic amenities to cope with the vast industrial urban society.

If we then look at the immediate post second world period, we saw the creation of a welfare state in Britain and a significant number of competences, which had been the responsibility of local government, were brought into the national domain, especially the health service. It was a transfer of power, if one wants to put it in those terms, but it was a move to serve a different set of circumstances and conditions. Today, especially in the urban areas, we must tackle the reverse side of the coin to the challenges of the mid-Victorian era. We must deal with the debris of the industrial society. Regeneration tasks have been left in our inner cities, and for those we need a different sort of new local authority.

Therefore, I see a change in definition, but the powers must be relevant to the particular tasks that we wish local authorities to carry out at any time.

I believe that local authorities now have three essential roles. The first role is that of regulator, and there is no point in ignoring it. Local government acts under a statutory responsibility as a regulator in many different areas. Trading standards officers are a county responsibility while environmental health officers are a district responsibility. I have never been clear why those two distinct corps should have a separate constitutional arrangement. However, that is an example of regulatory functions that are carried out by local government. It is clear that that role will remain.

The second role is that of a service commissioner—I use the term deliberately—because local government organises the delivery of a range of services, whether the individual services are delivered directly or through the competitive process. The way in which they are delivered is a matter of detail. The fact is that local government has a statutory responsibility for the delivery of a certain number of services.

Local government's third role is that of a regenerator. I realise that that term is not appropriate to all authorities. It is one that will be more relevant in urban areas than in some rural areas. Local government has a role to work more and more with other agencies, with the private sector, with organisations such as training and enterprise councils, chambers of commerce and educational establishments, so as to bring together the resources of the community to tackle specific problems. It is close on the back of the city challenge programme, the single regeneration budget and the inter-regional offices, which are all designed to try to harness local resources and bring them to bear on a particular task. I think that the three functions that I have outlined will be at the heart of local government as it is now developing.

In many respects there has been a significant culture change in local government. We must be careful to ensure that where changes have taken place they can be said to be permanent, but where there has been a sea change, it must be recognised. We look to establishing the role of local government in the light of the changes that may have taken place.

Programmes such as city challenge and working in partnership are established gospels throughout large areas of local government. That may not have been the position five or 10 years ago. Some of the policies that we have pursued, such as competitive tendering and the city challenge process, were introduced during a period of budgetary constraints. However, they have contributed to the change in attitude within local government.

My hon. Friend asked specifically whether any local government reorganisation in Kent would affect its eligibility for European funds. The answer is no. I can give him that assurance without equivocation.

My hon. Friend talked about changes being forced. I wish to make it clear that the changes will not be forced. The Government do not have a secret agenda. We believe that it is legitimate to test the structures of local government against the functions that I have been describing to ascertain which is the most effective mechanism for the delivery of services. If the answer is that unitary councils—one-stop shops—deliver services most effectively and are effective in service delivery, financial terms and identity terms, they will constitute the route that recommends itself. If such councils do not appear to be the obvious formula, if the benefits are not clear, or if the arguments point the other way, there is nothing that states that some preordained plan will determine a particular outcome in any particular area.

I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that when the debate takes place in Kent it is focused on the heart and nature of local government. Let it be a sensible and mature debate on how services are best delivered. Perhaps we can have rather less of the propaganda battle, which in some areas has disfigured debate in the heart of local government.

When the report comes to my Department, we shall examine it in the circumstances that I have outlined. As my hon. Friend knows, the procedure has been set up, but at present the recommendations are with the commission. It will have to test them against opinion in Kent and then make a final recommendation. That may not be the same as the original recommendation. The recommendation will come to us and the Government have options. We can accept it, reject it or send it back for modification. We are not bound by a recommendation that the commission may put forward except in general terms. We must conduct our own investigations and consultations, which will include my hon. Friend and other Members representing Kent constituencies. I believe that they know best what Kent wants and needs. They will be at the heart of our consultation. I give my hon. Friend that assurance. I hope that he will find that I have made a useful contribution to the debate.