HC Deb 05 July 2000 vol 353 cc371-80

Amendments made: No. 193, in page 76, line 9, leave out "This section and".

No. 194, in page 76, line 10, at beginning insert "This section".—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Order for Third Reading read.

6.7 pm

Ms Armstrong

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted that we can move to Third Reading. We had a good day's debate yesterday. My preference would be that we had spent as long on other parts of the Bill as we have just spent on section 28, but we knew that the House wanted to debate that at some length.

The Bill has passed through extensive debate in Committee as well as on Report yesterday and today, following its Second Reading in the House before Easter. I am grateful to the hon. Members who have participated in all stages of consideration of the Bill for their constructive contributions and enduring interest in such an important subject.

Those who have had an opportunity to read the report of the Committee stage will have noticed the great conversion of the official Opposition to local government. They are no longer threatening to get rid of it entirely; they want to embrace local government. We heard positive statements in Committee, which were endorsed by the Leader of the official Opposition last week. Last night, however, the right hon. Gentleman had a go at local education authorities—the education function being an important part of local government—so I am a little confused.

The Bill and the Local Government Act 1999 are designed to improve local communities and the lives of local people in England and Wales.

All our debates and discussions on the Bill have shown that we can now say, in a way that we could not during the previous Administration, that the majority of hon. Members believe that local government has an important part to play in a modern society. Whatever our differences on how that should be achieved, most of us have that goal in common. That has been reflected in the spirit of co-operation and partnership in which most of our discussions have been conducted. I hope that that approach will be reflected further in the way that the legislation is implemented locally. That is the intention of the Bill, which rests on local partnership, local accountability and opportunities for local people to have a better say in how their councils are run and what they do.

With the coming together of this Bill and the previous Local Government Act, we begin to see an opportunity for local government to be much more accountable, to be able to develop much better services and service delivery, and to involve local people in discussion on how to do that most effectively, in the knowledge of who is taking decisions and how those people can be held to account. Local government now has a framework which will allow it to be re-established, not simply as something that politicians think is important, but so that local people know that it changes and considerably enhances their opportunities and quality of life.

The Bill's passage through the House has provoked lively debate around the key issues, which we discussed again yesterday. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to refine, clarify and generally improve some of the main provisions. The Government have listened to the points raised, and we have now made more far-reaching changes to strengthen and clarify the Bill, as we promised in Committee. I am happy to report that we now have a strong, robust and rigorous Bill.

Effective local government is a vital part of the fabric of the dynamic, democratic, fair and inclusive society that people want to see.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I apologise for being absent earlier, but I was on Northern Ireland business, as they say. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in relation to the dismantling of the infamous section 28, the Bill is entirely compatible with the legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament some three or four weeks ago?

Ms Armstrong

I can confirm that the Bill repeals section 28. That is no longer part of Britain's legislative framework. In that sense, the Bill is compatible with legislation passed in Scotland. The Bill requires further confirmation in the Lords, but I am determined that we will see a dynamic, democratic, fair and inclusive society, with local government at its heart. That is vital to securing the quality of life that people deserve and have a right to expect. The Bill, as amended, will put local government back at the heart of local communities, giving to local authorities and the local people whom they serve the rights and responsibilities that fit this age, this century.

As I have said, linking all those features gives local government a strength to which, in some areas, it has not yet woken up. The power to respond to the economic, environmental and social needs of a local authority's area, linked to the duty to prepare community plans, will radically change the way in which local government works, and ensure that local people feel that local government is working with them on their behalf in a way that has not been possible in recent years.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions and commend the Bill to the House.

6.15 pm
Mr. Waterson

I was about to say that this is the last time that we shall debate the Bill in this House, but on reflection, I would not bank on it. I echo the Minister in expressing my gratitude to all members of the Committee, who approached the matter constructively and worked hard, even if, in the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), it was a paltry 40 hours of our lives. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), who worked hard with me and my incredibly heavyweight Back Benchers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), both of whom brought enormous experience to the Committee's deliberations.

I recognise all our old friends in the Minister's speech. With the exception of holistic, they were all there—modernisation, partnership, accountability, inclusive, dynamic. That is the new Labour-speak which we have all learned to get used to in Committee.

The Minister talked about lively debate, but I suspect that that was unconscious humour. No matter how lively the debate was in Committee, it was as nothing compared with the lively debate on the Government Back Benches and in Labour local government.

The Minister said that the Government had listened. Let us be charitable and assume that she has indeed listened to all representations, not just those from the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats—on a good day—the Labour campaign for open local government, and so on. She may well have listened, but she has hardly taken a blind bit of notice of anything that any of us have said to her. There have been a few minor concessions, for which we are duly grateful, but nothing of any great substance, at least in this House.

When the Minister talked about a strong, robust and rigorous Bill, I assumed that she was talking about some other Bill. I am almost embarrassed at the Heath Robinson nature of the Bill that we are sending to their Lordships. I hope that they can make some sense of it.

I thought that the Minister was being slightly optimistic, although I know that it is in her nature, when she talked about confirmation by their Lordships. That may be pitching it a bit high, but I shall return to that.

I should have thought that some Labour Members might be a little disturbed by the Minister's suggestion that the Bill puts local government back at the heart of local communities. Any number of Labour Members have served on their local councils with distinction, some, with distinction or otherwise, as leaders of their local councils, all of whom would probably resent the characterisation that, up until now, when this brilliant modernisation agenda burst upon an unsuspecting world, they were not at the heart of their local community. That is a gross calumny on local councillors throughout Britain, of all political parties and of none, who have for many years worked for their local communities, often with minimal reward—certainly not reward of the dimensions of that accorded to some Labour leaders around the country under the modernisation agenda.

Even if the Minister is not listening to me, I have genuine sympathy with her. This has been a difficult few weeks for the Government, not least for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The so-called modernisation policy is coming apart in the Minister's hands. Labour Back Benchers are queueing up to rubbish the Bill, and it has fewer and fewer supporters in local government.

The Government have had a bad few weeks. The only ray of sunshine is provided by the fact that Ken Follett, unlike Bernie Ecclestone, is not asking for his money back—as far as I know. Labour Back Benchers have attacked the Government; for example, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) spoke of self-inflicted wounds and uncertainty and confusion about section 28. His lack of faith in the Government's direction is surprising, because I understand that he has been appointed to Labour's parliamentary campaign team. He obviously brings to his new role a healthy scepticism about the entire project. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) likened the Government to a mediaeval monarchy. A range of luvvies, Government supporters and millionaires are queueing up to complain about the course of events.

The Government suffered massive losses in local government in May—hardly a ringing endorsement of their policies in local government or centrally.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am usually able to give Front-Bench spokesmen a little leeway, but we must talk about the content of the Bill. We are considering Third Reading.

Mr. Waterson

Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is important to note that when issues arising from the Bill were discussed last week in Bournemouth at the Local Government Association conference, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and I had good receptions, but the Minister received the Women's Institute treatment and was slow hand-clapped.

Ms Armstrong

I had a good reception.

Mr. Waterson

I can only suppose that it was good compared with her reception by the Labour group at the Local Government Association conference.

The Bill remains an embarrassing shambles. The Minister referred to the wonderful new power that local authorities are to receive. We broadly welcome that, and our approach to it in Committee was constructive, as I am sure that the Minister will concede. However, the fundamental problem remains: there is no cash to go with it. The Government, who have already cut funding for many councils, are providing no extra money.

Ms Armstrong

I do not want to interrupt, but the hon. Gentleman should not mislead the House. Does he accept that the previous Government cut local government funding in real terms by 4.3 per cent. in the three years before the general election, whereas in the three years after that election we increased local government funding in real terms by 6.8 per cent.? I should not like the hon. Gentleman to mislead the House.

Mr. Waterson

No, I would not wish to do that. However, perhaps the Minister will explain why my constituents are paying 8 per cent. more council tax this year than last year. We can all bandy figures about, but people, especially in rural areas and shire counties, are feeling the pinch under the Government.

I allowed the Minister to intervene because I believed that she would deal with my point about the new power. Despite her protestations in Committee, there is no new money to back it up. Not only will the Government refuse to grant more money to accompany the power, but they have made it crystal clear in the House of Commons and the House of Lords that councils that try to raise extra cash to support the new power will fall foul of the capping regime. We still have such a regime.

We broadly welcome changes to the system of standards and conduct. The Committee, to a man and woman, welcomed the abolition of surcharging, which everyone in local government views as a blunt instrument. Although we made detailed points about the actual provisions, we welcome the changes that the Bill outlines.

Let us consider the provisions that apply to elections. The Government have a bizarre notion that the solution to historically declining turnouts in local elections is to make people vote more often—that an annual opportunity to vote for every council will somehow make electors more enthusiastic about voting. At the same time, the Government are tinkering again with the voting system for directly elected mayors and proposing the same system as was used in the London mayoral elections. Despite the bally-hoo, the turnout for that election was only 33 per cent.—compared to an average 30 per cent. in local government elections—and there was a greater proportion of spoilt ballot papers than usual.

Structures, and the Government's insistence on imposing their blueprint on local government throughout the country, constituted the biggest issue on which we spent the most time. I repeat that discussing even three options is pretty rich, because for the majority of councils, the only realistic option is a cabinet system with an executive/scrutiny split to replace the current committee system. The Government have the incredible notion that, by tinkering with local government systems and structures which are, on the whole, of little interest to the residents of any council area, they will somehow increase public confidence in local government, improve turnouts and, to employ a phrase that the Minister used often, improve quality of life. That simply will not happen. The only way to achieve that is by returning more powers to local government and thus ensuring that those elected make genuine choices for their community. That will make people keener to go out and vote.

The Minister did not mention her so-called fourth option. That is just as well. I believe that the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)—it may have been someone else—dubbed it "option 3A". That is probably overstating the case. The so-called fourth option that the Government have devised is nothing of the sort. It simply requires councils to make proposals for an executive; the Secretary of State will decide whether they can proceed. The option will apply to a group of councils, not individual councills. Surely Ministers realise that there is no great enthusiasm in local government for the structures that the Government want to impose, but enormous support for the current committee system or some variation on, or updated version of, it. I do not understand why Ministers are burying their heads in the sand.

We had a good, substantial debate about secrecy yesterday. I simply reiterate our position, which has never changed from start to finish of our proceedings. Under successive Conservative Governments, beginning with a private Member's Bill introduced by Margaret Thatcher, we established a code that ensured the rights of the public and the media to attend and get details of council and committee meetings. It would be simple for the Government to say that those rules should apply to local government cabinet meetings. Yet pushed this way and that by the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats, newspaper editors, the media generally and their rebellious Back Benchers, Ministers have evolved a complex, bureaucratic system for dealing with cabinet meetings. It is unnecessary and confusing, and it will probably be difficult to police. The system is not even complete. Only last Monday, the Government sent out draft regulations for consultation in a panic because of the pressure that was being brought to bear on them.

We have evidence of the success of the Government's policy on directly elected mayors. It has been a great success in London. The Government ended up with the wrong candidate, and the wrong candidate won the election. Any rational Government would have piloted the idea somewhere, but this Government chose London for the pilot scheme. I do not need to rub in the extent of the failure of that experiment.

There is a bigger debate still about the future of local government, which is beyond the ambit of the Bill but is still relevant. That is the question of "Front Line First"—how local government is to be funded and whether the Government intend to try to avoid using local government structures wherever possible.

I hope that it will be helpful to the House—

Mr. Don Foster

The hon. Gentleman is on the issue of "Front Line First" and whether local authorities are to be bypassed. Given his intervention in my speech earlier this evening, will he clarify whether I was right in ascribing to the leader of the Conservative party that party's intention significantly to remove the current powers of local education authorities?

Mr. Waterson

The hon. Gentleman is now putting to me a rather different point. He talked about our abolishing local education authorities, and I am happy to reiterate that we have no intention of doing so. However, we intend to redefine their role. I do not think that any LEA should feel secure in having any future under the Government's plans once they are unveiled.

I will not be inviting my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Third Reading. As I have made clear, there are some sensible provisions in the Bill which we would not like to see lost. The Bill still needs amending in some significant ways, and I shall return to that. To use the words of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), who spoke yesterday, this is a centralising Government when it comes to local government. To use also the words of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), the Government have a contempt for local government.

To return to the meeting of the Local Government Association in Bournemouth last week, we had the non-appearance of the Deputy Prime Minister, although I understand that he found time to go to the British soaps awards. We had a panel discussion involving the hon. Member for Torbay. [Interruption.] The Minister for Local Government and the Regions asks from a sedentary position about the whereabouts of my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). The answer is that he was at Bournemouth. The right hon. Lady probably did not notice because she was being slow hand-clapped by the audience.

As I have said, we had a panel discussion, at which I was present on behalf of my party, as the hon. Member for Torbay was for his. No Minister of senior or junior rank was produced by the Government. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions may be short of funds from the Treasury, but it is not short of Ministers. I do not want to embarrass the Minister too much because she experienced the slow hand-clapping of the audience.

The fact is that the Government have wholly lost the plot on local government matters. They are obsessed with their notions, which have less and less to do with the real world and more and more to do with the liberal elite of which we spoke earlier.

The Bill will go to the House of Lords. I hope and expect that their Lordships will stand firm on the two crucial issues of section 28 and the so-called fourth option. That is a real option and choice for local government. We can only guess what will happen first. Will there be two substantial U-turns by the Government on the Bill—or the loss of the Bill—or will there be an invitation to London's Mayor to rejoin the Labour party?

6.33 pm
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I shall be as quick as possible because I am aware that time is running out. I reiterate that the reforms set out in the Bill are not new ideas. They originated in 1991 in the consultation paper on the internal management of local authorities. However, the reforms are revolutionary as regards the way in which local councils will operate in future and take decisions. They will replace the traditional committee system with a cabinet scrutiny split.

Early experiments have not been a great success. There have been examples of decisions being taken in secret and of small cabals taking decisions. Some local newspapers have been up in arms because they have not been able to get information. We took the Minister's assurance in Committee that that was because the Bill was, obviously, not on the statute book. Those things should not occur when, as is to be hoped, the Bill takes its place on the statute book. Time will tell.

There has been welcome movement by the Government during the Bill's passage. There has been a relaxation of the narrow, prescribed structures that were set out originally. There has been an important concession on freedom of information. There has been clarification on pensions. There has been protection for councillors serving on outside bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I were pleased to serve in Committee and to have contributed constructively, I believe, to the Bill's passage. It is not the Bill that we would have drafted in the first place. The freedoms that local councils need are not necessarily in the Bill, although there is some movement towards that. However, we are pleased about the power of competence in terms of economic, environmental and social well-being. In a sense, we are probably closer to the sort of local government that we would want to see, even if there is not the absolute power of competence and financial freedom that we would wish the Bill to have.

We await the Government's intentions on finance as well as the comprehensive spending review. Some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) were correct. Many new duties have gone to local government, but whether these moves will be a success will depend on whether local government has the necessary funds. It does not necessarily have the necessary fund-raising powers to make things happen. In conclusion, we will not impede the Bill's progress at this stage.

6.36 pm
Mr. Patrick Hall

I am pleased to make a short contribution to the debate, both as a Member who considered the Bill in Committee and as a former councillor on Bedfordshire county council. I found the experience of both informative and generally enjoyable. One position lasted eight years and the other 40 hours, as has been mentioned several times. Having gone through all that, I remain a strong supporter of local government. I hold it in high esteem because I believe it to be an essential part of a civilised society and a healthy democracy. That is where I come from with regard to the Bill and the reform of local government.

Local councils have served the country well for about 120 years. They have changed many times during that period. My approach to the Bill and to local government reform is that we should add to and improve what we already have. I am convinced, having been involved in the passage of the Bill, that we will reform local government in a progressive direction.

I do not share the reluctance of some to let go of the committee system. When I first served as a councillor some years ago, everything was done through committees and the full council. I quickly came to appreciate—as a social services spokesperson, I became part of the system—that the real decisions were often taken outside open and formal meetings. They were taken usually by leaders, sometimes alone with chief officers, and often through private party group meetings. They were whipped through committee, often with very little member participation. I see no need for anyone to feel threatened by the proposed executive scrutiny structure.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) referred more than once in Committee and on the Floor of the House to arrangements on Bedfordshire country council. Perhaps he did so because he knows that Bedfordshire is a very good place and that I represent part of it. Also, he knows that the council is controlled by the Conservatives with a majority of one. However, it has an all-party executive and a scrutiny committee. That committee is chaired by a senior Labour councillor, and the system seems to work. I understand on good authority that some Conservative back-bench councillors are becoming annoyed about the prominence that the Labour councillor who chairs the scrutiny committee enjoys on the full council. That might be a sign that scrutiny can work. I do not see it as a second-class function to be conducted by second-class councillors. It is an integral part of the process.

The movement that the Government have made on the openness of meetings and access to information is genuine and welcome. It was rather churlish of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, today and yesterday, to criticise the Government for listening to Members. He spent a good deal of time introducing amendments, and when improvements are accepted, he seems to think them not good enough.

The changes that have been put together and presented by the Government prove not only that hon. Members have been doing their job on the Bill, but that the Government are doing their job. I have no doubt that we are creating the means for local councils to do their job in all the years ahead.

6.40 pm
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me and for the way in which the Government have moved in the past 24 hours, particularly on openness in local government. They have clarified some issues, not least when the Minister reassured us last night that decisions that are made collectively in a council's executive should be in public, even if the decisions that arise out of them are made by an individual member.

That is important. My constituents do not mind so much where the decision is made, but they want to see open discussion of the closure of an old people's homes, the new level of rents, or the opening hours of a public library—important things that touch their lives. The Minister has clarified that; it is very welcome and I am grateful.

I am grateful for and welcome the Minister's remarks on Third Reading, which I took as positive remarks, about local government and local authorities. In my experience, local authorities have not felt over the past 20 years that central Government really believed in them, or were on their side. That has been as true since the last election as it was before it. However, with those remarks by the Minister, let us hope that the Bill is the start of a new relationship between central Government and local authorities—a new, much more positive relationship. I fear, however, that the Government will need to look again at the speed at which they are moving on local government in relation to housing and education. Until those things are clarified, local authorities will not feel that the Government believe that they can deliver and do a good job within the new structure that they are forming by means of the Bill.

Local authorities are, of course, variable, as are local councillors. Many are far from perfect, but local democracy is essential for the government of this country. People want to know whom they are electing and who is making decisions, and they want those people to be accountable to them. However good services are through agencies, that is not the same as having locally elected people making decisions at a local level. With that underpinning the new Bill, and the Minister's positive remarks about the future of local government, many of us will be happy to see how the Bill works, particularly if it will be the start of a new and more positive relationship between central and local government.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.