Orders of the Day — Local Government (Contracts) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 23rd June 1997.

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Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 4:54 pm, 23rd June 1997

The hon. Gentleman gives it all away when he concedes that there must be a limit on the powers of local authorities. By doing so, he undermines the point that he made in his earlier contribution—that a power of general competence would make the Bill redundant. Of course it would not, because any statutory power is liable to judicial review.

The financial markets would still look for a safe harbour to protect their investment, even if there were the power of general competence that the hon. Gentleman advocates. He is dealing in an unrealistic assumption about the appropriate framework for the future of local government and of public-private partnerships. We are living in the real world, and we have presented practical proposals to tackle the real problems and to ensure that local authorities and the private sector can work together on a sensible and practical basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) did make an excellent maiden speech, in which he revealed his detailed understanding of the needs of his community and a genuine commitment to his city. He rightly emphasised the importance of partnership as a vital ingredient in future for local authorities working with the private sector in tackling many problems, not least the one that he highlighted—investment in crumbling schools. He identified Cardinal Heenan school in his constituency, which will benefit as one of the pathfinder projects currently under way.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) on his successful change of constituency. He made the move just in time, because the Labour party now holds Croydon, Central, the seat that broadly approximates to the one that he held in the previous Parliament. His move to a safer place may help to ensure that he continues to make a contribution in the House in the years ahead

. The hon. Gentleman supported the Bill, but raised specific questions. He asked why so many of the regulations were negative resolutions. The answer is that the regulations amending forms of contract that can be certified are affirmative, because they change specific provisions. For others, a negative resolution is appropriate—for example, for the capital finance regulations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the role of the auditor and questioned whether the auditor should have an opportunity to get involved before certification. We do not accept that that would be a sensible way forward, as it would fetter the auditor's discretion to take action if there were questions about the validity of the contract. We understand that if the hon. Gentleman serves on the Standing Committee that will consider the Bill, he will raise other detailed questions, to which we will respond appropriately in Committee. We welcome the fact that he broadly supports the principles behind the Bill.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) made various criticisms of the Bill. He complained that it did not give new powers for local authorities. However, he misunderstands the purpose of the Bill. It is not intended to give new powers to local authorities. It is designed to overcome obstacles to successful public-private partnerships. If it sought to do what the hon. Gentleman wants, that would be way beyond its appropriate remit. We may return to the matter in Committee.

The hon. Gentleman implied that the Bill might take away the powers of individuals to challenge local authorities. As I have made clear, it does not do so. There will be an open power for individuals and the auditor to challenge a local authority where it appears that the local authority has acted improperly or ultra vires.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam assumed that the Government view the public-private partnership route as the solution to all local government financing requirements. We do not, but it is a useful additional tool for creating opportunities to tackle problems effectively through partnership and to foster the spirit of partnership that is crucial not just to good relations between local authorities and the private sector, but to the regeneration of so many areas of our country that need a partnership approach as well as investment.