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'(1) Subject as follows, a qualifying authority may -
(a) become a member of a body corporate-
(i) all of whose objects fall within the objects specified in subsection (2), and
(ii) all of whose members are qualifying authorities, and
(b) do anything that is required by, or is conducive or incidental to, membership of any such body.
(2) The objects referred to in subsection (1)(a)(i) are-
(a) to provide insurance, in relation to risks of any description, to-
(i) qualifying authorities who are members of the body corporate, and
(ii) persons prescribed in regulations made by the appropriate national authority,
(b) to enter into arrangements under which such insurance is provided to-
(i) qualifying authorities who are members of the body corporate, and
(ii) persons prescribed in regulations made by the appropriate national authority, and
(c) to do anything that is required by, or is conducive or incidental to, the provision of any such insurance or entering into any such arrangements.
(3) The power of a qualifying authority under subsection (1)(b) includes in particular power-
(a) to pay premiums and make other payments to the body corporate;
(b) to agree to make any such payments;
(c) to assume financial obligations in relation to persons prescribed for the purposes of subsection (2)(a)(ii) or (b)(ii).
(4) The appropriate national authority may by regulations impose restrictions or conditions on the exercise of any power conferred on a qualifying authority by subsection (1).
(5) A qualifying authority must, in exercising the powers conferred by subsection (1), have regard to-
(a) any guidance issued by the appropriate national authority, and
(b) any guidance or document specified in regulations made by the appropriate national authority.
(6) The appropriate national authority may by regulations amend this Chapter for the purposes of changing the authorities which are for the time being qualifying authorities for the purposes of this section.'.- (Ms Rosie Winterton.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 20 - Mutual insurance: supplementary.
New clause 1- Building targets -
'No local authority which has a responsibility to plan for building a target number of homes may promote an area for housing allocation within the area of another local authority nor count such an allocation towards its housing target without the agreement of that authority.'.
New clause 9- Duty to draw up a strategy for public toilet provision -
'(1) A lower-tier local authority must make a strategy for the provision of public toilet facilities in their area.
(2) Before drawing up its strategy, the authority shall take whatever steps it deems necessary to consult the public in its area.
(3) The authority shall have regard to the results of the consultation when drawing up its strategy.
(4) A lower-tier local authority must-
(a) review its strategy at least once a year;
(b) take whatever steps it deems necessary to consult the public in its area as part of its review;
(c) have regard to the results of the consultation when reviewing its strategy; and
(d) publish its strategy and information relating to its consultation on its authority's website.
(5) An authority may delegate to a town or parish council its responsibilities under this section in respect of any area covered by that town or parish council.'.
New clause 15- Delegation by regional development agencies-
'(1) The Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 (c. 45) is amended as follows.
(2) After section 6A (delegation of functions to the Mayor of London and the London Development Agency) insert-
"6B Delegation of functions and funding by regional development agencies
(1) The Secretary of State shall make proposals in consultation with the regional development agencies within six months of the coming into force of this section for a scheme of delegation for the discharge of their functions to a local authority within their area, or jointly by a group of local authorities within their area.
(2) For the purposes of this section, a "function" shall include-
(a) part of a function or any function which is exercisable only in relation to part of the area of a local authority;
(b) the determination and allocation of funding or any expenditure programme to other persons or bodies, whether by grant, loan or other means;
(c) the transfer to one or more local authorities, or to a partnership of one or more such authorities with one or more other persons or bodies of funds for the purposes of implementing a programme of investment in pursuance of the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of the area.
(3) The scheme of delegation shall apply to the functions of all or any of the regional development agencies as the Secretary of State considers appropriate following consultation with relevant local authorities in the area.
(4) The scheme shall be implemented no later than two years from the coming into force of this section.
(5) Two or more local authorities to which any function has been delegated under this section may arrange for it to be discharged by them jointly or in accordance with any executive arrangements agreed by them from time to time."'.
New clause 16- Power of general competence -
'(1) The Local Government Act 2000 (c. 29) is amended as follows.
(2) For subsection 2(1) substitute-
"2 (1) Every local authority has full powers and capacity to carry on or undertake any activity or business, do any act, or enter into any transaction with full rights, powers and privileges for so doing.".
(3) For subsection 2(2) substitute-
"(2) Subsection (1) applies subject to-
(a) this Act;
(b) any other enactment; and
(c) the general law.".
(4) For subsection 2(5) substitute-
"(5) The powers under subsection (1) may be exercised in relation to or for the benefit of-
(a) the whole or any part of the local authority area; or
(b) all or any persons resident or present in a local authority's area; or
(c) any person or area situated outside the local authority's area if they consider that it is likely to benefit their area or persons resident there."'.
Government amendments 28 and 29.
New clause 19, together with new clause 20 and amendments 28 and 29, relates to mutual insurance arrangements. I thank Opposition Members from both parties for their assistance with bringing forward the amendments. They may well have issues that they wish to raise, but it is generally recognised on both sides of the House that this has been a matter of some concern for local authorities since the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the LAML-London Authorities Mutual Ltd-case in June 2009.
In July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government published the consultation paper "Strengthening local democracy", which sought views on the scope of local authority powers, particularly as regards their powers to undertake mutual insurance arrangements. The consultation response attracted 96 responses to the specific question on mutual insurance, with 82 per cent. agreeing with the proposed power. New clause 19 provides permissive powers for authorities to enter into mutual insurance arrangements, if they wish to do so. Authorities exercising the power will need to ensure that any proposed arrangement meets the duty of best value as laid down in legislation. While it seems unlikely that all local authorities will wish to establish or participate in an insurance mutual, for those for which it makes good business sense to do so, clear and specific legal powers will be available to them for that purpose.
The amendment provides that best value authorities, which are described as "qualifying authorities", may establish and become members of a corporate body-for example, a company-the object of which is to provide insurance in relation to insurance risks to authorities that are members of the mutual. Only qualifying authorities may be members of the mutual.
The mutual may also provide insurance to other bodies, which may be prescribed by regulation and which I will call "affiliates". They will be bodies that have some association with qualifying authorities-for example, arm's length management organisations, academy schools or wholly owned subsidiaries. Broadly, the intention is for a qualifying authority to be able to sponsor an affiliate to bring it within the mutual's insurance cover, as we understand that many local authorities arrange insurance cover for ALMOs and some schools. However, affiliates will not be able to become members of the mutual.
The qualifying authorities are to be provided with a power to pay premiums and other payments to the mutual insurance body, and can agree to make any such payments as may be necessary in future. They can also assume financial obligations in relation to affiliates. The Secretary of State in relation to England, and Welsh Ministers in relation to Wales, may by regulation subject to the affirmative procedure amend the list of qualifying authorities. They may also impose restrictions or conditions on the use of the power by regulation subject to the negative resolution procedure. We intend to consult on the content of such regulations. Qualifying authorities are required to have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers and to any documents specified in regulations, such as guidance from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. Again, we want to consult on that.
New clause 20 lists the qualifying authorities that are to be provided with the power to become members of a mutual insurance body. It also sets out the appropriate parliamentary and Welsh Assembly procedures for regulations. Amendment 28 provides for commencement of the new clauses, which will be brought into force when commenced by order, and amendment 29 is a consequential amendment to add a reference to insurance to the long title of the Bill. I commend those amendments to the House.
New clause 16, tabled by the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), would amend the current well-being power, a power that local authorities have to promote or improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. It would remove the link to well-being, giving authorities the power to
"undertake any activity or business, do any act, or enter into any transaction" for the benefit of their area or its inhabitants.
The Government have long been committed to ensuring that councils have a wide range of powers and providing them with the freedom to be innovative and act in the local interest. Indeed, we introduced the well-being power in 2000 as a broad power of first resort to enable local authorities to act for the benefit of their local community. In 2003, we introduced new freedoms and flexibilities for capital finance, including prudential borrowing powers. At the same time, we provided powers for best value authorities to charge for discretionary services and enabled new trading powers to be conferred on authorities.
We are aware that the decision in the LAML case raised concerns about the scope of local authority powers, and through the "Strengthening local democracy" consultation we have sought to better understand them. We have acted speedily to answer the immediate concerns raised by the case, so as to ensure that best value authorities can take part in insurance mutuals.
As part of our commitment in the consultation, we are considering whether there are other cases in which existing local authority powers are not sufficient to enable them to improve services and achieve efficiencies. However, they are complex issues that need careful consideration. I assure the House that we are committed to such consideration following the recent consultation, but I am concerned that "power", as it is expressed in the amendment, would not give councils the certainty that they need if they are to take part in mutual insurance. Indeed, the Court of Appeal judgment, which in a sense is at the root of the Government amendments, indicated that any general power would be unlikely to provide local authorities with the necessary confidence to engage in mutual insurance and similar arrangements. We are introducing our amendments today to address that problem, but, as I have said, we are committed to considering other ideas that came forward in the consultation.
New clause 15 would provide for the Secretary of State
"in consultation with the regional development agencies" to
"make proposals...for a scheme of delegation for the discharge of" the RDA's "functions" by
"a local authority...or...a group of local authorities" in its region. However, new legislation is not necessary to achieve what we all want, which is interventions delivered at the right level that will align with and strengthen effective partnership working between all parties in a region. The Bill already has a very clear focus on enhancing the role of local authorities in economic development through the introduction of economic prosperity boards and local economic assessment duties and by providing a statutory basis for multi-area agreements.
The economic assessment duty, for example, will provide a shared and agreed understanding of local economic conditions and will form a key part of the evidence base that will inform priorities for regional strategies and their implementation plans to ensure that local circumstances and perspectives are properly reflected. In that context, the focus should be on the principle and practice of joint investment planning, which can be achieved within the existing legislative framework, rather than on delegation of RDA functions. The key is closer working between RDAs and local authorities in planning the implementation of the regional strategy, which will deliver the optimum outcomes at local level.
Certainly, we propose a joint approach to planning and investment in the region, which will enable local authorities to take on a large degree of responsibility for delivering agreed programmes and projects in their areas. However, RDAs should retain final accountability for funds passed through them.
The new arrangements that we are introducing-the RDA and leaders boards-will address some of the issues raised by the question whether RDAs have an input from local government when they are drawing up regional strategies. The new changes in the sub-national review will achieve that. As my hon. Friend knows, I was a great supporter of regional government, but we have moved on. We have therefore looked at how to ensure that RDA boards work closely with the leaders boards from local authorities. In many instances, they are drawing up joint boards to consider particular aspects such as planning and transport. This brings together local authority colleagues with the regional development agency boards in a joint approach, which will be very important.
Accountability is necessary to ensure that money is strongly focused on economic development activity that is of strategic value to the region as a whole and is therefore good value for money. Obviously, this is even more important in an environment of tightening resources. Secondly, it is important that the RDAs maintain flexibility in their budgets.
The key point is that RDAs and local authorities will jointly agree what programmes of intervention will be undertaken in particular areas, but the RDAs will retain the responsibility to make the final decisions. Any funding from RDAs to local authorities would have to follow the usual rules that apply to the RDAs, and would have to be used within the same overall financial framework. RDAs and local authorities will jointly agree how projects within the programme will be appraised, monitored and evaluated.
The virtues of investment-led planning include a focus on what will work, with flexibility, but without bureaucracy. The Government have been working with colleagues from the LGA, local authorities and RDAs to develop guidance for joint investment planning. The principles that we are following mean that that should be light touch and partnership based.
New clause 9 was tabled by several of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey in her key position as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. It calls for the Government to place a duty on local authorities to develop, in consultation with members of the public, a strategy for the provision of public toilets in their area, and to review this on an annual basis. The Government believe that decisions about the provision of local services and amenities such as public toilets are best made at local level, so we want to devolve the powers, resources and flexibility to local authority partnerships. We have therefore taken concerted action to empower communities, so that people have more influence over local decisions. We believe that that is the right way to bring about the changes that people want to see in their areas and is a better and more sustainable approach than always providing direction from the centre on how particular public services should work, which can constrain the ability of councils to respond in the ways that best meet the range of local needs and priorities.
As in other parts of the Bill, we have tried to introduce ways in which people, through petitions and requests to which councils must respond, can raise the needs of their community. In 2007, we undertook to consult all relevant bodies about the issue of public toilets. As a result, we published our strategic guide on improving access to better quality toilets in March 2008. It highlighted the range of powers and approaches available to local authorities and their partners that can help them to improve publicly accessible toilets in their area. That included further guidance on the community toilet schemes, under which members of the public can use toilet facilities, free of charge, in local businesses such as cafés, restaurants, pubs and public buildings.
We believe that the right approach is for parts of the Bill to be used by local councils to influence such provision. Rather than imposing a duty from the centre-in many ways, we have tried to pull back from that-we want local people to have means of raising such issues and making councils more accessible and responsible. We would rather do that than always say from the centre, "This is how you need to address your toilet issues."
New clause 1, tabled by Mr. Lilley, is similar to his proposal in Committee, where he explained that he wished to close a loophole that he thought would allow councils to meet their housing targets by applying for planning permission in another local authority area. I wrote to him on
"an area for housing allocation within the area of another local authority nor count such an allocation towards its housing target without the agreement of that authority."
I reiterate that local authorities can express their opinions on proposals in a neighbouring authority's area. Indeed, they are required by law to consult each other. However, local authorities have no powers to require another local authority to accommodate housing numbers allocated to them. Our policy is that local authorities should accommodate the level of housing identified for their area in the regional spatial strategy or regional strategy. We support councils working together so that they can decide between them how best to accommodate their respective housing needs across a sub-region area. However, they cannot simply require another local authority to accommodate the number of houses allocated to them.
Is it not a concern that, at an examination in public, Luton council, for example, could say, "Oh no, it is mad to do it in our area. The best way of doing it is to put it in Hertfordshire."? If the inspector nods in that direction, it becomes a way for a council to bounce a neighbouring authority and get out of its own obligations. That is not something to be encouraged.
As I have said, we try to encourage joint working. If local authorities disagree, an independent inspector has a role in making a decision on the proposals based on the evidence available and the policy set out in the regional strategy and by the Government. Again, I stress that in setting out the regional strategy, the local authorities will have to come together and agree on such matters. It is not possible simply to impose a proposal; we encourage joint working. Furthermore, an independent inspector will have a role, if overall there is a disagreement.
I have gone into some detail, but I hope that my explanations of the reasons for bringing forward the Government's amendments have been convincing. I hope, too, that I have given enough reassurance in my explanations about the other amendments to persuade right hon. and hon. Members not to press them.
I rise to speak to our new clause 16, which would give local councils a power of general competence, as the Minister said, and our new clause 15, which seeks to delegate power to local authorities. As new clause 16 is related to Government new clauses 19 and 20 and Government amendments 28 and 29, as the Minister observed, I shall turn to them before dealing with our new clause 16, which goes wider.
Before I do that, however, let me pause to say, following the Minister's remarks, that we will listen carefully to the debate on new clauses 1 and 9. I am familiar with the arguments put by my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley in Committee. Our Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend Robert Neill, is looking closely at the matter raised by new clause 9. The Minister made a reasonable point about the undesirability of putting new burdens on local authorities on to the statute book, but our view is not carved in stone and we will listen carefully to what she has to say. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson, I welcome back the Minister. She is the one fixed point in the turning world of the Government Front Bench. Since Committee we sadly seem to have lost Sarah McCarthy-Fry, but it is good to see the right hon. Lady in her place.
The Minister went through the background to Government new clauses 19 and 20 in some detail, and there is no need for me to repeat what she said in taking us through the LAML case and what happened in court. However, it may be worth pointing out that LAML is an all-party body, in that Conservative-controlled councils such as Croydon, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Harrow are members. Also, both the Local Government Association and Chris Leslie, the director of the New Local Government Network and a former and-who knows?-perhaps future Member of this House, were disappointed with the judgment. It is also worth pointing out that in response to the Government's consultation paper on strengthening local democracy-of which more later-the LGA said that the
"CLG's proposals in response to the LAML case...are quite unsatisfactory. Specific legislation on mutual insurance would do nothing to tackle the wider limitations of the existing well-being power which the case has highlighted."
Let me pause at this point and say to the Minister that we are inclined to give her new clauses a fair wind. She made much of the fact that our new clause to introduce a new power of a general competence would not do the trick on mutual insurance. Our answer is that we are not seeking-at least not at this stage-to delete her provisions on mutual insurance, so they would stand. However, we have a couple of questions and concerns that are worth raising. We are curious to know whether the Department has made any assessment, as it should have, of any risks to local authorities. We have received indications from some sources of that possibility, so we are curious to know what the Minister thinks about that. Also, new clause 19(5) refers to guidance. If the Minister has not already told the House when she intends to issue that guidance, it would be welcome if she did so.
An examination of the clauses on mutual insurance naturally leads us to the wider subject of the power of general competence. I am afraid that that leads me to quote the LGA-and, indeed, Chris Leslie-again. It said that the LAML judgment demonstrated "weaknesses" in
"the scope of the 'well-being' power. This adds to the need for legislation to create a power of general competence for local government. This is essential in order to regain the flexible power it was believed the Local Government Act 2000 had created".
In its response to the consultation that I mentioned a moment ago, the LGA expressed its support for a
"general duty to devolve", and criticised
"the weak approach taken to the flaws in the power of well-being, where both we and the CLG Select Committee have advocated a new power of general competence."
The LGA went on to repeat that point in its briefing on the Bill.
I am sorry to quote Chris Leslie again, but he has said:
"There is an apparent consensus in Parliament across all parties in favour of a 'power of general competence' for local authorities."
That is certainly true among the Conservatives. We have set out the desirability of such a power in our document "Control Shift". That was also the view of the Liberal Democrats when we debated these matters in Committee, although that seems a very long time ago.
I am not sure that the Government have joined that consensus, however. Their view as stated in Committee was that
"more needs to be done to encourage local authorities to use the well-being power". --[ Official Report, Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Public Bill Committee,
The Minister also said in Committee that she was interested in having discussions with local authorities about powers, and she essentially gave the same answer today. Our judgment is that, given the views of the LGA and the New Local Government Network, and the consensus that is emerging, if there is no good reason not to put a power of general competence on the statute book, simply having further ministerial discussions between the Department and the local authorities does not seem to justify postponing a vote on the matter.
We tabled a number of probing amendments in Committee, and we took the view that, if the Minister could persuade us that they were deficient and would have an effect other than the one that we sought, we would not press them to a vote. We did not do so. She did not suggest today that our proposal was deficient in any way. As I have said, we are not proposing to block her proposals on mutual insurance. I therefore give notice that we might seek to press our new clause 16 to a vote.
Speaking of pressing matters to a vote brings me to new clause 15, which deals with the delegation of powers to local authorities. The Minister spoke about that earlier, and I want to put it into the context of the structure established by the Bill, which was debated on Second Reading and which we considered in Committee. Part 5 of the Bill sets out a regional strategy, and it is worth examining it in the context of the Department's own view of the representations that it received in response to the sub-national review. Its response stated that the Government
"expect the RDAs to delegate responsibility for spending to local authorities or sub-regions wherever possible unless there is a clear case for returning spending to the regional level".
It is in that spirit that we have tabled new clause 15, which would enable Ministers to exercise precisely the kind of delegating power that the Secretary of State might think necessary. It would require the Secretary of State to make proposals with RDAs for a scheme of delegation for the discharge of their functions-such as housing or planning-to a local authority or a group of local authorities.
If I am a bit hesitant about these functions, it is because-as my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry pointed out in Committee-the Department's own policy document on regional strategies states, as early as paragraph 2.2 that the Bill
"does not specify what the regional strategy should contain."
At any rate, our new clause would give the Secretary of State the power to discharge functions, having consulted two local authorities.
The Minister frequently argued in Committee that the powers of Westminster and Whitehall should be given due weight. She really cannot complain today that our new clause 15 does not do that. Ultimately, it gives the Secretary of State the power to make the proposals for the delegation of responsibility, as the Department's response to the sub-national review indicated that it wants to. The Local Government Association said in a further comment on the consultation paper that
"partnerships of local authorities have far more direct accountability than the plethora of national and regional quangos that currently make decisions that affect local people."
I think that the LGA has the balance of that judgment right, which is why I give notice that we may well press the new clause to the vote.
As is traditional on these occasions, I end by quoting Andrew Mackinlay, who always puts things more bluntly and directly than I could. What he said on Second Reading has gone down in the annals of Hansard and the House should be reminded of it:
"Most people have had enough of this. Why can we not cut away this plethora of bodies and focus on democratically elected authorities... That is why I say to her"- not the present Minister but Hazel Blears, when she was Secretary of State-
"that this is complete nonsense and that we have had enough... of... all these buzzwords. I say take it back."-[ Hansard, 1 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 35.]
On the Conservative Benches, we can do no more than echo that blunt and direct language. As I said, unless the Minister has any further revelations for us, we intend to press our new clauses to the vote.
I rise to speak in favour of new clause 9, which was tabled by me and a number of other members of the Communities and Local Government Committee. I say in parenthesis that I also support the various ideas around for allowing Select Committees to put forward amendments in a more direct way than has been possible on this occasion.
The new clause arises from one of the recommendations in the Select Committee's report on the provision of public toilets, published in October 2008. For the record and for the benefit of Members who may not have read through the report, which I commend as an interesting piece of bedtime reading, I shall briefly explain why the inquiry was undertaken and why it excited such enormous public interest. I have not been involved in a Communities and Local Government inquiry that has excited as much public interest as that one on the provision of public toilets. I shall also explain why we thought it necessary for councillors to have a duty to draw up a strategy. Towards the end of my remarks, I shall explore the assurances that the Minister sought to give and see whether I can tease out some more enthusiastic ones, which might lead me not to press the new clause to the vote.
The Select Committee looked into the provision of public toilets because there was ample evidence across the country of a decline and because an increasing number of councils had come to the view that the direct provision of public toilets by councils was too expensive-allowing their toilets to fall into disrepair, or, in many cases, to be completely demolished. There is nevertheless a huge public interest in ensuring an adequate supply of public toilets in every area of the country and that any such provision should be of high quality.
Although this is clearly an issue for every single member of the public, there are certain groups among the population who feel particularly deeply about it. One of those groups is, obviously, the elderly. I think it is a biological fact that as they get older, both men and women tend to have a more frequent need to use public toilets, and those needs become considerably more pressing.
These things are often not spoken of publicly, but I think it is extremely important for us to do so. The ability of elderly people to have a nice day out, to go shopping or to visit the public library is often constrained by the fact that they are not absolutely certain that, should they need to use a public toilet, one will be conveniently available, and they fear that if one is available, it will not necessarily be very clean or a pleasant place and they will feel slight concern about using it. That is why many of the organisations representing elderly people, such as Age Concern, have been so active in raising the issue of the need for adequate public toilet provision, and why they have been so supportive of our report. In fact, they have subsequently used it as a campaigning tool with local groups in an attempt to raise the profile of the issue with their local councils.
The issue also affects families with young children. As we all know, young children often have pressing and urgent needs to use public toilet facilities. They tend not to look ahead, so to speak, and go to the loo before they leave home. They swear blind that they do not need to use a loo, and then suddenly and very urgently need to use one. Although the public tend to turn a blind eye to small persons using the natural greenery of the landscape to camouflage these vital activities, it would clearly be much more satisfactory if there were an adequate supply of toilets so that families out with young children could use the proper facilities when they require them, rather than being forced to rush into the nearest bank-should one be open-to ask whether they can use the staff facilities.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Lady is saying, but why does she think that we need a national strategy? Why can we not simply rely on responsible local councils to make such provision? An example is Christchurch borough council, which has won the loo of the year award on many occasions.
The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that the Committee was not asking for a national strategy. It was asking for local authorities to be given a duty to draw up their own local strategies in consultation with their local populations. The best councils are already doing that, but not all councils are. That is why we suggested that every council should have a duty to draw up its own strategy. We are not asking for councils to be given a duty to provide public toilets directly-I shall say more about that in a second-but we are suggesting that they should have a duty to draw up a strategy. I note what the Minister said about the balance between central and local government and whether we should be imposing a duty, and I am susceptible to that argument myself. I think that it is a question of where we place the balance, and I shall say more about that shortly as well.
I have mentioned elderly people and families with children, but, for rather obvious reasons, women in general have an additional need to gain access to high-quality, clean public conveniences during certain periods in their lives. That is another issue that is not often spoken of publicly.
Another group affected consists of people with severe disabilities, and, in particular, the families of children and adults with such disabilities, who need to be able to gain access to good disabled toilets, especially the excellent ones promulgated by the Changing Places campaign. Let me at this point put in a good word for my own constituency-well, not my constituency, but Milton Keynes council, which was one of the first to provide a Changing Places toilet in the Milton Keynes shopping centre. The shopping centre is not in my constituency, but in the adjacent constituency of Mr. Lancaster.
For families caring for severely disabled young people or adults, the ability to gain access to a Changing Places toilet is even more important. Our Committee heard evidence from one family who had been unable to enjoy a day out as a family until Changing Places toilets were provided. If their disabled family member had an accident, they had to give up their whole day and all go home because there was no way in which they could gain access to suitable facilities. If there is not decent public toilet provision, those groups do not have the freedom of movement that everyone expects in order to use leisure and shopping facilities. That is not to mention issues about tourism and the need for resort towns, for example, to ensure that visitors have adequate public toilet provision.
There is a public hygiene aspect. We had strong evidence from those representing residents associations, which are particularly concerned about the public nuisance that is caused in some city centres where there is inadequate public toilet provision, where there are lots of pubs and clubs and where lots of young people drink a great deal, come out on to the streets and often cause extreme nuisance in public places and in front gardens. Therefore, a huge range of people think that this is an important issue to which not enough attention has been given, either locally or nationally, and they were very supportive of the Committee's inquiry. Many were keen that councils should have a duty to provide public conveniences. We did not go as far as many of the groups that made representations to our Committee wanted us to go. We did not think that it was necessary for local authorities to have a duty to provide public conveniences. The Minister raised points about the need for local authorities to be able to take decisions on the way in which they use their resources and provide for local needs. However, although some councils have been excellent, many councils have not been, so we thought that there should be a duty to draw up a strategy in consultation with the local community.
All the examples that the hon. Lady has given show considerable local concern, and I am lucky to have two local authorities that provide extremely well in this area: Suffolk Coastal district council and Waveney district council. However, surely it is up to local authorities to decide; it is not for us to tell them that they have to do such things. If provision is needed, they will provide it. If they do not think that it is needed but it is needed, the local electorate will soon demand it. We must give local authorities the power to decide what their priorities are.
As I have said, I am in two minds about that argument. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Committee has just published a report on the balance of power between central and local government, where we argued strongly for local government to be given considerably more powers. I am in two minds because of the evidence that we received from individuals and organisations. Although there has been significant public pressure from individuals and groups in many localities to get their local council to take the issue seriously and to look at the best practice of councils that are providing good toilet provision, often through community toilet schemes, where they have worked with local businesses, pubs and cafés to ensure that a range of provision is available-much of it is provided by the private sector, primarily for its customers, but also for public use-regrettably, quite a lot of councils still do not seem to be susceptible to pressures from such groups. They seem to be locked into the idea that the provision of public toilets is extremely expensive, cannot be done these days and is beyond them. They do not seem to be looking at the good practice of other councils and thinking imaginatively about the way in which they could provide such facilities. That is why we put forward the recommendation that councils should have a duty to draw up a strategy in consultation with the local community. That would give more weight to the local groups that want such facilities and are pushing councils into activity.
The Minister provided a pre-emptive response to my proposal in which she reiterated the Government response to our original recommendation. I have some sympathy with the notion that we should not at this time be putting additional constraints on local authorities. In her response however, the Minister gave the impression that this was about councils directly providing facilities, whereas in fact it is about councils drawing up a strategy. I accept that even drawing up a strategy and having a public consultation is not cost free; there is of course a certain financial cost to the council in doing that, but drawing up a strategy is not quite the same as the council directly providing public toilets. Therefore, I hope that the Minister might reconsider some of the emphasis in the original Government response to the report and recognise that this is not about direct provision but about strategy.
I accept that the Government strategy providing guidance to local authorities is excellent, and if all councils followed it there would not be a problem or a need to put any additional pressure on councils. However, before I definitively decide that I am not going to pursue this matter, I shall need the Minister to give me a bit more reassurance, such as on how the additional powers in the Bill could be used by local groups to push recalcitrant councils into at least having a strategy. If she were to state that on the record, it would at least be a further campaigning tool that all those organisations could use against recalcitrant councils in order to get them to be more active.
I also seek reassurance that the Department recognises that this is an extremely serious issue in respect of equalities of opportunity, particularly for disadvantaged groups. If there is not decent local provision of high-quality public loos, those groups are not able to enjoy all the facilities within localities and they find that their lives are constrained as a result.
Therefore, I ask the Minister to say that the Department might consider at least monitoring the situation. Also, she has given assurances that there are other ways for the public to exert pressure on their councils on this matter. If they do not arise and we are left with inadequate provision of public toilets in certain parts of the country, I would like the Department to consider being more active, not just leaving things to run their course and councils to do their own thing in response to the national strategy.
Dr. Starkey has raised an important issue that we have not discussed previously in proceedings on this Bill. It is important to pay tribute to the Changing Places campaign that has done so much to draw attention to this issue and to put pressure on local authorities to improve their standard of provision. I can understand why the hon. Lady is in two minds as to whether there should be some kind of statutory duty. The way the process works at present in many areas of local government is that national guidelines tend to set a lowest common denominator which councils then feel they have to reach as a minimum level. We do not currently have a system with a highest common denominator whereby the excellent work of some councils-which some Conservative Members have raised-sets the standards that other councils have to try to achieve. I wonder whether a way of dealing with this might be to set up a system whereby the impetus is on local authorities to reach the highest common denominator rather than on their being beaten into trying to attain the lowest common denominator.
I find the Minister's response on this whole issue rather bizarre, because she says there is no way this should be within the remit of central Government and that it should be a matter entirely for local government, yet we are discussing a piece of primary legislation that sets out in minute detail and thousands of words and pages how councils should respond to petitions. There is therefore double-think in the Minister's response in that she can take one view on the provision of public toilets but a very different view on the minutiae of much of the other work that local government undertakes. Perhaps she could square that in her response-I will be impressed if she manages to achieve that.
I turn now to the initial Government new clauses relating to the Court of Appeal ruling on local authorities and mutual insurance. The Liberal Democrats are not going to oppose them, because they deal specifically with the problem that the ruling identified, but they are necessary to although not sufficient for the needs of local government. The new clauses do not address a much more general issue relating to how the well-being power could be applied. The Minister's remarks seemed to indicate that she was prepared to take a piecemeal approach, addressing other issues that might arise from the way the well-being power was exercised. Such an approach is unnecessarily complicated, because introducing a much more general power of competence would address the matter far more effectively. The Liberal Democrats are inclined to support the Conservatives in what they are saying about the general power of competence, because such a power would make things explicit and deal with them in a simple way, rather than saying, "We'll deal with each issue as it arises, depending on what rulings may or may not be made." Like Mr. Goodman, I understood that this was not an either/or approach, because we could adopt it in addition to matters relating to the LAML case.
I shall keep my remarks brief, because I know that many hon. Members want to raise specific points today and I wish to give them the opportunity to do so. On the Conservatives' new clause 15, Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive of the need to push down to a more local level power and resources from any level further up the line, be it central or regional. I was slightly concerned about the language that was used, because I would much rather see a push to devolve funding and decision making, rather than simply to delegate it. One of the problems that I have with the regional organisations, which seem to have so much power, is that they are not actually responsible for decisions; they see themselves purely as making delegated decisions and they are delivery arms of central Government. In a sense, where someone is undertaking and executing delegated powers, it does not matter whether that is being done at a national, regional, sub-regional or parish level, because ultimately they are doing only what is being required of them by the central Government guidance. I would much rather there were devolved powers than delegated ones.
I have a lot of sympathy with the point that the hon. Lady is making. Our intention was simply to dangle in front of Ministers a proposal that, as it would leave a power in the hands of Ministers, they might accept. Unfortunately, our offer is likely to be rejected.
I suspect that it might be rejected, but I was pleased to see that new clause 15 refers specifically to resources. My real concern is that powers and responsibilities are easy to hand down, but unfortunately the resources that should go with them never seem to make the full journey. What the Minister was saying was bizarre. She was saying that the Government have an excellent track record on pushing these responsibilities down to regional level and that they want to focus on getting councils to push responsibilities down to communities-I do not have a problem with any of that. My problem is that the bit in the middle is missing: why can regional bodies not have a duty to push down responsibilities to the local authority level too? The Government's approach is strange and the thinking is certainly not joined up, particularly in respect of the group of provisions that we are dealing with today.
The issue raised by new clause 15 is a theme to which we will return, if we get the opportunity to do so, because a number of other amendments that are to be considered further down the line deal with the powers of regional development agencies. RDAs still exercise a huge number of reserve powers, and concerns have been raised about the number of decisions being taken by people who have not been elected and who have power over people who have been elected. It is not just one narrow area that is being raised here, because there are much broader concerns about the priorities of RDAs and where their powers go back to-ultimately they go back to the Secretary of State. I hope that we get the opportunity to return to this issue.
The Liberal Democrats have no problem with the very narrow new clauses that the Government have tabled, but we feel that if this really is a Bill about local democracy it is very disappointing that the Government are not prepared to be more wide ranging in the powers that they are explicitly prepared to pass down to the local authority level.
That is precisely the point, is it not? The title of the Bill is a misnomer. It is yet another Bill that should be entitled "Interfering with local government", rather than having its title suggest that it is about local democracy. Julia Goldsworthy was right to ask what the difference is between leaving the determination of a policy on toilets to local authorities and telling them how to deal with petitions, with informing people about councils and with many more important issues. That explains why I wish to speak to new clauses 16 and 15.
New clause 16 deals with a general competence power, about which there has always been a debate. I recall serving on a national executive sub-committee in the 1980s and discussing what a new Labour Government would do for local democracy-we were doing that because the huge rows about rate capping and the abolition of the county councils had taken place. My right hon. Friend Mr. Straw was on the same working party. Many of us thought then that a general competence power should be given to local authorities-I still think that-but he came up with this stunning argument: if there were such a power, what would there be to prevent Islington from making an atom bomb? I do not know why he chose to use Islington in that absurd example, but if seriously intelligent and respected people such as he come out with absurd arguments such as that, there really is no argument against giving a general competence power to local authorities.
Unless local authorities have the ability to do things unless they are specifically prohibited from doing them, the converse of that will occur and there will be regular interference in very important local matters-beyond those relating to public conveniences-that are better determined locally. I could give three quick examples that apply to my constituency. It is blighted by appalling private landlords, whom we have fought for a long time. We now have a scheme that regulates them, but because the Department does not like it we suffer terrific interference from the centre in the detail of the regulation. It is completely unnecessary because the scheme is beginning to work and the local authority should be left to decide the best areas for the scheme to operate in and how to implement it.
The product of interference is always inefficiency and extra cost. When the Select Committee on Transport examined local transport plans, it found that the Department for Transport was getting into the detail and interfering in the definition and placement of puffin crossings. That is not something that central Government should be doing. We have had big rows in Manchester about the tram system. The Department for Transport examines the number of seats on trams, but that is not what central Government should be about. Until central Government they stop doing such things, local government will not achieve what it is capable of achieving.
I know that the hon. Gentleman and I do not have quite the same view about the private sector, but has he noticed that most big companies have given up trying to manipulate every local branch, and find that by giving independence and freedom they get a very much better response? Why are civil servants so reluctant to allow local authorities to make their own decisions and, indeed, their own mistakes?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid and excellent point. Long ago, almost every large private company gave up trying to control everything from the centre, because such an approach is inefficient and ineffective.
My second point-let me move on to new clause 15 -concerns my right hon. Friend the Minister's answer to my question about why non-elected people on RDAs should be taking decisions over and above those taken by elected people on local councils, in some ways distorting what might be national priorities. In a subsequent statement, she gave the real answer: the Government are still wedded to the idea of regional government, which the people in the north-east threw out completely. I do not understand why the Government are still wedded to the non-democratic and inefficient part of that process, when the electorate-in a part of the country that was chosen because it was most likely to support regional government-threw it out.
I can base the argument around a statement made by the newly appointed chairman of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, a man called Robert Hough, whom I would class as a friend. He has done excellent work on the Commonwealth games in Manchester and I was a colleague of his on the Manchester ship canal. As a capitalist, he has put a great deal of effort into the community. On his appointment to the board, he said, "We have to be the referee between local government and central Government." That is completely silly. He is an excellent man, but I think he was looking for justification for a job and position that have no justification. People who are elected do not need someone to referee between them and Government. As a leader of a council, I was quite capable of agreeing or disagreeing with Mr. Gummer. That is the way it should be. Local government should speak directly to central Government, because both have a mandate from the people. It might be a different mandate, but that is part of the glory of democracy.
I am not simply making an artificial argument. In the north-west, the RDA has produced policies that are economically indefensible and I do not believe that a Government of any political colour would have followed them, and neither would local government in the north-west. They are capricious policies that are damaging the economy of the north-west. That is a simplification-in detail, it is worse. Rather than putting money where it is most likely to generate most jobs-the economic hub of the north-west is Manchester, the second economic hub is Liverpool and the third is probably Preston and Chester-the greatest amount of money per head of population has gone to Cumbria. There is another justification for spending money, and that is the relief of poverty, but that has not been the justification that has been given.
I do not want to make a Third Reading speech; I just wanted to talk about the two new clauses, but the Bill does not do what it says on the tin. It is not about improving local democracy. Increasingly, as the debate goes on, it is clear that there is no proper justification for RDAs to continue. For this country to function at its best, local government needs to be set free. Giving it a general power of competence would be one way of doing that.
I shall try to be brief and to stick strictly to new clause 1, which seeks to close a loophole in planning law that allows one council to try to meet its housing targets by designating areas within the boundaries of another council as its preferred area for development.
The Opposition do not like top-down housing targets at all: we want to sweep them away and replace them with responsibility devolved to local authorities, which will be given freedom and proper incentives to meet the needs of their local areas. They will do that much better than the present system does. However, while the present system exists, we need to tackle this pernicious loophole, which is, I understand, being exploited by councils in several parts of the country. It came to my attention as a result of a chain of events in my area.
Luton and South Bedfordshire councils were obliged to meet the housing targets imposed on them within the Milton Keynes and South Midlands sub-regional spatial strategy. Initially, the councils designated as their preferred areas for development locations within their boundaries. Then, as occasionally happens, they met local resistance, but they discovered the loophole and decided that they would overcome that local resistance by proposing an area in my constituency-as it happens, it is named Lilley Bottom and is one of the most beautiful features of my constituency-as their preferred area for development, thereby escaping any retribution from their voters and leaving the voters in the threatened area powerless to oppose them.
One can understand the outrage that followed. One thing that unites the people of Luton and Hitchin is a desire to retain the green belt that separates them from each other. The proposal is unpopular in Luton as well as in north Hertfordshire. However, it is a double outrage for the people of north Hertfordshire that it has been imposed on them from outside.
The Minister said that in her letter she had said councils would not be able to meet their housing targets by doing such things, but that is not how I read it at all. It seemed to me that she was saying that they were in some way meeting sub-regional spatial strategy housing targets. Certainly, the only reason why the councils are proposing to build in north Hertfordshire is that they believe it will help them to meet their housing targets. I shall look very closely at what she said, and if they are acting on a misapprehension I shall draw that to their attention and they will promptly stop. However, I fear that that is not the case. My analysis-and therefore the need for the new clause-has been endorsed by the Campaign to Protect Rural England as well as most local conservation bodies that want this beautiful area of the country protected and want to prevent a precedent from being created that would undoubtedly be followed in many other areas of the country.
This Bill is called the "Local Democracy Bill". It aims to promote local democracy. I submit that we cannot have democracy without accountability. If one council can build in another council's area and therefore not be responsible to those affected by its action, that is a negation and denial of democracy. I hope that the Minister will think again and will recognise that the new clause would strengthen the democratic nature of her Bill as well as ending an unsustainable loophole in the law. I hope that we will have an opportunity to vote on the new clause in due course.
I want to speak briefly to support my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley. Planning should be about good planning. If we consider what is happening in our area-my constituency neighbours that of my right hon. Friend to the east-we can see that good planning is not what is happening. The Government have said that they want Luton to expand and they also want Stevenage to expand. These towns are very close to one another. They are not big cities with great hinterlands or anything like that. If that is to happen-although I think it is a grave mistake-it has to be done in the most careful way.
There are proposals for a massive development west of Stevenage, and Luton council has said, "Yes, let's have a massive development east of Luton." Our part of Hertfordshire could become like the west midlands-each community will blend with the next, and we will end up with a complete sprawl. The Government should be ashamed of what is happening to a wonderful county like Hertfordshire when they have had all these years to produce a good planning system.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden is bringing forward a sensible proposal that would stop a council like Luton doing something as foolish as closing the gaps between itself, the Stevenage conurbation and the town of Hitchin. Why should it be able to do that, especially as no proper consultation has been undertaken? I spoke to the chief executive of North Hertfordshire district council about this only recently. The council has had to complain to Luton about the fact that it has not been involved in any sensible discussion. It is an example of terribly poor planning, and I therefore support new clause 1.
I also support new clause 1, even though the seat that I represent is not under threat at the moment. My right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley has pointed out that the Bill sets a precedent that could be used by councils unable to meet the housing targets imposed on them from outside. In principle, therefore, I want the new clause to be accepted, but I am sorry that he did not take his argument one stage further.
My right hon. Friend argued that the lack of democratic accountability means that it is not proper for a local council to build in another council's area. I want to go further and say that the problem with our current housing arrangements is that that democratic accountability has been removed, with the result that the number of houses to be built in any given place is decided centrally. That figure is then sent through bodies that somehow purport to be representative, as Graham Stringer noted, and then imposed on the duly elected local authority in a way that is unacceptable.
We must seriously consider returning to local authorities the power to ensure that other authorities do not interfere with them in that way, which would mean abolishing the undemocratic planning committees at regional level. Regions do not exist. I live in east Suffolk, which has no connection at all with Luton, and yet we are included in the same eastern region. That is madness. We even have a Select Committee to discuss a region that does not exist, and we also have a Minister: she represents Stevenage, whose location in the eastern region is merely a figment of the Government's imagination.
The idea that the regions set up by the Government do any good at all is wholly fictitious. The only set-up more stupid involves the strategic health authorities of the NHS, which do nothing but blame the Government or the local primary care trust.
Another problem with the regions is that there is an inevitable tension between the need for growth and development on the one hand, and the need for the protection and defence of the environment on the other. The local electorate must be able to defend their turf but, equally, a council that finds the right place in its area for development must be able to get some benefit from that development.
This Bill is meant to be about local democracy, but I am sorry that it does not provide that local authorities should retain for 10 years the business rates and council tax accruing from any new development, in addition to their normal central Government grant. That would give local authorities a reason to benefit from development decisions. At present, they face significant disadvantages, as it is always true that residents of an area already have votes, while those who might wish to live there do not.
As new clause 1 suggests, a sensible development system would require that a local authority that has no place, standing or position in an area could not impose its housing obligations on that area. I am only sorry that the new clause does not cover the circumstances that arise when the local authority that does control an area makes a choice in favour of development. Our system does not allow a council in that position to benefit from that choice, and so such matters are not debated properly with local electorates.
I agree with much of what my right hon. Friend says, just as I agreed with much of what my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley said earlier, but is there not a slight danger with the path that he is going down? I am talking about the risk of overdevelopment. Especially in these troubled economic times, is there not a great incentive for a local authority that owns land to get a lot of money and, going forward, income from rates? Could not that be detrimental to the character of some of the towns that my hon. Friends here represent?
I disagree fundamentally with my hon. Friend. First, when development does take place, the problem in our society is underdevelopment rather than overdevelopment. The most dense housing area in Britain is the Royal Crescent in Bath. Our problem is bad development, not overdevelopment or underdevelopment. Bath and Monte Carlo are two examples of places where people want to live, and both areas have been built in a dense way, but sensibly. When that happens, it is possible to meet the density requirements, but unfortunately we have not insisted on a quality standard for local development.
I feel strongly about what my hon. Friend said for a second reason, which is that I believe in local democracy. I am fed up with people at the centre telling local authorities what is good for them. If local authorities are given powers, they will often make mistakes-of course they will, but central Government usually do. In my experience, it is important to spread decision making around, as people who are close to decisions make fewer mistakes than those at the centre who always think that they know best.
It is time for us at the centre to begin to recognise again that if the authority in Manchester wants to carry through a series of policies that we disapprove of-as long as it is paying for those policies itself, and I am suggesting that there should be some areas of additional payment-it should make the decision and put the case to its electorate. That is better than having a lot of faceless bureaucrats at regional or Government level who believe that they know how many seats there ought to be on a bus in Manchester-a matter of supreme unimportance to them but of great importance to the people of Manchester.
Like my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, I, too, was the leader of a local authority-although a much smaller one-when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister. I feel moved to welcome his Pauline conversion to local democracy, which is all the more unexpected for not having been expressed in the directions that he gave as a Minister, of which I was on the receiving end. However, I welcome his conversion and I hope that, in the unlikely circumstance that he becomes a Minister again, he does not revert to his old dirigiste tendencies.
As so often, the hon. Lady has a partial memory of history. She forgets that local authorities did not use their own money to do what they wanted, but precepted on national taxation. We had to stop situations whereby Newcastle, for example, charged John Lewis rates that were four times per square foot more than in London-
Order. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady who provoked him will appreciate that we are now straying away from the matter before the House.
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall explain that my view of local government democracy-as put forward in the new clause proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, to which I am addressing my remarks-is that local government should have the right to develop in its own area, using its own resources. I want to extend those resources. However, local government does not have the right to make a decision and demand that somebody centrally-without consideration-should pay for that decision, outwith the normal sums of money that come to a locality. That is why Dr. Starkey and I may not have got on well in those days. However, I shall not carry on down that route, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Local democratic choice demands the willingness of central Government to give powers away. I find that my colleagues are very keen on subsidiarity from Brussels to Westminster, but they are less keen on subsidiarity from Westminster to the town hall or county hall. People in the town hall or county hall are very keen on subsidiarity from Government to them, but if one suggests subsidiarity from them to the parish council they get extremely annoyed.
I hope that this Parliament can be the first Parliament for a long time to believe in real subsidiarity. We should do in Brussels the things that we can do only in Brussels-there are many of them and they are valuable. We should do in Westminster the things that we can do only in Westminster, and we should insist on doing the things we do not need to do in Brussels. But we in Westminster have to believe in subsidiarity and this "Local Democracy etc." Bill has little to do with local democracy, for in the end, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley rightly says, it does not give local authorities power to make their own decisions-indeed, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West is even suggesting that we should guide them in the provision of public lavatories. If they cannot deal with their own public lavatories, we cannot trust them to deal with anything.
We have covered a vast number of issues in the debate on this group of amendments. I shall start by addressing the last issue raised by Mr. Lilley and I will reiterate what I said to him in my letter of
Order. The Minister is replying directly to the right hon. Gentleman and it would be helpful if the Whips did not interfere for a few moments.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In my letter, I said:
"You asked for reassurance that if particular Councils were to apply for planning permission for housing development in another district and permission were to be granted, the houses that they built in that other district area would not count towards the target, which has been set for their own area or areas.
I can certainly assure you that any houses permitted and built in a particular area can only count towards the planned housing supply for that particular area as set out in the Regional Spatial Strategy...and Local Development Framework relevant to that area."
I should like to offer the right hon. Gentleman a meeting with me and officials to discuss the particular issues that he has raised. I know that those issues have been causing him ongoing concern, so if he feels it would be helpful for us to explain the processes in a little more detail, I am happy to do so.
On the public toilet provision amendment, the Select Committee report was extremely helpful and I was glad that it congratulated the Government on some of the actions that have been taken so far, although I realise that my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey would like them to go further.
To pick up on the issue raised by Julia Goldsworthy, I shall describe in a little more detail how the Bill will help to reinforce the duty on councils to consult. There are also mechanisms, such as petitions, whereby people can raise local issues. That goes to the heart of some of the debate on the role of central Government in setting strategic direction and on how we expect local councils to respond to issues raised by the community. I venture to suggest that the public toilet provision falls into the category of central Government trying to work with organisations and local authorities-as in our strategic guide-to say, "This is how you can have good provision."
We have also issued further guidance on how to set up community toilet schemes. Given that the Government have shown how that can be done by working in partnership with local authorities, it would be possible under the Bill for local people to say, "We do not think the provision of public toilets is adequate," and if a petition was presented to the council, it would have a duty to respond.
We need to get the balance right, and I should not like my hon. Friend to think that we have been sitting on our hands-so to speak-in relation to public toilet provision. We have been supporting the Changing Places campaign and we are working with the Changing Places Consortium to review the British standard and consider the needs of people with complex and multiple disabilities, to which she referred. On
In June, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Austin, attended the learning disability week parliamentary reception to celebrate this year's theme, "Changing Places, Changing Lives". We have also made a commitment to review the guidance that supports part M of the building regulations and to consider whether it needs to be updated to include improved guidance on specialised facilities.
I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West that we have looked at the issue very closely. Indeed, I was discussing her report with officials only this morning and we went into some detail about the bits where she had endorsed and praised the Government and the bits where we needed to go further.
Mr. Chope spoke about the loo of the year award, which was won by-I apologise for not being able to remember.
Indeed. The British Toilet Association's awards are a good way of highlighting best practice in this important area.
I return to some of the questions raised by Mr. Goodman about risk assessment in the context of mutual assurance. We undertook an assessment of risk as part of the impact assessment, which has been published today. The mutual will need to be authorised, supervised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority, like any other insurer. It will also need to operate in accordance with the FSA handbook and meet all FSA, Government, risk management and reporting requirements. I emphasise that these are enabling powers. Local authorities will need to ensure that any proposed arrangement meets the duty of best value and improved services for their communities.
It is unlikely, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates, that all local authorities will wish to establish or participate in an insurance mutual. We carried out research in the Department which suggested that potential take-up is influenced by the scale of authorities' perceived risks and their prior claim record. The research suggested that fire and rescue authorities were and still are keen to implement a mutual insurance approach.
The hon. Gentleman asked me when guidance will be issued. I confess that in the course of this fascinating debate, I have forgotten which new clause he was referring to. However, I assure him that the guidance will be a matter for regulations. I suspect that he was referring to guidance in relation to mutual insurance. We will be consulting on it, and qualifying authorities will have to have regard to any guidance issued and to any documents specified in regulations, such as Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy guidance.
On the wider issues related to the power of general competence, as I said in the debate, we committed to considering local authority powers following the recent consultation. The issues are complex and need careful consideration. The Opposition amendments may still preclude speculative activities that are aimed at the financial well-being of the authority. This is important, as the Court of Appeal ruled that such activities did not
"readily obtain sanction by use of a general expression, the wording of which does not easily bear upon such activities".
We want to consider those issues, and we have consulted on the matter. In the Bill we want to correct the issue of mutual insurance, and at a later date we will deal with some of the other issues that have been raised.
On the points made by my hon. Friend Graham Stringer and by Mr. Gummer, it is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman made such a strong point about regional development agencies. I know that my hon. Friend has been sceptical about RDAs for some time. I hope that I have been able to reassure him that the new arrangements for the RDA board and the leaders board will inject the democratic accountability that he has discussed.
It has been interesting to hear the official Opposition's various pronouncements on regional development agencies. Mr. Cameron said that they would be abolished if a Conservative Government were elected, and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal endorses that view, I think. Since then, other comments have been made to the effect that the regional development agencies would be considered on a piecemeal basis.
From the work that I do in the Yorkshire and Humber region and the visits that I made around the country during the summer recess visiting the RDAs and local authorities and meeting a number of businesses, I know that the help and assistance given through regional development agencies has been invaluable in the economic circumstances that we face. It would be extremely unwise for the Opposition to destabilise the situation by indicating that if, by any unfortunate chance, they were elected, regional development agencies would be abolished. That would cause huge problems for businesses. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to have more discussions with representatives of businesses in his area.
I have had those discussions, and business representatives are quite clear. They do not think that they have anything to do with Luton, and they want those powers to go back to the county council, because that is where they should be. Suffolk is one of the largest counties in Britain and has always run such matters very well. Why on earth do we have to think about places that are nothing to do with the region or any kind of regional development that affects us?
The more that the right hon. Gentleman denies the help that is going out there, the more worried local businesses will become about the idea that anybody is talking about the abolition of regional development agencies.
I always listen carefully to my right hon. Friend's argument, but that is the nonsense of it, is it not? The natural extension of what she is saying is that local authorities would not be able to use exactly the same money to help exactly the same businesses and exactly the same people. That is not the case. Local authorities could use that money at least as effectively.
And the whole point of the Bill is to enable multi-area agreements and economic prosperity boards, so that local authorities can work together, but in a regional context. That is why it is important to take forward the changes introduced through the sub-national review, which bring together RDA boards and leaders boards represented by local authorities to look at the overall strategy for the region. This has been incredibly important in looking at big strategic investment proposals. I know through my work as regional Minister, as do colleagues who are regional Ministers, that that is endorsed by business organisations and local businesses in our areas.
Will the Minister explain why we do not therefore have a coherent policy in our part of Hertfordshire? Is she really content for all those towns just to join up and become one enormous conurbation called something like "Lutonage"?
Or "Steventon". Is the Minister not prepared to say anything, so that we can tell people in Hertfordshire, "Look, the Government aren't going to join up all these communities into one massive city."? What reassurance is there? Where in the Bill is there any hope?
The whole point of the Bill is that it does what a number of authorities, including Conservative-led authorities, have asked us to do, which is to give a statutory underpinning to measures such as multi-area agreements. They allow councils to co-operate, and councils have been asking for that power. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North and I signed with local authorities in the west midlands an agreement that has all-party support and does exactly what I am talking about-it allows local authorities to work together. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire ought to look at examples of how the measure is working effectively. The Bill will enhance it.
I once again thank the Opposition parties for their support for the insurance amendments. I hope that, with my reassurances, the House will vote for all the Government amendments and oppose all the Opposition new clauses and, I am afraid, the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West. I hope that I have reassured her, and that she feels able not to press it to a vote.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 19 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.