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'(1) Paragraph 18(4), Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70) is substituted as follows:
"(2) A poll may be demanded before the conclusion of a parish meeting on any question arising at the meeting; but no poll shall be taken unless either the person presiding at the meeting consents or the poll is demanded by not less than thirty, or one-third, of the local government electors present at the meeting, whichever is the greater."'.- (Mr. Drew.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 4- Local freedoms -
'(1) The Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 248 (freemen and inhabitants of existing boroughs), after subsection (1) there is inserted-
"(1A) Where the son of a freeman of a city or town may claim to be admitted as a freeman of that place, the daughter of a freeman may likewise claim to be so admitted.
(1B) The son or daughter of a freeman of a city or town shall be admitted as a freeman whether born before or after the admission, as a freeman, of his or her freeman parent and wherever he or she was born.
(1C) In subsections (1A) and (1B) 'freeman' excludes a freeman of the City of London."'.
New clause 8- Committee system -
(2) Subsection (2), there is substituted-
"(2) A local authority falls within this subsection if the resident population of the authority's areas on
New clause 10- Referendums -
'(1) A principal local authority must provide a facility for the holding of referendums-
(a) in electronic form, or
(b) in such other manner as the authority considers appropriate.
(2) A principal local authority must give reasons for not granting a request to use the facility provided by it under this section for the holding of a referendum.
(3) A principal local authority must make a scheme (a "referendum scheme") for the holding of a referendum.
(4) A referendum scheme must be approved at a meeting of the authority before it comes into force.
(5) A principal local authority must publish its referendum scheme-
(a) on its website, and
(b) in such other manner as the authority considers appropriate for bringing the scheme to the attention of persons who live, work or study in its area.
(6) A principal local authority may at any time revise its referendum scheme (and subsections (3) and (4) apply in relation to any scheme which is revised under this subsection).
(7) A principal local authority must comply with its referendum scheme.
(8) Subject to that, nothing in this Chapter affects the powers or duties of a principal local authority in relation to any referendum held.'.
New clause 11- Penalties -
(2) A principal local authority found guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £100,000.'.
'(1) The Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel for England shall be abolished.
(2) Sections 57, 57D, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 65A, 66A, 66B, 66C, 67(1), 75(1), (3), (4), (7), (9), (11), 78A, 78B and Schedule 4 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) shall cease to have effect.
(3) The Secretary of State may also by order make transitional or consequential provisions (including by amendment of the Local Government Act 2000) as are necessary due to the abolition of the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel for England.
(4) Any order under subsection (3) must be made by statutory instrument.
(5) A statutory instrument containing an order under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.
New clause 18- Abolition of comprehensive area assessments -
'(1) Sections 99 and 100 of the Local Government Act 2003 (c. 26) shall cease to have effect.'.
Amendment 24, in clause 1, page 2, line 19, at end insert-
'(4) This Chapter shall not come into force until
Amendment 25, in clause 10, page 7, line 10, at end insert-
'(5) This Chapter shall not come into force until
Amendment 26, in clause 23, page 16, line 9, at end insert-
'(9) This Chapter shall not come into force until
I am delighted to discuss this important issue. I immediately disclose an interest: I am a town councillor of some 23 years' standing. I suppose that that is why the National Association of Local Councils came to me to seek to clarify the issue of parish polls. The very reason why we are in this place is to pursue democracy in all its forms, and there is no more democratic a form than what those of us who have been involved in it for a long time would refer to as the first level of representative government, never the lowest. I have been, and still am, proud to represent my community, even if I make it to fewer meetings than I used to. I think that fellow attendees are more grateful for that than I am, but, when I do get to such meetings, they always seem to take twice as long, as one would expect with me. However, I shall not take up a great deal of time now; I shall move on and look at the arguments.
The problem with parish polls is that they are subject to abuse. The most recent and well known case is the parish-my memory deceives me, but I believe that it was in either Wiltshire or Hampshire-that decided to call a poll on the Lisbon treaty. As a staunch opponent of the treaty, I might say that that decision was absolutely right and that where that parish went yesterday, perhaps Parliament and the country should go tomorrow. However, I think that I would be quickly ruled out of order, so I shall say only that, as much as I sympathise, the debate was not appropriate at parish level. The great thing about parish polls is that they can be both divisive and, more particularly, very expensive.
The real issue is that parish polls are an important element of the way in which parishes function, but the power to call a poll has not been amended for a long period. I could wax lyrical about what would happen if every parish were to carry out a poll on an issue of great importance to them, but polls are not used widely. When they are used, however, they can be abused, so my new clause asks the Government to update an old-fashioned approach. The new clause refers to section 9 of the Local Government Act 1972, which allows a parish poll to be proposed at a parish meeting. The problem is that such parish meetings can involve a very small number of people, so the new clause would increase the number of people and the seriousness that determines when such an issue should be progressed.
It is easy to say, "Why would you retain the power within the chairman of the parish?" The fact is that that is how the law is constituted, and I intend not to rewrite the law completely, but to update it. That is the essence of my new clause. I would like to go further, because the conduct of parish polls is another issue, and I shall ask the Minister to respond to that point. Polls are limited to the hours between 4 pm and 9 pm, and, if a parish poll is held at the same time as a local government election, it seems rather silly for them not to keep the same hours. If the Government want to look into that issue, they could find a way to introduce similar times for elections and polls. If they take place at different times, we should limit the time for a parish poll. I have not moved such a proposal, but it should be dealt with if we update this vital part of our democracy. The poll's use is limited. Indeed, I am in a sense trying to limit it further, so that we use polls for their intended purpose, because they have been abused by people who have tried to bring before the parish a completely irrelevant issue as a way of publicising some other issue.
That is my point, and I hope that the Minister will immediately see the value of my new clause and cheer up every parish councillor in the land. I remind her that there are many more parish councillors than anything else-there are 80,000 of us. If she wants to curry favour with all those wonderful people, she should accept my new clause.
I shall be very brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I believe that I am able to speak not to the other new clauses and amendments in this group, but simply to new clause 2 alone. That is correct, is it not?
In which case, I shall begin by responding to Mr. Drew and new clause 2. In essence, he said that he wanted to update what happens at such polls in order to discourage any frivolous debate or vote. When wanting to update a proposal it is always worth asking the Minister about the law of unexpected consequences to see whether there would be any side-effect that could somehow result in ensuring that such legitimate debate does not take place. That is the reassurance that we would look for, as would the whole House, with regard to new clause 2.
We have not yet had a chance to hear the case that Jim Cousins will make on new clause 4. I want to listen to that carefully. We have received representations presenting the proposal that he wants to advocate as an equality issue. We will want to be sure that on the other side of the balance there is no question of unnecessarily restricting without very good cause what an independent body can do. I therefore look forward to hearing his remarks-almost as much as those of Andrew Mackinlay on local authority areas, and those of Graham Stringer, who I thought at one point would serve on the Committee. Sadly, that did not happen; I do not know whether that was connected with the Government Whips.
My main purpose is to speak to our amendments 24, 25 and 26 and new clauses 17 and 18. We have already been able to touch on some of the main themes that we explored in Committee, one of which is very simple. We do not see why it is necessary to write on to the statute book things that any decent local authority should be doing anyway-promoting democracy, responding to petitions, and securing the involvement of people in their local area. That seems likely to bring about the very opposite of the result that Ministers claim. We believe that the Government's mission, whereby everything and everyone must be micro-managed by Ministers and officials from Westminster and Whitehall, serves only to depress local government turnout and to demoralise local councillors. In Committee, we could scarcely find one person on the Government Benches other than the Minister who would defend in principle those three aspects of the Bill. Mr. Raynsford is not here, so I will not embarrass him by quoting directly what he said on Second Reading, but even he, doughty defender of the Government though he was, made it clear that the petitions element, in particular, was merely micro-management.
The Government, in their wisdom, chose to reject that consensus view, which we have already heard expressed in the debate on general competence. However, in July, just after the Bill came out of Committee, they took the notable decision to publish a consultation paper called "Strengthening local democracy", which announced:
"This consultation explores whether local government has the powers it needs to meet today's challenges...It sets out a range of proposals to promote local democratic renewal."
When we read it, we found that some of the things in it are in the Bill before us today, as they were in Committee. For example, question 11 asks:
"How can Councils best reverse the decline in confidence?"
Question 19 asks:
"Should the duty to respond to petitions"- a duty in the Bill-
"be extended to sub-regional bodies?"
Section 162 suggests that the duty should apply to leaders boards:
"Applying a duty to respond to petitions would also make these structures more directly responsive to citizens."
This is all the wrong way round. It might have been better had consultation on these matters preceded the Bill instead of the Government's having yet another consultation right in the middle of the Bill's going through the House-hence our amendments, which I hope the Minister will take in a spirit of due gratitude. They seek to give the Government time to look at the results of the consultation, which is not yet complete, and to consider whether Ministers want to amend any part of the Bill in the light of its findings. Then, after the election victory for the Minister's party that I know she is anticipating, she will have time to consider what the consultation has said and to produce any changes that she wants to produce by
As an inducement for the Minister to consider the amendments seriously, I will deal with the Government's record in responding to petitions, which has been raised by Julia Goldsworthy. This morning, I conducted an experiment by going to every Government Department website and punching in the word "petitions" to see what was the response. Only in a very few cases-the Downing street website is one exception to the rule; the Department for Communities and Local Government may be another-is there any indication that the Department is organising a response to the petitions that it receives. Surely, before laying down this duty on local authorities, the Government should put their own house in order so that when one types "petitions" into the website of the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Justice one is not referred to petitions that apparently have nothing to do with what that Department does.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's going through the failure of all Departments to address this issue. However, the consultation specifically refers to regional bodies. I am sure that a lot of people would be frustrated to find that the petition of 30,000 signatories against the south-west regional spatial strategy has had no formal response. Should not the Government have considered that whole process and could they not have dealt with it without the need for any legislation?
The hon. Lady makes a perfectly valid point and reminds me not to go through all the Departments' responses, which would take up a great deal of time. However, it is remarkable that if one types the word "petitions" into the website of, say, the Ministry of Justice, which must receive petitions, all one gets is references on to company windings-up and bankruptcy petition statistics, not a response from the Department itself.
Our amendments propose yet again the idea of abolishing the Standards Board. In Committee, we argued that most right hon. and hon. Members will have known of cases involving a complaint about a councillor to the Standards Board where that councillor may not have known the name of the person bringing the charges against them. Such situations are clearly unjust and have an effect on the willingness of new councillors to stand and of old councillors to remain.
In her interesting response to the debate in Committee, the Minister conceded a great deal of our case by emphasising that the conduct regime was devolved last year and saying that the board's role has changed to that of a strategic regulator providing local authorities with the tools, training and guidance that they need to reinforce the often robust conduct regime in local authorities. I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House that if phrases such as "strategic regulator" are hurled around into the atmosphere, one must examine them very carefully.
It became evident in Committee that the change in the nature of the Standards Board that was brought about last year leaves it with little to do that could not be done elsewhere. After all, if it is guidance that local authorities need, the Local Government Association can provide that, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry said at one point in Committee. If financial impropriety is the problem, the local government ombudsman is there to investigate it as district auditor. If there is a case of libel or slander, that is covered by the civil law, and breaches of the criminal law are of course eligible to be investigated and prosecuted by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. Everyone is casting around for a reason why the Standards Board should be in place, but there really does not seem to be any substantial reason on offer. As we say in our paper "Control Shift", the Standards Board should be abolished. If the Minister does not commit tonight to doing that, that is the commitment that we have made if we are elected to Government.
New clause 18 refers to comprehensive area assessments. Again, we had a telling debate about that in Committee, during which two principal fascinating points emerged. The first was that there is no clear evidence yet that the CAA process has resulted in a net gain. Were there such evidence, the Minister or the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich would have produced it. The second was that it is hard to find a comprehensive figure for how much it costs. The Lyons review, using an estimate prepared by the National Audit Office, not a figure that the Department has produced, estimated the cost at £2 billion. Michael Frater, the original head of the Lifting the Burdens Task Force, said that 80 per cent. of the costs were those of reporting to central Government, rather than to the local communities that councils are there to serve.
In her response in Committee, the Minister did not claim that the regime was working in the sense of producing any kind of tangible result. For that reason, we have tabled new clause 18. Unless she gives us some very good reason to do the contrary, we intend to press it to the vote if we possibly can, along with our new clause on the Standards Board.
I wish to speak to new clauses 10 and 11. As we discussed in the previous debate, the Bill is in a very real sense a lost opportunity to deal with the relationship between local, regional and central Government and to allow local government to deal with many of the problems that it faces. It surprises me, given that the Bill deals with petitions and consultations, some of which I believe are best left to local choice, that it misses out a matter that has become increasingly demanded by local people when there are difficult issues: the regulation of referendums.
Referendums are difficult matters. It is difficult to know where they should begin and end in a democracy that, at both local and national level, has been predominantly representative for its whole history. In parts of the world, referendums have been used by extreme right-wing Governments. They have been used to death in California so that local or state democracy fails to work, because referendums can come to opposite conclusions. They can both reduce expenditure and increase the demands on it at the same time. They are therefore particularly difficult issues.
What is clear, however, is that all parties have now accepted referendums in principle. All three parties had in their manifesto a commitment to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, or the European constitution as it then was. My party had in its 1997 manifesto a commitment to referendums on devolution, which it carried through with a positive result. There was also a commitment to referendums on elected mayors, which have been used in a number of districts, and there have been referendums on a regional assembly in the north-east and congestion charges in Edinburgh and Manchester.
Although I start from a moderately sceptical point of view on referendums, having participated in the debates on both regional assemblies and the congestion charge in Manchester, it seems to me that done properly, they can involve a lot of people and bring about an outcome that people accept, whichever way it goes. At some times and in some areas, referendums are the right path to take. How strange, when we have had all that experience of them, that there is not a specific responsibility in local government Acts to allow them to take place and to regulate them.
When the congestion charge referendum was agreed to in Manchester, it was not clear whether it would be held under section 45 of the Local Government Act 2000, section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003 or section 170 of the Transport Act 2000, all of which were introduced for different reasons but were not satisfactory. Although it was called a referendum and everybody recognised it as such, it was not technically a referendum within the legal meaning. That meant that the promoters of both the congestion charge itself and the referendum were one and the same person, which is not satisfactory. Although that experience turned out to have no bad consequences, it was wrong in principle, and it is the reason why I have tabled the new clauses. I shall not press them, but I am interested to hear what my right hon. Friend the Minister says in response.
What happened in Manchester, apart from the fact that people made it clear that they did not want the congestion charge, was that the promoters of the scheme appointed the person who ran the referendum. He was given an office in Manchester town hall next to the people who had done the detailed work on the congestion charge and the transport innovation fund bid. During that period, he accepted undisclosed hospitality from the promoters of the scheme. When I put in a request, I found that that was not part of the declared expenses.
When it came to determining the question to be put on the form, the only people who were talked to were the promoters of the scheme. Most bizarrely, although again with no actual consequences, when it came to the result of the referendum on the congestion charge the only people allowed to speak were the losers, the promoters of the scheme. Those of us who had been on the other side were not allowed to speak. It was as though there had been an election for a Member of this House and the only person allowed to speak was the loser. It was the most extraordinary circumstance.
In that particular case, the issues involved and the bias of the returning officer were so clear that they probably helped the no campaign, but it would not always be that way. In a much closer referendum, a biased returning officer, such as the one we had in Manchester, could affect the result. I therefore think that when there is an increasing appetite in our democracy for referendums on difficult issues, the Government need to find the right space in the legislative programme to regulate them, first so that people can ask for them and, secondly, so that there is a clear framework so that people cannot try to fiddle the system. I will be very interested in my right hon. Friend's response to that point.
While listening to the contributions of the hon. Members for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew)-I am sure that other hon. Members will make similar contributions-it struck me that we should have had measures such as their proposals in the Bill. We should have had an opportunity to remove hurdles in primary legislation, including unintended hurdles, that are effectively blocking the effective function of local democracy. The Bill should have been an opportunity for a bottom-up process, whereby the blocks could have been presented to the Government, who could then have addressed them. It is unfortunate that the discussion of this group of new clauses and amendments has been the only time that such a process has worked.
Before the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley spoke on referendums I was sceptical, as I was regarding the points made by the hon. Member for Stroud. My concern was that referendums could be hijacked and that they could be irrelevant. Why place a duty on local authorities when perhaps what we need is enabling legislation to allow the process to go forward? However, there is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed, and the hon. Gentleman did a great job in raising it.
It is disappointing that there has not been a proper process to allow for such a discussion, and that we are now tacking it on to the end of a lengthy debate. We may get some leeway from the Minister, but in most cases hon. Members' efforts will be frustrated.
The hon. Member for Stroud made a valid point about how the system of parish polls is being abused, but I am not entirely sure that his proposal would adequately deal with the problem. The hurdle might have been raised, but perhaps by only a very small amount. I remain concerned that the system is open to abuse, although I understand the need to address the problem that he identified.
After speaking to the leader of Newcastle council, John Shipley, I understand that the issue raised by the proposal made by Jim Cousins is important. Although his proposal concerns an historical tradition, it would be a great to be able to introduce some equality to it.
I understand that Andrew Mackinlay is going to talk about giving councils the option of reverting to a committee system if they feel they could benefit from it. I have absolutely no problem with supporting that principle.
On the measures proposed by the Conservatives, amendments 24 to 26 are effectively wrecking amendments, and I think we could vote against the Bill if we considered it to be so unsatisfactory. I do not understand why the Government do not understand that the way to deal with a rubbish local authority is not to require more of it through primary legislation, but to vote it out. It is simple. A lot of the issues could be dealt with through a best practice manual.
On the Conservatives' proposed new clauses, we share the scepticism about the Standards Board. In practice, it has not proved to be very efficient or effective in tackling concerns about the conduct of councillors. The system has also been vulnerable to vexatious complaints. Those are two of many reasons why it is not fit for purpose, and why there are no arguments for sustaining it.
Although more efforts are being made to engage the public in the comprehensive area assessment process, it is still difficult for people to understand. It is all about allowing councils to compare themselves with each other, but the public want to see how their councils compare in terms of things that they understand. They do not just want to know that their local council is as good as any other at delivering a service; they want to know that it is good in absolute terms. I am not sure that the existing system of inspection has addressed that.
I have some sympathy with some of the issues raised by Conservative Front Benchers, but I am also sympathetic to other proposals. As I said, the greatest pity of all is that the Bill does not set up a better mechanism for having such discussions regularly.
Order. May I just say to the House that the hon. Gentleman is actually going to speak to his new clause? For the benefit of all the House, we do not "move" new clauses when we are discussing a whole group from the beginning. We are debating the lead new clause-that is the one that has been moved. Other clauses and amendments will be moved as and when we come to them on the selection paper.
I am, as always, grateful for your clarification, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
New clause 4 would give the daughters of freemen the right to become freemen in their turn. The present situation is that only sons have that opportunity. The proposal would thus correct a significant inequality. It would also correct an anomaly that undermines freemen, where they remain, when exercising functions on behalf of their communities, and that undermines a significant part of our constitutional heritage.
It is important to explain that I am not talking about honorary freemen. They are a common part of the work of every local authority, and we are entirely familiar with their situation. Nor am I talking about the statutory position of freemen of the City of London, which is excluded in the proposed new clause.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 swept away the historic position of freemen who, through the guilds, had been the original governors of local communities up and down the country. In a significant number of places, freemen continued to exercise functions, usually charitable, whereby they used certain property and land for certain statutory purposes. That is the case in York, Chester, Coventry, Northampton, Durham, Beverley, a number of other places and, most significantly from my point of view, the city of Newcastle.
I can best explain the new clause and its importance with reference to the city of Newcastle, which has already been referred to today by Mr. Gummer. I suspect hon. Members will be pleased that I am not going to accompany my references to Newcastle with references to John Lewis-a splendid store of which perhaps all in this House have learned rather too much in the recent past.
The freemen of the city of Newcastle continued to exercise functions after the 1835 Act. Their responsibility was to safeguard the Newcastle town moor and to use the benefits of grazing cattle on it for the benefit of the poor citizens of the city. The town moor therefore survived in a way that it probably would not have survived if it had simply been left in the hands of the council of the day. If that had happened, the moor probably would have been physically developed, but it has not. The moor remains, at the heart of the city of Newcastle, an area of open space that is protected by the right of the freemen of the city to graze their cattle. Importantly, the freemen do not control the freehold rights over the moor; they control only the right of herbage, but that safeguards the use of the land.
I can best explain the significance of this by saying that over the years the freemen have supplemented the income that they get from the grazing of cattle by allowing areas of town moor to be taken in for certain specific purposes. For instance, Newcastle United football club is one of the town moor intakes. The club is almost unique among city football clubs these days in being in the centre of the city. It exists because the freemen of the day agreed that the football club could use that land. If successive owners of the football club had been careful enough about due diligence, they would have discovered that it does not own the freehold of the land on which it stands. It is allowed to exercise its functions because the freemen of the city have agreed that it may do so. A small fee is paid to the freemen of the city each year by the football club to recognise the fact that the freemen choose not to exercise their right to graze their cattle on the football ground. Over recent years, that point has been the subject of many ironic references by my constituents. The fee tops up the income of the freemen and enables them to exercise their charitable functions. The same applies in other areas where the stewardship of the freemen survives, including York, Beverley and Chester.
In Newcastle, because of the large area of land in the city centre and the intakes, the system is of great significance to the people of the area. But the only people who can become freemen are the sons of the freemen, who have a right of hereditary succession. I am no great defender of the right of hereditary succession, but it is anomalous that only sons, and not daughters, may exercise the right to become freemen. That anomaly is gradually undermining the freemen system, because it depends on the male line, and if that dies out there is no replacement and it becomes an ever more limited group. New clause 4 would confer a right on daughters to become freemen, alongside sons.
I accept the point made by Mr. Goodman that this is an issue of equality, and this is the right time to put it right. I have for some years, in various ways, attempted to do that, with the support of the stewards of the freemen of Newcastle. I have been given assurances that the Government would give this issue a fair wind or would deal with it in various pieces of legislation. Sadly, that has not been possible. With the help of Lord Graham of Edmonton, I have attempted to introduce legislation to correct this anomaly, but without success. I hope that today, at a time when the House is taking equality issues seriously, we can put right this anomaly and allow daughters of freemen, as well as sons, to exercise this important aspect of our constitutional heritage reflected by freemen in those areas where they continue to exist. The city of Newcastle would then know that the future of the town moor was safe in the hands of a significant body of people who would protect it and its heritage in the interests and for the benefit of the citizens of the city as a whole.
Jim Cousins should be thankful for small mercies: at least the freemen of the city of Newcastle are not dependent on the Rural Payments Agency to support the cattle grazing on the common. If he had ever dealt with the paperwork necessary to sort out such payments, he would settle for what he has. I note that his football team is top of the Championship, so we all live in hope.
I wish to reflect on the remarks on referendums made by Graham Stringer and to agree with what he said. This Bill is like a gigantic ice cream cone: there are a few tasty things at the top, a thin framework and nothing in the middle. Instead of all this nonsense about petitions-90 per cent. of this Bill could be disposed of without any loss-we should put in something of substance and actually give local people a voice in some of these decisions. The hon. Gentleman listed the areas in which referendums had been held-on congestion charging, devolution, an assembly in the north-east and elected mayors. There are other examples of what might be called mini-referendums. For example, the only ever vote on the future of grammar schools was held in Ripon, although the previous Prime Minister rigged the electorate to ensure that the vote was "No". It could be said that housing transfers are still subject to vote by the tenants, so in a sense that is a referendum. Occasionally, councils have also consulted on options for the level of council tax, so the referendum idea has a good pedigree.
I am passionately hostile to referendums at the national level. Such referendums are the nearest thing to a political landfill tip-everybody dumps into it all the rubbish they cannot sort out in any other manner. However, local referendums are much more specific. People cram into school halls if the council proposes closing a school or is considering a house building proposal. If people are really concerned, they will seek to have a say, but at the moment the means that they have for expressing their opinion are too limited. There is therefore a good case for saying that, in specific circumstances when the question can be closely defined, people should be genuinely empowered to decide-in contrast to the froth of phoney empowerment in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman said that he would not press the issue to a vote, and I respect that, but I hope that this and future Administrations will revisit it so that we can clarify what we mean by "decentralisation" and "localism". Very few people have any idea what is meant by those concepts. The best instrument of empowerment is to give people a vote on specific issues that affect their lives, and we should make that option much more available.
I am pleased to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in this general debate on several new clauses and amendments. I tabled new clause 8, but anyone reading it would be at a loss to understand what it means. It is an attempt to right the wrong perpetrated when in 2000 the House removed an important discretion from all local authorities, and I shall explain further.
It was the tradition of English local government, and of other parts of the UK, that councils deliberated business and reached conclusions through a series of committees. Sometimes those committees fed all their recommendations up to a full plenary council; other committees had delegated powers. The important point was that there was flexibility and discretion in the exercise of that decision-making process.
However, under the Local Government Act 2000-section 31, I think-we said, "You can no longer do this. You can opt for a directly elected mayor and this new-fangled cabinet system, but you cannot reach your decisions by a series of committees, unless you are a local authority below a population of about 85,000." There is neither logic nor fairness in Parliament telling councils that they cannot make their decisions in a particular way. That way had endured for 100, and perhaps even 200, years-certainly since the great local government legislation of 1888 and 1889-and still endures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where councils can so choose how they reach their decisions. If the House is mindful to support my new clause, it will not be saying to councils, "You will do your deliberations in this way," but, "You may"-I repeat "may"-"decide to do your business in this way."
I would like to say how much I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is making a case that many of us made before the 2000 Act, when we said that local government should have the devolved power to decide how it wishes to make up its mind. That is all that we are asking, and I fully agree with him.
Actually, I feel a little ashamed for not appreciating this matter at the time of the 2000 Act. I regret not having made an issue of it in the House at the time; no doubt I was distracted by other things. However, that Act has diminished local authorities' decision-making options and freedoms to decide how they reach their conclusions.
I emphasise to the House that, if it agrees to my new clause, it would simply restore those options to local authorities. However, I cannot disguise my bias in favour of the committee system, which worked well in so many ways. Even in councils with pretty strong and rigorous party political operations, that system allowed a degree of involvement and-dare I say it-power sharing with those not of the persuasion of the majority party. I look to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, who, for many years, was a member of Manchester city council. It was one of the greatest local authorities. Under a previous distinguished leader-I forget his name; it was Bob-
Bob Thomas! He was the prime minister of Manchester. He was the big man of Manchester, and people deferred to him. The chairpersons of the committees of Manchester city council had a quasi-ministerial-cabinet, as we now call it-role. Nevertheless, there was some decision sharing. Some councils were without a particularly strong party political tradition, with residents, independents and a smattering of people representing political parties serving on them. A committee system certainly worked in those instances.
I draw upon my experience as a young man, as a local government officer working for Surrey county council, where I observed, and served, the committee system as a committee clerk. There were a lot of very good people. We laughed at them at the time. They were all Colonel this, Wing Commander that and Squadron Leader this-because this was in the 1960s. We thought that they were Colonel Blimps, but actually, looking back, they were not bad people to have in local government. They had run regiments and believed in getting the biggest bang for their buck. They were also quite accommodating. Although they were clearly of a conservative tradition, they readily accommodated the few Labour, Liberal and independent members in the decision-making process. There was a degree of contentment.
I have further relevant experience from my time as a minority council member in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. I look back, even now, and remember occasions when I was able to persuade, in committee, the Conservative majority about the prudence of a particular course, decision or project. I would not have achieved those successes had there been this hard-and-fast, miniature mirroring of proceedings in Westminster. I have concluded that Westminster proceedings are very sterile and synthetic. Day after day, Members stick their tongues out-basically-at those on the other side of the House. There is no mature decision making. The committee system in local government gave and promoted a degree of collegiality, and gave people with a particularly good case the opportunity to advance it and persuade others, despite party politics. Frankly, that brought with it better decision making. I would like that option to be restored to local government.
The cabinet system, which councils are now basically obliged to follow, unless they go through the tortuous process of a referendum on a directly elected mayor, is unhealthy. It has all the chemistry for arbitrary decision making and government. It also means-much more so even than in this House, where it is bad enough-that if someone is not a member of the so-called cabinet, they are an also-ran; they are not on the inside. It has always surprised me that we pay councillors lots of money to attend meetings at which fewer decisions are taken. There is less of a feeling of ownership and commitment, and of that natural progression by which people can gain experience, become municipal fathers and mothers and emulate Bob Thomas and others such as Jeremy Beecham, who I think had a distinguished period in Newcastle. No doubt those on the Conservative and Liberal Benches can think of their own distinguished municipal leaders.
I ask hon. Members to pause and reflect that this is an opportunity to remedy a wrong that we enacted in 2000. I echo the sentiments of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who feel that this is a lost legislative opportunity. Instead of setting local government free and encouraging it to exercise and enjoy general competence powers, in so many cases the Bill is prescriptive and restrictive-and a big mistake. It has created more buzz words and meaningless titles, and a plethora of additional bodies, all of which have the hallmarks and fingerprints of the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears, who incidentally is notable by her absence this evening. She should have been here, because she is the architect of this legislation.
I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Minister, sitting on the Treasury Bench, would never have concocted this vast telephone book of odd pieces of legislation, much of which, as has been said, need not be on the statute book; it clutters it in a very unhealthy way. My little new clause, at least to some degree, would push back some of the restrictions and rules with which we have tied the arms of local government and those, across the political spectrum, who are great practitioners, enthusiasts and lovers of local government and who believe that it is extremely important. I invite anyone who wishes to help me as a Teller, or to join me in the Division Lobby, to do so. I would very much welcome that, because I think that we ought to test this matter in the House.
I love the image of England in the 1960s, when I grew up, when independent and civically minded people were in local government and there were fewer representatives of political parties. I am sure that there were, indeed, people who could harness the good will of people of all parties and of none in solving problems. Local government now is much more politicised, although I do not think that we are about to reverse that.
All the main political parties want to test their strength in local government elections. They also wish to propose, in an understandable way, a national and local programme combined. Some voters agree with that. Some say that they do not, although I suspect from how they vote that in practice they think that there is something to be said for a party platform. However, I would argue that the hon. Gentleman's proposal works equally well in the more modern world, where party political groups are likely to predominate in councils, because the most important thing is the role of the average councillor.
The enforced cabinet system in local government has given back-bench councillors a reduced role and made a lot of them rather unhappy. Not only do they not have a proper role in the decision making of the authority to which they were elected with strength equal to that of to those who do, but they do not even have the same ability to hold the administration-the executive-to account for the people whom they represent in their wards and divisions, because we all know that the officers do not take them as seriously if they do not have executive power and are not members of the cabinet. I have known councillors who cannot even get information out of their council, but surely a councillor should have a privileged position and expect to see the business of the council, if necessary on terms of privacy, if it relates to individuals or sensitive matters.
We need to devolve power properly to local government. I would hope, as the hon. Gentleman does, that if we could do that, more local authorities would choose a committee structure and return to the idea that the important decisions should be thrashed out in common in the political groups, so when the political groups presented their views to the council, not only would the group leaders know that they spoke for their group and know what the balance of opinion and forces was within it, but each back bencher would feel that they mattered, because they would have an equal vote in the group. If they are powerful speakers, if they feel passionately about something, if they have a good case or if they are on the popular side, they will have the joy of knowing that they will help to form the group proposal. All that would become possible again if the hon. Gentleman's new clause 8 were passed.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Perhaps his experience of the committee system is reinforced by mine when I was a committee chairman in local government. In effect, the committee chairman and the leader formed a cabinet and gave officers a steer. However, once the policy was agreed, my job as a committee chairman was to take the members of my committee with me. At the very least, that meant taking the back-bench members of my side and sometimes, if I wanted an easier ride, taking members of the opposition as well. Is that not a much healthier situation?
When I was a county councillor in Oxfordshire in my younger political days, I, too, was privileged to be a committee chairman. I therefore had some executive authority. However, I always felt that that authority came from and was vested in the majority group. I was always pleased to take what I wanted to do to the group. I thought that I was doing the right thing, but it was a lot stronger if I could take it to those in the group and persuade them, because then I knew that they would vote for it willingly, unlike under the current system, where things are worked out in private, often on the advice of the officers and without a lot of political sense involved. Then things have to be driven through against the unwillingness and the voting patterns of the majority councillors, with all sorts of arm twisting of the kind that people sometimes experience even in this place, in a way that gets in the way of good government and common sense.
People elect councillors because they think that they have talents and skills, so surely all those talents and skills should be deployed. Not all councillors can have executive posts, so let them be involved in the big decisions. Indeed, perhaps we could learn a bit from that in this place. Of course we need a Cabinet-we all understand the importance of Cabinet government-but successful Cabinet Ministers in this place are Ministers who consult, consider and listen to colleagues before they go snap on a policy. Successful Cabinet Ministers not only understand their policy and know how to pilot it through this place, but are people who have tested it out in advance and do not think that everything has to be secret. Then they know that they have a constituency for change. I hope that we can vote on new clause 8 and free local government to have that option.
I apologise for not being here earlier, but I was tied up with several things at the same time, as we are so often in the House. I came specifically to support Andrew Mackinlay, although I was delighted to listen to the speech by Mr. Redwood.
I speak as an executive member on a large local authority and somebody who has been in local government for 38 years. I have never seen local government as weakened as it is now, simply because of the breakdown of the committee system. There is no longer any genuine ownership of the issues that are important to people. The old committee structure allowed a group of members-perhaps as few as eight or nine on small committees, although when I was leader of Hampshire county council we had committees with 40-odd members-at least to have some ownership of the issues, because we could have more than one debate on important issues.
When I led Hampshire, it was interesting that there were very few opposition votes when we finally took things to the plenary of the council, because the committee structure had drawn out the arguments and brought people together. We had many votes for and against in the committee stage, but things would be amended properly; it was a bit like how we like to think that we work in Committee here.
The setting up of the executive is a bizarre concept in itself. Indeed, I can describe my last executive meeting. I sat there alone, the only member with a vote. First, I had to declare whether I had any interest. I welcomed the members of the public who had come along, said hello to the officers and then invited the two opposition spokesmen-Conservative and Labour-to sit at the table with me. I tried to bring them in, but at the end of the day, they could not have what they really wanted, which was to be able to move something or to vote on the issue. The situation is depressing. In the end, some of my meetings have lasted no more than five or 10 minutes. Why would they last any longer? Who do I talk to? Myself? Should I go through something with the officers that I have already gone through with them?
I then went to my group meeting and told my colleagues what we did at the executive meeting. My colleagues raised some very interesting points, which is relevant to the point made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham about his experience of trying to talk the thing through beforehand. The current system does not really allow that to happen, because the executive member is smothered by information. The executive member spends all their time trying to absorb the information given to them, but in the committee structure the information was shared. The committee chair, the vice-chair and the opposition spokesmen all felt that they would play a part and be able to move something.
What we have now is the worst of all possible worlds. To deny local government the option to choose what is best for itself was the biggest mistake of all. If there were a vote today in the local authority that I represent in the city of Portsmouth, all 42 members would, without a shadow of doubt, vote unanimously for a return to the committee structure. Why? Because that would give a genuine sense of belonging. It would give the back benchers a chance to play a part, rather than being bit players in something in which many of them get involved only half a dozen times a year.
The committee structure, with committees meeting monthly and in some instances more regularly, meant that back benchers could play a significant role. They built reputations because of their role on a committee. Somebody who was passionately interested in housing became one of the leading housing experts in the city of Portsmouth. They built a truly great reputation in local government, not through their ability to be the chairman of the housing authority, but through their ability to be an opposition member who became an expert and was listened to by those on all sides.
The same goes for education. On a subject as big as education, it is irrational to believe that one member should not only run things and be politically responsible for the service, but be honour-bound to listen to the wider group voice and the public as well. That is a horrendous task in local government. There is very little sharing of knowledge or ability, and it frustrates people. It is interesting to analyse how many people serve only one term on local authorities nowadays. They do not stay the course because they feel unfulfilled and let down by the concept, which they thought that they could bring something to. How inappropriate is it that good people who came into local government because they have something to offer are unable to deliver it? They leave very quickly, for that reason. If I were the Government Minister responsible for this, I would cherish those people, cultivate them and make them think that they had a future in local government.
How many of us came to this House because of the time that we spent in local government? We learned that we could contribute there, but we all contributed to a system in which committees played a part, and in which we became a junior member of a committee and then, with more expertise, moved on to become a committee chairman or an opposition spokesman. The system no longer works like that, however. Now, only a small group has control of the policy. Even that group-unless it is exceptionally lucky-does not have the ability to co-operate easily with the rest of the council. The opportunities are not there. Members do not want to meet every week as a full council, but many of them would love to meet once a fortnight or once a month as a committee to deal with important matters such as housing, social services and education.
I hope that the hon. Member for Thurrock will press his new clause to a vote. He is not saying, "Make it change." He is saying, "At least give local authorities the chance." I hope that the Government will recognise this opportunity to right a grievous error of judgment on their part by supporting the hon. Gentleman tonight and by giving local authorities what they want. The Government continually say, "Let people choose." Well, for goodness' sake, let local government choose the best way for it to govern itself.
I recall that, in his early days in local government, the hon. Gentleman was a notable Labour councillor for many years. He steadily went to pot in the years that followed. I hope that we are good friends now, however. Does he agree that the approach that we have seen over more than a decade of trying to turn almost all local authorities into pale, tiny shadows of Parliament is clearly not working? If the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay were to be incorporated in the Bill, does the hon. Gentleman believe that any large local authorities would want to return to the committee system? Clearly, many of the small ones would, but does he think the large ones would as well?
I think that they would rush to seize the opportunity. Hon. Members would not believe the enthusiasm that exists in local government to return to that system. I do not meet many local councillors who believe that the current system offers satisfaction or an opportunity to play a part, or that there is a future for them in local authorities. That is just not the case.
I remember when, long ago, Michael Heseltine was Secretary of State for the Environment. He said that he wanted to see local authorities run on the American system, in which people turn up once a year to agree and sign the contracts, after which the authority is left to run itself. What a mistake that would have been! Yet we have gone halfway towards that here, and it is a mistake.
I had hoped that this Government, with their roots in local authorities, would have wanted to see a return to the previous system, and to give people the opportunity to feel that they can really play a part in their local community. The present system does nothing but turn people off and turn people away, and that is to be regretted. I hope that, when the Minister responds, she will not be apologetic for the past. I hope that she will instead say, "Okay, hands up, we made a mistake. Now we will try to get it right. We will give local authorities a chance." The hon. Member for Thurrock is offering that opportunity tonight, and if I were the Minister, I would grab it with both hands.
This group of amendments focuses on the local democracy section of the Bill, and we can tell from the lively nature of the debate just how passionately right hon. and hon. Members feel about the issue.
Speaking of passion, I shall start with new clause 10, tabled by my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, which deals with referendums. It is identical to an amendment that we debated in Committee. As I explained during that debate, the principal local authorities in England currently enjoy considerable flexibility to hold advisory referendums and local polls using their powers under section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003. That power is widely drawn, and it gives councils maximum freedom and flexibility to hold referendums on any issue relating to their functions or their powers of well-being, as set out in the Local Government Act 2000.
The existing power to hold referendums has been used many times by councils to seek the views of their communities on matters of local interest. For example, the London borough of Sutton council is currently holding a local poll on whether to keep a piece of graffiti that was produced by a well-known graffiti artist. I am not sure whether the referendum on the Manchester congestion charge was held under that legislation, but my hon. Friend discussed that matter. The use of this power could increase as a result of the petitions clauses in this Bill. Through our proposed petition scheme in part 1 of the Bill, councils might well decide to hold a local poll as part of their substantive response, as required by clause 14, to a petition with the specified number of signatures. We would welcome such a development as an appropriate means of involving local communities in a council's decision-making process. That is, of course, if councils choose to make greater use of the power as part of their response to petitions.
At the heart of these debates lies the issue of local democratically elected bodies having the power to choose whether they want to hold referendums. While the petitions provided for in chapter 2 of part 1 of the Bill, and the existing powers in section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003, permit councils to hold such referendums, the new clause would require them to set up a facility and agree a scheme for holding them. Councils would also be required to hold a referendum in circumstances set out in their referendum schemes. The new clause would therefore impose an additional uncosted burden on councils. As I made clear in Committee, we believe that accepting the new clause as it stands would be a step too far.
Yes, we require councils to carry out certain actions in relation to petitions, but we do not adopt the same approach to the holding of referendums. Some might say that that is contradictory, but I say that the two issues are very different. Our approach to petitions in chapter 2 rightly addresses the issues identified by the Local Government Association survey, which found that only 28 per cent. of the 102 councils that responded guarantee an automatic response to petitions submitted by the public.
Is the Minister saying that her only reason for objecting to the proposal is the possible cost implications for council tax payers, or is she going further than that? As I understand it, the only reason she gave for not supporting the proposal is that an unknown cost would be associated with it.
No, I did not say that; I said that there were two reasons. The first is that councils have the power to hold referendums, if they choose to do so, whereas the new clause requires them to hold them. We have had a number of discussions about the fact that in some cases we place a duty on councils to do certain things, whereas in others we say that the councils may do so, if they want to. That was the first and major reason I gave for rejecting the new clause. The second reason is that the proposal is uncosted and would impose a new burden on councils, which would have to set up facilities to carry out the duty.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley-he is no longer in his place-has expressed concern about how the referendum in Greater Manchester was conducted, but we are not aware that current arrangements for holding local referendums are failing to work well in the majority of cases or that councils are failing to meet calls for local referendums. What I am saying is that in the Government's view, without the necessary evidence, it would not be appropriate to impose another burden on local authorities. We are well aware of the wider debate about democratic renewal, and local referendums may well become part of it. If there are any issues about local polls, we want to hear about them in that context.
With new clause 11, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley seeks to impose penalties on local authorities for non-compliance with the duty to promote democracy as set out in chapter 1 or with petitions duties as set out in chapter 2. I am delighted that my hon. Friend is keen to see a strong local authority response to both sets of duties, and I view it as essential that those duties are actively and effectively taken forward by local authorities.
We discussed the issue at length in Committee, but in view of the current debate, it is worth reminding right hon. and hon. Members why we want local authorities to assume these duties. We want to see local democracy reinvigorated and all people encouraged to play their part. People have a right to know how local government and other local public services are run and what decisions are taken on their behalf. They should also know how they can take part in making those decisions, including the possibility of becoming a councillor. Raising awareness is a necessity.
We have taken the route of establishing a duty for councils, based on solid evidence. There is a strong commitment to establishing councils as the hub for local democratic activity and to embedding the promotion of local democracy within their DNA. The duty addresses the lack of awareness of local democracy. As many of us know, a lack of awareness of councillors' roles was identified by the Councillors Commission and others, including the deeply respected all-party parliamentary local government group. To illustrate the point, an Ipsos MORI survey for the Local Government Association showed that fewer than a third of people know even a fair amount about what their council does. That lack of awareness is certainly a major barrier to civil and civic participation, and it contributes to the lack of diversity among councillors and others with civic roles.
We all know that we are not making the most of the potential talent among communities, including women, people from black and ethnic minority communities and people of working age, who are currently under-represented as councillors and in other civic roles. We want to ensure that people feel that local democracy is relevant to their everyday lives and that local authorities become the hub of local democracy. If we do that, local people will have a single, easily accessible port of call for information about how they can participate in decision-making at the local level, including as or through a councillor.
We all agree about the importance of the aim behind those duties and the importance of raising awareness and of looking at the evidence for the fact that only 28 per cent. of councils guarantee an automatic response to petitions. We know that there is good evidence for requiring councils to respond to petitions and to publicise their petition schemes, which will help people to feel that they can influence local decisions.
If we all agree on the importance of these duties, how do we ensure that they are achieved? Do we really want the coercive and, might I suggest, distrustful approach proposed in the new clauses? We have to ask ourselves how that would be received by the local government sector. We need to trust local authorities to respond effectively and imaginatively to the new duties. The duties are subject to parliamentary scrutiny and have been imposed because Parliament recognises that these are activities that councils should add to their functions in order to make real improvements for local people.
We intend to set money aside to enable councils to carry out the duties, and we will provide them with full support through guidance and a sector-led best-practice approach. There are already legal remedies for enforcement, but we do not rely on them to ensure compliance in this case any more than we do in relation to most other legal duties that apply to local authorities. There is no direct enforcement mechanism in the provisions, and we do not think it appropriate that there should be one. In conclusion, there is already an intention to ensure that local authorities involve people and to look at the petitions system, but as many hon. Members have said, we do not want a more coercive approach.
New clause 2, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, relates to parish polls-I know that he is a long-standing supporter of the first tier of local government. One of the most interesting and informative conferences that I have attended recently was that of the National Association of Local Councils. I learned a lot about parish councils and invited them to enter the debate about what we can do to help to ensure that they have the support that they need from their local communities. We talked about powers and so forth. I know that my hon. Friend's continued service to the community as a town councillor-as well, obviously, as his work here-demonstrates that commitment very clearly.
New clause 2 would increase the number of local government electors required to trigger a parish poll, which is essentially a non-binding referendum on local issues, so that no poll would be undertaken
"unless either the person presiding at the meeting consents or the poll is demanded by not less than 30, or one-third, of the local government electors present at the meeting, whichever is the greater."
Parish polls are a very useful way of gauging local opinion on matters that are important to local people, but we are aware that the issue has been the subject of previous debate. I assure my hon. Friend that the ease with which a parish poll can be triggered has caused concern in the past.
We are also aware of other issues around parish polls, which my hon. Friend did not necessarily mention, such as their scope and conduct. That is why we recognised in the "Communities in control" White Paper that we need to make the rules governing parish polls more accessible and better understood and to define their scope more clearly. That is why my Department is taking work on parish polls forward.
We will want to consult the parish sector and others-and, obviously, my hon. Friend-on how the provisions for polls can be reformed. We will want to examine not only the methods for triggering a poll, but the scope and conduct of polls. We might, for example, consider modernising the full range of rules governing parish polls, which could involve-my hon. Friend mentioned this-an extension of the hours during which they can be held. We entirely agree that there should be robust and effective parish poll provisions, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. However, for the reasons that I have given, I hope that he will join in our debates on this important issue but not press his new clause.
New clause 8, tabled by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, gave rise to a great deal of debate and very strong feelings. As my hon. Friend made clear, he knows that the Local Government Act 2000 allowed smaller councils in two-tier areas to operate a streamlined committee system. As he said, at the time when the changes were made, it was decided that local authorities with fewer than 85,000 electors could retain the committee structure to which he referred. As it happens, a fair number of the councils involved have moved on to the new system. I think it has been recognised that the executive arrangements have delivered more in terms of effective, transparent decision making and clearer accountability, and I think there is a general consensus that it represents a better approach.
Will my right hon. Friend allow me to put on record the fact that, all along, we in Stoke-on-Trent had serious concerns about the changes that she seeks to make retrospectively, and that we do not feel that they were in the best interests of governance in Stoke-on-Trent?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but we are not aware of any significant interest among local authorities in moving from the executive governance model to a streamlined committee system.
Will the Minister tell us what evidence exists to suggest that the change has been for the betterment of local government, and will she explain what she thought was wrong with the old system, which allowed people to choose whether or not to have a committee?
Many Members have described the way in which they thought the old system worked. I believe that although having a very powerful committee chairman involved a similar number of very powerful figures, that system did not provide the accountability and transparency that a cabinet system allows, and the Bill is intended to improve it.
The proposal from Andrew Mackinlay does not require any single council to return to a committee system. It merely gives councils a choice. If the Minister is right and the trend is in the opposite direction, what harm would be done by the hon. Gentleman's measure? He would be proved wrong and the Minister would be proved right. This is not about prescription; it is all about choice.
It is also important for us in this place when we, too, are legislating to have as far as possible a system enabling us to know the structure for which we are legislating. That is why I believe that the new system will be better.
I am grateful to the Minister, for giving way to be, but I simply will not let her get away with this nonsense. All that I wish to interest this House of Commons in is giving local authorities an option. Why on earth is the Minister saying "We know best, and you must not-must not-have a committee system"? Where is the logic and fairness in that? As for the arbitrary provision for a population of 85,000, why is 87,000 unacceptable? It is just rubbish.
I am sure my hon. Friend does not really mean that. [Hon. Members: "He does!"] Perhaps I can clarify one of the issues. We believe that allowing different structures to evolve would create confusion in the legislation. I realise that my hon. Friend feels strongly about the issue, but I am afraid I must tell him that we do not agree with his new clause.
What I am saying is that the new structures are well bedded in. We generally legislate in ways that accord with existing structures, and if we start to unwind that arrangement, complications will ensue.
New clause 17 proposes abolition of the Standards Board for England and the Adjudication Panel for England, which are two important and effective bodies. If that were to happen, councillors and members of local authority standards committees who look to the Standards Board for advice, guidance, training and direction about the conduct regime for local authority members would be cut adrift.
In 2008 we devolved the conduct regime for local authority members to local authorities, and in doing so we created a new role for the Standards Board for England. The board is still there to investigate the most serious allegations of misconduct by local authority members, but since 2008, when we devolved the conduct regime for local authority members to local authorities, it has also functioned in its new role as strategic regulator for local authority standards committees.
The regime that we have introduced accords with the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, including its recommendation for the establishment of a more locally based decision-making regime for the investigation and determination of all but the most serious misconduct allegations, but with the Standards Board at the centre of the revised regime with its new strategic, regulatory role to ensure the consistency of standards. If Conservative Members are challenging that, they are obviously challenging the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which recently approached the Standards Board for England for advice on how a successful, robust and transparent conduct regime should operate.
The Standards Board for England is now fully equipped to perform its new role. Legislation came into force this summer that allows the board to become directly involved with local authority standards committees if its scrutiny of the way in which the conduct regime is operating in an authority causes it concern, or if it is invited to do so by the authority itself. The board has restructured, and has shed staff. Its budget has fallen from just over £8 million in 2008-2009 to £7.4 million in 2009-2010, and it is planned for it to fall further in future years as ongoing efficiency savings are made.
Today is the second day of the Standards Board for England's eighth annual assembly of standards committees- [Interruption.] I think that I have sent them a video recording of my speeches, so that should cheer them up. More than 800 delegates, councillors, local authority monitoring officers and standards committee members are meeting in Birmingham to discuss all aspects of the conduct regime, to share best practice and to attend training and question and answer sessions. They will be discussing, among other things, the role of standards in parish councils- I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud will be pleased to know that-how to engage council leaders, embedding standards and how to communicate the standards regime to the public. They will also be discussing how standards regime practitioners can support councillors who serve on licensing and planning committees.
The Adjudication Panel for England performs vital functions. It considers appeals made by councillors against the decisions of local authority standards committees and makes decisions about the most serious breaches of the code of conduct, deciding what sanctions are appropriate in cases where a breach is found to have taken place. That is a serious obligation. Where a serious breach of the code of conduct is found to have occurred, the consequences are, rightly, serious, too. The Adjudication Panel for England has the power to ban a person from being a councillor for up to five years. It is right that it should have that power. Actions that result in a breach of the code such as bullying can have a profound effect on the victim of the actions that led to the breach. We consider it appropriate for a national body to have such powers, but we question the alternative, which is the abolition of the Adjudication Panel, giving a local authority standards committee the power to stop a person being a councillor in any other authority for up to five years.
The vast majority of local authority members observe the high standards of behaviour that the electorate rightly expect of them, but we have seen that a robust conduct regime is essential to provide redress when the code of conduct is not observed. The Standards Board for England is needed not just to provide regulation for local authority standards committees that are enforcing the code of conduct, but to supply advice, support and training to local authority members to ensure that they work within the conduct regime. The abolition of the Standards Board and the Adjudication Panel would be a blow to high standards of conduct in the democratic process. Moreover, it would send a message that, far from building a fair, transparent and robust conduct regime, Parliament is intent on removing bodies whose purpose is to support the conduct regime.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne)-amendments 24, 25 and 26-seek to ensure that the duty to promote democracy, the petitions duty and the extension of the duty to involve, do not come into force until July 2011. I have listened carefully to the concerns that they have raised, a number of which were raised in Committee. I can confirm that no final decision has been taken about the commencement of these provisions. We have been working to ensure that everything is in place to allow the duty to be commenced at the earliest possible date, but we are keeping all options open at this point and are considering the best way forward in the wider context of the Government's work on strengthening local democracy, including responses to the consultation on the subject, which has just come to a close, and in light of the current economic climate. The amendments would limit our flexibility to decide the most appropriate time to commence these duties. However, let me be clear that, in order to keep all options open, including the option of bringing the provisions into force in April 2010, prompt action may need to be taken to allow the appropriate stages to be taken, such as issuing draft statutory guidance for consultation.
It sounds as though the Minister may have made a rather important announcement. Can she confirm that, in effect, she is withdrawing parts 1, 2 and 3 of the Bill? Can she remind the House whether there was a commencement date for those parts and whether she is proposing to alter that date if it was in the Bill?
The provision will be by order. We have said that we want to aim to bring in the provisions in 2010, but obviously we have not taken a final decision. We do not want to be restricted, as would happen under the hon. Gentleman's amendments.
If I could turn finally-[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] Are you enjoying this? On new clause 4, I can certainly see how strongly my hon. Friend Jim Cousins feels about the issue. It did not escape my notice that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown, was present during his contribution, which shows what an important issue this is in the Newcastle area.
I agree with my hon. Friend's central argument that women should be afforded the same rights as men, particularly in relation to freedoms granted for an area. He talked about the town moor in Newcastle. I happen to live on the town moor in Doncaster. Opposite we have the town fields, which are covered by similar provisions for freemen. People can take their sheep on there if they want. The Bill already makes provision allowing guilds to admit women.
There is one other thing that I need to deal with. I will keep hon. Members in suspense on that one. Could someone find new clause 18? [Interruption.] As I was saying, the Bill makes provision allowing guilds to admit women. The provisions in clause 27 were inserted through an amendment tabled by Lord Graham.
May I invite the Minister to consider this point? The provision in the Bill does not confer a right other than if the freemen of that particular body choose to confer a right. New clause 4 confers the right untrammelled. There is no brokerage. The right is conferred directly to the daughters of freemen. It does not depend on the brokerage of another body to achieve that.
Yes. As I was saying, the provisions of clause 27 were inserted through an amendment tabled by Lord Graham and received cross-party support in the other place. We continue to believe that clause 27 strengthens the Bill by allowing admission rights to be changed more easily. Clause 27 provides for guilds to change their admission rights, including allowing women to become freewomen. However, my hon. Friend has put forward a powerful argument that it should not be discretionary, but that women should be afforded the same rights as men in such circumstances. Indeed, when accepting that the provisions of clause 27 should be inserted in the Bill, my noble Friend Baroness Andrews stated that we attach great importance to seeking equality between men and women and that
"traditions need to work in a way that is non-discriminatory"-[ Official Report, House of Lords,
I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central that on that basis the Government support the inclusion of new clause 4 in the Bill. That is the good news. The bad news is that we cannot accept new clause 18 because it abolishes the comprehensive area assessment system, which is proving to be extremely successful and is generally recognised to be raising standards. However, we can certainly accept new clause 4, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the success of his long campaign for the provision to be included in legislation.
I hope that I have answered all the questions that have been raised and that I have given reassurances in respect of the amendments that we cannot accept. I also hope that the House will be delighted that we are to accept new clause 4.