With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in clause 3, page 3, line 21, leave out ‘of residents under 25 years old.’ and insert
‘through panels set up in accordance with subsection (1A) of residents, employers and employees in the council’s area and in particular of—
(i) young people in the area;
(ii) persons from ethnic minorities;
(iii) tenants in social housing;
(iv) persons living on lower incomes;
(v) persons with disabilities;
(vi) persons living in deprived areas; and
(vii) persons over 60 years of age.
An area is deprived for the purposes of sub-paragraph (vii) if the official male adult unemployment rate exceeds 10 per cent., or if more than 20 per cent. of households have net incomes below £15,000 per year.
(1A) For the purposes of this Act, a principal council shall, so far as is practicable, arrange for one or more panels to be established in its area representing persons who live in its area or who work or employ workers in its area and any such panel shall, so far as is practicable include—
(a) representatives of the categories of persons specified in subsection (1)(d)(i) to (viii), and
(b) representatives of such persons or bodies as the council considers appropriate being persons or bodies of any nature who exercise functions or are engaged in activities in relation to the sustainability of local communities in the council’s area; and
(c) an equal number of male and female members.
For the purposes of this subsection a member of a panelmay represent more than one of the categories specified in subsection (1)(d).’.
No. 34, in clause 3, page 3, line 25, leave out from ‘council’ to end of line 42 and insert—
‘(3) A principal council shall cooperate with any panel set up in its area under subsection (1A) in making recommendations under section 2(5).’.
Following the progress that we have just made—or, at least, I think we have made—I shall speed up. I am delighted to move the amendment on behalf of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who is the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne and myself. These discussions are quite important because they relate to the kernel of the Bill, which about the duty to co-operate. Without the duty appearing in clause 2, clause 3 would be somewhat meaningless.
These amendments were tabled for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that, on Second Reading, a considerable amount of time was spent on the criticisms, quite justified in some respects, that the clause was exclusive rather than inclusive. I listened to those criticisms, particularly those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) who said that there was a view that the Bill is unlikely to include those outside the usual suspects and that it was vital for this to be a meaningful piece of legislation. He suggested that we reached out to groups that were not necessarily part of the normal process to try to engage them in what we undertook to be a sustainable community.
Amendment No. 33 is the most important in the group and it spells out clearly what should be in the Bill to make it more inclusive. The hope is that the amendment will be favoured by all of the Committee, and particularly by the Minister. That is why the duty to co-operate is so important. We are not just talking about who should co-operate with the selector, but about the nature of the process on which they are co-operating. I am pleased to lay that point out. There are those who will say that that does not need to be in the Bill; that we have had that debate under clause 2. However, if we are to make the legislation explicit and make it clear that we want to engage in a bottom-up process, we need to clarify who we want to engage with. I hope that that is very clear. Clearly, amendments Nos. 32 and 34 are consequential on that, and I hope that they will not take much time. I certainly am not going to give them much time.
I just want to say a few things about clause 3 as it stands, and why it is so important that it stands part of the Bill. More particularly, however, I want to say why we are toughening up the clause to ensure that we are explicit about who should be co-operated and engaged with, and the process by which that should take place. In a sense, that parallels what is going on with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. Much has been made of clause 108 of that Bill and I am eternally grateful to those who have prepared the papers to help us to understand exactly what we are doing. All I would say is that next time, can we have bigger sheets of paper? We could get even more to read on to one page.
I think that we are clear that we are trying to run this private Member’s Bill in parallel with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is still passing through the House. It was good to get an explanation of where the provision fits in regard to clause 108 of that Bill. Although we see the two Bills as complementary, we want to give this Bill real teeth. There are elements of clause 108 that we would like to strengthen. The clause is still discretionary and, given our previous discussions on the duty to co-operate, we understand that it is something that will, rather than might, happen.
There are specific reasons why we are outlining the groups to be included in the Bill. We consider that they are appropriate to be engaged with, although it is not an exclusive list. Members of the Committee will also have received a paper from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which wants to make sure that the panels include
“representatives of such persons or bodies as the council considers appropriate being persons or bodies of any nature who exercise functions or are engaged in activities in relation to the sustainability of local communities in the council’s area”.
The NCVO wants a two-way process of co-operation. The voluntary sector wishes that form of words to appear in the clause to make it clear that a two-way process will take place and to strengthen the provision.
Children’s trusts are a good example and, by their very nature, are about local decisions based on local needs. It was good that the voluntary sector examined how it would genuinely engage with the statutory sector on how children’s trusts could evolve and make sure that they were doing the things that the locality would want them to do. Such action would succeed only if it occurred on the basis of co-operation.
Some appropriate current research has been undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the contribution of local high streets to sustainable communities, and social interactions in urban, public places. In my community of Stonehouse in the constituency of Stroud where I have been a town councillor for 21 years—I do it for real—we are looking at the idea of shared spaces, re-designing how traffic flows through the town and, more particularly, how we engage with the open spaces beyond. I can think of no better example of how to make that community more sustainable than if the local authority hierarchy engaged in such matters gave the planning process some teeth. Clearly, nothing matters more to a local community than the space at its centre and how that is protected, improved and, dare I say, enhanced over time. In trying to strengthen clause 3, we want to make it clear who is engaged, who is co-operating and who they are co-operating with.
In the debate on a previous clause, we discussed the mechanisms of operation between local government and Departments. The clause, together with the amendments, which I welcome as improvements to the clause, are about how principal authorities actually work with their communities. Ultimately, that is what the Bill is about: empowering local authorities on the understanding that they in turn empower local communities, so that the communities’ voices are heard. We cannot have one without the other.
The hon. Member for Stroud was right to mention the need to avoid hearing only from the usual suspects who are already engaged in the existing processes. I think of the engagement that I have witnessed in my constituency before the Bill was taken up as a private Member’s Bill by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. There was a campaign in support of the Bill. I admit that among the hundreds of people at the meeting in my constituency, and the hundreds who turned up to public meetings in constituencies all around the country, the usual suspects were present. There were plenty of familiar faces of people whom I encounter regularly at my surgeries or those whose signatures appear regularly on petitions that are brought to me. However, there were also people whom I had never seen before.
Could I ask the hon. Lady not to use the term “usual suspects”? It is demeaning to people who have spent a great deal of time campaigning on all kinds of issues that would probably never have come to public attention had those people not done their campaigning and had they not kept the flag high.
I wondered whether the hon. Gentleman was provoked by a personal feeling. Of course, such people are to be valued, because they engage constructively in processes in which constructive engagement is often not easy and which require a certain tenacity to ensure that voices are heard.
The Bill is important because the meetings have been attended not only by such people but by others who feel incredibly isolated and frustrated by the current processes, and who do not believe that there is any opportunity for their voices to be heard. This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall referred to second homes. One of the main frustrations expressed in those meetings was about that issue, which is highly significant in large parts of Cornwall—there are villages in which 80 per cent. of properties are second homes. At the moment, people might try to raise the issue but there is no mechanism for that, nor for having it dealt with. The Bill, together with the processes that are set out in clauses 2 and 3, embody ways finally to overcome those difficulties. That is why it is important.
I should like to speak more widely on the basis of experiences from my area. In preparing for the Bill, I visited the chief executive of my local authority and the urban regeneration company to talk about the practicalities of the processes. We discussed how much consultation was already being undertaken, the limits and constraints, and the areas in which they wished to see progress. The reality was that their ability to deliver actual consultation and co-operation across the entire local authority area was quite patchy. Delivery did not necessarily depend on the level of deprivation, however. One of the wards in my constituency is among the most deprived in the country. It has a concentration of deprivation that does not exist in many other parts of Cornwall, because they do not have the same population density. That has triggered a level of investment that has resulted in some quite intensive community work. That has meant that the organisations are able to engage in such consultations and that there is a mechanism by which they can make their voices heard.
In other areas just outside the ward boundary, small villages such as Fourlanes, or a large villages such as St. Day, do not have a concentration of deprivation; rather, they have pockets of intense deprivation that are exacerbated by their isolation from larger population centres. In such areas, there was a lack of capacity to deliver the consultations. When we were looking at how to roll out the consultations, we saw that it was not a case of saying that there were sectors of the population whose needs we were not currently serving, although there was that kind of issue. The consultation roll-out was not dependent on deprivation; it was also to do with geographical location—areas with similar attributes were not getting the same level of representation.
Amendment No. 33 would offer a clear sense of the bases that need to be covered when consultations are undertaken. It is vital to ensure that vulnerable groups get their voices heard. We must not forget that, in many respects, that is not happening. We do not wish to make the situation worse, which is not to say that the status quo is acceptable.
I am reminded of an occasion last year when I went to speak to a forum of learning disabled people in my constituency. They were lucky that they had a forum and the opportunity to meet as a group and to talk to one another about the issues they had encountered. However, they were being failed by the processes and implications of other Government policies and were finding it difficult to have their voices heard. A difficulty was that one of the largest NHS dental practices in the area, which had 9,000 people on its books, had decided to go private as a result of the new dental contract. Many of the group were registered with that practice. The changes were compensated for by the setting up of another NHS practice in a neighbouring town, but it was only possible to register for that dentist on the telephone. Some of the group were not quick enough off the mark and did not sit on the telephone to keep trying to register. They were falling off the NHS registration list, yet they were the very people whom it was most important to keep on it.
There is a value in identifying the more vulnerable groups of people, whose voices it is important to hear. That will ensure not only that any policies put forward using the mechanisms set up by the Bill take account of their needs, but that their needs are not ignored, as sometimes happens at the moment.
I recognise the importance of parish plans and have had positive experiences of those areas where they have been taken up. They will help to improve the relationships between parish, district and county councils.
Obviously, it is important that parish councils go out and make the plans. However, they would be taken more seriously if parish councils were empowered by the Bill. I hope that the Minister will take that on board. Devolving power will ensure that people listen and take action.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Often, people involved in the parish plan production process are frustrated that their concerns are not taken seriously. Also, members of the public who bother to engage wonder why they are again going through a process when nothing happened the last time they did so. Creating a sense of empowerment will make people more important—it will make them feel that there is value in engaging in the process.
I want to underline the importance of the requirement to co-operate at the community and principal authority levels, which is outlined in amendment No. 33. Again, the amendment would be critical in ensuring that people feel that their contributions are valued. That will be valuable only if it is mirrored by a sense of duty to co-operate between local authorities and the Secretary of State on the recommendations that the authorities make. For that to be meaningful and for those individuals who contribute to their local community to feel valued, we need both parts of the equation.
This is an important part of the Bill, and I am sure that through the usual processes of the Committee, the amendment will be taken back to one of those dark rooms and discussed in further detail. Perhaps I can inform those discussions with my brief speech.
It is important that we engage with communities where we there is a great deal of disengagement. For example, in my constituency—I am sure that this is true in the constituencies of all other hon. Members, too—local authorities and other service providers, even with the best will in the world, do not seem to provide an even standard of service delivery across every section of the community. One has to stand up and challenge those service providers on behalf of those communities where a disproportionate number of people are disengaged. The challenge to us as elected representatives is to get in there and challenge those perceptions and attitudes, which become ingrained not only in the recipients of the services, but in the people who provide them.
I have told people, “If you want to challenge these problems, why not just come out with me and walk around the local community? I have identified some of the problems—we will take the people responsible for the services along with us, and we will discuss those problems on the spot and see whether we can find solutions.” I have been doing that for nearly the entire 10 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. The key is that when we show that interest and determination to work alongside the local community, people respond and show an interest in those issues. The frontier created by people feeling that they cannot change things, and that their time and effort does not make any difference, starts to be rolled back. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort and longer that we would like to get the desired outcome, but it shows our determination to come back and represent those communities on such issues and to ensure that change comes about.
On the back of that, we have set up a few local forums that engage with representatives of local primary care trusts, the police, council housing officers and people who provide youth services. They have made differences in their communities. The Bill and this clause set out a statutory process through which people can engage. Although I still have concerns that we might not achieve that aim, the key point is that we have to be able to prioritise those areas where disengagement from the process is most acute.
The Government and those who have drafted amendments have commented on the tyranny of the politically articulate, who understand the processes and are able to push themselves forwards. If we do not get this part of the Bill right, such people will probably push themselves to the top of the agenda and leave the communities that we want to drill down into and engage with behind. I have had similar experiences to those outlined by the hon. Lady. She was slightly unfairly challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, who perhaps was too sensitive about the term “usual suspect”. Perhaps that is because he has been on the receiving end of that term more often than he would like in his political career.
People who know the political process come forward and engage with it, and they are first out of the traps when such systems are set up. That is what we have to guard against. If we are to make a difference and to engage with those parts of the community that do not engage with the political process or the local process of decision making, the Bill must ensure that those are the parts of the community that we touch.
Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that we need to think about using as many different media as possible? Only last night I was talking to a colleague who uses Facebook to keep in touch with some of his younger constituents. He was approached via the Facebook website by a constituent who had been having benefit problems for a series of months. Had he not been available through that medium, that person would never have come to him for help. It is important that we use as many different media as possible to try to reach those groups that are not used to using conventional channels of communication.
Absolutely. That point is self-evident and requires no further comment. It is important that we use every possible medium for staying in contact with our local communities. That is true for everyone, whether they are a service provider or an elected representative.
I have one other point to make. In my experience of 12 years as a local councillor and 10 years as a Member of Parliament, I have found that much of the frustration of communities results from the fact that they do not understand how the system works. They perceive the solutions to problems as being quite easy to see. They cannot understand why the local authority or some other body does not move swiftly to respond to that local need. Engaging people and better informing them about issues in their local community will have a double benefit in the sense that not only will they get involved in providing services that are better attuned to the needs of the local community, but they will be better informed about the process and less likely to disengage and feel that things will not change.
Identifying resources and bringing about the changes or improvements that people want will take some time because the money is not sitting on shelves waiting to be spent on those things. By understanding the process, some of the frustration that leads to disengagement might be challenged. There is a great deal of good will and determination out there in all communities if we provide the right mechanisms for engaging with people, and that is what we will do if we get the clause right.
I understand the need for the clause, but I am not entirely happy with it. I would not want the Bill to become a charter for political correctness. I do not like splitting communities up into different boxes. As far as I am concerned, as the Member of Parliament for Kettering, everyone in my constituency is equal. Whatever their background, income or nationality, be they able bodied or disabled, I am interested in any problems that they bring to my door. It makes me feel uneasy when we start to split up a constituency into different categories of people.
There is a lot of anger and resentment about the spread of political correctness. It is not that the Government or other agencies are not going down that road for the right reasons—I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt on that and say that they are doing it for genuine reasons—but once we start to categorise and split up constituents, we inevitably leave some constituents out of the process.
I am looking down the list, from (i) to (vii), and I understand why those groups are there, but there is not an individual category for young mums with children. I do not know why that is, but lots of young mums who are bringing up children in the Kettering constituency might come to me and say, “Philip, how come there isn’t going to be a separate panel for us? It’s blooming hard being a young mum in Kettering, bringing up two small children. How come there isn’t mention of us in the Bill? Why isn’t there going to be a panel in Kettering where all the young mums are invited to give their views?” However, a careful reading of the whole clause shows that there is provision to set up a panel to enable young mums to be consulted. Specific groups are listed only as examples, but the problem with listing groups in that way is that others will inevitably be excluded, which causes anger and resentment.
The amendment contains a definition of a deprived area. Kettering constituency is very much middle England at its best—on all Government measurements of deprivation, Kettering is almost always bang in the middle. However, there are areas of in Kettering that I doubt would score on those measures, but which are nevertheless deprived, and I would be concerned if the Bill were to go through and there was not a separate panel to deal with the concerns of people living there.
New subsection (1A)(c) stipulates that there should be
“an equal number of male and female members”.
I can see why that is included, but I could not give a hoot if the members of the panel were all female or all male, as long as I was satisfied that they were the best people to do the job. I want to flag up the concerns that I feel the residents of Kettering would want me to raise. I understand the reasons for the amendment, but it is unnecessarily prescriptive and goes too far down the road of political correctness.
I shall simply agree with what other hon. Members have said about the importance of the amendment. It seeks to ensure that the effects of the Bill reach everybody in the community, whether or not they are the usual spokespeople. It may need redrafting slightly, particularly with regard to the aspect to which the hon. Member for Kettering referred. Also, the definition of deprivation refers to “sub-paragraph (vii)”, which concerns
“persons over 60 years of age”,
but should read “sub-paragraph (vi)”. That is a minor point that we can sort out later.
I should like to return to the issue of parish plans. Although, as the hon. Member for Chorley rightly pointed out, they can raise expectations without offering the delivery mechanism that we hope to achieve through the Bill, they have been valuable in my constituency. I shall talk about the parish of Kilkhampton, which is close to the border with England, right at the top of my constituency. The chair of the parish council, a gentleman by the name of Noel Mitchell, was active in promoting the concept of a parish plan. He encouraged everybody in the community to get involved and consider all aspects of what was needed to achieve the priorities of its people in the coming years. He was active not only in his own parish; he felt so strongly about how successful the concept had been that he sold it to neighbouring parishes that had not decided voluntarily to go through the parish plan process. I pay tribute to the work that he has done.
Last year, I had the opportunity to go to the nearby parish of Marhamchurch, also in north-east Cornwall, which was launching the process leading to its parish plan. The usual spokespeople were there, but there was a good mix of people who were new to the parish and those who had lived there for some time. There were pictures of the village in the past, so people who, like the hon. Member for Stroud, had been involved in the local community for a great many years, were able to look back on some of the achievements and events in the parish and on how things used to be, which created a nice backdrop.
Absolutely, Mr. Cummings.
That ultimately led to a positive feeling that the parish plan process could deliver something for that community. However, we will eventually come to the point where people say, “Now that we have the plan, how are we to deliver it?” That is why the clause is vital and I am glad to see that the proposed amendments have left that aspect of it untouched, by keeping the parish plan process at its heart. So much valuable work has been done, and what we will achieve by amending the clause is the means to ensure that the plans that have been developed can be put into practice.
We have had an excellent trot around the track of clause 3. I hope that the Minister has got the message from the debate about how important the clause is. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne put it very well when she said that the Bill is trying to give local communities a genuine sense of empowerment. To break through the inertia that we know is out there—it was very well described by the hon. Member for Eltham—we must send a strong signal through the Bill that something is going to change. In that context, as we discussed during our debate on clause 2, simply sending out a signal that there is a duty to consult just will not do.
We see the clause as the final piece in the chain of duty of co-operation that cascades down from the Secretary of State. Without it, I do not think that our constituents, who we want to feel have a genuine opportunity to influence decisions about their community, will believe that anything has really changed. The clause cannot just be about establishing a duty to consult. I know that we all have experience from our own constituencies, but in my experience the terms “public consultation” and “sham” have become absolutely interwoven; there is simply no credibility or faith in the process of public consultation. We have to do something different, and we have to signal that we are doing something different in the Bill.
The amendments, to which the hon. Member for Stroud spoke, go further than the original clause in being specific about the kinds of groups that need to be involved in this new concept of citizens panels, with which local authorities should have a duty to co-operate.
The point that the hon. Gentleman made forcefully, which was reflected in the debate on the Floor of the House principally in the comments of the hon. Member for Hendon, is that we intend to unleash a new process of popular democracy, in which the view that local people know best holds sway and people feel that they have a genuine opportunity to influence both how money is spent in their area and the national action plan for sustainable communities.
That is some order, given the inertia that is out there. However, it is a process that, if successful, will create plenty of noise. It will create vigorous local debate—it will be democracy with sharp elbows. As the hon. Member for Eltham said, it will be an opportunity for the politically articulate, so we have to ensure that those with a quieter voice are heard. That is the simple explanation for the extended list that we propose to include in the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering made an extremely valid case, and I very much respect his points and the way in which he made them, because he showed that he was sensitive to what those who tabled the amendment are trying to achieve. However, he also made the valid point that there is a risk of going too far down the route of political correctness, and simply segmenting our constituencies and communities into groups of vested interests and lobbies. That is not our intention; that is not the world that we want to live in. Nevertheless, I think that he understood—and he articulated that he understood—the point of the amendment, which is to signal that, in the midst of this noisy and vigorous democracy, we must ensure that, during the process of consultation, the quiet minority voice that might otherwise get drowned out is heard.
There is significant support for that view. If the Minister is short of a poster or two to cover some wall space in his office or at home, I can offer him plenty of material. I am looking at a large poster full of endorsements for our approach from various organisations: the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Chinese in Britain Forum and the UK Coalition Against Poverty. I could go on. There is a list of about 20 or 25 organisations that recognise that point and fully support the principles of the Bill. In the process of noisy and vigorous debate, which we should welcome, we need to protect the minority voice. I hope that my hon. Friend the. Member for Kettering has absorbed that point.
As for the Government’s position, we will be all ears when the Minister responds to the debate. I mentioned that, in an earlier debate, the hon. Member for Chorley likened him to a slippery bar of soap, which was unfair, as he has proved since then to be sponge-like in his qualities. I hope that he proves that again this afternoon.
The Government’s position as I understand it is, “We don’t need this clause, because we’re covering it under clause 108 of the local government Bill.” That argument is difficult to sustain. That is not to criticise clause 108, which serves its purpose in the context in which it was written. It is a minimum, across-the-board requirement to involve communities, but it is discretionary, and it is quite right that it should be, because it is clearly not appropriate for local councils to consult on everything.
I should like to bring my hon. Friend back to the issue of deprivation. As it stands, amendment No. 33 contains an absolute definition:
“An area is deprived...if the official male adult unemployment rate exceeds 10 per cent., or if more than 20 per cent. of households have net incomes below £15,000 per year.”
It strikes me that, as we are talking about sustainable communities—people living next door to each other—relative deprivation, not absolute deprivation, is what we are after. I do not think that any of the deprived areas in Kettering would qualify, although I might be wrong, but it must be officially recognised that those communities are deprived relative to neighbouring areas. I put that point to my hon. Friend.
It is a good point well made, as I have learned to expect from my hon. Friend. I share his view, because I represent a constituency not unlike his in profile. Some of our communities probably would not fit that description but have the right to describe certain wards as genuinely deprived, and they appear as such in national statistics. My point is that the amendment is an honest attempt to flag up a real issue, and I do not think that any of the three Members who put their names to it would claim that it is perfect. When it comes to deprivation, it is always a challenge to know where to draw the line and how to define it. I think that my hon. Friend understands the point that I have been trying to make. The amendment is open to improvement. I just wanted the Minister to be clear about the reasons for the amendments.
The problem to which the hon. Member for Kettering was alluding is that a macro level is being used when we ought to be considering a micro level. Ten per cent. is quite a high unemployment rate. I would be hard pressed to think of any Member’s ward—I can think of one—in which unemployment is 10 per cent. these days.
I have a lot of sympathy with that view. For the Bill to enter the business of macro definitions is uncomfortable territory, because the whole principle of it is that we want to trust local authorities to get it right. Our purpose is to try to build into the system a means for local authorities to define who should sit on the citizens panels. The Committee has made a good point about the need to revisit the definition of deprivation.
The Government’s argument is that clause 108 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is sufficient to cover this point. I understand why official advice is that we should try to minimise duplication across legislation. However, although clause 108 is valid in its context, it is inadequate in the context of this Bill, which needs to send out a strong signal that something has changed. Clause 108 is about setting a minimum standard across the board. We are talking about standards in a specific context, where local authorities have exercised their right—not a duty—to participate in the process. The view of the Bill’s sponsors is that, where a council exercises that right, the Bill should help them frame how to conduct the consultation, because the minimum standard set in clause 108 is not enough. We do not want this to be an exercise involving one public meeting in a town hall or a set of questionnaires sent out. We really want to send out the message that this is a genuine process of local engagement. In that context, clause 108 is not enough.
I shall respond to the points that have been made in, I hope, a constructive manner. I do not seek to persuade the Committee to disagree with the amendment—I suspect that I would be unsuccessful, however eloquent I were—but to point out the direction that I shall take in taking away questions from this debate and trying to provide answers to the Committee.
I should like briefly to set out the Government’s attitude towards this matter. I am grateful for the comments that have been made about what is now clause 108 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. The Local Works campaign sheet praises clause 108 and specifically says:
“That is NOT to criticize clause 108”.
It regards clause 108 as a minimum and wants to strengthen it. As one of the people who brought about that clause, I welcome that attempt to strengthen and clarify it.
We debated clause 108 in Committee at some length with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the Opposition spokesperson. We were concerned not to put an over-burdensome duty on local authorities to consult the public on managerial decisions. The example discussed in the Committee was the purchase of photocopiers. Although it is desirable that photocopiers should be purchased with sensitivity in respect of environmental policies and should perhaps help local companies, it is not something about which councils should be expected to consult all the relevant bodies. I think that I described it as a common-sense clause in a common-sense Bill.
I give my hon. Friend my absolute guarantee that common sense will be used—the Lancastrian version, he will be pleased to know. I am not suggesting that the amendments and the clause seek to dictate that there should be consultation over the purchase of photocopiers—that is not their intention—but I should like briefly to expand on our attitude.
Language is important. Consultation by statutory bodies is often done in arcane jargon and language, and I accept that the Government are as guilty of that as others. We have to use clear language. That point has been made. The consultation processes have to go beyond the traditional forms—circulars and so on, New technology helps, but one has to be sensitive, for example, to the fact that numbers of people do not read and write adequately. That is regrettable, but it is true. There are many means of consultation.
All the evidence that we have gathered, along with the LGA and the Improvement and Development Agency and backed up by MORI—hon. Members might have seen its presentations on these matters—shows that there is a direct relationship between the success of consultations, by which I mean the engendering of the attitude that people have been asked their opinions, and the success of a council and its services.
Without making a partisan point, I can say that there has, broadly, been an improvement in the quality of public services and, at the same time in many areas, a growth in residents’ dissatisfaction with those public services and the institutions that provide them. The evidence shows that councils that have both improved their services and closed the dissatisfaction gap have successfully undertaken sustainable consultation; they have engaged with their communities. It also shows that there is a consultation divide. The people who consider themselves to be well informed about public services are those who tend to believe that the public services are better, and those who believe that they are not well informed tend to believe all the things that mean that those public services are bad. The intention of the clause is, in strengthening clause 108 of the local government Bill, to help that process. That is very important.
The hon. Member for Kettering made the point about relative wealth and relative expectations. That is an extremely fair point. Definitions of deprivation often miss the point that all boats rise with the tide. In defence of the hon. Gentleman, the Government’s proposal for clause 108 is that we should provide guidance for local councils and their partners as to how they should implement it. Our position has always been that we would not prescribe in statute the “how” of consultation; we would simply prescribe the duty to involve, inform and consult. That is a different statutory proposition from the duty on different public sector agencies to co-operate. As I said in my opening remarks to the Committee, it is the second of the twin pillars of the new statutory framework.
The Government’s intention is, if and when we receive Royal Assent to the local government Bill, to draft for consultation the guidelines to make clause 108 real. That has been the subject of much consultation and discussion with the third sector. Informal discussions have already begun with the LGA about what shape that should take. My undertaking to the Committee, therefore, is to consider the clause, as amended by the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood and for Falmouth and Camborne and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, to see how I can mesh those processes together. I want to avoid, as I know hon. Members do, over-burdensome bureaucracies and over-costly procedures. I mentioned £42 million before. That figure is causing the Committee some amusement. Its estimation is not a science and it is a net new burden, but it represents a policy that the Opposition have encouraged us to adopt.
I was not going to raise the embarrassing question of the £42 million, but the Minister raises it anyway. I do not agree that its estimation is not a science. There must now clearly be a fairly fully developed “Sir Humphrey” science of how to achieve the maximum possible figure that can be justified by any device when confronting the apparent costs of doing something that we do not want to do. That must be the counterpart of the equal science that has been developed to show the minimum impact of a new regulation when the Department wishes to bring about a new regulation, something that we see often in regulatory impact assessments. The Minister is simply lacking in scientific awareness.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that I never have to use those words against him—but, if I have to, I will.
Our policy is one of covering the net new burdens of costs on councils. I receive many letters from council treasurers explaining the extra costs of the Government’s proposals, but I have yet to receive a letter telling me of the net savings of the Government’s proposals. It is not an exact science, but the point has been made. I want to avoid over-bureaucracy and over-burdensome costs. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood made a significant point when he said that the fear of duplication makes it important that the clause is strengthening clause 108.
It is suggested in subsection (1) that principal councils should submit recommendations on a plan, as drawn up by what is now in clause 2. I want the current statutory obligation to produce a community strategy, which all councils now have to do along with their local development frameworks and local area agreements, that makes the communities plan a sustainable communities plan that takes on board the strength of the Bill, especially in clause 1. I want it to look at the relationship between the plan that is put forward under clause 3 and the sustainable communities strategy, because there will be some coming together.
It is interesting to note that, under the Government’s guidance to local authorities on the preparation of community strategies, paragraph 16 sets out the process of involvement and consultation. It states:
“It will be vital to ensure wide local ownership of the community planning process, which should therefore be predominantly ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’.”
It goes on in a similar tone to that of the clause and the material that Local Works has produced.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the Minister’s point. Amendment No. 33 can clearly be recast in a more simple way. The sort of documents to which he referred, such as the community strategy and the local development framework, are completely inaccessible. I do not mean that they are physically inaccessible, but that they are inaccessible in a much more profound way to most people in the community.
In Newcastle, we cannot make a complaint or make an objection to a plan by telephone. We have to do it in writing. If I assist my constituents by providing them with standard letters, that is dismissed as being a pro-forma objection. Yet, in our community, how many people can actually express themselves coherently, simply and robustly in a letter?
Of course, I agree with the powerful point made by my hon. Friend. I hope that I did not suggest that the good people of—I shall use my constituency to avoid offending others—Oldham East and Saddleworth do not travel to Boundary park to read the local development framework or the communities plan. It is an important to achieve a culture where public services do indeed pay great heed to the arguments that my hon. Friend is making. We should not go too far in claiming the merits of the Bill.
Clause 3 relates to the process of putting together the recommendations for the plan—the process that we have been describing. Although it is true that the Bill has a public interest behind it—I welcome that—we are kidding ourselves if we think that we can change the culture by implementing such simple measures. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
In amendment No. 33, the establishment of panels to cover various groups is a good idea. However, one needs to look at whether they duplicate existing forums or structures. Let us take a youth panel as an example. Is the panel to be a citizens’ panel drawn up of representative people—representative in the way that a jury is? Is it to be an existing representative body? Is it to include the youth MPs that many areas have? In some areas, there are very high turnouts for the selection of those MPs. Is it to include representatives from student unions, who, some would say, are more resourceful and articulate than other young people? I raise those points not to criticise clause 3, but to say that we have a duty to think about how we would create those panels.
The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill contains an innovative measure for LINKs organisations to set up panels to hear the comments of patients and other people involved in health services, which is similar to what is being proposed in the amendment. It would be wrong of me to criticise the mechanism proposed here when the Bill promoted by my Department in conjunction with the Department of Health proposed a similar process for the health services. In that Bill, we said that it would be possible to expand the idea of LINKs into other areas so that we have that interface between participatory and representative democracy. I am sure that we all agree that ultimately it is the elected councillor who should be the arbitrator between the different groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central is frowning: I think that he accepts the point philosophically but perhaps not always in practice.
The hon. Member for Kettering asked about other groups. If there are other groups, is there a danger that one has to include all the panels and all different types of individuals? I know that he has regular meetings in his constituency with the parishes representing the villages in his area. I believe that they are very well attended, and I commend the process. Interestingly, clause 3(2)(a) states that the principal council, when preparing recommendations, should have regard to
“any parish plan published by a parish or community council”.
I want to add to that definition to take on board the new community councils, parish councils or any other name that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill allows. I think that that helps to meet the hon. Gentleman’s objections.
On a point of clarification, it is not the intention in the amendment to set up separate panels for each group. The list is intended to offer guidance on the sort of groups that need to be represented on panels, rather than to require that panels be set up for each group.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. The ways in which consultation can take place are varied. A suggestion was made in the north-east that citizens’ panels should be used as part of the overview and scrutiny process, which itself is an important part of developing sustainability.
Hon. Members have made the point that it is difficult to agree on the definition of deprived areas. The authors of the amendment are trying to point out that it is the less well-off areas that tend to be less involved in decision making and so on, and I accept that point. The neighbourhood renewal fund is based on a definition of deprivation at what is called the “super output area”—a phrase that I have stopped even trying to understand. Small sub-ward areas in some parts of my constituency would meet the proposed definition, so I am tempted by it. I suspect that in your constituency you would welcome that definition, Mr. Cummings. If I may make a partisan point, the reason why Opposition Members can say that there are very few places like that nowadays is that today there is an adult male unemployment rate of less than 10 per cent., which was not so 10 years ago.
Having successfully made that cheap shot for the purposes of “‘Tributes to Tony Blair ‘R Us’, Oldham Chronicle, Part 3”, which will be going out tomorrow, I will return to a consensual point. I shall look at the definition and consider whether we could provide some consistency, perhaps in relation to the neighbourhood renewal area.
Several proposals were made for strengtheningclause 108 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, but I would have difficulty in putting such prescriptive measures into this Bill. However, I accept that the Committee wants the clause to have some teeth, to give it real bite. There is a paradox in saying, “On the one hand we want to devolve, and on the other this is how you are going to do it.” We need to strike a good balance that encourages—indeed, insists on—genuine consultation, strengthens the statutory provision in the current local government Bill before the House and, most importantly, helps to change the culture in public services on how information, consultation and involvement should take place.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to respond to the amendments and the clause, Mr. Cummings. I hope that I have persuaded the Committee to give me some leeway to examine how to take forward these worthy objectives.
I was not going to say anything about the amendments, but the remarks of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, and the Minister’s reference to the village plan made me think that it was worth saying one thing. Given his constituency, I do not know whether the Minister has been involved in the formulation of a village plan, but those of us who have a lot of villages in their constituency—there are 55 in my constituency and another 55 or 60 hamlets—are regularly involved in such work. Several times a year I find myself sitting with constituents who are formulating a village plan, so I know that there is all the difference in the world between that process and how the plans that the hon. Gentleman described are formulated. He and I will have had a similar experience of those plans. When MPs go to a meeting where strategic plans are being developed, they know all the people there because they are part of a little local political elite, and there is nothing wrong with that. They are fine people.
No, Mr. Cummings, it is a speech.
They are the usual suspects. What emerges from these meetings are often valuable, useful documents but, exactly as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central said, they are highly inaccessible to most of our constituents. They are not written in language that most would recognise, they are not about subjects that most are worried about directly, although they may have an impact on their lives indirectly, and people do not read them. I have never conducted a poll, but I bet if I went round west Dorset I would not find more than a few dozen people who had ever read these huge documents. If they did read them, and tried to influence them, they would hit exactly the obstacles that the hon. Gentleman described.
The village plan is completely different. Normally the meetings take place in someone’s front room, dining room or sitting room, or perhaps in a village hall. Probably quite a large part of the village population crams into that small space. Quite often I have involved myself in meetings with a quarter or a fifth of the total village population. If I can put it this way, they are real live people. They live in the village and know about the village and care about it. They are exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood described them. They are the quiet voices. They are not people who normally participate in democratic politics or anything else that is formal or official. They go about their business and their lives and then they get involved in the village plan.
What we are trying to do here is to move from the one to the other. We are trying to get to the point where people are not simply being consulted by an outside body on something abstract, foreign and alien, but are being involved in talking about things that matter to them as local residents and which they have a collective sense they are influencing. The output of a village plan is something that the village owns. I am not a good enough poet to describe it, but it makes a moral difference to the feel of the village.
Everything that flows from the village plan after that is influenced by the tone of that document and the decisions that differ greatly from village to village. If something comes up that is wholly unexpected to a bureaucracy, it is not surprise to me or to the people forming the plan because they are a different set of people. They are looking from the bottom up and not, however well-intentionedly, from the top down. That is what we are trying to achieve here. We are trying to get the point where, whatever mechanism the Minister produces, when a local authority tries to find out what would most help it to create a more sustainable community, instead of going to the usual suspects and receiving the formal views and proposals, it can find out what real live ordinary people who are concerned about the place they are living in think.
That will be a revelation to many, including many conscientious and excellent local officers, for example, who because of the nature of their work are sufficiently detached from what is really being felt that they do not have any idea of it. That revelation will be a profoundly important consequence of the Bill. It may well lead local authorities to propose things that are nowhere in their political manifestos and have never been formulated as part of their strategic plans, but have emerged from talking to their populations in a way that has not happened before.
I understand that clause 108 is intended to have a similar effect but the way in which it is cast means that on the ground we will see the same old stuff, more or less. Lots of things that may be useful will emerge, but they will not be like the things that we are trying to achieve. They will not be like the village plan. If the Minister could have that image in his mind as he seeks a way through—I do not think that any of us want to stand by the exact drafting—it would be a huge bonus. We might get a clause that begins for the first time to build into statute the idea of people doing something that is very difficult to describe, but that one knows when one sees it—real local participation, not consultation. There is all the difference in the world between participation and consultation.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very valuable point about the sense of ownership that people feel about parish plans. For example, if affordable housing in a village comes as part of the local development framework and is seen as coming from outside the village community, there may be opposition to it, but if people have demonstrated the need for affordable housing in their own parish plan, they are far less likely to oppose it and go through all the planning and development control processes that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central described.
I completely agree. To extend the example, in one of my villages—Buckland Newton— a group is trying to set up a community land trust. A group of people inside the village are trying to promote something that will look after the interests of young people living there. If somebody had come from the outside, exactly as the hon. Gentleman said, and descended on them from Dorchester, the headquarters of the district council, which is not very far away, and said, “Thou shalt have eight extra houses here”, all hell would have broken loose. I know exactly what the letters would have looked like—I am sure that he does—whereas this way around, it is the villagers’ initiative. That is what we are trying to get to. I really believe that we can get there, but it will require imagination on the part of the Minister to overcome the understandable reluctance to engage in something so flakey, so to speak, as allowing people to participate.
I entirely agree about engaging and the fact that we are looking for a bottom-up approach. However, it is all about ensuring that the bottom is all-embracing. There is a danger that the front rooms in the right hon. Gentleman’s 55 villages and 64 hamlets are not, and that they are not engaging. Does he agree that the clause has to ensure that those people who are claiming to be representative at the bottom are actually representative and therefore engaged with all sections of the community?
I completely agree and that is why the amendment is so specific—perhaps overly so. The reason why it says that we need young people, people from ethnic minorities, tenants in social housing, and people on low incomes on the panel is precisely because otherwise we might get the usual suspects again.
The point about a village, oddly enough, is that villages—not every one, but most, if they are small enough—are still working societies. Society is not broken; it stretches from the rich to the poor, from the disabled to the able-bodied, from the young to the old, in a way that urban life, alas, does not nearly enough. In those front rooms, therefore, we tend to find the genuine composition of society. Because we are legislating here for the whole country, and because not every village is of that form and many urban areas are not of that form, we need specify who has to be in the front room. I accept the Minister’s point that we may not be able to specify quite so closely as we have here, but we have to ensure that it is a front room populated by people of every kind who are really participating.
Why is it, in his view, that the village community that my right hon. Friend described self-selects the very people whom we want to engage in this Bill? Why are villages working, when other places are not?
I am sure that you, Mr. Cummings, will shortly prevent me from continuing, but I can offer one brief thought. The point is that, if the community is small enough, people know one another, not in the sense of passing one another on the street, but actually knowing one another—they might not always like one another, but at least they understand one another—
Just to say, such people tend to interact and participate together. We are trying to create that degree of participation. The Minister is nobly trying to do so by creating, so to speak, parish councils in urban areas, which we strongly welcome. However, in a housing estate, there might similarly be a feeling of cohesion, but in a London borough, that is unimaginable; Ii is much too large a terrain. We are trying to get right down to the level of a neighbourhood that has a real existence, in the sense that people know one another, care about talking to one another and participating together.
The right hon. Gentleman will probably remember his days as a Conservative candidate in Hackney, North some years ago. He will be well aware that the test of the Bill is, yes, what happens in the rural communities of the sort that he and colleagues from Cornwall represent. However, if it is to mean a great deal in urban areas, it must work and it must be inclusive. It has to work in a place such as my constituency, which has a very fast population turnover, a multiplicity of languages and an ethnic dimension. It requires a lot of work to create that community, but in doing so, we have won a great deal because often we have won lower crime, greater respect for the local school and so on. The Bill must work in an urban area as well as a rural one.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is surprising because we are hardly at the same point in the political spectrum. I would go so far as to say that, if we can get our proposals to work in urban areas, we will begin to knit together communities that are fractured, and the social gains, measured in terms of social responsibility and the connectedness of the community, will be greater than those that we could possibly achieve in a rural area that is already relatively well connected.
Participation matters even more. On a point made in an earlier intervention, paradoxically, it is necessary to specify—we must ensure that people from every part of a community are participating and involved. We cannot simply say that a local authority should go out and consult and not worry about how that will be done. It matters that we use the Bill as a vehicle for what we want to achieve.
Experiences of the campaign for the Bill show that there is a great appetite for it in urban areas, too. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman had to change the venue for a meeting in his constituency about it because of the huge number of people who were going to turn up, but I understand that there has been a similar level of turnout and a similar appetite for the Bill in densely populated, urban areas. People see the Bill as a way of ending ghost town Britain, even if that means their own high street. There is an appetite for that around the country, not only in rural areas.
I agree. When the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and I were working with Lord Kirkwood on the preservation of sub-post offices—alas, they are no longer to be preserved—it became evident that threatening post offices in urban areas often created as much worry about, for example, how old people would go about their lives, as threatening the post office in a rural village. These things are not as exclusive as the mythology often has it.
There is an appetite for the Bill. The issue is a tough nut to crack, but this is the clause that will enable us to crack it. The Minister will be achieving an enormous amount if he can find a way to accept the Bill which the Government can live with.
My right hon. Friend has powerfully articulated the kind of culture shift that the Bill seeks to make happen. He has painted some powerful pictures of how consultations should work and of the sense of ownership and engagement that we wish to bring about. I happen to think that the Minister buys into that—he understands and shares the objective. The Minister is right to warn us against making excessive claims on behalf of the Bill, but it provides an opportunity to inject a catalyst into the system.
I warn the Minister that I am concerned about some of his language in connection with this and other Bills. I am concerned that he is leading me to believe that he thinks of the Bill as an extension of current Government proposals, albeit one that strengthens them in certain areas, and as fitting into a stream of work and objectives that are under way. It is my perception—I sense that it is shared in the Committee—that although the processes of local area agreements and community strategies are well meaning, logical and rational, they do not engage communities in the way intended in the Bill. The Government need to think carefully about that disconnect.
I know that there are plans in the pipeline to extend the scope of local area agreements and to make them work more effectively. I understand why the Minister views the Bill as a useful tool in that process. My message is that if we want to take a step on the journey toward the kind of culture change that we have talked about, it is not enough to continue with the status quo or to continue to go down the same track. We have to send a strong signal of change, both to the communities that we want to engage and to the local authorities that are the conduit to them.
The Government track, well intentioned though it may be, might not change a great deal. The Bill is an honest attempt to throw a rock in the pool, as it were, to change things and to act as a catalyst for the kind of culture change articulated by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset.
On the Minister’s remarks, I took some encouragement from receiving the impression that he recognised that clause 108 of the local government Bill is not enough and needs to be built on, and that he will consider the Committee’s message that there is a need to send stronger signals to local authorities about the kinds of consultation processes that will be required. My understanding is that he will need some time to reflect on those issues and come back to the Committee, at which point I feel that the debate is usefully concluded.
Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Hurd.]