Sustainable Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 23rd May 2007.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 3—Local spending reports: rights of principal councils and representatives of local persons—
‘(1) After considering the information contained in a local spending report issued pursuant to section 4, a principal council may make recommendations to the Secretary of State as to—
(a) whether that council could decide how any part of the money specified in that report may be spent; and
(b) any consequential delegation of functions to the council.
(2) Where a principal council proposes to make recommendations pursuant to subsection (1), it must—
(a) refer the matter to any panels under section 3 for consideration; or
(b) establish such panels if they do not exist and refer the matter to them for consideration.
(3) A principal council and any panels acting pursuant to this section shall exercise their functions to promote the sustainability of local communities.
(4) Within three months of receiving recommendations made by a principal council under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall either adopt or reject each of the recommendations, and in either case shall give reasons for his decision.
(5) At least once in each calendar year the Secretary of State shall publish a report providing details of all decisions taken pursuant to subsection (4) above.’.
Amendment (a), in line 2, after ‘may’, insert ‘subject to subsection (2)’.
Amendment (b), in line 6, at end insert—
‘(2A) A principal council may not make recommendations regarding any money that has been specified in the local spending report as being spent on services of a wider or national significance.
(2B) In subsection (2) “services primarily of a wider or national significance” means services provided wholly or largely for the benefit of persons resident in areas wider than the area of the council.’.
Amendment (c), in line 12, after ‘shall’, insert—
Amendment (d), in line 13, at end insert ‘and
(b) have regard to the council’s community strategy prepared pursuant to section 4 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c.22);
(c) specify that in their opinion any recommendations are consistent with that community strategy; and
(d) give their reasons for that opinion.’.
I hope that you had the opportunity for a good lunch, Mr. Cummings. I was able to have only a glass of wine on the Terrace, I am afraid. It was a very nice glass of wine and very reasonably priced, but it was only wine and no sustenance.
I am delighted that my persuasive powers have persuaded my colleagues to come here and join me.I am, as ever, joined by my fantastically loyal Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. I want to place on the record my thanks to her. She has engaged in the spirit of the Bill with gusto and provided a way forward.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood asked me to clarify the Government’s intent. I take it from that that he feels that I did not clarify it, so I intend to do so now. The Government support part of the intent of clause 5 and new clause 3. It is not the principle thatwe have a problem with; it is the drafting and the application. I hope that I have convinced the Committee that we are a devolutionary and decentralising Government—the two are different. We believe that decisions, including funding decisions, should be taken locally wherever possible.
I put it on the record for the sake of clarity that I propose to table an amendment on Report that I believe will cover the intent of clause 5 and newclause 3. My proposal is that if authorities consider that the function or functions of one body should be exercised by another, they should be able to make representations to that effect under new clauses 5 and 6. However, we think that, wherever possible, local authorities should seek to use their powers under the Local Government Acts of 1972 and 2000. We believe in a consensual and devolutionary approach to these issues.
There is agreement that the original clause 5 should not stand part of the Bill. I expect that the hon. Gentleman will wish his new clause 3 to be included in it. Although I cannot support the detail, I have no problem with the principle, as I said. Therefore, I do not intend to oppose new clause 3. I hope that that clarifies the matter. If not, perhaps he or other hon. Members will say so.
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks. They do indeed clarify the position, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood would agree. They were a whole heap clearer than his earlier remarks, and I am sure that we shall await the Minister’s amendment. However, I want to say something in the spirit of putting into his mind things that may be helpful when we come to Report and when he comes to consider the amendments that he will move then.
If I understood the Minister aright in his concluding passage, he was suggesting that his amendmentswould provide for the local authority under some circumstances to take over the functions in some respects of some existing other body. I think that it is worth warning him that it is unlikely, in my view, that such an amendment could succeed in achieving the object that we seek, and I shall explain why, in the hope that he will reflect further.
Where there is a current Government agency or devolved agency—a regional development agency,for example—it will typically have a remit that is established first in statute, then perhaps in regulation and thereafter in some kind of ministerial targets or edicts. I may be wrong, but I suspect that if the Minister attempts to draft a clause that gives the local authority the right not to seek the ability to redirect moneys but to seek to take over specific functions, that will have the effect that we do not want of putting the local authority, when exercising those functions, under the duty to follow the remit that the agency had.
That is not my intention. The idea of the Bill and the policy is that the local council, as the democratically elected body, should be the first among equals.
That is an extremely helpful clarification. If the Minister’s intention is as he has now described, it may well be that we can reach a perfect agreement. To take a concrete example, if a regional development agency runs a business links programme, properly ordained by a sequence of top-down rules, and the local authority seeks to use the cash available for something that it thinks a better way of promoting business in the locality, and if the Secretary of State has not ruled that the business links are of primarily national significance, our intention is that the local authority could so direct the money. If the Minister’s intention is the same, we have agreement.
There is just one caveat, and I hopethat it does not sound like sour grapes. The strategies and policies of the business links in that examplecome from consultation, but that is a side point. Notwithstanding that, if a local area’s target—for instance, to reduce joblessness—involves the local authority and other partners saying to the business links, “We want you to redirect your policy in such a way,” that should be achievable.
That is extremely helpful, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood would agree. I suspect that colleagues elsewhere in the Committee would also agree that that fulfils their intentions. It may well be that the effect of providing for such a power is that the co-operation that the Minister thinks often does not apply will emerge, because business links or the people organising them might say to themselves, “It is not worth not doing what the local authority wants us to do because, if we don’t, the local authority will petition the Secretary of State for the ability to take it over.” That is precisely the dynamic that we wish to create—one that means that the local authority is, as the Minister puts it, first among equals.
This is serious stuff. On the point that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood made about the co-operation on the targets, that is important and I hope that he recognises that I do not wish to preclude further co-operation. But in agreeing the targets, the business links in the right hon. Gentleman’s example would be under an obligation to help to meet the targets that had been set locally. In Torbay, for example, they might be on training, new businesses in hotels and leisure, or fishery skills, whereas in my constituency they might be on textile engineering. Precisely that localism will be allowed, as shown byhis point.
That is true, but, as the Minister says, this is important and it is worth pursuing a deeper level of detail. As with any business, it is not a criticism to say that the people running business links think of the activity that they are engaged in as a business link-like activity. If you ask them how to spend money, they may well be willing to spend it in one way rather than another, but they will always tend to think that the right thing do to is to spend it on the kind of things that business links do.
However, a local authority might feel in a particular case that the general objective of promoting more sustainable small and growing business would bebetter achieved by providing people with something completely different. It would not be natural for the business link managers to want to do that. Atthe extreme, it might involve them no longer having the same jobs. One cannot therefore rely on agreement on targets and how they should be fulfilled in a local area agreement to achieve what we are seeking to achieve. We want a position whereby if the business link group does not feel that the local authority is proposing the right kind of thing, then so long as the area is not defined as primarily nationally significant the local authority will have the presumption of getting the Secretary of State’s approval to take over the spending.
I agree and would go slightly further. The best way of promoting small business in an area might be to provide a youth club for 19-year-olds at the further education college. Indeed, such activities are provided at the South Devon further education college, which is one of the best in the country. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, the point is the outcome—the achievement. If the best way of creating small businesses is to build a youth club so that there is access to young people, which is what I want to achieve, that is desirable.
I do not know whether this is a parliamentary term, Mr. Cummings, but my response to that is “bingo!”
On behalf of the Committee, I join the Minister in recording our gratitude to the hon. Member for West Ham for the role that she has played. During these proceedings she is condemned to sit in silence, which I do not believe to be her natural state. She left our earlier sitting looking as though she needed a lot more than the one glass of wine that the Minister allowed himself on the terrace, and that may have had something to do with the speech of my right hon. Friend. We are genuinely grateful for the work that she has done through the usual channels to get us to where we are.
I am also extremely grateful to the Minister for having placed on the record a coherent and reassuring confirmation that he does not oppose new clause 3 and is prepared to come back with a suitable amendment to iron out some of its imperfections. I am grateful, also, to my right hon. Friend for having teased that out with a specific working example, which is a good way of testing conviction against vague rhetoric. I agreewith the Minister that it seems to be the wish of the Committee that clause 5 should not stand part ofthe Bill.