I beg to move amendment No. 35, in schedule, page 8, line 3, leave out ‘indicators referred to in section 2’ and insert
‘matters referred to in section [Proposals by principal councils]’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 7—Action plans —
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, as soon as is practicable, consult all principal councils in accordance with this section—
(a) on the matters set out in the Schedule to this Act, which specifies matters which affect the sustainability of local communities, and
(b) on any other matters which in the opinion of the Secretary of State affect the sustainability of local communities.
(2) Before consulting principal councils, the Secretary of State must—
(a) subject to paragraph (b) appoint a person to be his advisor (“the advisor”) for the purposes of this Act.
(b) request the Local Government Association to be the advisor but, if that body declines, appoint such other person or persons who must be persons who represent the interests of principal councils.
(3) The advisor must consider the responses to the consultation pursuant to subsection (1) and draw up a list of proposals contained in those responses which in the advisor’s opinion—
(a) should be given the greatest priority, and
(b) have cross-party support.
(4) The Secretary of State must, subject to subsection (5), cooperate with the advisor in drawing up an action plan to promote the sustainability of local communities which shall—
(a) be based primarily on those proposals that have been identified by the advisor as requiring the greatest priority and having cross-party support; and
(b) include such other recommendations made by principal councils as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(5) The Secretary of State may determine which proposals are not appropriate to be implemented immediately or at all, on the grounds that—
(a) the direct or indirect costs likely to be involved in their implementation, or
(b) their implementation in whole or in part is likely to conflict, to a significant extent, with a specific government objective.
(6) The Secretary of State shall, no later than 18 monthsafter the commencement of the consultation pursuant to subsection (1), lay the action plan before each House of Parliament for approval by each House.
(7) The Secretary of State must—
(a) implement the action plan and for that purpose shall keep under review the progress made from time to time in the implementation of the action plan; and
(b) consider any opinions of the advisor on progress made.
(8) The Secretary of State shall ensure that every regional office of government cooperates with principal councils and panels established under section 3(1A) for the relevant region in the promotion of the sustainability of local communities.
(9) The Secretary of State shall in each Session of Parliament beginning after the enactment of this act lay an annual report before each House of Parliament containing the action plan, if completed, and detailing the progress made to the date of the report in producing the action plan if not completed, and in implementing the recommendations contained in the action plan in pursuance of subsection (7).’.
Government new clause 5—Proposals by principal councils—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must invite principal councils to make proposals which they consider would contribute to promoting the sustainability of local communities.
(2) Before inviting proposals, the Secretary of State must appoint a person (the “selector”) to consider the proposals and draw up a short-list of proposals for consideration by the Secretary of State, in accordance with regulations under section [Proposals by principal councils: regulations].
(3) The selector must be a person who represents the interests of principal councils.
(4) On receiving the short-list from the selector, the Secretary of State must—
(a) decide which, if any, of the proposals on the short-list should be implemented, and
(b) give reasons for the decision.
(5) Before taking a decision under subsection (4) the Secretary of State must consult the selector and try to reach agreement.’.
Government new clause 6—Short-listing of proposals: regulations—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations about the procedure to be followed in relation to proposals under section [Proposals by principal councils].
(2) Before making regulations the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) the selector, and
(b) such other persons, who the Secretary of State thinks represent the interests of principal councils, as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(3) Regulations may, in particular—
(a) specify, or authorise the selector to specify, steps to be taken by a principal council before making proposals (including, in particular, a requirement for a principal council to have regard to the matters specified in the Schedule);
(b) specify steps to be taken by the selector in considering the proposals and drawing up a short-list;
(c) specify criteria to be applied by the selector in drawing up a short-list;
(d) specify a maximum number of proposals to be included in a short-list;
(e) require the selector to prepare, and give to the Secretary of State, a report on the proposals;
(f) specify the form of, and the information to be included in, a report under paragraph (e).
(4) Regulations must—
(a) require a principal council, if it has not already done so, to consult representatives of local persons before making any proposal under section [Proposals by principal councils],
(b) require a principal council to try to reach agreement with representatives of local persons about proposals, and
(c) require a principal council to have regard to any guidance issued under subsection (5).
(5) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to principal councils about making proposals, which may in particular include guidance about consulting representatives of local persons.
(6) Before issuing or revising guidance under subsection (5) the Secretary of State must consult—
(a) principal councils, or
(b) persons who the Secretary of State thinks represent the interests of principal councils.
(7) In this section—
“local person” means, in relation to a proposal by a principal council under section [Proposals by principal councils], a person who is likely to be affected by, or interested in, the proposal;
“representative” means, in relation to local persons, a person who appears to the principal council to be representative of the local persons.
(8) Regulations under this section—
(a) must be made by statutory instrument, and
(b) are subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.’.
Government amendment No. 45, in title, line 1, leave out from ‘provision’ to ‘and’ in line 8 and insert
‘about promoting the sustainability of local communities;’.
Amendment No. 46, in title, line 6, leave out ‘upon request’.
Amendment No. 47, in title, line 6, leave out ‘produce local spending plans’ and insert
‘make recommendations regarding local spending reports’.
Amendment No. 48, in title, line 7, leave out
‘approve and implement those plans’ and insert
‘publish reasons for decisions relating to local spending reports’.
Let me explain—I hope that it will be helpful for the Committee. Having rapidly moved through the clauses, we now move to the schedule. New clause 7, which has been tabled by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, is to replace the existing clause 2, and is countered by Government new clause 5. New clause 6, confusingly, would replace new clause 3. That is an inevitable consequence of the way we are proceeding on this matter. I am grateful to you, Mr. Cummings, for allowing such a debate.
I am very grateful. It is confusing, because there is a difference between new clause 6 and the sixth new clause. That is the source of the confusion, which may be inevitable with a small Bill. The right hon. Gentleman is correct. The difficulty that we have here is new clause 7. Mr. Cummings, are you permitting debate on that at this point?
Yes, indeed. I had no wine at lunch, but I must say that I rise with a sense of giddiness at the pace at which we are now cantering through the Bill.
We have a reservation about Government amendment No. 35, because as I understand it, although we do not oppose the change in wording, a link is made tonew clause 6, which we do not accept. I support new clause 7, which I tabled along with the hon. Members for Stroud and for Falmouth and Camborne. In our view it is a slimline and less prescriptive version of our earlier new clause 2. Just to remind the Committee of the narrative of the Bill, as we have been jumping around a little, new clause 2 was the part that drew out the mechanics for the formulation and delivery of a national action plan to counter the problem of community decline, which is the driving force of the Bill.
I would like to go through the main points of detail. I believe that the differences between ourselves and the Government are not ones of principle, nor are they necessarily ones of substance, but they are worth airing, just to ensure that we have some consensus and the two versions can be reconciled.
Our version of new clause 7 starts with the now familiar issue of the timetable. We have softened our approach by requiring that the
“Secretary of State shall, as soon as is practicable, consult all principal councils in accordance with this section”.
New clause 2 required that to happen within six months, so I think that we have taken a more practical approach. We much prefer the word “consult” tothe term “to invite proposals”—I think that that isthe term in the Government’s new clause—and the Minister understands that the word “consult” has a stronger force and a clearer sense of definition in law than what is in the Government’s proposals. We therefore remain firm on that point.
New clause 7 would refine the provisions of new clause 2 by introducing sensible mechanics for the appointment of the Local Government Association as the selector or “the advisor”—various expressions have been used. We understand the role of the LGA tobe that of a filter, consolidating and prioritising the recommendations that come from the front line. In the last sitting, the Minister expressed reservations about the Government requiring anything of the LGA because of its status, which I think the Committee understood. The provisions satisfy us that there could be no confusion about which body is favoured to fill this space and, I think, meet the Minister’s concern about appearing to require nothing of the LGA.
New clause 7(4) would insist on a duty of co-operation between the Secretary of State and“the advisor”—the LGA, we hope. The Government’s approach is to try to stay with the language of consultation. We have insisted that the duty to co-operate should cascade down the chain of decision making: the Secretary of State would have a duty to co-operate with the LGA, which would have a duty to co-operate with local authorities, which in turn would have a duty to co-operate with the panels and the mechanics of local engagement. We feel that that duty should be a consistent theme through the chain.
In new clause 7(5) we have set out the opt-outs for the Secretary of State—we are sensitive to concernsin the Department regarding a Secretary of State’s freedom of manoeuvre. Those opt-outs are clearly linked to any proposals that involve extra money or conflict with the national Government’s policy objectives. It is worth emphasising that subsection (8) would require the Secretary of State to ensure that each
“regional office of government cooperates with principal councils and panels” in the process.
The Minister understands that the driving force behind the Bill and the priority of its sponsors is to make it clear to its audience and the people whom it will affect, that this is a different process from the normal one. Our concern about the Government’s proposal in new clause 5 is that it reads much like a standard consultation. I do not know what other Committee members’ experiences are, but in my constituency certainly, the words “public consultation” and “sham” have become inextricably linked—there is very little confidence in the traditional process of consultation.
How is it that in the wording of new clause 7, we have the term “consult all principal councils”, but clearly in new clause 5 we have the idea that the principal councils make the proposals? As I understand it, new clause 5 is much stronger in giving a bottom-up approach than new clause 7. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that new clause 7 removes the fuzz, and the bad reputation that the word “consult” has, better than new clause 5?
I have a lot of sympathy with the sentiment behind that intervention. I think that the answer lies in how tight the definitions are legally—for example, in a case in which somebody feels that the consultation has not been adequate. In such a case, it would be easier to define “consultation”. It is stronger and would give more comfort than a simple invitation to make proposals.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the words before “make proposals” that are the problem? If we want a bottom-up approach, the fact that the
“Secretary of State must invite” those proposals causes a problem. It seems to be in the power of the Secretary of State to invite them. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Llanelli, but do not think that either new clause is better at dealing with the issue.
That intervention is extremely helpful. I am not sure that this is the most important issue that we will deliberate on, because our intention here is clear. I have been advised that “consult” is a stronger expression and is preferable because it lends itself to explicit definition.
My main point is that the desire of the Bill’s sponsors, and its many supporters out there, is for a national action plan to address the social problems associated with community decline. However, there cannot be just a standard consultation exercise. The driving force behind the Bill is the fact that local opinion is what counts on decisions that affect local communities and their future health and sustainability; local people know best. There is a desire for, and there must be seen to be, a genuinely bottom-up process to formulate the national action plan.
The core elements of new clause 7 are certainly an improvement on old clause 2. We feel that the new clause would send a stronger signal to the system that this is not just a standard consultation exercise, butthat there is a genuine desire for bottom-up local engagement that will make the national plan as effective as possible.
I will speak about the comparisons between new clauses 7 and 5. Importantly, we are all trying to pull in the same direction and we should focus on what is comparable between the two and how much overlap there is. I am extremely lucky in coming from Wales, where we have a closer relationship with the Assembly Government than is possible for a wider community such as England.
I have some concerns. New clause 5 is explicit in saying that the selector should be on the side of the principal council and it therefore represents the bottom-up view. I am not convinced that, under new clause 7, the LGA’s representation would necessarily put the views of the principal council—it might, but it might not. I suggest, therefore, that new clause 5 would give more strength to local councils and local communities than new clause 7. I ask the Committee carefully to consider the comparison between the two new clauses and which would be the more effective.
As the Minister did not oppose the amended clause 3, I hope that he will not press new clause 6. The debate on this group is therefore largely about whether the existing clause 2 should be replaced by new clause 7, which I tabled with the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood and for Stroud, or by new clause 5, which stands in the name of the Minister.
There are not many differences between the two proposals. Often, the difference is purely in the language used—for example, whether we should “invite proposals” or “consult”. The language is also different, although the sentiment is the same, on the issue of whether there should be an “advisor” or a “selector”.I think that “selector” is a bit cumbersome, but ultimately we are trying to achieve the same thing. When drafting new clause 7, we tried to use the language that would be most straightforward and easy to understand.
There are two areas in which I think that the two new clauses differ, on which I will seek assurances from the Minister. One of the first key issues concerned the timetable. New clause 7 clearly sets out a time scale for the consultation and how the Department should respond annually to explain progress against the proposals that come forward. That is not present in new clause 5, but it is in new clause 7. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on the process that we have talked about this morning, which is about ensuring that we can tangibly feel that the issues that have been raised have been responded to, but not just hoofed into the long grass. I seek his reassurance on that.
The second key issue is the fact that new clause 5(5) concerns whether the Secretary of State must consult, or co-operate. We have had a long debate on other clauses about the language that compels people to co-operate. That has been accepted in earlier clauses, so I hope that the Minister would be able reassure us that the Secretary of State would be prepared to take on the duty to co-operate that we have discussed at such great length in respect of local authorities. If he can tell us that amendments will be tabled and accepted to change that fundamental sense, we will perhaps be reassured. There are two key issues: time scale and co-operation, rather than consultation. If we can deal with them, we will feel a lot happier about new clause 5.
Much has been said, so I do not need to repeat it. Let us start from where we agree. Old clause 2 is overly bureaucratic, and is clearly in need of being re-written. That is what the two approaches are trying to do. To be honest, there is obviously common ground here, so I hope that we do not make a meal of this; we should get it sorted on Report.
However, I want make a narrow point. I do not like the notion of a selector. To me, a selector means something sporting, or someone who is not involved in the field of play, but comes from outside and starts making decisions that may or may not take account of those who are involved in the discussion. I prefer the word “advisor”, because clearly, an advisor is there to make representations and recommendations, and to be part of the discussion. It is a very narrow point, but if we were to go out to communities and say that the eventual delineation and arbitration of what may go forward in terms of their sustainable community plan is going to be overseen by a selector, they would be somewhat nervous and would probably not engage. I hope that we can agree, if nothing else, that “advisor” is a more appropriate term, given that it is the same person, perhaps doing the same thing. However, as always in life, titles mean something.
To me, the main point of difference between new clause 7 and new clause 5 is that the words “action plan” do not appear in new clause 5. However, in new clause 7, they appear seven times. Given that a large part of the meat of the Bill is about drawing up an action plan and implementing it,new clause 7 addresses that need far better than the wording in the Government amendment, which refers to proposals being invited from principal councils.
It has been said that new clause 5 offers more encouragement to the bottom-up proposals from local authorities to the Government. I would be amazed if that were the case given that the promoter of the Bill wants very much to ensure that that happens. New clause 7 would offer greater reassurance that that will be encouraged and implemented than Government new clause 5.
I wonder whether there is a route through this matter. If we take new clause 5 as the Minister’s starting point, from our point of view there seem to be two very serious deficiencies in its drafting. However, I suspect that he may not be unwilling to change them, so let me try to persuade him. I do not think that subsections (1), (2) and (3) of new clause 5—
On a point of order, Mr. Cummings. Although I appreciate that there is a need for some discussion between those on the two Front Benches, it would be nice if the rest of us also felt that we were part of those discussions. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could address his remarks as much to the Committee as to the Minister.
I apologise, Mr. Cummings. I havea terrible habit of mumbling anyway, and I was mumbling towards the Minister. I do not know whether members of the Committee agree, but I do not think that subsections (1), (2) and (3) of new clause 5 cause any difficulty for those of us who are otherwise in favour of new clause 7. The bits that cause difficulty are subsections (4) and (5) and, in particular, two narrow but vital points, one in each of those two subsections. Unlike new clause 7, subsection (4) does not mandate any action on the part of the Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and the hon. Member for Stroud, in different ways, drew attention to that. There is no mention of an action plan, and under subsection (4) the Secretary of State does not actually have to do anything. He could simply sit there and not decide to do anything.
Yes, or positively decide not to do something. I am not trying to draft proposals in Committee, but if the Minister were to undertake to come back with a version of subsection (4) which mandated the Secretary of State to draw up an action plan based on those proposals on the short-list that he deemed should be implemented, or something of that sort, we would be eight-tenths of the way towards solving the first of the problems.
The problem in subsection (5), which was also alluded to by other members of the Committee, is that there is a duty to consult but not to co-operate with the selector. I know that the hon. Member for Stroud has an aesthetic objection to the term “selector”, which I share, but we would not want the Bill to founder on that ground, so let us forget it for a moment. The Minister came a long way towards us in subsection (3) by making it clear without naming the Local Government Association that it was, de facto, the Local Government Association, and we can live with that.
The problem is that under subsection (5) the Secretary of State does not have to co-operate with the LGA, merely to consult it and that is a big difference. If he had to co-operate with it, broadly we would have a version of new clause 5 under which he had to draw up an action plan in co-operation with the LGA. If we strip it right down, that is what new clause 7 is all about.
I do not know how those who tabled new clause 7 would feel about it, but I think there may be a possibility of withdrawing new clause 7 and new clause 5. The Minister could then table a version of new clause 5 on Report that looked awfully like new clause 5 as drafted but with the two vital changes of a mandated action plan and a duty of co-operation. I do not know whether that route is feasible.
Thank you, Mr. Cummings, for calling me to speak while I am deliberating. The process is a helpful one.
Perhaps I should set out the arguments on amendment No. 35 and on new clauses 5 and 6, now that we have heard the debate on new clause 7. Amendment No. 35 is related to new clause 6. It would simply remove the words
“indicators referred to in section 2”
and replace them with a reference to “matters referred to” in the section dealing with proposals by principal councils. I tabled it as a clarification in defining terms, in order that there would not be confusion with the national indicator set that is being developed as part of the work programme related to the local government White Paper and the Bill that will follow.
I remind hon. Members that new clause 5 is a proposed replacement for new clause 2, as indeed is new clause 7. Obviously I shall not speak at length about the intent of new clause 5, because I believe that the Committee is in agreement on it. However, let me record why I think that new clause 5 as drafted is a good and effective mechanism that meets the Bill’s intent.
New clause 5 requires the Secretary of State to invite principal councils to make proposals that they consider would contribute to promoting the sustainability of local communities. Before inviting proposals, the Secretary of State must appoint a person—the selector—to consider the proposals and to draw up a shortlist for consideration by the Secretary of Statein accordance with regulations under proposed new clause 6.
As I have already said, the selector must be someone who represents the interests of principal councils. Clearly, that is the Local Government Association.On receiving the shortlist, the Secretary of State must decide which, if any, of the proposals should be implemented, and give reasons for the decision. Before making a decision, the Secretary of State must consult the selector and try to reach agreement—a point to which the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred.
I am aware of the reasons why some Committee members might feel that new clause 5 falls short of the aspirations behind the Bill. I personally do not believe that it does, although I do not want to be heavy-handed about it. Nevertheless, I shall put on record my reasons for that belief.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood proposes to require the Secretary of State to produce an action plan that would be laid before each of the Houses of Parliament—both initially, and thereafter annually. Under new clause 5, the Secretary of State will respond publicly to every proposal that is made, and therefore progress will be regularly updated. That is a flexible statement of the action that the Secretary of State intends to take in response to proposals.
I know that, when I use the word “flexible”, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will rise and seek to intervene, because she believes that flexibility will be my excuse for ducking out of a commitment to prepare an annual report. What I am actually saying, however, is that it might be desirable to make reports more frequently than on an annual basis.
The Secretary of State’s responses are in public; the hon. Lady must trust me on that. When we are in government we do not respond to colleagues; we respond to Parliament and to the press as well. However, I take her point; she wants reassurance that the process will be public and transparent.
“must invite principal councils to make proposals”?
Surely it should state that the Secretary of State “shall consult all principal councils”.
That is a fair question. The phrase “must invite principal councils” is an imperative. What I am seeking to avoid is a situation in which the legislation compels the principal council to act. In my view, Parliament can impose a duty on the Secretary of State but, in this process, not on the principal council. By saying “she or he must invite the councils”, it gives the council the flexibility to say, “We do not wish to make any proposals.” If one were to do it the other way round and insert “may consult”, the Secretary of State may decide not to do so. It is, of course, still open to principal councils to make proposals. If the proposal is in response to an invitation that the Secretary of State must make, that defines the process and obliges the Government to follow procedures.
Let me stray on one thing, Mr. Cummings. There is a huge debate raging in the country about the invitation to propose for unitary authorities. That was an invitation to propose; it was not a compulsion to propose. Within the framework of that consultation, it is triggered by the Secretary of State’s invitation. The idea behind that wording is to allow Parliament to compel the Secretary of State rather than to allow a flexible consultation with councils. The hon. Gentleman has picked up on the crucial wording; he has a tendency to do so.
The action plan being laid before Parliament each year is an important point. Under new clause 5, all decisions will be made public and any decisions requiring parliamentary scrutiny will be considered by Parliament. The Secretary of State will be held to account for her actions in meeting the requirements of the Bill and for the much wider range of actions that she takes to promote the sustainability of local communities. The Secretary of State is bound to act by the Bill, and her actions—for example, decisions on spending and the making of any legislation—will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I believe that there is little to be gained by creating an extra parliamentary process.
I have already covered the point about a dutyto co-operate during our discussions on the original clause 3. To reiterate, we discussed the duty to co-operate at length at that time. I explained the meaning and intent of the duty that is placed on named authorities in clause 82 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.
The drafting of new clause 6, and of new clause 5, is intended to meet this intent in the most appropriate way. One cannot have a one-sided duty to co-operate; named parties must co-operate with each other, and they have to co-operate on something or to do something. That is a helpful point from the intent of the Bill.
Hon. Members would like all duties in this clause to be subject to a timetable specified in the Bill. As I have said, it is desirable to act soon, and the Government has, I believe, demonstrated that it is committed to achieving progress through the Bill. However, the detailed implementation of all duties is subject to consultation, and rightly so. Including timetables in the Bill may create duties that are impossible to comply with. In addition, having a duty to do something by a specific date could also have the unintended effect of making the duty a one-off exercise.
I have said that new clause 5 is related to newclause 6. I am not saying that I intend to push this, but I would like to explain my thinking. New clause 6 is a replacement for the existing clause 3. It requires the Secretary of State to make regulations about the procedure to be followed in relation to proposals under the Government’s proposed new clause 5—so the jigsaw puzzle is coming together.
Before making the regulations, the Secretary of State must consult the selector, the LGA, and such other persons as she thinks represent the interests of principal councils. The regulations may specify stepsto be taken by a principal council before making proposals, including a requirement for a principal council to have regard to the matters specified in the schedule. Secondly, they may specify steps to be taken by the selector in considering the proposals and drawing up a shortlist. Thirdly, they may specify criteria to be applied by the selector in drawing up a shortlist. Fourthly, they may specify a maximum number of proposals to be included in a shortlist and require the selector to prepare and give to the Secretary of State a report on the proposals. Lastly, they may specify the form of, and information to be included in, the report.
The regulations, on the other hand, must require a principal council, if it has not already done so, to consult representatives of local people before making any proposal. The principal council is required to tryto reach agreement with those representatives about proposals and to have regard to any guidance issued. That is an important point, because the Committee was unanimous in wanting statutory guidance to ensure that there would be proper consultation and involvement.
The Secretary of State may issue guidance to principal councils about making proposals, which may include the guidance about consulting representatives of local persons that we have discussed before. Before issuing or revising guidance, the Secretary of State must consult principal councils or, again, persons who the Secretary of State considers represent the interests of principal councils. In other words, we would not be able to issue statutory guidance on how to consult without having first consulted the people whom we were going to compel to consult. That might sound like a pedantic point, but let me reassure the Committee—I am sure that if the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who did my job previously, were here, he would back me up—that such procedures are subject to detailed examination and sometimes to legal challenge should they not be followed. There iscase law precedent on the definition of consultation and the timetables and methods that are required. [Interruption.] I can see that the Committee wants me to move on, but it is important to put these matters on the record and I am going as fast as I can.
We think that it is right to achieve these matters through regulations and guidance and that the Secretary of State is required to consult widely, because there has not been an opportunity to involve principal councils and those representing their interests in our deliberations. That is not a criticism but a statement of obvious fact. However, the councils are in the best position to know what will work best.
I understand that there are a number of areas in which the Committee might feel that my proposals fall short of their desired position. I have already explained the meaning and the intent of the duty to co-operate that is placed on named authorities in clause 82 of the local government Bill. The drafting of new clauses 5 and 6 is intended to reflect that intent in the most appropriate way, namely by requiring the council and the Secretary of State to try to reach agreement with, respectively, local representatives and the selector. I should stress that that is a far-reaching duty. It carries more meaning and goes further than the wording proposed by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. There cannot be a one-sided duty to co-operate. Named parties must co-operate with each other, and they have to co-operate on something or in doing something. This is a strong measure that meets the aspirations of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.
If I could just repeat the specific reference to disadvantaged groups, I fully agree that councilsshould make every effort to empower and engage disadvantaged groups. I have explained that this is the intent of clause 108 of the local government Bill and of the wider range of measures that we are putting into place. I have also said that we fully intend to cover this issue in the statutory guidance that will accompanythe Bill.
Referring to disadvantaged groups on the face of the Bill would have an unintended adverse impact on clause 108 of the local government Bill. I am keen to avoid that, which the hon. Member for Kettering will recognise as he has been following the debate. Amendment No. 33 requires principal councils to set up residents panels. New clause 6 requires principal councils, if they have not already done so, to consult representatives of local people before making any proposal. The difference is simply the word “panel”. Let me explain why new clause 6 does not include specific reference to a panel.
First, the effect of the requirement in new clause 6 is broadly equivalent to that of amendment No. 33. The term “panel” has very little meaning. For example, how many people should sit on it? The Opposition raised this question when we debated the public involvement in health parts of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. Should it be the same number in all places? Should the panel meet to make decisions? How should panels take decisions? Those are not insurmountable problems, and they are fairly small and technical. I am simply putting on record the sorts of questions that the Government would have to answer.
Secondly, making specific reference to panels inthe Sustainable Communities Bill could have an unintended adverse consequence on clause 108 of the local government Bill. As I have said, our proposed new clause 6 includes a guidance-making power, and I am happy that the guidance that will accompany this Bill should include reference to panels.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood proposes that if a council fails in its duty to involve its citizens effectively, then citizens should be able to seek redress through the Secretary of State. There are a number of mechanisms in existence and planned in the local government Bill, such as the community call for action, which provide redress short of legal challenge or direct referral to the Secretary of State. Ultimately if the Secretary of State is satisfied that an authority is failing to meet its duty to involve local representatives her intervention powers under section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 could apply.
Before exercising such powers, however, the Secretary of State would generally expect to work with the authority to give it an opportunity to address the issues before taking such action. If, following that opportunity, the Secretary of State was still of the view that the authority was failing to meet its duty she would need to be able to present clear evidence to support that view. Taken as a whole, I think that those powers are sufficient and, in particular, I do not believe it is appropriate to involve the Secretary of State every time an individual feels their council has not acted appropriately.
I understand that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood would like to require principal councils to consider parish plans and to involve parish and community councils. Again, I agree that this would be desirable. In practice it will, of course, happen. Thereis a danger that it would be too restricting and prescriptive to make this a requirement on the face of the Bill. One of the big areas that we have debated is the voluntary sector involvement and the requirement for principal councils to include voluntary organisations among the bodies that they must consult. Again, that is desirable and it is the consequence of the local government Bill, and section 108 in particular. In practice, councils do involve voluntary organisations. There is a range of activities to build voluntary and community sector involvement and empowerment.
I do not propose to describe the difficulties that I have with new clause 7 because I have achieved my objective in putting on the record the Government’s proposals with regard to new clauses 5 and 6.
I am not sure that what I am about to do provides any great evidence one way or the otheron that, but let us be optimistic. Before the Minister concludes—the power of prayer in these matters should never be underestimated—could he indicate his reaction to the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset about the withdrawal of both new clause 5 and new clause 7, and the preparation of some symbiosis of the two?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s frustration. I am conscious that at some future date, most probably on 15 June, I am going to have to explain the Government’s position to the House. If I can refer to the Hansard of this Committee then Iwill be grateful—one has to think ahead in these circumstances. In short, it will be better if I bore the pants off my hon. Friends for 20 minutes today—with all respect and deference to the experience that we have here—than if I bore the pants off the whole Housein a few weeks’ time. I have now put on record the Government’s position.
It is desirable that the Committee should report back to the House with a Bill. I should prefer to report back with an imperfect Bill than with no Bill at all. I agree with the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that we need a clause 5. It would be acceptable to withdraw new clause 5 and new clause 7 and come back—albeit that that is not for me to say, because this is a private Member’s Bill. However, I do want a Bill to go to the House, and I think that the Committee would agree with me.
Just so that I am absolutely clear—if everybody else is, I apologise if I have been dozing on the Back Benches—we seem to be unanimous in wanting to get rid of existing clause 2. We seem to have some agreement that there is a middle way between the Government’s new clauses 5 and 6, and new clause 7. My only problem is that there has to be something in the Bill about action planning. When we discuss it on Report there may be some who—notwithstanding their willingness to go all the way through Hansard to look at the pearls of wisdom that have come from the Minister—are surprised that the basis of the Bill is not as clear as it might be.
I would welcome the Minister’s clarification as to what he would accept, going forward to Report, even though we know that we will improve the Bill on Report.
I have indicated that I am content not to move the motion on new clause 5. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has tabled new clause 7, so it is up to him to decide what to do with that. My plea to the Committee is that we should have, if not a comprehensive package, then a coherent one to put to the House. I hope that I have made it clear that I do not believe that any points of principle are causing a problem. I have explained at some length—some would say at too great a length—the technical problems that we have with new clause 7.
To help my hon. Friend, new clause 6 is dependent on other matters. What matters here is new clause 7 and new clause 5. We need a clause; I would prefer it to be new clause 5, and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood would prefer new clause 7. I said that I am happy not to press new clause 5 to a Division, and I put my arguments forward in the best way I could and as comprehensively as possible. I will leave it to the Committee to decide how to proceed.
I thank the Minister for the way in which he has conducted the debate. He clearly had some things to get off his chest and I hope that he feels better for it. I said that the differences were not major ones, but we have two different versions of a clause and we have to decide which one to proceed with.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset highlighted our two major concerns about Government new clause 5: the failure to include a duty to co-operate and a national action plan, a point also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. Government new clause 5 creates a framework whereby the Secretary of State must respond to a series of proposals coming from the front line, but with no timetable attached to that we are worried that there is a possibility that it could be a rather fragmented, scatter-gun approach. The desire and responsibility need to be drawn together into a coherent national action plan. Those are the two key deficiencies of new clause 5.
As the Minister said, new clause 6 is linked to new clause 5 and contains the added complication that there is an overlap between new clause 6 and our earlier deliberations on clause 3. The balance of judgment is that we should accept the Minister’s offer not to press Government new clauses 5 and 6 and proceed to a decision on new clause 7, with a clear message to the Minister that our minds are open to amending it on Report. It is clear from this helpful debate that our views are pretty close.
Amendment No. 35 relates to my new clauses, so I think I should not press it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I shall be brief—I am not putting anything on the record.
This is a simple amendment to a planning subsection to add affordable housing to the matters that any group considering the sustainability of their area should bear in mind. No area can be sustainable if it is impossible for people to live there. Anyone who represents a constituency like mine—several members of the Committee represent areas that are not dissimilar—knows that the biggest single dividing factor in whether a community is sustainable is the inability of certain types of people to live in those communities, usually because they are excluded by their inability to buy, rent or even to live with others in the area because of the lack of accommodation.
In adding the amendment, I had hoped to be far more radical and to go into all sorts of ideas about community land trusts, only to find that no such idea exists in law. Therefore, the next time Ron Bailey has nothing better to do, he can bring forward a wonderful Bill on community land trusts for number one so that we can put it in law. That is notwithstanding what we can do here.
I want communities to engender their own solutions. They have to be responsible for the people who live there and for those who would like to live there. The wording of the amendment is very simple and, I hope, without controversy, so we will all nod it through.
In the spirit, of cross-party participation, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will put my name on the legislation. That means we can move everything forward in the way we are moving this measure forward. That is why I am doing this; I have a particular motive in mind. However, I have to use the usual analogy of placing baubles on a Christmas tree. I hope that, subsequently, people who understand and believe in such things will take those ideas forward. It is a real point of engagement with local communities and I have every hope that we may get it added to the Bill.
I would like to endorse everything that the hon. Member for Stroud has just said and I would like to speak very briefly to amendment No. 36, which follows representations from the Law Society about the need to ensure that legal services are also included in definitions outlined in the schedule. The Law Society wants to ensure that local legal services can provide a valuable role in producing thriving sustainable local communities. It wants to register its concern that providers of such services are also suffering from the phenomenon of ghost-town Britain, which is a familiar theme to all those who have participated in the debate on the Bill. It wants to underline the fact that—along with the local post office, the shops and the pubs—local, often independent, providers of legal services also feel the threat of exactly the same kind of pressures and want to be recognised in a similar way.
I draw the Committee’s attention to a Law Society survey about the developments in local legal services and their relationship with local communities. The overwhelming majority wanted to highlight their concern about the current level of provision. Puttingit into the context of the Bill, 100 per cent. of the respondents regard adequate access to locally provided legal services as important to the sustainability oflocal communities. By definition, that is a unanimous response.
I would like to quote some of the comments that were made. We need to consider them in the context of the changes being made to legal aid, which many local people feel could threaten access to such services by the most vulnerable people in society. One person said:
In my area, there used to be over 20 solicitors, now there are just four.”
Another referred to competition from outside, which has reduced the availability of locally provided services. Another one stated:
“More people are appearing at court unrepresented and completely without access to legal advice or assistance. This leaves people feeling disenfranchised and disaffected.”
One of the key points that local people wanted to underline is that access to such services, especially at a very early stage, is massively important to members of the communities that we want to ensure remain sustainable. If people do not access legal services at an early stage, it can lead to them requiring access to other, more costly services. Ultimately, it will be beneficial to the community in that way.
That reminds me of an important service that the citizens advice bureau provides in my constituency. It has an agreement with the local courts that all mortgage repossession hearings be held on the same day, so that the legal specialists can go there and give advice to people. The vast majority of people still turn up at court having sought no advice. Dozens of people who would have lost their houses keep them as a result of that advice. If they had not, just think of the extra knock-on costs that it would have represented to local authorities through having to try to find them temporary accommodation. It is about not just protecting services but ensuring that other services provided do not have additional financial burdens.
The Law Society, among other organisations, welcomes the opportunity that the Bill provides to help counter many of the difficulties facing communities. With the inclusion of local legal services, it feels that the Bill will help to reverse the effects of ghost-town Britain, which we have been debating.
I rise briefly to clarify the fact that the Government have no problem with the amendments.It is clearly desirable that the schedule include the relevant matters—affordable housing, which is in amendment No. 21, and legal services, in amendment No. 36—in its definitions. But one would not wantto raise false expectations. The hon. Lady’s survey reported a 100 per cent. affirmative response to the question whether there should be legal services. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to work out that the response to that will be 100 per cent. We cannot kid ourselves that, by including things in a Bill, we make them happen in the real world. We are facilitating local communities to argue that they should.
I could give a strong defence of the fact that the Government are the author of the affordable housing policy, and I could give a strong historic lesson as to how we got legal aid and community services. I will not, for fear of alienating members of the Committee, and I support the amendments.