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Mr. Forth: I wonder whether the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is either otiose or entirely at odds with what I thought was our party's policy. I am rather puzzled, following the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) made. He reminded the House that clause 36(5) says:
I may be labouring under a misapprehension, and I am sure that one of my hon. Friends will put me right if I am, but I thought that the whole thrust of my party's policy was local autonomy and local decision making. I have heard many of my right hon. and hon. Friends speak at great length, and with passion, about the need to give local bodiesbe they school boards, local authorities or anything elsethe maximum possible degree of discretion in making decisions for which they are accountable to their electorate. However, I now find to my astonishment that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has come along with new clause 2, which apparently seeks to overturn that whole philosophy, because it says:
Mr. Forth: My view, howeveras I am the one speaking, I think that my view has primacy at the momentis that local authorities should be given the scope and freedom to charge a fee, even if we call that a tax, at their discretion, for which they are accountable to their voters. That is the burden of my argument. I thought, in the most peremptory way, that that was the thrust of our policy, but along comes my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and tramples all over that. He is saying, in a heavy-handed way, that he has decided that were new clause 2 to be accepted, local authorities
Mr. Forth: I do not want to be drawn into such an argument, but if the hon. Gentleman is saying that in the Labour party, new or old, a debate is now called a split, that tells us quite a lot about his party's mentality. In the new, thrusting, dynamic Conservative party we welcome debate because we are confident of our philosophy, particularly our philosophy on local government autonomy, if I may say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
Mr. Chope: Will my right hon. Friend accept that the whole ethos of Wandsworth borough council, when I was privileged to be its leader, was to keep taxes down? We wanted to have low tax rather than to introduce new taxes.
Mr. Forth: Yes, indeed. That was my hon. Friend's decision, and the people of Wandsworth rewarded him with a continuity of power unequalled in modern times. I am grateful to him for making that point. He made that decision and was rewarded by his electorate for it. Surely he would not now want to deny elected representatives in other local authorities the power to make different decisions for their areas. They might decide in this case, for their own reasons, that higher fees would be appropriate to their circumstances and conditions. That is why I am at a loss to understand why my hon. Friend is trying to persuade the House that somehow, in a Bill
Brian White: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the utilities and other companies that will have to pay the costs have expressed concern about the impact that those costs will have on them? That is not the same as the argument that he is making.
Mr. Forth: I shall carry the argument some way to make my point, but if a local authority were to set fees at a prohibitive level, the utilities might not undertake the repairs and improvements that they wanted to and the local populace would suffer as a result. It would then be for the local voters to make their decision, on the basis that the exorbitant fees being charged by their elected representatives were having a counter-productive effect on their lifestyle. For example, knowing the hon. Gentleman's expertise and interest in such esoteric
Mr. Forth: But who am I to make such a judgment? I know not about such matters, and they are not for me or, may I say, even for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to comment on. He looks pregnant, so I shall give way to him.
Mr. Chope: I hope that my right hon. Friend will not allow his prejudice against broadband to disguise the fact that there are statutory duties relating to the safety of gas mains and the provision of water, which local authorities need to take into account. If they impose substantial extra taxes on the provision and maintenance of those key facilities, the undertakers will not be able to avoid paying those taxes.
Mr. Forth: And indeed, to follow that point, the undertakers will not be able to avoid increasing their charges to their consumers, who will then be able to make a market judgment. What puzzles me, coming from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, of all people, is that that they seem to be shrinking from allowing a market judgment. In the end, two mechanisms are in play on this point: the political, electoral mechanism of local authorities and the market mechanism between the utilities and their consumers, who happen in this case to be coincidental with the voters. I should have thought that that would appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, and I can see that he is thinking about it, which encourages me to hope that he might reconsider his position. In the end, however, I need to hear much more from him, and I hope that when he winds up this little debate, he will give further arguments to explain why he seems so wedded to a degree of central control and fiat that is completely at odds with his distinguished political history and his political philosophy. That is my problem with new clause 2.
To return to where I came in, were my right hon. and hon. Friends to want to go down this route in any case, my reading of the original wording of the Bill is that it probably provides sufficient powers in the key phrase