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Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that voting and elections are healthy and important parts of the democratic process, but that they are not democracy itself, which is a much wider concept. She will be aware that what matters most to most people is what happens outside their front doorsin their block of flats and on their streets and estates. She will also recognise that in deprived areas, where there are the fewest facilities and the poorest conditions, there is a real lack of accountability, local control and influence over what goes on. Does she agree that councillors and council officials are often, but not always, the community development workers who are best at empowering estates to control their own
environments? And will she ensure that councillors and council officials are brought on board for the emancipation of those people who are least able to express their views and influence the state of their community?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend, like several Members, has a tremendous record not only on empowering his community, but on his work with the Community Development Foundation. I am more than happy to confirm that, in the White Paper again, there are a number of proposals for us to work not only with the foundation, which will play a central role, but with a range of organisations to increase capacity and help our communities to develop. One thing that I am keen to do is to ensure that ordinary council officers, such as housing officers and planners, work in a way that builds the capacity of the local community. It should not always be a job for a specialist; it should be part of the day job.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Some aspects of the Secretary of States announcement were statements of the blindingly obvious. I cannot believe that she can say, We must give more power to the people, so that they feel that if they get involved it will be worth their time and effort. People are perfectly rational, and they get involved if they can see any point to it. If, during a consultation in my community, my constituents were offered option A and option B, and option A was 34 and option B was also 34, there would be little point in getting involved. I am referring to a consultation on the single-issue revision of Gypsy and Traveller sites, which the Government foisted on the east of England. People do not get involved because hundreds
Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say to the hon. Lady that we are talking about one supplementary. There was a movement from local government to Travellers, and that is too many questions, so I shall let the Secretary of State answer.
Hazel Blears: Consultation and involvement should involve dialogue and conversation, and my experience is that people who want to get involved do not necessarily expect to get 100 per cent. of what they want. They want people to be properly engaged and to achieve some change as a result of their involvement, so it is important for local authorities to enter into dialogue with people with a view not only to listening to what they say, but to acting on it. People will not keep getting involved if they keep getting rebuffed. That is a very important message, and I can see that the hon. Lady agrees.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Is it not the case that properly engaging with local communities on issues that matter empowers local councillors and councils? I commend to the Secretary of State the excellent and fully resourced scrutiny function at Tameside metropolitan borough council and its district assemblies, where it has already devolved decision making, staff and budgets to community level. That is in stark contrast with Stockport, where the authorities have done everything to obstruct the Friends of Reddish Baths, which wants to reopen under community management that much- loved and well cherished community facility.
Hazel Blears: Again, my hon. Friend has a great record on supporting his community. He also has a four-star, excellent local councilit is one of the best in the north-westthat is not afraid to devolve power to the community. We often find that the best councils are the most confident with that agenda, because they see community involvement not as a threat, but as a means of strengthening the way in which they actively represent their area.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady believe that the majority on a council should also form the majority on the scrutiny committee, or should the opposition have responsibility for scrutiny committees?
Hazel Blears: Very often in local authorities, scrutiny is led by the opposition, and clearly that is a matter for local authorities to determine. In this House, Select Committees are chaired by a variety of people. Often, it is best practice to be able to drill into the policies. Now that there is to be a cabinet structure, there is an even greater requirement for scrutiny to be very active and rigorous. I would like scrutiny increasingly to involve the local community. There is provision to co-opt local people on to scrutiny committees and to take evidence from the community, which is a measure that I commend.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I ask my question as a great supporter of town and parish councils, as a former town councillor and as a former town mayor for Brierley and Grimethorpe town council. The Secretary of State will know that in certain areas people have overwhelmingly voted to abolish the local parish council in a parish poll. Under the existing system, it is virtually impossible to achieve that objective. In the White Paper, will she look at that very difficult issue in detail and come up with some recommendations?
Hazel Blears: There are 70,000 local town and parish councillors, so they are a very important part of our local democracy. I have been working hard with them over the past 12 months to try to get the quality parish council agreement, to try to enact the well-being power and to make sure that such councils have more powers to involve local people. I will certainly look into the issue that my hon. Friend has raised to see whether we can come up with practical proposals.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I wholly support the principle that local people should have much more influence over the decisions that shape the future of their communities. Indeed, that is the whole premise of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which my co-sponsors and I took through Parliament with broad cross-party support. However, I am concerned about the number of new devolutionary Bills that local authorities are having to process at the same time. There was local government legislation and the 2007 Act, and now there is the new White Paper. Will the Secretary of State clarify what the Department is doing to present those three strands of legislation in a coherent, integrated package that will inspire, not alienate, local authorities?
The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. White Papers are never, and should never be, the end product of what we do, so implementation will be key. I am very focused on that. We are talking about quite a significant change. It will work best if
local authorities feel that they own the process, want to champion it and feel that it will make them stronger in their communities. He makes a very good point about taking an integrated approach across those pieces of legislation. At some point, we will see the proposals in the police Green Paper, and the issues and arrangements resulting from the NHS constitution. With regard to local communities, we really need to get to the point where there is an integrated offer across the public services. We need an integrated way in which local people can be involved that is not complicated or bureaucratic, but that really bites and makes a difference. My personal challenge is to try to make sure that that is coherent and inspiring to local authorities, so that they will want to take the agenda forward.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I am an honorary alderman of Gateshead council[Hon. Members: Hear, hear.]an honour conferred on me because of my long service to the council, so local authorities already have such powers. I am not sure why the Secretary of State has proposed to centralise those powers. I am always filled with trepidation when Ministers start telling local government how to go about its businessI have seen that from both sides of the Houseso I shall study her proposals with interest. Will she guarantee that any new powers, responsibilities or duties placed on local authorities as a result of her White Paper will be fully funded from the centre by Ministers in the Departments responsible?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has extensive experience of local government, as do a number of people in the House, including myself. I think that I am one of the relatively few members of the Cabinet who has been a local authority councillor. Indeed, I have also been a local authority officer, so I am a real champion of local government. He made a point about ensuring that there are no new burdens, which is the phrase that we use, and I certainly give him an undertaking that across Government we will make absolutely sure that when we ask local government to do new things, local government has the finance to do them.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): The Secretary of State will recall my predecessors clear view of the Secretary of States decision, and her Departments decision, about the future of local government in Cheshire. If the Secretary of State believes so strongly in local democracy, why did she split the county of Cheshire in two, despite the view overwhelmingly taken by local people in a referendum, and dramatically reduce the number of democratically elected local councillors in the process?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that there were a range of views on the proposals, and those views were held strongly by a number of Members. He will know that my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Christine Russell), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) all supported a two-unitary-authority solution to issues in Cheshire. I entirely acknowledge that people held strong views, but there were a variety of such views. The proposals came from people in those areas, and the change was not dictated from the centre. We asked people to put forward proposals, which were tested against a number of criteria. Clearly,
the option of having two unitaries in Cheshire met those criteria in a way that was most effective for leadership, strategic vision and community engagement at a local level.
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I commend my right hon. Friend for her very strong statement, but there is a great deal of cynicism among local people in Swindon, because they do not feel properly represented. They are particularly concerned about a weak local plan that leaves the people of Eastcott very vulnerable to houses in multiple occupation. Will her White Paper help them? Constituents are also concerned about Coate water, a much-loved beauty spot that is threatened by building next door, which is being undertaken by the local council, and about their heritage buildings, such as the Mechanics institute. They feel helpless, because they feel that they are not fully represented. How can they be involved, through her new work, in saving their way of life, and their much-loved land and buildings?
Hazel Blears: Clearly, the people of Swindon have a formidable champion in their Member of Parliament. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised those issues with me. A number of measures can be used. Certainly, the petition powers proposed in the White Paper will ensure that local people can raise the issues, get them debated, and obtain an explanation of the policies. The participatory budgeting powers will enable them to have more of a say in how local authority budgets are spent. The proposals on community justice will give the people whom she represents the right to have a bigger say on community punishments. Those are tangible, practical, real-life issues that I hope will engage more people in the democratic process. Who knowsshe may be able to get some new candidates whom she can support to come forward for her local authority.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con):
As a councillor on Kettering borough council, may I say that there will
be huge concern throughout the borough of Kettering about the Secretary of States proposals to allow council officers to participate in party political activity? Local residents rightly value the impartiality of local government officers, just as the British people rightly value the impartiality of the civil service. It seems to a lot of people that the Government are trying to blur the edges on that important issue.
Hazel Blears: Does the hon. Gentleman think it right and proper, in a modern, 21st-century democracy, that someone over a certain salary level who plays no role at all in advising the council, but who simply happens to be employed by the council by virtue of their contract of employmentthe example that I gave was a highways engineershould be barred from any kind of political activity? I do not.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The answer to the right hon. Ladys question is yes. It is an important facet of our local democracy that council officers, particularly senior officers, are seen to be politically neutral and to provide neutral advice to councillors. The so-called Widdicombe rules have ensured that for many years, so is it not rather a sad day when the party of Government is so desperate to find candidates in southern England that they have to tamper with those well-established rules, which keep the jobs of councillor and of officer firmly apart?
Hazel Blears: No. It is a sad day when people are prepared to impose draconian rules barring individuals from political activity. That sends out the message that we are not proud of party political activity and that we do not feel that it is noble and reputable. There is far too much of that in our democracy at the moment, and it is about time that we stood up and said that being involved in the politics of any party is a noble undertaking pursued by decent people on all sides. We ought to be just a little bit more proud of political activity in our democracy.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the sale of cannabis seeds; and for connected purposes.
In recent months, cannabis and its use have been in the news regularly because of concerns about the impact on mental health of skunk, a more potent type of cannabis, and because the Government would like cannabis to be reclassified from a class C to a class B drug. I should point out that I do not support the Governments bid to reclassify cannabis. They should have accepted the findings of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which recognised that cannabis was dangerous but stated that it was not as dangerous as other drugs in category B.
However, I support totally any Government attempt to plug a huge hole in the legislation on cannabisthe lack of any restrictions on the sale of drugs paraphernalia and cannabis seeds. That is the purpose of the Bill. I can give a simple illustration of the consequences of that absence of legislation. If Members come to Wallington, I will show them Your High, a shop trading legally in drugs paraphernalia and cannabis seeds. It is around the corner from a primary school and down the road from a secondary school. It was brought to my attention by parents and the head teacher of the primary school, and shortly afterwards by the head of the secondary school and by local churches.
With the help of the head teacher, Mrs. Ramsay, and one of the local councillors, Jayne McCoy, I organised a meeting for parents, governors, the local police and the head teacher, and about 50 people attended. I am sure that Members can anticipate parents concerns: the shops location, its trade and, perhaps most importantly, its message that there is no difference between a shop that sells flowers or repairs TVs and one that sells drugs paraphernalia. Someone can pop to the corner shop for a pint or to their local drugs paraphernalia shop to pick up a bong. Is that really a message that we want young children to absorb? Certainly not according to the 500 or so local people who have so far signed a petition against the shop.
The shops message is not subtle. If its business is not clear from its name and from the very large cannabis leaves displayed in the window, one need only look through the front door, which is open at most times of the day, to get a clearer understanding of its trade.
I have been asked whether the councils planning department can do something about the shop. I established very quickly in correspondence with the local council that the answer, astonishingly, is no. The shop is trading legally, and as the unit was previously used for retail purposes as a fireworks shop, which was only marginally less unpopular, planning had no say in the matter. Ironically, there was a possibility of taking action against the shop for failing to apply for planning permission for its neon lights, but not for selling pipes and other drugs paraphernalia.
What about the police? What can they do? In an exchange with a helpful police constable from the safer neighbourhood team, I established, again very quickly, that the police can only monitor the shop and hope that its owner or one of his customers breaks the law. They
cannot even enforce an age restriction on those entering the shop. The owner voluntarily displays an 18s only sign, but no licensing requirements are in force. Theoretically, anyone of any age can enter the shop and make a purchase.
I would like to make clear that the Government deplores the sale of any drug paraphernalia which may encourage or promote drug misuse.
That is exactly what the shop is doing. The Government have acknowledged that there is a gaping hole in the legal framework, which is why the Home Office has asked the Association of Chief Police Officers, as stated in the letter to me, to
identify new approaches that the Police, local authorities and other partner agencies can use to control these types of premises and where necessary shut them down.
The Government have tasked ACPO with conducting a review of legislation to identify whether there is any scope for using it to restrict the activities of Your High and other shops like it. Wallington is not the only place in the country that is blessed with such an establishment. Other such shops are trading in Brighton, in our neighbouring Sutton and elsewhere up and down the country. I discussed that legislative review with Ken Jones, the president of ACPO, and it would be fair to say that ACPO is sceptical about the approach. It believes that if the necessary legislation were already on the statute book, someonea local authority or the policewould have identified a way of using it. In all likelihood, therefore, new legislation will be required.
My ten-minute Bill would partly plug the gap by bringing cannabis seeds within the scope of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which refers only to cannabis and cannabis resin. That would be a minor legal adjustment, and a definition of cannabis seeds could easily be added to that Act. There is no confusion about what constitutes cannabis seeds, certainly not among retailers who are selling seeds on the net. Any Member can simply type sale of cannabis seeds into Google and come up with a wide range of seeds, which they may or may not care to purchase, from sellers such as Almighty Seeds, Big Buddha Seeds and Dutch Passion.
Banning drugs paraphernalia, which I could have attempted to bring within the scope of the Bill, would be more complicated. When I dropped into Your High, the manager pointed out that the papers that are used to roll cannabis joints are also on sale in newsagents. A definition of drugs paraphernalia would need to cover goods sold not just in shops such as Your High but in other outlets. ACPOs review might provide some clarity on that definition, which could help us to tighten the law in future.
My purpose today is simple: to prohibit the sale of cannabis seeds. That minor change to the law would send a major message and ensure consistency between the law on the sale of drugs such as cannabis and the law on the sale of cannabis seeds, which help people to grow their own. I urge Members to support the Bill.
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