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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, it is always difficult when the Opposition spokeswoman sympathises with the Minister about the problems that she will have winding up. She is right.
The debate could hardly have been more timely. On behalf of everyone, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for a debate that has been incredibly thoughtful, speculative and expert. We are used to it in this House, but we continue to raise our standards. It has been an outstanding debate. We have ranged from Montesquieu to Keynes and from storm warnings to the Audit Commission.
The maiden speakers, who made such an excellent contribution, could not have chosen a better debate in which to speak. It has enabled them to confirm, I hope, what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, said about the reputation of the House, once he had made his presence felt, as it were. It has also enabled the three maiden speakers to use their wide and differing experiences in the other place and elsewhere to our great benefit.
I was delighted by each maiden speech. I am pleased that my noble friend has joined the great company of abolitionists. He will find that there are lots of them in the House; we have all had the same Damascene conversion. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, he was able to bring such colour and vitality to the debate. I did not know that he played the tuba.
I also did not know that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, had been a pharmacist. That is one of the things that I never got to the bottom of, when I knew him in another life. All I can say about his excursion into community destruction in Jericho in the context of this debate is that we would welcome any advice that he has about that. If he wants a session on the Companion, there are many people in the House who will be happy to help him.
I do not think that we have been too unwelcoming to three new Whips. I am particularly pleased that we have two extra Celts. The Celtic fringe is beautifully strengthened by the addition of a Cornishman. We benefited enormously from his elegant account of his ancestry, something that always goes down well in this House.
To come back to the nature of the debate, community is an incredibly fertile area for debate in this House, which, of course, has ranged from the global to the very local. I want to talk a lot about the local aspect. No one could have spoken with more conviction than the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, or could have introduced this debate in quite that way. He has had a habit of speaking, as we Quakers say, "truth to power" for many years, which he did again today by raising philosophical, practical and political
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questions, of which there are many rich seams. I do not want to interfere in the private grief between the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner and Lady Hanham.
There is a consensus in the Chamber, not least shared by the Government, that our instincts on what we are trying to do are right. The Government are engaging with precisely the same challenges, which we are doing in particularly innovative ways. ODPM, which I have the honour to serve, is very much at the forefront of the championing of local democracy and localism. I see improved governance through local autonomy and greater community involvement as inseparable, urgent and indispensable to revitalising democracy.
We have a very ambitious agenda at ODPM to create sustainable communities, which are, basically, places where people are proud to live and feel safe in their homes. We want to ensure that no one is disadvantaged by the neighbourhood in which they live. Huge differences can be seen in our neighbourhood renewal programme. The agenda is about engaging people in the life of those places.
The language today has been about ownership and trust, which are shared concepts, within the framework of local government, which we want to be as effective as possible. There has also been something of the spirit of a confessional about it. With the exception of my noble friend Lord Desai who is always provocative, not least towards the Government, we have shared our reservations about centralism. We have not gone so far as to compete on who is the greatest centralising government, but we have all been guilty in the past of assuming that Whitehall knows best and lost sight of what really matters.
The Government can take credit for the fact that in recent years we have moved away from telling people what to expect, how to expect it, what it looks like and what they can do with it. We have moved far more closely to trying to find out what people want, how they want to be engaged and how we can make that happen.
Our manifesto stated that services would be free and personal to all, putting more power in the hands of the patient, the parent, the citizen. This week, the Government published another type of manifesto, entitled, Together We Can. It was produced by the Home Office, bringing together many government departments, and sets out explicitly how we want to see government and people working together in a new relationship to ensure that people have a greater say. I commend it to the House because it brings together examples of how we are trying to involve local people and young people in regeneration strategies and evaluating how areas are changing and improving. That is just a taste of what is happening. I know that it speaks to the passion with which this debate has been addressed in this House. I look forward to noble Lords reading it, much as I look forward to reading all the research reports that were quoted across the House about the involvement of local communities, not least Burnley and Harrogate, about which the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, spoke very eloquently.
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Those are the sorts of projects that we are thinking about in Together We Can. In the areas where we are building new communitiesfor example, the great project that is the Thames Gatewayor where we are regenerating older communitiesfor example, in the north and west where the challenges of rebuilding a community are so differentwe are determined to give local institutions and local people greater access to the levers that pull and push change. Managing change is what we have been talking about today. It involves building services around the needs of local people, whether they are students, patients, families or communities. It means finding new ways of funding and delivering services so that they reach the people for whom they are intended.
We have talked about partnerships. It means building partnerships around people, not service providers. We have talked about leadership that should be as rich and resilient as possible. Primarily, however, it is about fostering local involvement, local ownership and active citizenship. All this amounts to significantly more than a different way of doing things. We are looking to secure a new balance between central and local government, what is potentially a new role for regions and cities and, crucially, a new relationship between government and the people we serve.
We take as our starting point four principles which, when taken together, address some of the concerns that were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and by my noble friend Lord Desai from the other and opposite point of view. In 2002 the Prime Minister set out a statement of what we want to see in terms of public service reform. The balance we seek to achieve is this: it is one between central government responsible for setting national standardsyes, because they are important; delivered by front-line professionals empowered to meet those standards; public service organisations enabled to respond to the different needs of communities; and cutting red tape. In achieving that balance we can address some of the fears which have been expressed about too many targets and too much centralism.
The result is expanded choice. We have seen choice grow in applying those principles, perhaps most radically to public services such as education and health. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, will know, not only have we given schools greater freedom and greater security of funding, we have also created new opportunities for partnership across the community. I look with great pleasure at the opportunities offered, for example, by extended schools. We are offering schools a new relationship by cutting red tape and offering them more power to determine and evaluate their own improvement plans. Indeed, our debates on the Education Bill during the previous Session drove some of those important and progressive developments.
Likewise in the health service, I am incredibly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chan, for setting out so powerfully what the Government are trying to achieve. He proved that in local areas we are reaching the place where we want to be. We have taken health spending to the lowest local levels by devolving it to primary care trusts. We have sought to involve
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patients in a variety of new ways, whether through expert patient groups, NHS Direct or walk-in clinics. No longer is there that formidable and patronising relationship between doctor and patient which made it difficult for patients even to approach doctors. We can do more, but we understand what we have to do. Moreover, we are of course strengthening and expanding our partnership with the voluntary sector. And, as I have said, whether in new places like the Thames Gateway or in older communities, we are looking for new ways forward.
Our approach at the ODPM is based on the belief that devolution to the front-line is critical. We cannot achieve what we want in terms of improvements and the reduction of inequalities unless we devolve to those who deliver by freeing up bureaucracy, building trust and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, pointed out, bring innovation into the process. So we are the champions of local government and local partnerships.
But all we do has to be contained and amplified within a framework of strong and effective local government. That unique role, as noble Lords know so well in this House, involves leading communities and ensuring that local voices are heard, setting a compelling vision and strategywhich means balancing intereststaking decisions in the interests of the community as a whole, and joining up delivery.
Over the past few years we have led the debate on the future of local government. Since joining the department I have been deeply impressed by exactly what we are trying to achieve and how we have been trying to communicate those aims. We want to develop a shared vision of the future role of local government, and that means working at the right level. My noble friend Lord Giddens opened a rich seam when he spoke of globalisation and the role of the regions. Looking for the right level of involvement in a country as rich and diverse as this means taking on board what my noble friend had to say. We have seen the beginnings of an interesting and productive debate on where we see the regions going, and we know that at least two views on this are held around this House.
Our view is this: we still see profound inequalities between regions and localities. For communities that means shorter lives, fewer jobs, worse housing, poorer education and bleaker prospects. We have a responsibility to address those issues, which means thinking and planning strategically around wider areas as well as around our cities. Certainly, I think we have somewhere to go with our cities. So that is why we are committed to strong regional agencies and why we want to see enhanced the frameworks for housing, economic development, skills and transport.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, referred to a commitment to innovation. As those of us who have been in the science policy community on and off know, it is extremely interesting how much we can learn from European regionalisation. I am very pleased to say that we are beginning to learn because, as the noble Baroness will know, we have committed ourselves to putting a new regional focus on innovation. Every region now has a science and industry council; we are
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looking to the RDAs to encourage a joining-up between HEIs and industry; and we have a greater connection between our universities. It is a hugely exciting agenda. If we can get that innovation agenda working at that level, we can transfer it also down into local regions.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to strong local leadership. He is absolutely right. I do not accept that localism necessarily means inevitable inequalitiesthat is the whole point about government holding the ringbecause many projects, such as the new children's trusts, will depend on strong and confident partnerships. That is why we have taken steps to strengthen the capacity of local government to develop such partnerships.
I know noble Lords opposite may think that we have not gone far enough in freeing up fundingand, again, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, raised some interesting questions in this areabut in the Local Government Acts of 2000 and 2003 we offered an extended package of financial freedoms, we reduced ring fencing, we repealed controls on borrowing and we have reduced inspection.
We have speeded up the pace of reform by giving local authorities greater discretion over what they do by introducing three-year financial settlements from 200607. I am very pleased that we have created an opportunity for the noble Lord, Lord Newby, to speak about local income tax and local finance. We are fascinated by the debate going on within the Liberal Democrat Party. The noble Lord is right to say that we are having our own debate, and we look forward to what Sir Michael Lyons says in his report. So there is a very interesting agenda in that area.
I do not think that I should undertake to speak for the Audit Commission but I am sure that James Strachan will read the debate with pleasure. It is a bit unfair to say that the changes to the CPA came out of left field because they were signalled and there was extensive discussion and consultation with local government. I am sure that that point will be taken.
The key point about local government as it is developing lies in its ability and its demonstration of innovation. We have seen this in the local strategic partnershipswhich have achieved a tremendous amount at local level, particularly in neighbourhood renewal areasand in the local area agreements. The challenge of using many different funding streams to deliver important local services, such as children's play or healthy living centres, is one that local government have now faced up to.
Local area agreements are a huge success. They have succeeded in reducing the number of targets in some areas from several hundred to just 60. We are looking at a new way of doing things by bringing statutory and voluntary partners together in a very profound way. We want to see more. Indeed, so enthusiastic are we that we have recently announced that every council and its partners will have the opportunity to develop a local area agreement over the next few years. But, as always, there is more to do.
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I wish I could take more time to speak about the fragility of local democracy itself by picking up on something that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said. It is not acceptable that 71 per cent of our councillors are male and that their average age is 57. It is a challenge that we face across all parties. We need to make the role of the local councillor more attractive and we should perhaps look at issues such as remuneration. That is a debate to which we shall return at another time.
I want to talk about neighbourhoods and local communities. That is where the debate has centred and it is where the debate can be most productive. Devolution halts, but it does not stop, at the town hall. The sense of place, for most of us, is very straightforward. It is very local indeed: it is our street; it is our local park. That is where action takes effect; as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said, "I live here; this is my place".
So how do we engage people in that sense of place? How do we engage them in the things that matter to them? This year, ODPM has published a paper called Citizen Engagement and Public Services: Why Neighbourhoods Matter. We need people to sign up to that, just as we need them to sign up to the principle. We need to understand why some communities are sterile, unhappy and unsafe, while others, which are similar in history and geography, are more successful. The right reverend Prelate would be particularly interested in that on the basis of his experience.
We need to listen more intelligently. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, provided us with an excellent example of listening in the health service. We need to commit to helping neighbourhoods to become the kind of communities that they want to become. Self-help emerges from within. We believe that the new opportunity lies with the locality and with the neighbourhood. Neighbourhood management, neighbourhood wardens, the new deal for communities alongside initiatives such as Sure Start and extended school hours are helping people to feel that they belong. Whatever one reads, whether it is a research report or a report about the arts in communities, people say, "I want to belong; I feel I belong; this is where I feel my identity lies".
That works on the wider political platform. The ultimate goal is engaging people and getting them to commit to local and national democracy. Where there has been greater engagement through resident elections and partnership boards, we have also seen an increase in the turn-out in local elections.
We need to be confident about involving the community. We need to be realistic. Partnership comes with trust. Within the notion of community there are different communities which may be based on faith, on ethnicity and on interest. My noble friend Lord Griffiths gave us some very good examples of ecumenical activity across his patch, as did my noble friend Lord Hunt, when he mentioned that we are much more practised now in the theory and practice of community development. We know about community development. We have the animateurs on the ground, but we need to understand that it means different things. It means enabling people
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to take decisions, to develop activities, to sustain projects and to know and care for each other and that means delivering services and enabling statutory and voluntary services to work together.
We believe that is critical and that is why we place community involvement at the heart of civic renewal. It is critical because it gives us better value for money, a far greater chance of stickability and sustainability in the community, and more inclusive, active democracy, greater social cohesion and opportunities for individuals to build up skills. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said, this is all about individuals. At the end of the day, we are considering how to build that commitment.
Volunteering is a touchstone of an active democracy and it has grown. The Home Office survey shows that the number of volunteers has increased by more than 1.5 million. Paradoxically, at the same time, the number of people who thought that they could influence local affairs fell from 43 per cent to 38 per cent. That is a crucial challenge for us. It is not enough to have the tenant management organisations and the Neighbourhood Watch committee. Being involved is more difficult. We have to understand. I am loath to quote Oscar Wilde but he said that socialism takes too many evenings. Those of us who regularly try to attend our GC, agree with him, but that is what it is about. It is about making people want to do those things.
There is a long way to go before we win the war. Self-evidently, the greatest challenge lies in our poorer neighbourhoods, where people participate less, but where the need to participate is more. They are less likely to be involved, less likely to vote, less likely to use services, less likely to trust the council and less likely to care for the community. We have to engage the people there.
We put in the ODPM document, Citizen Engagement and Public Services: Why Neighbourhoods Matter, the concept of a national neighbourhood framework, which will recognise and empower individuals and groups to take neighbourhood action, building on what we already know works. We are looking, for example, at triggers for action; mechanisms that would work, such as a petition that people could use to influence or prompt a service provider, letting the neighbourhood manage community assets and devolving money from the council to ward councillors.
This is not easy to achieveit is extremely difficultbut we have heard some good news today. First, the sense of community is strong and thriving in many instances, as noble Lords have testified, not least in faith groups. That was described as the Milky Way of diversity. Secondly, we have the evidence that things are working. We are not short of documentation or proof. Let us use that intelligently. Thirdly, we are determined to succeed and that determination is particularly well set out Together We Can.
I am sorry that I have to stop because there is a lot more that I would like to say. It is a measure of how powerful this debate has been that we take away more questions than solutions. The debate has raised a lot of cross-party commitment and instinct which I am always happy to see. We have all agreed that with
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opportunity and participation come responsibility and respect. We are deeply serious that this matter is crucial to our democratic vision. I commend the noble Lord for giving us the opportunity to have such a terrific debate. I congratulate the maiden speakers and everyone else who spoke in the debate.
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