The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, the information requested is not collected centrally. In England, it is the responsibility of local health bodies to make decisions on the number of multiple sclerosis nurse posts and for local providers to ensure that they have a workforce skilled to deliver these services.
Lord Dubs: Does the Minister agree that the majority of patients suffering from MS do not have access to an MS nurse and that the absence of an MS nurse makes it very hard for patients to live independently? Does he further agree that the absence of an MS nurse puts enormously more pressure on consultants and GPs?
Earl Howe: My Lords, the Government recognise the very valuable contribution made by nurse specialists. It remains our view that local providers should have the freedom to determine their own workforce based on clinical need as they assess it. The commissioning consortia that will be in place subject to the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill and led by clinicians will recognise that nurse specialists have an essential role in improving outcomes and experiences for patients. That is part of the key to ensuring that these valuable posts remain in place.
Lord Walton of Detchant: Is the Minister aware that specialist nurses play an increasingly important role in the care not only of patients with MS but of patients with many other neurological diseases, including Parkinson's disease and epilepsy? Is he aware also of recent reports to the effect that some such specialist nurses, even a few funded by charities, have been required by employing authorities to undertake general nursing care to the detriment of the specialist care that they should be offering such patients? Will he take action to prevent that?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am aware of those reports. We have received concerns from most, if not all, of the neurological patient groups, as the noble Lord mentioned. He might like to know, however, that to help trusts
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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: What is the position when a specialist nurse for MS or any other condition-I declare an interest as I have a daughter with MS-leaves a hospital and the hospital decides that it is not recruiting any more people? I know that local providers are independent, but can the department give some sort of guidance that specialist nurses should not be overlooked when they replace staff and that they should consider the special role that they have carried out?
Earl Howe: My noble friend makes an important point. The guide that I have just referred to in answering the noble Lord, Lord Walton, emphasises the important role of specialist nurses in the care of patients with neurological conditions. However, the key in the future will be better commissioning at a local level joined with better workforce planning at a provider level. If those charged with training and workforce planning tap into the commissioning plans that commissioning consortia determine, we will have a genuinely joined-up system that is also informed by the patient's point of view.
Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, does the guide to which the Minister referred have anything to say about keeping records? MS patients, their families and carers always report that because it is an illness with long periods of remission-sometimes lasting years-the difficulty of keeping the records up to date causes them distress.
Earl Howe: The noble Baroness makes a very important point, and she is right. I will have to check whether the guide refers to that issue. I would be surprised if it did not. However, the central point that she makes is quite correct. The key to this, as so often, is good communication between those providing care at every stage of the care pathway. Sometimes, unfortunately, that breaks down.
Lord Laming: Can the Minister tell the House what means the Department of Health has for monitoring the reductions in these multidisciplinary teams to which he has referred? There is evidence, at a local level, of quite serious reductions at present.
Earl Howe: The problem is that, historically, there has been no requirement to publish information on the number of multiple sclerosis nurses. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care extracts data from the electronic staff record and quality-assures the data prior to publication in the non-medical workforce
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Baroness Hussein-Ece: My Lords, many people with a long-term condition such as multiple sclerosis are usually in their prime of life and in employment when they are diagnosed. It is therefore important to their well-being that they can continue with that employment as long as they are able to. Can the Minister say whether the government-led initiative Health, Work and Well-being is supporting these people and whether he is satisfied that all employers understand that those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis are protected by the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act, depending on where they live?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am personally involved with Dame Carol Black in a work stream under the Responsibility Deal, which covers health in the workplace. Under that banner, we are emphasising to employers how important it is to understand the circumstances and needs of employees with a long-term condition. I will, however, go back and see whether I can provide my noble friend with a fuller reply.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that today I have received two letters, both from ME sufferers who have long-term neurological conditions? One of them has just been sacked by the National Health Service and the other has just been sacked by local government, for which she works. Can the noble Earl say what protection these people have in their workplace? Neither the NHS nor local government seems to understand that ME is a fluctuating condition and that the disability Acts require employers to make allowances for this.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, information on all healthcare-associated infections is not collected centrally. The best available information is from the mandatory surveillance system, managed by the Health Protection Agency. During 2010, 1,630 MRSA bloodstream infections and 23,208 Clostridium difficile infections were reported in England. Of these, an estimated 818 and 11,547 cases respectively were acquired
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Lord Sheldon: My Lords, according to the British Medical Journal, about 7 per cent of patients in hospital in Europe develop healthcare-associated infections. In the past there was a shortage of beds in hospitals, but what is the position now? Is there still a shortage of beds, and how many hospital patients acquired an infection in 2010?
Earl Howe: My Lords, we expect all provider trusts to have sufficient isolation units for those patients in whom an infection is identified. I am not quite sure whether this is what lay behind the noble Lord's question, but there is no evidence to support a link between higher bed occupancy rates and higher rates of healthcare-associated infections. The number of beds occupied in a trust, in other words, should not have a bearing on the infection rate in that hospital.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, could the Minister confirm that the best hospitals actually test patients in advance of admission for MRSA, for example-as I personally was tested but yesterday at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital?
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: Does the Minister agree that the length of stay that a patient has increases the risk, particularly among elderly patients? Can he tell me how many elderly patients are now staying in hospital for greater lengths of time because they are not being discharged into appropriate local authority provision?
Earl Howe: The noble Baroness is quite right that delayed discharge poses a risk, not only in terms of infection but in terms of mobility and other issues that affect the elderly. We are clear that if this problem is to be eased, further funding is required at local authority level, which is why we have made available up to £1 billion over the period of the spending review to ensure that the issue is addressed.
Baroness Pitkeathley: I declare an interest as a recoverer from MRSA. Is the Minister making any assessment of the effectiveness of preventive measures, such as hand sanitisers and making sure that doctors do not wear ties, which droop in wounds, and so on?
Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that a code of practice was issued some time ago, which the CQC uses to ensure that the registration requirements of a provider have been complied with. It is clear that the decline in numbers of hospital-acquired infections has coincided with the issue of that guidance. We believe that it has made a material difference. I am
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Baroness Masham of Ilton: Does the Minister not think it is about time that the figures for infections were kept nationally? Is he aware that some hospitals have got better and some have got worse, and the outcomes across the country are very patchy?
Earl Howe: The noble Baroness is absolutely right. The headline figures disguise considerable variations between the best and worst performers. Our approach has been to adopt a zero tolerance policy to all avoidable healthcare-associated infections. To support that we have introduced a number of specific actions, including establishing clear objectives under the NHS operating framework, which are requirements for all trusts to meet, and for primary care organisations, and extending to health and social care settings the regulations on infection prevention and control. We have also increased the requirements on publishing data trust by trust.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I welcome very much the fact that the Government have continued to bear down on this issue, which of course my Government made great strides on when we were in office. Can the Minister assure the House that the funding to continue bearing down on it will be ensured from a national level?
Earl Howe: My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, we expect trusts and primary care organisations to utilise funds from within their global budgets to meet the requirements that I have just outlined, such as those in the NHS operating framework. These requirements are mandatory, and it appears that over the past few years, trusts and primary care organisations have really got to grips with this problem.
Lord Patel: My Lords, the Government are to be commended on insisting that all hospitals publish their infection rates for Clostridium difficile and MRSA on a weekly basis, which we can monitor on the website. It is interesting to note that one or two hospitals stand out by consistently having higher numbers while the rest make dramatic reductions. What is important, however, is that there has been no reduction in central venous line or other central line infections. I hope that the Government have a strategy similar to the one on MRSA and C. difficile to insist that hospitals reduce their rates of central line infections.
Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. We have consciously limited the extent to which it is a requirement to publish data to the most prevalent infections that need to be addressed. That is not to say that other types of infection are less important; they are extremely important. However, we would expect a ward-to-board policy to operate within each trust so that the boards of trusts bear down on these infections as hard as on others.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I will be leading a debate on the report prepared by the Leader's Group and chaired by my noble friend Lord Goodlad later this month, following which I plan to invite the relevant committees of the House to take forward specific recommendations.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am sure that many Members of the House will welcome that positive response from my noble friend, but can he assure us that there will be an opportunity for the House as a whole to debate and decide some of these matters, some of which are not only timely but very urgent? The work that has been done by this group is, I think, broadly welcomed across the House-it has done a very good job-but some of it is, as I say, very urgent. Notably, there is the question of the role of the Lord Speaker, which is a matter that I hope will be determined by the House as a whole before the new Lord Speaker is elected. Can my noble friend give us an assurance that there will be a speedy timetable for discussion and decision on these matters?
Lord Strathclyde: Yes, my Lords. Of course, the final decisions on these matters will be entirely in the hands of the House, which is entirely appropriate. In particular, I confirm to my noble friend that there is no reason why decisions cannot be taken immensely speedily after the debate and when we have taken the views of the House into account and sent them to the respective committees.
As for the role of the Lord Speaker, the Leader's Group concluded that successive Leaders of the House had acted with complete impartiality in their role of advising the House on matters of procedure and order, including at Question Time. None the less, I am conscious that some in the House wish to see a far greater role for the Chair-notably at Question Time-and that the Leader's Group has made proposals in this area, to which I intend to give prompt and serious consideration once Members have had the opportunity to have their say.
Lord Elton: My Lords, the report will be differently received as regards different paragraphs by different Members of this House. What is the procedure by which we shall be able to pick and choose that which we wish and that which we shall not wish?
Lord Strathclyde: That is a good question. The purpose of the debate is a bit like a Second Reading speech; it is for different noble Lords to use their speeches to look at different parts of the report. After
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Lord Cormack: My Lords, I think that noble Lords will welcome what my noble friend has just said. Will he bear in mind that there is considerable disquiet in many parts of the House about the proposal that we should sit at 2 o'clock? Would he also bear in mind that there is considerable support for the proposal that we should have more Joint Committees? It is therefore essential that we have the opportunity to vote individually on these various recommendations.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am aware of that and that is the point of the proposal that I laid out: namely, that the House will be able to take a view on individual recommendations, subject to the reports that emanate from the committees of this House.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I know that following the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, many Members of this House are anxious that some of the proposals at least should be implemented in the near future. May I therefore suggest to the noble Lord the Leader that perhaps the meetings of the relevant committees could be arranged for July in order that the House may take a view at the earliest opportunity? Perhaps some elements of the report could be implemented in September.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, that, of course, will be a decision for the Chairman of Committees, but no doubt he will be listening to this exchange and will wish to take that into regard while he decides on the dates of the meetings of the relevant committees.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, the Government will take whatever action is necessary to protect the welfare of care home residents. Southern Cross has plans in place to restructure its business and is keeping the Government updated on progress. We will continue to keep in close touch with the situation and will work with local authorities, the Care Quality Commission and others to ensure that there is an effective response, which delivers protection to everyone affected.
Baroness Bakewell: I thank the noble Earl for that information. Given the latest revelations that Southern Cross traded the care of older people for short-term profit and that the Care Quality Commission so woefully failed to come to the help of suffering people in a home in Bristol, can I urge him to take the most urgent steps as soon as possible to relieve the suffering of people who are old, frail and dependent, and who are suffering much neglect?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am sure the noble Baroness's concerns will be echoed throughout the House. We have seen distressing reports in recent days of the treatment of certain patients in private hospitals, but the worry over Southern Cross relates much more to its financial situation and the future of its residents. I can assure the noble Baroness that we are taking this situation very seriously. We are in touch, as I have said, with all the relevant parties-and have been for the last several months. We are making sure that everybody is aware of their responsibilities in this area, not least towards the residents concerned. As regards Southern Cross, we are now in a critical period when restructuring is being explored, and we wish those efforts well.
Earl Howe: My Lords, I do not agree with that. For many years, successive Governments have relied upon private care providers in social care. In general, this has been entirely satisfactory. It has given people wide choice in the care available and Governments have encouraged that. Financial issues for one provider-albeit a major one, I concede-do not undermine the entire principle of independent care provision.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: Will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the original principle, stated to be the main aim of all these reforms, is unchanged in spite of the very necessary talks he is having with several different bodies? Is it still to be the case that nothing is more important than the care, treatment and curing of the patient, and the patient's dignity and comfort, including being fed in hospital?
Earl Howe: I am grateful to my noble friend. That is entirely the aim of the modernisation programme for the NHS that we have laid out. It must be a much more patient-centred and user-centred service. As regards Southern Cross, we have said that there will be effective protection for the residents involved; no one will lose out. We are clear that we are putting the interests of residents first.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does the Minister recall that, on the wind-up of CSCI-which he will recall because he was involved in the debate-we were given absolute assurances that the new successor body, the CQC, would target with random and unannounced visits all those care institutions in the United Kingdom
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Earl Howe: My Lords, that is a rather harsh suggestion regarding Southern Cross. The noble Lord will know that care providers must demonstrate to the CQC that they have the financial resources needed to continue to provide services of the required quality. Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from this episode with Southern Cross, which we all hope will resolve itself successfully. I am sure the CQC will take on board the lessons. From the briefing that I have had on the financial model that Southern Cross adopted, it is extraordinarily complex even for an expert to understand. We need to get that right. I know that my right honourable and honourable colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be looking in general at business ownership and the issues surrounding that to see whether there are actions that we can take to prevent this kind of thing happening again.
Baroness Hollins: My Lords, with respect to Winterbourne View, could the Minister comment on why so much public money is being spent on placing people with learning disabilities in private hospitals, when government policy is to support such people in the community?
Earl Howe: My Lords, that falls a little way outside the Question on care homes and Southern Cross. I am sure the noble Baroness knows that Winterbourne View is a private hospital with completely different commissioning arrangements. However, I should be happy to write to her. A Written Ministerial Statement that sets out the full position on Winterbourne View is being put down in Hansard today.
Baroness Barker: My Lords, do the Government know how many of Southern Cross's 31,000 residents are self-funders and therefore entitled only to information and advice? How many of them receive state care and are therefore entitled to alternative provision? Given the uneven geographical distribution of Southern Cross's homes, do the Government know whether there will be any local authorities with no residential care provision should Southern Cross fail?
Earl Howe: On my noble friend's last point, there is a national surplus of care home beds-the figure I have here is some 50,000. Therefore, there is, to my knowledge, in no area a shortage of beds. We are dealing here with a series of local markets. The point that I emphasised earlier remains important. Should it come to the closure of a care home-an event of which we should have reasonable notice if it happens-we will ensure that those in that care home are properly looked after.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, does the Minister actually think that a Written Ministerial Statement is sufficient to deal with the gravity of the treatment of
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Earl Howe: My Lords, I cannot help but agree with the noble Baroness's last comment. I am sure she will know that we have embarked on a wide-ranging programme of reform of social care. We are considering the Law Commission's recommendations for modernising social care law, and the report of the Commission on Funding of Care and Support is imminent. As I have said, many lessons have to be learnt from the events of recent weeks. We will want to reflect on them as part of our wider reform agenda. The business model that underpins many of these issues is a legitimate area for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to be looking at, although it will do so in a general rather than specific sense in relation to Southern Cross.
A Bill to make further provision about arbitration and mediation services and the application of equality legislation to such services; to make provision about the protection of victims of domestic violence; and for connected purposes.
That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider and report on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill presented to both Houses on 17 May (Cm 8077), and that the committee should report on the draft Bill by 29 February 2012.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, given that my Motion has attracted an amendment, I should say a few words about it. The Motion proposes a Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill published last
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The noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, may shortly move his amendment and I have no desire to pre-empt him, but I hope that it is helpful to the House if I point out that Clause 2 of the draft Bill provides that:
"Nothing in the provisions of this Act ... affects the primacy of the House of Commons, or ... otherwise affects the powers, rights, privileges or jurisdiction of either House of Parliament, or the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses".
"The Government believes that clause 2 of the draft Bill is the best way of achieving this because it does not attempt to codify the existing powers of the Houses in legislation but rather, as now, accepts that the position is a matter of convention".
That, of course, is the Government's view, but as I have already made clear, the Joint Committee will be able to consider each and every matter raised in the Government's White Paper and may reach its own conclusions.
There is, therefore, nothing in the Joint Committee's remit to prevent it from doing exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, proposes. I cannot possibly second-guess how the committee will choose to approach its work, but I imagine that it would wish to have regard not only to the conclusions of the report chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, but to the exchange we are having today and to related points that will no doubt be raised in the debate later this month.
Therefore, although I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, for tabling his amendment, which concerns something which has the potential of being quite a controversial matter during the discussions in the Joint Committee, I hope that the House and he himself will accept that the amendment is unnecessary. I beg to move.
After "(Cm 8077)," insert "and, mindful of the need to protect the primacy of the House of Commons, that it be an instruction to the committee to take into account the conclusions of the Joint Committee on Conventions which was noted with approval by both Houses".
Lord Cunningham of Felling: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for his comments and for the even-handed way in which he introduced the resolution. However, I am bound to say that there are some people-I do not ascribe this view to the Leader of the House-who propose a wholly or partially elected second Chamber in our
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I believe that they are wrong. I believe that there is plenty of evidence from previous Joint Committees to enable us to come to the conclusion that they are wrong. I welcome the decision to establish a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons to consider the draft Bill, as long as that committee is balanced, of varied views and not a repetition of the committee set up by Jack Straw during the previous Parliament-in other words, not made up of people who all begin and end by sharing the same view of the future.
The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that the evidence, conclusions and recommendations of the Joint Committee on Conventions are fully taken into account. I cite the summary of the report, on page 3:
"Our conclusions, however, apply only to present circumstances. If the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, then in our view their role as the revising chamber, and their relationship with the Commons, would inevitably be called into question, codified or not. Should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again".
It is a central conclusion of the unanimously agreed report of the Joint Committee-and, as I have said in this Chamber before, unanimously approved by both Houses of Parliament-that that would have to be considered again. Therefore, it is important that we get that established with the new Joint Committee.
An elected second Chamber with a mandate would assert its right to a view. The evidence in the Joint Committee report says that, as do the conclusions. The other House and the Government of the country could not escape the consequences, which would most likely be profound and unpredictable, but would probably destabilise the conventions of Parliament. If change is required, and I believe it is, the better alternative is set out in the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in his Bill, which I certainly support, and more recently the proposals-at least most of them, I had better say, in case of an early intervention-made by the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad.
The Government should support those proposals, while still pursuing their right to establish a Joint Committee. I regret very much that in the previous Parliament the then Government consistently blocked the work of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and his Bill. That was a mistake. We should take care that blind adherence to outdated thinking does not produce outcomes that make our Parliament less effective than it already is today.
Lord Cormack: My Lords, I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, has said. I believe that he has performed a signal service for the House this afternoon by putting down the amendment and by moving it so eloquently. It is crucial that this committee, when established, reflects the varying positions and opinions held in this House and in another place and that it is not a duplicate of the Straw committee,
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We are concerned about the abolition of this House and its replacement by something entirely different. It is right that the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, should have moved his amendment because he touches on a crucial factor: conventions that apply between this House and another place apply between this House and another place. If this House becomes another place, they cannot apply. We talk of Parliament Acts or Salisbury conventions or the conventions into which the noble Lord's committee looked in such great detail, but there will be two totally different Houses of Parliament if the Government's intentions, as outlined in the White Paper, come to pass. Many of us will oppose those. Whether they are good or bad is for individual noble Lords to decide.
On one thing we can surely be united: if we are abolished and replaced by an elected Chamber, whatever conventions bind us or relate us to the other place will cease to exist because this place will have ceased to exist. We have to recognise that, as do the Government, and they cannot blithely say in their White Paper and draft Bill that all will be the same. All will not be the same because we will have changed something fundamental.
Although this is not the time and place to go into great detail, I recall a conversation which I had with the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, yesterday. He reminded me that, when the founding fathers established the constitution of the United States, they had it in mind to have a powerful House of Representatives and a consultative body in the Senate. Look what happened there. Our colleagues in another place in this Parliament should bear in mind that if we are replaced by an elected Chamber, the new elected Chamber cannot be bound, "cabined, cribbed, confined", by the conventions that currently pertain. I warmly support what the noble Lord has said and urge noble Lords to bear that in mind. I urge the committee, when it is established, to look at these points with extreme care and diligence.
Lord Pannick: Why do the Government consider it necessary to impose any deadline on completion of the work of the Joint Committee? Given the importance and complexity of that work, would it not be more appropriate to trust the Joint Committee to determine how long it requires? The Leader of the House said a few moments ago, "I cannot possibly second-guess how the committee will choose to approach its work". Those were his words. The deadline does precisely that.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Cunningham. I do so because it goes to the heart of what the debate about reform of the second Chamber should be. It focuses on the powers of the two Houses and the relationship between them, which, in my view, should be considered before we discuss the composition
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I am alarmed by the position of this Government, just as I was alarmed by the position of the previous Government. We have the constant repetition of the mantra of the primacy of the House of Commons as if that in itself will deliver the primacy of the House of Commons. I have heard Jack Straw say time and again, "Don't worry, you've got the Parliament Act and the financial privileges of the Commons". I have heard exactly the same from Nick Clegg. With regard to fatuous clauses-I do not want to be too rude in this-I thought the Leader of the House quite wisely read out Clause 2 rather quickly. I will read it more slowly so it can sink in. It says:
"Nothing in the provisions of this Act about the membership of the House of Lords ... affects the primacy of the House of Commons, or ... the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses".
If that is not a clause which is wishful thinking, I have not heard one. Why not have a clause saying that the new House shall have a turn-out, at elections, of at least 60 per cent? Why not have a clause saying that the new Senate will cost less than the old House of Lords? If you have wishful thinking clauses, then the options are pretty wide. I support my noble friend's amendment but I do not think it goes far enough.
Following the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, regarding the date, I have to speak through the Leader of the House to the Deputy Prime Minister, who has been the prime mover of these things, whatever his current position. When a date is set for the committee to report, the phrase "Physician, heal thyself" comes to mind, because we have the precedent of the Clegg committee, which was set up in May last year and took 11 months to report. It had essentially the same remit as the proposed committee, but it had the massive advantage of being much smaller-it had eight members-and if I may say so without causing offence, they were hand-picked to agree. If you have a committee of eight members hand-picked to agree, I would suggest that that is likely to lead to a more speedy conclusion than one of 26 members of widely differing views. At the very least, considering that the Clegg committee took 11 months to make up its mind before anything was presented to the House, I would suggest that anything less than 11 months for the committee that is being proposed would be wishing for something that is probably unattainable.
Why does not the Leader of the House revert to his own good sense? When he set up the Goodlad committee-which was a Leader's Group-he very wisely did not give it a date when it should report. I was very fortunate to serve on it, and it took, I think, nine months. That was without a date. It did a good job-very busy, hard work-and to expect a committee looking at the future of half of Parliament to report in
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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I will express a view that is shared by a minority in House-perhaps a very small minority. I start by saying clearly that I am in favour of a 100 per cent elected House. However, there are consequences to some words in the amendment of my noble friend Lord Cunningham about which we should draw out more information. He refers to the need for the committee to report on the draft Bill by 29 February 2012. In the event that the date were to pass and the committee had not reported but instead sought to report by February 2013, which would be distinctly possible because it will be in the next Session of Parliament, that would have implications both for the introduction of the legislation and the creation of the new constituencies. There must be a timetable. If one takes into account the fact that it is distinctly probable that the Parliament Act would have to be used to secure the passage of the legislation-because on the basis of what one hears, it would be impossible for this legislation to go through without the use of the Act-the Government must already have had in mind a timetable when they set the date of 29 February 2012. We as Members are entitled to know what the timetable is, taking into account the need to create the new constituencies and the fact that the Parliament Act may well have to be used.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, any proposed reform of your Lordships' House clearly puts the cart before the horse. Given that a majority-or at least a very great deal-of our national law is now made in Brussels, with the House of Commons and your Lordships' House irrelevant in the process, why do we not start by retrieving our democracy from Brussels for the House of Commons and your Lordships' House? We could then work out how the Executive will be held to account in the House of Commons by a new committee structure, perhaps with new powers for the House of Commons and your Lordships' House. When we have done that, we could work out the job that we want your Lordships' House or any second
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Lord Reid of Cardowan: My Lords, I first make two declarations of interest. The first is that I was a member of the Government that consistently brought back proposals for 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100 per cent of Members of this Chamber or its replacement to be elected. The second declaration is that I voted against every such proposal on every occasion. I did so for two reasons. First, it was not self-evident that such a change would increase the efficiency of government. More importantly, as I had spent my life in the House of Commons, I wanted to protect the primacy of the House of Commons. It was obvious that it was impossible to bestow democratic legitimacy on a Chamber that was widely perceived as being slightly more mature, both in years and wisdom, and certainly more full of expertise, and in all practical terms to stop it becoming the senior Chamber. I still believe that.
When I look at Clause 2, which the Leader of the House has read out, it reminds me of the simple fact that you can have a clause that calls an elephant a camel, but that does not make it a camel. You can have a clause that defies all the practical circumstances of the world, but that will not change the world. Therefore, in a sense, we have to do a service, not only to this House, but to the House only 100 yards from here, by pointing out, in our wisdom and maturity, that it is inevitable that, if you choose a second Chamber by democratic means and those democratic means-that is, proportional representation-are considered at the highest echelons of this Government, meaning the Deputy Prime Minister, as being more legitimate than first past the post, and if the term of office of those elected by those democratic legitimate means are three times as long as those of the Members of the other Chamber and their constituencies are much bigger, you will not find 300 fools in this country who will, on that basis, come here and say, "We are lesser than the other Chamber". Everyone who comes here, with the expertise and the maturity enhanced by democratic legitimacy, will say that it is they who ought to be the primary Chamber-and they will be right-just as the Senate in the United States, with the enhanced powers of democratic legitimacy, as was pointed out by my noble friend on the other side, became the premier House in the United States. That is the reality.
The second reason that I gladly support my noble friend's amendment is-this is one thing that the Leader of the House forgot to highlight in the difference between the Motion and the amendment to the Motion-that the Motion currently before the House allows for the consideration of the previous report but does not require it to be considered. If the complexion of the Committee was such that it was inadvertently composed-I speak hypothetically-of people who supported these proposals, there would be no requirement on them to take into account the deep study and the full implications of that report. My noble friend's amendment includes an instruction to the Committee that it must take that report into account. Therefore,
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Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I would like to speak on this issue, although I must break a rule that I have had for many years, which is never to speak on House of Lords reform. In July, I will have been here for 20 years -it says something about this place that I am still one of the youngest people in the Building after being in the job for 20 years. Having listened many times to hundreds of debates on Lords reform, I want to mention that what convinced me many years ago not to take part in these debates was when a Peer stood up, 90th on the list, and said, "My Lords, everything that can possibly be said on this subject has been said, but not by me".
If we agreed to this amendment, it is quite clear that we would be trying to kick this into the long grass. I have heard some fantastic speeches. When we discuss Lords reform, we do not mention these facts but I was one of those who voted for an entirely elected House of Lords-I am quite happy to say that and I will be voting for it again. We might be in the minority and we might lose-it has happened to us over AV-but we will happily go through the Division Lobbies. Some of us will be for it; some of us will take an opposing view. However, it is better that we have the ability to take this forward in a quick and judicious matter, rather than give the impression that we do not want to come to any conclusion at all. I very much hope we can move forward as quickly as possible on this. It is not for me to say that other people should not speak at great length on this, but I think that we all already know what the conclusion is, and therefore moving on to the next business would be very helpful.
Lord Richard: I will say two things to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. First, I do not share the view that the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Cunningham would kick this into the long grass, despite the fact that, as fair parts of the House know full well, I have been a supporter of a predominantly elected House for almost as long as the noble Lord has been a Member. It therefore seems to me that there are two things that this Committee will have to do. One is to look at the terms of the Cunningham amendment. Of course the Committee has got to look at the primacy of the House of Commons. It would be silly to try to produce a report without looking at that issue. The primacy of the House of Commons has to be preserved. The second point that the noble Lord made is also pretty fundamental and obvious: the Committee will have to look at the conventions that exist between this House and the other place.
For the life of me, I do not really see what the issue is on this. An awful lot of speeches are being made which, if I may respectfully say so to some of those who have made them, would perhaps be better made in the debate on 21 and 22 June, when we are yet again to look at the whole issue of Lords reform. No doubt we will have, yet again, the same sort of speeches made by, yet again, the same sort of people, which, I fear I must say to the House, will probably include me. The fact of the matter is that on any view of this Committee, it will have to look in detail and take serious account of what is in the Cunningham amendment. I do not share the noble Lord's view that this is kicking it into the long grass. On the other hand, I share some of the misgivings that have been raised about the date. This is a big, fundamental, constitutional issue. It is not feasible that it can be done by January next year.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. The British community has mulled over the question of the reform of this place for over a century. It is now the case that a Committee will be asked to exercise its collective wisdom within the short compass of nine months. It may well be that it can achieve that. If, on the other hand, it comes to the conclusion that it honestly and conscientiously would wish more time, will the Leader of the House confirm that it would be given that time with the blessing of both Houses? Secondly, all noble Lords who have spoken have made the point that the questions of powers and membership of this House are utterly intertwined. Is it not very strange that in 1911 the whole discussion was about powers, as it was in 1949, whereas since then the whole discussion has been about membership? I do not think for a moment that you can discuss one without the other, and I do not think that you can contemplate a reformed, elected House without the question of powers being revisited. Anybody who believes that that can be done is using a monumental self-delusion.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I hope the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will forgive me for being quite angry about the aspersion that was cast on those of us who share the views expressed about the importance of the primacy of the Commons, about the conventions and about the future relationship between both Houses. If those of us who take the view that that must be done first, before membership, are going to be accused of kicking the issue into the long grass as blindfolded escapists on the issue, the tenor of all the debates that take place in your Lordships' House and in Committees will not be of the quality that they ought to be. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will not imply that kicking the issue into the long grass is the only motivation that some of us have. I wish to leave a better system in the Houses of Parliament for my children and, particularly, my grandchildren, but jumping without looking at what is down the hole is not the way to do it.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I apologise if any aspersion was taken on board, which was not my intention. I did not mention powers or scrutiny. I just hoped that we could move on more rapidly because this already has been covered. I remember the extremely detailed Jenkins
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Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I just want briefly to say that, as the sole surviving Cross-Bench Member of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, I strongly support his amendment. If he decides to seek the opinion of the House, I shall vote for it.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, this might be a good time for me to reply. My purpose in laying out the Government's view at the outset was to try to pour some oil on troubled waters, a task in which I spectacularly failed. A number of key issues have been raised and perhaps I could deal with them. This is all part of an important debate and, as one or two noble Lords have rightly recognised, we are due to have a two-day debate starting on 21 June. I urge noble Lords to prepare their speeches for then. Therefore, we do not need to extend this debate much longer.
First, on timing, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, rightly asked why, if we are not going to second-guess the Joint Committee, we are directing it as to by when it should report. I can tell the House that in a government Motion to set up a Joint Committee it is entirely normal practice that the Committee should be given a target date. It is equally entirely normal practice-in the past few weeks I have moved Motions to this effect-that, if the view of the Committee is that it needs more time, it is given that time, which would of course apply in respect of this Joint Committee.
Secondly, on membership, this Joint Committee cannot be set up without the agreement of this House to the names put forward. I know that different parties, including the Cross-Benches, have different processes as to how names are chosen, but those names will be agreed by the House. I fully expect them to reflect the wide variety of views that exist across the House, as I expect will be reflected in the names that come from another place. This will be a Joint Committee of 26 people, 13 from each House, including a Bishop and Cross-Benchers. In setting up this body, it would be inconceivable for it to have a unanimous view right at the very start.
Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, is the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, and by the noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Richard, about the amendment in particular. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It would be a most odd Joint Committee on this subject if it were not to look carefully at all the clauses, including Clause 2, or to look at the paragraphs in the White Paper that have a view on the subject of the primacy of another place and of the conventions that bind us.
The noble Lord, Lord Reid, said that this amendment would issue an instruction. In itself, that would not be useful if the Joint Committee chose to ignore it or not to take it sufficiently seriously. It would be far better for us to trust the Joint Committee to use its innate wisdom. The noble Lord, Lord Cunningham,
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Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Will the noble Lord tell the House how many times the committee led by the Deputy Prime Minister met in order to arrive at the conclusions that are now represented in the White Paper and the draft Bill?
I hope that, having heard this, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, will feel that he has had a good outing on the subject and that he is confident, as I am, that the Joint Committee will look at these matters. We can leave it up to the Joint Committee to decide whether it can meet the deadline of the end of February next year.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: If this matter is to be put to a vote-I do not know whether it will be-it is important that we should know what it is we are voting on. As I understand the amendment, it is to be an instruction that the joint body should "take account" of something. To my mind it is inconceivable that the Joint Committee will not take account of noble Lords. Again, it is inconceivable. So what are we worried about?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I think that we have had a useful debate because for the past few weeks there has been an air of controversy over what the conclusions of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, meant when they were initially published. But I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, that the amendment to the Motion is not necessary. I therefore invite the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, to respond and, I hope, to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Cunningham of Felling: I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I have only one or two brief points. This amendment is carefully couched in terms that could engender cross-party, if not universal, support in this Chamber. It is not about kicking anything into the long grass, and I regard that intervention as complete rubbish. It is about trying to ensure that, as we move forward on the reform of our Parliament, we end up with a better system of governance-not a worse one-for our country and the people we are here to represent. There is no mention of the date in my amendment, and I accept what the Leader of the House has just said. On one occasion when I had the honour to chair a Joint Committee, it became obvious very quickly that the time as set down in the original resolution was not sufficient. We wrote to both Houses and the date was extended. There is no reason why that should not happen again if it is necessary.
I am still not sure why the Leader of the House has not said that he will simply accept the amendment because it seems that if I were to insist on dividing the House, there is little doubt about the outcome. However, I am content to say that on this occasion I will not press for a Division, although of course there will be other occasions. I conclude by making this statement: I believe that the amendment has been carried nem con, and I therefore beg to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, 51 speakers have signed up for the Second Reading of the Localism Bill today. If Back-Bench contributions are kept to 7 minutes, the House should be able to rise at around the target rising time of 11 o'clock. Of course, the advisory timing excludes the Minister's opening and winding-up speeches and the opposition Front-Bench spokesperson's opening and winding-up speeches. It might be convenient for the House if I remind colleagues of our guidance in paragraph 4.32 of the Companion, which states:
"A Member of the House who is taking part in a debate is expected to attend the greater part of that debate. It is considered discourteous for a Member not to be present for the opening speeches, for at least the speech before and following their own, and for the winding-up speeches".
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, the Localism Bill marks a turning point. For generations, different Governments have concentrated power in Whitehall. They have done so with good intentions, but as centrally dictated measures have accumulated, the result has been to tie councillors' hands over what policies they can implement, to make public services everywhere similar and to limit the ability of local communities to influence what happens in their area. This Bill is designed to achieve an historic shift in power. It will devolve authority from Whitehall to town halls, create new rights for local communities to become more involved in local affairs, and free professionals on the front line of public services to do things in response to what communities need rather than to government demands.
The Bill was first introduced in the other place in December, but most of its measures have been the topic of debate for years. There has, I am glad to say, been widespread welcome for the Bill. The Local Government Association called it a "long-awaited and much-needed measure". In the other place there was a strong majority in favour of its principles. During House of Commons considerations, parts of the Bill of course raised considerable debate-I appreciate that we will return to them again-such as aspects of the provisions on mayors, particularly shadow mayors, the impact of social housing reforms and the fine detail of some of the planning provisions. The Government consistently sought to build on common ground and consensus. In keeping with this, we will seek to make amendments, where they will improve the Bill, that arise from the discussion at each stage.
Already in response to concerns raised in the other place, the Government have brought forward a number of amendments-in particular, to strengthen strategic planning by bolstering the duty to co-operate and to widen provisions on neighbourhood planning to make neighbourhood forums more inclusive of both local people and local businesses. As we start our considerations, I can assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to listen and, where possible, make amendments that are justified and supported across the House. There will be parts of the Bill on which we may not be able to reach agreement, but I hope that they will be few. My colleagues and noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Attlee and I will want to take account of what is said and to develop consensus where possible.
I shall now turn to the main provisions of the Bill. Noble Lords will know well the importance of local government in providing leadership and essential services to their local communities. The Bill seeks to give local government wider discretion to get on with that vital job. At the heart of the Bill is the general power of competence. Currently, councils can do only what legislation explicitly says they may do. With the general power of competence, they will be able to do anything that an individual can legally do. Concerns have been raised that the Bill means that local authorities will be able, for example, to stop providing valuable services. That is not so. Just as individuals have to obey the law, so councils will continue to be bound by their legislative duties. What the general power of competence will do
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Under the Bill, the Secretary of State will have delegated powers to remove legislative barriers that prevent local authorities exercising the general power. There was debate in the other place about the extent of these delegated powers, and amendments were made there to ensure that robust safeguards are in place.
The Bill will abolish the unpopular standards board regime, provide stronger sanctions against serious unethical behaviour by councillors and clarify the predetermination rules. It will lay the ground for a new generation of mayors in England's largest cities. I am aware that this measure has generated a good deal of interest and some controversy. It is our view, however, that directly elected mayors have the potential to provide stronger leadership and enhance the prestige of their cities. It would, of course, ultimately be for local people to decide, via a referendum, whether they wanted an elected mayor for their city. The Bill will devolve to the Mayor of London greater powers over London's housing, regeneration and economic development.
With central direction having been rolled back, it will also be necessary to ensure that local authorities are accountable for all the decisions they take. For example, where authorities fail to act in accordance with EU directives, and where this results in the EU taking infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom, it will be important that culpable local authorities take responsibility for their actions.
Localism does not mean simply that all power should rest in the hands of local authorities. Although the town hall plays a crucial role in local life, it is often local people-conscientious neighbours, responsible residents, volunteers and social entrepreneurs-who undertake the responsibility of making communities stronger. As a general rule, however, they can get involved in local decision-making only to the extent that their council welcomes and encourages their involvement, so the Bill creates new rights for local people and local community groups. Under the right to challenge, social enterprises, voluntary and community groups and parish councils will have the right to challenge the council to consider seriously their proposals for the improvement of local services.
Similarly, the Bill will give community groups the right to bid to buy assets of community value. Where buildings and businesses such as local shops, pubs and community facilities are listed under the Bill's provisions as being important to local people and come up for sale, community groups will be given time to put together a credible bid to buy the facility that will have to be taken into consideration before the vendor can continue with the sale.
Local people will have the right to petition their council to hold a referendum on any local policy or issue that is contentious and important to them. Councils will be required to hold a referendum where they propose to charge a council tax in excess of an agreed percentage increase. Local people, rather than the Secretary of State, will therefore be able to veto the rise.
We turn now to planning. The trend towards central control has been particularly damaging in the planning system and the Government believe that it is now time to introduce far greater democratic and local control. The regional strategies, which set housing targets for different parts of the country and then had to be implemented by local authorities, will be abolished. They did not result in more houses being built. Indeed, last year, rates of housebuilding hit their lowest point in peacetime since the 1920s.
The Bill will transfer the power to make decisions on nationally significant infrastructure projects such as power stations, airports and major roads from appointees in the Infrastructure Planning Commission to democratically accountable Ministers. It will introduce a duty to co-operate, requiring local authorities to work together on strategic planning issues. At a more local level, it introduces a duty on developers to consult local communities before they put forward applications for large developments. Most radically of all, it will allow people to have a stronger say in the planning of their neighbourhoods. Under these provisions, local people will be able to come together to form a neighbourhood forum and produce a neighbourhood plan for developments in their area, such as where they consider would be most suitable for new homes, shops and businesses. As long as these plans are consistent with the national planning policy framework and the local plan, development can be granted through a neighbourhood development order so that construction can go ahead quickly. At the same time, the new homes bonus and the community infrastructure levy will benefit local communities where new development takes place.
Ultimately, it is right that local responsibility and local incentives replace top-down control, creating the right conditions for communities to welcome development and growth in their areas. The Bill makes clear that the use of financial incentives, such as the community infrastructure levy, can be a material consideration in the planning process, although they do not have to be.
Lastly, I turn to the Bill's provisions on housing. Social housing will provide 8 million people in England with a home. The Bill proposes a much greater level of discretion for councils and social landlords to manage social housing more flexibly. New provisions will give social landlords more flexibility over the length of tenancy they may grant. The minimum length will be two years, although we expect that longer terms will be offered in the majority of cases. There is a clear acknowledgement that where tenants are likely to remain in need, long-term tenancies will be the norm. Vulnerable and existing tenants will not be affected by these changes. Councils will of course continue to be able to offer lifetime tenancies.
We have also discussed in depth in the other place, and with practitioners, the Bill's proposals to let local authorities meet their homelessness duty by providing applicants with good quality homes in the private rented sector. This option could provide an appropriate solution for people experiencing a homelessness crisis at the same time as freeing up social homes for people on the waiting list. The Bill will also change the way in which social housing is funded, passing more power to
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Finally, the Bill will reform the way in which social housing is regulated. The Tenant Services Authority will be abolished and landlords will be expected to support tenant panels-or equivalent bodies-in order to give tenants greater opportunities to scrutinise the services that are being offered and that they are receiving.
This is an important Bill, with measures that will have a great impact on every aspect of the responsibilities of local government and the rights of local people in the future. As I said at the beginning, there has been much consensus already about its provisions. I hope that, when there has been such agreement in the other place, that will guide considerations here. We have much to do, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and I look forward to the forthcoming debate. I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the customary skill and charm with which she has introduced this Bill. It was an impressive example of carrying out my ancestral trade of making bricks without straw. I am delighted that the noble Baroness's long service to local government is about to be recognised by the conferment upon her of the freedom of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, of which she was such a distinguished leader.
This Bill, which purports to herald the renaissance of local government and shape a new localism, sprawls over 510 pages, with 215 clauses and 25 schedules. Together with 111 pages of Explanatory Notes, it weighs 2 pounds, 13 ounces, to which must be added impact assessments weighing all of 8 pounds, 11 ounces. As Churchill might have said, "Some impact, some assessment". No wonder the Government have had second thoughts about their plans for forestry.
There are some welcome provisions. The local government world has long called for a power of general competence, although candidly when asked what difference it would make, many of us have had some difficulty in identifying what the practical effects would be, given the existing powers to improve the environmental, social and economic well-being of areas. However, changes to small business rate relief and the housing revenue account, the latter building on work initiated by the last Government, and the promotion of a duty to co-operate are also being well received, and few, except some estate agents, will mourn the passing of home information packs.
But overall the Bill, studded with populist gesture politics, is redolent of the prejudices-indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say some of the obsessions-of the Secretary of State. I cite, for example, provisions about chief executives and pay, or the banning of charge and reward schemes for waste collection. The Secretary of State takes to himself 142 powers and, in what seems a remarkable echo of the Public Bodies Bill, powers to abolish or amend by order up to
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It is impossible in the 15 minutes available to me to enumerate, let alone discuss, all the concerns raised by the Bill's provisions. I will concentrate on the issues of governance, and on the impact of the measure as a whole on local government and representative local democracy. My noble friend Lord McKenzie will speak to the planning and finance issues, and my noble friend Lord Patel of Bradford on housing and community engagement. I am sure that many noble Lords on all sides of the House will wish to raise many of the detailed provisions of the Bill and the accompanying documentation.
The Government's approach seems in many respects to be driven by a belief in an apparently inexhaustible appetite on the part of citizens to vote-for elected mayors or police commissioners, or in referendums called by a fraction of the electorate, a neighbourhood forum, or a handful of councillors. This assumed insatiable thirst for Athenian-style democracy-and Mr Pickles is, after all, only two letters short of Pericles-is matched in ministerial minds by a demand on the part of the public directly to manage local services. Let me be clear. There is, and must always be, space in a mixed economy of provision for voluntary and community organisations as service providers. Their commitment and capacity to innovate enrich civil society. But most of those engaged in the sector acknowledge that they complement the statutory services and neither wish, nor expect, to replace them.
I turn to some of the more problematic provisions of the Bill, rooted as they are in the philosophy I have just outlined. I begin with mayors. At any time in the past 10 years a mere 5 per cent of the electorate could have requisitioned a mayoral referendum in England's towns and cities. Few have been called, fewer still have approved the idea, and neither in referendums nor in any ensuing mayoral elections, except when they have coincided with general elections, has the result been higher turnouts than in traditional local elections.
I have always been sceptical of the argument that a direct personal mandate is a necessary condition of effective local leadership. The concentration of power in a single pair of hands is inherently undesirable, and it is also unnecessary; it diminishes the role of other elected members, and there is no reason why the grant of more powers to local authorities, which would be welcome, should be conditional on there being a mayoral system. But if sufficient people want elected mayors, they can easily secure the process, set it in motion and achieve their objective now. It is perhaps not without significance that Nick Boles, now MP for Grantham, succeeding my noble friend Lord Davies, urged the adoption of the mayoral system as potentially providing a ladder back to power for the Conservative Party in places like Manchester, where its prospects under the existing system continue to look a little bleak. The Bill, however, requires confirmatory referendums to take place in 12 English cities where the Government ordain that the mayoral system should apply. When she replies to the debate, perhaps the Minister would
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Much worse than that proposal are two further extraordinary provisions concerning shadow mayors, to which the noble Baroness made glancing reference, and the delightfully euphemistically termed "mayoral management arrangements". Under new Section 9N in Schedule 2 the Secretary of State may order a shadow mayor to be appointed in an authority due to hold a referendum, in the first instance in the 12 authorities targeted for next May, who will be the executive leader at the date of the order. He will have the full range of mayoral powers until either the referendum fails or an elected mayor takes office. In Birmingham, for example, a Conservative council leader would be appointed shadow mayor and continue to hold office, assuming a referendum next year confirmed the mayoral model, for a further year from next May even though it is highly probable that Labour will take control of that council then. The nearest precedent that occurs to me, though absolutely without the horrific overtones of the original, is the Anschluss: occupy Austria first and have a referendum afterwards.
Yet that is not all. In those of the 12 authorities which end up with elected mayors, the positions of mayor and chief executive will have to be combined while other authorities with a leader and executive model will have to consider this novel, and in my judgment, wholly inappropriate conflation of the political and officer roles. It does not seem appropriate that the political head of a local authority should effectively be the head of paid service. Contrast this with the separation of roles prescribed by the Cadbury rules in the private sector. This is not local democracy but local autocracy. These two proposals are the most objectionable in what is in many respects a deeply flawed Bill. I trust that through today's debate, if it does nothing else, the House will send a clear message to the Government that those proposals are totally unacceptable, and an affront to democracy and good governance.
Less fundamental but still serious misgivings arise from other proposals. Take, as an example, the provisions for referendums. Non-binding referendums may be called by 5 per cent of the authority's total electorate or, in the case of a single electoral area-or two or more contiguous electoral areas or wards-by 5 per cent of the electors in that area or areas. They may also be called by one or more members of the authority, or in the case of a ward by a majority of members for the relevant area, or by one member if there is only one representing that ward. There are very limited grounds on which a council can decline to hold such a referendum. I fear that the potential for mischief here is simply enormous.
Political, religious or ethnic groups, possibly people with extremist views-perhaps even worse, disgruntled or attention- or election-seeking councillors in their wards-could generate referendums without limit, damaging community cohesion or effectively delaying the implementation of properly derived decision-making. There are better alternatives at present: for example, the councillor's call for action, citizen's petitions-the provisions for which the Bill, incidentally, abolishes-and
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As the noble Baroness pointed out, the Bill provides for compulsory referendums on the council tax levy where it is deemed excessive by the Secretary of State. This is capping by the back door, applied perhaps in different ways to different classes of authority, but without any close regard to the circumstances of the individual authority and with no ability to modify the cap after a referendum, as would be the case under the present-and, in the views of many of us, still unsatisfactory-system. But why should a referendum on council tax, especially given the complexity of the local government finance system, displace the role of the ballot box and elections in holding councils to account?
When it comes to planning and what the Bill terms "community empowerment", there are again many problems. In these areas, the impression is given that communities are inherently self-contained, able in large measure to determine their own preferences in isolation. Of course, for some purposes and in some areas-for example, parish councils-this may well be true, but if I look at my own experience in the ward I represent in the west end of Newcastle, I can count around 23 distinct areas in that ward alone, with a population of some 11,000. Those are in addition to communities of interest, based-as they might be-on age, gender, ethnicity, class or employment. It is the function of local government to mediate those interests and, with its partners, to shape the future not only of the individual areas but of the whole city or county.
The raft of propositions about neighbourhood forums-now expanded from the original three men and a dog in the first draft of the Bill to 21 people-the significantly named "community right to challenge" over the provision of services, and the provisions relating to community expressions of interest all have some potential for good. However, they also raise the dangers of nimbyism and the atomisation of local governance, which are of a piece with other government policies, such as those we see in education or the wholesale abandonment of regional or sub-regional structures, except for a vague duty to co-operate. Others will no doubt enlarge on these and other issues during this debate and in more detail in Committee.
I wish to conclude with two more worrying matters. The first relates to issues of propriety. I am disturbed-and so are some of the professional bodies-by the provisions relating to predetermination on the part of members in relation to planning matters. This appears to me to breach the quasi-judicial approach appropriate to such issues in planning and licensing. In addition to that, there is the proposal to make the existence of a community infrastructure levy a material consideration in planning. That could be regarded in effect as an inducement to sell planning permissions by the local authority.
The second concern is again a matter touched on lightly by the noble Baroness the Minister. It is the power under Part 2 of the Bill to require councils to pay fines levied by the European Union in respect of breaches of treaty obligations. I recently tabled a
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Finally there is one delicious irony in the Bill. Clause 28 repeals the duty to promote democracy which is established by Part 1 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. A Bill purportedly about local democracy repeals the duty to promote it. I need not-and your Lordships will be pleased to hear that I will not-say more.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, begin by congratulating the noble Baroness Lady Hanham on receiving the freedom of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I am not sure what privileges that confers upon her-she shakes her head rather sadly. Nevertheless it is a well-deserved honour. I also thank the Minister for the manner in which she introduced this Bill today. I welcome particularly her statement that the Government are still willing to listen and to try to address remaining concerns in the Bill where that is possible. That is certainly the approach that my noble friends and I will adopt and I hope it is one that will be shared on all sides of the House. To this end, it will be helpful if the Minister can agree today that any further amendments that the Government already have in mind will be introduced in Committee so that they can receive proper scrutiny and debate then and, if necessary, at later stages of the Bill.
As has been said, this is a huge Bill with many important and quite difficult provisions. I have half the time available to me that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, had, and he began by confessing that he was unable to address most of those provisions. My 10 Liberal Democrat colleagues who will speak later in this debate will certainly refer to many of them, notably those on housing and planning. If time had permitted today, I would have dealt with some of those in the early parts of the Bill, such as why some councils will have to wait three or four years-until after their next elections-to implement the governance changes they may wish to make. I would also have referred to the imposition of the EU fines and the many issues that are raised by the provisions on local referendums. Above all, I would have wanted to know how the imposition by the Secretary of State of unelected shadow mayors can possibly fit in a Bill entitled "Localism".
Instead, as this is the Second Reading, I shall confine my remarks to the principles of localism. I declare an interest as an executive councillor in the London Borough of Sutton. I have now been a councillor there for 37 years and was a Member of Parliament for exactly half that time. I was initially in the other place for a short time before I was first elected as a councillor. Shortly after I became a councillor, when I still had slightly longer service as an MP than as a councillor, the Conservative leader on my council, who was also the Conservative leader on the then Association of Metropolitan Authorities, told me I
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If I must declare myself as a member of either of those parties, I am firmly in the local government party. However, it is not as simple as that. My commitment is not particularly to a system, or a level-I prefer the word "sphere"-of government; it is to local democracy, and to local government only as the best vehicle for delivering local democracy. I am the first to say that local government is not always very good at doing that. Indeed, some local councils can be as controlling and reluctant to share their power as any central Government. Therefore, I was delighted when I first learnt that the coalition Government intended to introduce a Bill that would give effect to my party's long-held commitment to localism, or rather to local democracy. I must admit that the same commitment from our coalition partners does not have quite the same long pedigree, but blessed are the sinners who repent and we should welcome the zealousness of the converts.
However, too many statements and some actions by some Ministers have led me to wonder whether we share the same understanding of the word "localism". Indeed, parts of the Bill lead me to the same conclusion. I looked up "localism" in my dictionary, which defines it as,
or "another word for provincialism"-another word I had never heard of. I suppose that is a little better than "subsidiarity", which is not in my dictionary at all. I will not attempt a definition today, but it seems strange that we should have a Bill with a one-word title that clearly means very different things to different people, and parts of which seem to contradict a common understanding of its title.
To me, and I am sure to all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, it means local democracy and subsidiarity: decisions being taken as closely as possible by and with the people they affect. That includes the right to make the wrong decisions or, more accurately, decisions with which some of us, including and perhaps especially central government, may disagree. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches will judge the Bill by the extent to which it enables and enhances local democracy, and the extent to which it reduces or removes central control and interference.
Here it is important to understand that local democracy is not populism. It is not rule by the best organised, the most articulate, those who shout loudest or have the greatest vested interests; it is a system that allows all voices to be heard and listened to with equal respect, allows the decision-makers to be better informed when they make decisions and ensures that such decisions are made in the interests of the whole community. Above all, it is a system that ensures that the decision-makers are properly and effectively accountable to all the people affected by those decisions. We might even choose to call such a system "local government". For localism to work it is not necessary for central government
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My noble friends and I look forward to working with the Minister to ensure that by the time this Bill leaves this House it is truly worthy of its title as the Localism Bill, a Bill of which we can all be proud.
Lord Best: My Lords, I declare my local government interests as president of the Local Government Association and deputy chairman of Westminster City Council's standards board. I declare my voluntary and community sector interests as a member of the NCVO advisory board and a trustee of the RSA and other voluntary and charitable bodies, my social housing interests as chair of the Hanover Housing Association, and my planning interests as vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association. There go my seven minutes.
These interests sometimes lead me to take contradictory positions in the localism debate. One day I could be advocating more "power to the people" when arguing against an apparently high-handed central or local government decision; the next day I may be fearing that a so-called local community group really comprises self-appointed and self-interested individuals intent on blocking a much needed social or economic development for purely selfish reasons. I am a champion of decentralisation from Whitehall but, wearing my social housing hat, I can feel outrage when the Supporting People grants for local councils to help homeless and vulnerable people are siphoned off by some authorities for quite different purposes. I am concerned that stepping back from national standards in the planning system could mean poorer design. I am nervous about measures to remove national protections on rent levels and security of tenure for social housing tenants. I sympathise with those who decry the postcode lottery when a council uses its autonomy to cut disabled facilities grants that are so vital to helping people live independently at home.
There are inherent ambiguities and contradictions in the localism theme. By definition, fewer impositions of national requirements mean more local variations in services, and that inevitably means losers as well as gainers, especially when, as now, resources are being fiercely cut back. However, colours must be nailed to the mast; I for one accept that despite some discomfort and the inevitability of some local mistakes, the overarching intent of this Bill to move down the path of localism is sensible and worthwhile. Unless national government gives councils room to stand on their own feet and to learn to use their local knowledge, local ideas and local talent, the dead hand of centralism will for ever demoralise and disincentivise, national standardisation will suppress initiative and innovation, and Big Brother taking the decisions will deter local involvement and put people off participating as councillors and community leaders. Scrutiny in Committee will need to test whether the Bill really moves us in this direction, or whether for every step forward there is a step back.
My local authority colleagues argue that the 146 new central government powers-from processes for appointing local mayors to the powers for levying EU fines, the arrangements for referendums and the bureaucratic procedures for implementing new community rights-all mean that the Bill has tightened the grip of the Secretary of State. Others argue that double devolution to the neighbourhood level introduces a nimbys' charter that will undermine the new financial incentives, through a new homes bonus and a community infrastructure levy, for councils to secure badly needed extra homes.
On the theme of housing, I want to address the proposals for the reform of the local authority housing revenue accounts. I fear that they have missed the opportunity to allow councils to act more like housing associations in their freedom to borrow private finance and to recycle proceeds from land and property sales. One step forward, one step back? At this stage of the Bill's progress, I have both fears and hopes. I fear that until greater financial autonomy is passed down the line, local authorities will remain ultimately the creatures of the mighty Whitehall departments. I recognise that at this moment it is particularly difficult for localists to argue against civil servants who say, "Yes Minister, but not now". I hope that the Government will be a bit braver in letting go, supported by the noble Baroness, alongside many amendments on specific topics. I hope that your Lordships will remove some of the measures that undermine the Bill's localising objectives and that we will end up with legislation that genuinely decentralises to democratic local councils and gives them confidence to devolve decisions to communities keen to play their part in resolving local issues.
If we are to stimulate a more empowered, more resourceful local government sector that will attract leadership of the highest calibre and to unlock the energy and good will of a big society, a good society, we must ensure that the Bill takes us two steps forward.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I begin by saying that a family bereavement this morning means that if the House sits much longer than the estimated rising time I may have to leave to return to Norwich. I hope that that will not be necessary, but I apologise to the House if that proves to be so.
There have been frequent pleas from these Benches over the years to listen to the voice of local communities, so the overall aim of the Bill is certainly to be welcomed. Widespread disengagement from the political process is often linked with a feeling of powerlessness, and there is a need to restore a belief that the structures of our public life are not too complex to navigate or framed wholly in favour of those who already have power or wealth.
The Bill goes some distance in its effort to counter that widespread impression, and so wins my heart. It is my head that needs more convincing, because the Bill's 400 pages-I see that they have grown to 500 pages according to what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said-are so complex. Will the very complexity of what we are being offered undermine the Bill's good intentions? Will the politically literate, the well resourced,
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As I attempted to navigate my way through the proposals, one of the episodes of "Yes, Prime Minister" came to my mind. Your Lordships may recall that, for a short time, Jim Hacker toyed with the idea of taking power away from the local government machine and returning it to the people. The proposal was to create city villages, each with its own little council, a sort of Hackeresque neighbourhood forum. At the time, Hacker was locked in almost mortal combat with a glamorous left-wing council leader, Agnes Moorhouse, but they eventually found common cause when they realised that plans for truly representative local democracy would entirely undermine the party-political machine. I could not help wondering whether some elements of the complexity of the Bill were not driven by a similar dynamic. Only about 35 per cent of the population of England live in areas where there is a parish or town council. The bulk of the population of this country, urban as it is, lives in unparished areas, as many noble Lords will know. Intriguingly, the only genuinely parished organisation is the Church of England. More people serve on parochial church councils than parish councils.
The power of the PCC, elected bodies all, is one reason why local decision-making is still so significant in the Church of England. It is one reason why it is almost impossible to get a clear answer when asking what the Church of England thinks about anything. There are around 16,000 answers to any question. There are very distinctive differences between one neighbourhood and another. Indeed, even defining "neighbourhood" is not without its problems. It is left largely undefined in this Bill, yet there is a vast difference in a diocese like mine between rural settlements of little more than 100 people-we still call them villages in Norfolk-and city parishes in Norwich with 20,000 people.
In "The Vicar of Dibley" you can never quite tell whether it is the parochial church council or the parish council that is meeting, such is the entirely understandable overlap between village and church affairs. Yet in an urban parish of 20,000 people, which likes to think of itself as a neighbourhood, a handful of activists can be the voice of the local community or church while the neighbourhood, such as it is, feels largely disengaged from them. In a complex Bill, that real complexity on the ground is not recognised.
The positive features of this Bill-neighbourhood plans, forums and development orders, as well as any potential for further directly elected mayors and local referenda-all require lively agencies of local democracy. These have traditionally included local newspapers and, in the past generation, local radio. The dramatic decline in advertising revenue in local newspapers has made that sector very fragile. It has meant that the number of young journalists cutting their teeth in the local and regional press has been dramatically reduced. Some cuts in BBC local radio now seem inevitable with the freezing of the licence fee. Local and regional commercial radio now carries very little news at all. Only community radio, staffed largely by volunteers, beats the trend and could serve the purposes of this Bill well if sufficiently funded.
The restrictions on councils producing their own newspapers may be understandable but, if they could afford it, is there anything preventing local neighbourhood forums from publishing their own local newspaper, or would they be subject to the same restrictions? I am not yet convinced that online communication, democratic as access to it is, fully replaces these other agencies of local democracy. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on how this Bill relates to the Government's wider policy on the local and regional media. There seems to be some distance between them.
It is inevitable that passing authority to the local and neighbourhood level will create more local argument. Individuals in neighbourhoods speak with more than one voice. We should not fear this, and I presume this is why local referenda are included as a means of resolving local disputations. A closely fought referendum, although it may decide an issue, leaves a lot of losers. There may be some healing of wounds to be done in local communities if the good purposes of this Bill are fulfilled. The role of our church communities and their clergy and other community groups in the healing of such wounds might well be needed. However, we ought to recognise that more localism may not mean more harmony and unity in society. If we do not recognise that, we will be doing all the purposes of this Bill and the people it serves a disservice.
Baroness Eaton: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as chairman of the Local Government Association. That is a great honour which I will hold for only a few more weeks. However, after that time, I hope to continue to contribute on behalf of local government in this place. Having the pleasure of speaking after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and other noble Lords, I am reminded of the wealth of experience and knowledge in this House that continues to benefit local government enormously.
As a councillor, I have represented the ward of Bingley Rural since 1986 and served as leader of a large metropolitan authority, Bradford, from 2000 to 2006. I have seen first-hand how local government makes a positive difference to the lives of local people, whether through involving communities closely in local planning and development or responding to local demand for new services, new facilities and new ideas. Councils and councillors really are at the heart of their neighbourhoods, but equally I have experienced huge frustration when, as a councillor, I have been told, "You don't have the power to do that" or "You can't stray outside Whitehall guidelines". This gave the impression that local government was nothing more than the delivery agent for central government policy. This did a disservice to the excellent, innovative thinking from councillors and officers and led to a relationship in which councils felt compelled to wait for central government guidance on all sorts of issues in case they got a ticking off from Whitehall for being too keen.
"The years of government interference and micromanagement are over. Instead, we're starting an era of genuine local leadership ... part of my campaign to replace the command and control approach to local government with genuine localism".
This was cause enough for one of those street parties that the Government have been so keen on in recent months. There have been many positive moves in the past year that demonstrate a real commitment to localising and devolving power. We have seen the end of ring-fencing and the scrapping of the comprehensive area agreement, a barrier-busting exercise to scrap rules that block local government from doing its job. This is important work and it has been welcomed across local government. Now, in the Localism Bill, the Government have set out their radical vision for how local people will be much more involved in the decisions that affect their neighbourhoods.
The Bill is full of good ideas. Local government has particularly welcomed the general power of competence, something which we have requested for many years. The well-being power, which the general power will replace, was found to be wanting and left councils unwilling to use it for fear of their good work being overturned by the courts. A much stronger, more robust power of first resort has long been needed, and I am glad to see this in the Bill. The reform of the discredited and overcomplicated housing finance system is also very welcome, and I hope that the Government will look at expanding this reform to give councils the freedom they need to invest in social housing.
The Local Government Association has applauded the Government's intentions, but also expressed concern that in some places the Bill continues to use the legislative tools of times gone by, tools that have now been discredited. What we do not want to see-I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will agree-is an overly bureaucratic approach to localism that brings with it reams of Whitehall prescription and guidance. This approach can only block creativity and innovation.
Councils do not need more guidance to follow. In fact, this is the very mindset that we need to get away from. What works well in central Manchester will not be suitable for rural Cumbria, and centralised prescription takes no account of this. I do not believe that any council requires detailed rules on how to hold a referendum or how to keep a list of community assets. I am sure that this House will look closely at all parts of the Bill that give Whitehall powers to issue guidance and determine whether these are necessary or appropriate in the post-bureaucratic age we now live in.
It is also important that the Localism Bill does not allow for central government to force its will on to local people. This is antithetical to everything that the Government are trying to achieve and I do not believe that it was ever Ministers' intention. I am concerned that the policy on mayors, which will allow central government to require an area to have a "shadow mayor" and then hold a confirmatory referendum, is the wrong path to take. The change should come only after local people have decided that it is desirable, not before. I also do not think that elected mayors should be required to merge with chief executives. Their roles are resolutely separate, and the political impartiality of the chief executive is an important and long-standing precedent.
I also look forward to detailed discussion of the provisions on referenda. There are five different types of referenda, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham,
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It is important that we do not sideline local democracy in the push for local action and that we remember that councillors are democratically elected to take decisions on behalf of the people they serve. It would not be right for a referendum to be held simply to please Whitehall when there was no local demand for it or when it negated an elected council's mandate. This would be expensive, damaging and wasteful, at a time when we in local government are doing everything we can to curb waste.
Councils are also very worried about the EU fine clauses that we have already heard about. The Local Government Association has argued that these are unfair and unconstitutional and noted that they give unprecedented powers to Ministers to fine councils without scrutiny by Parliament or by the courts. Certainly there is concern that this policy, if unamended, could lead to long, expensive court proceedings as one part of government seeks to pass blame to another. This is not a situation that any of us would like to see, and we should do all we can to avoid it. Councils have committed to working closely with government to ensure that we are not fined in the first place. I hope that the Minister will reconsider this part of the Bill in Committee.
I stress in conclusion that I entirely support the intentions of the Bill. Local government has spent too long ticking boxes and kow-towing to the demands of central government, and it is very clear that this must come to an end. We must then ensure that the Bill achieves its lofty aims. I look forward to continuing these enlightening discussions in Committee.
Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, in the short time available I will focus my comments on two areas of the Bill that will have a great impact on local communities and councils: community empowerment, covered in Part 4 of the Bill, and housing reforms, covered in Part 6.
I will start with community empowerment, which could be described as the "people power" element of the Bill. This part of the Bill gives a community the right to challenge a council over the provision of local services, and a new right to buy local assets such as libraries, swimming pools and community centres.
Make no mistake: I am in favour of giving people a greater say in the way their local communities and services are run. I have spent much of my career promoting this very issue and I have learnt that it is not enough to focus on removing suspected barriers, for example by increasing the powers of local authorities to commission services from the voluntary and community sectors. The issue is not lack of interest. We know that there is a great appetite in those sectors to do more, but they can do more only if they are given the right kind of support to make it happen.
We will see a transformation in the way that we provide public services in this country only if we provide investment to ensure that there is capacity building, including training, guidance and coaching, alongside support for infrastructure development, in place for the new commissioning arrangements to work. This is even more vital in these times of fiscal constraints and major cuts in core funding for local government. When this is considered in the context of a Bill that seeks to increase community involvement and service delivery, it leads me to question whether the proposals are a poor attempt to replace highly developed and expert services, which deal day by day with a variety of complex and challenging community needs, with an underdeveloped and poorly resourced alternative. This is not the way to empower communities.
And what of fairness? We have already seen the extreme differences in impact across authorities, especially between the north and south of the country, that the government cuts have produced-cuts that clearly are having a more profound effect in the most deprived and disadvantaged areas. The Government fail to recognise that not all communities have the same level of resources-either financial or professional. This Government have said that fairness is at the heart of their reforms. Would the Minister explain how the Government see fairness working in this Bill? What happens to minority groups that are excluded from the process? How will their voices be heard and how will the Government ensure that communities with fewer resources are not left disadvantaged?
The right to challenge, which is intended to put voluntary and community charities on the front foot when it comes to running public services, is meaningless without the investment to make it work. Words in a Bill will not empower local groups to challenge local authority bureaucracy and poor performance if they lack the support that will give them the time, the understanding and the skills to carry out this challenge.
This is not being condescending, but of course local people know more about what works and how things should be done in an area-they are the ones who experience services at first hand. In fact, there are many examples of this kind of community challenge and involvement taking place. We must ask, however, what would motivate people to want to do more, such as taking over services or assets rather than have the council deliver them. If community groups get involved in running these services, how will we ensure that they are properly accountable on service standards and use of public money? The right to challenge offers no redress to those communities. It simply does not empower them.
The Government seem to expect that the shifts in power from councils to local communities can occur without the right levels of investment. But without this investment, many of the essential processes will not be in place and this will place unintended new burdens on the community and voluntary sectors, which will have to navigate a way through this new system. Will the Minister tell me why the right cannot be used in reverse and why the direction of travel is only one way? Surely, what we need is a partnership between local government and communities rather
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I want briefly to consider Part 6 of the Bill, which contains the housing provisions. I am deeply concerned by these provisions. The provision of social housing is one of the great and essential public goods of our society. For those on low incomes, social housing provides, through security of tenure, the means to continue working and to enjoy private and family life. It sustains cohesion in our communities.
The arguments put forward in defence of the housing provisions are that "flexible" tenancies should give more freedom to local authority landlords and allow them to manage their stock more effectively and should ensure that the occupation of social housing better reflects actual need. The provisions will allow local authorities to offer fixed tenancies for a minimum of two years, rather than secure lifetime tenancies, which are the norm at the moment. It is clear, however, that this provision has not taken into account the devastating impact that short-term tenancies can have on the most vulnerable in our communities. For example, having to move several times can have the most profound effect on the mental health of children-indeed, on the whole family.
What about the broader impact on the whole community? Short-term tenure reduces new tenants' commitment to their neighbourhood and homes. It undermines their willingness to invest time and energy in the fabric of the housing, the garden and the local environment. There is also the very unpleasant suggestion behind these housing clauses that social housing is to be viewed as some kind of failure to move on and make the most of life. This ignores the fact that, throughout their lives, individuals and families already have pathways through which they can move into different housing types and tenures and through different styles of accommodation in different neighbourhoods.
In fact, by reducing security of tenure, this Government will bring about a much greater restriction on social mobility. Furthermore, I can envisage a situation where these provisions result in more people complaining and seeking to redress what will clearly be a more unfair and discriminatory process.
This brings me to one further issue that I can only assume is an error in a Bill that seeks to empower people. I refer to the reform of social housing regulations in Clause 158. Currently, any person who feels that a complaint has not received satisfaction locally is entitled to take the complaint to the Housing Ombudsman. People may choose, if they wish, to involve their local MP or elected councillors in this process. Under the new provisions in the Bill, this right is to be replaced by an additional layer of bureaucracy that will require people first to involve MPs, councillors or tenants panels in resolving complaints locally before they are sent to the ombudsman. Will the Minister say why this additional layer of bureaucracy is regarded as necessary for housing regulation? Does this mean that the Government intend to restrict all ombudsman services in this manner in future?
I move on to what I think is one of the Bill's most potentially harmful provisions: the reform of the homelessness legislation. Under this provision, the
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Changes in the Bill to the homelessness duty raise serious questions about the rights of some of society's most vulnerable people. Homeless families will no longer be able to refuse unsuitable accommodation in the private rented sector. This could lead to vulnerable adults and children being housed in inappropriate and insecure settings where their mental health and well-being could be seriously threatened. As we are all aware, homelessness is an isolating and destructive experience, and homeless people are some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded in our society and include people with mental health problems, disabilities and alcohol and drug problems.
I understand that the Bill contains a safeguard whereby those made unintentionally homeless within two years of having their homelessness duty passed to the private rented sector are still entitled to housing assistance whether or not they are still in priority need. However, I do not think that this is sufficient protection. Although help will be offered to those who suffer repeat homelessness, a series of failed tenancies can be very damaging. For example, if vulnerable applicants are housed in the private rented sector with insufficient support, they may get into arrears, or their relationship with the landlord or other tenants may break down. In this case they may be considered intentionally homeless and thus not entitled to support. What protections does the Minister envisage will be in place to ensure that there is adequate support for those who are vulnerable and moved to 12-month private sector tenancies to prevent them descending into a spiral of repeat homelessness?
I have only briefly touched on two areas that I believe are essential for us to get right not just for the protection of the vulnerable and needy but for all our welfare in sustaining and strengthening communities. Alongside the funding cuts facing local authorities, this Bill runs a risk of deepening existing social inequalities, particularly in the north of the country.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: In every speech on local government I have made in your Lordships' House in the 11 years that I have been here, I have called for government to introduce the power of general competence. I am going to have to think about something else now because I am really pleased to see that the Government have finally brought it forward. I am also very pleased to see the abolition of the Standards Board. It is a body which, while well intentioned, in practice led to a constant stream of vexatious and often trivial claims which were highly damaging to the individuals concerned and really bad for the reputation of councillors and local government as a whole. I am also pleased to see that the committee system is returning as an option for local councils, although I cannot for
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The idea of merging the mayor with the chief executive is quite frankly barmy. The whole rationale behind elected mayors is to have a high-visibility candidate, someone with quite different skills from the managerial qualifications that you would expect a good head of paid service to have. I have no doubt that it will go through, but if someone came to this House with a proposal that Ministers should become Permanent Secretaries, there would be an absolute uproar.
There is a sort of schizophrenia evident in the Bill. There are parts that are genuinely localist. For example, I was really pleased to see the dismantling of the provisions in the 2007 Act which told local councils how to receive a petition, but I saw with dismay an even more regimented system for bringing in referendums. Where I live in mid-Suffolk, we are having a referendum right now on whether to merge with the local council. The councils got on and did it. They did not need primary legislation to do it, and this provision should not be in this Bill because, as it is envisaged, I fear it will be divisive and I think it will be very costly. There is still a tendency to reach for regulatory answers to every question. If the Government are serious about localism they have to go far beyond the boundaries of just this department and create a localism audit on all new legislation coming forward.
We have a real problem here. Too often, local councils are frozen like rabbits in the headlights of the legal profession and tend to take the safest option on offer. The sparse use of the Sustainable Communities Act and the general power of well-being is testament to that. My fear is that the general power of competence will go the same way. With so much other regulation, both from this department and imposed by others, councils and citizens will simply be unsure about what they can do, a point so well made by the right reverend Prelate.
I am struck by the fact that, despite the general power, I have been deluged with requests from councils and other organisations to request specific powers and duties to be put in the Bill. Clearly, they share the same concerns that the general power of competence simply will not do the job. I was particularly struck by an approach made to me by councillors in Cambridge who, like councillors across the country, are seeking to protect the special character of a shopping street, Mill Road. They are not confident that the general power will give them enough power to override the 2,500 pages of existing planning law, which they believe prevent them from taking the steps that they need to take in order to preserve the special character of the street. I am not at all sure that the changes to the planning system in this Bill will give councils the flexibility that they need to manage their streets in the way that their citizens want. I am sure that we will spend a lot of time on this issue in Committee but it seems to me that if
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The actions of local government are too often bounded by what they have a statutory duty to do and by what they are barred from doing by other regulations. We need to create more space in the middle, a discretionary space, where councils can do as they see fit. If one looks simply at the six clauses in this Bill relating to assets of community value, there are 54 things on which the Secretary of State will need to issue regulations. In my view, this is a massive job creation programme for CLG civil servants and for parliamentary draftsmen.
The elephant in the room of course is money. While three-quarters of local authority spend comes from central government, it is inevitable that central government will seek to impose control. The very complexity of local finance will mean that if there are referenda on council tax increases, they will become just a sort of shouting match between central and local government-a battle of percentages-which in the end will freeze and turn off local voters. Given the cost of a council-wide referendum, what we have here is capping by any other name.
Genuine local accountability is impossible while this system persists. It goes to the heart of a healthy local democracy. A lack of clarity about financial responsibility, the maze of statutory provisions and the demise of the local press in many areas combine together to work against a responsive local democratic system. To my mind, this is made far worse by the bundling together of elections on the same day. I fought, and won, two county council elections on general election day. I speak from experience when I say how hard it is to get any oxygen for local issues when elections are fought concurrently. Of course, turnout is higher but, if many of the people turning out are paying no regard to local issues, the cause of local accountability is not enhanced at all. The devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales have been given the option to choose whether to hold elections on a day other than that of the general election. Perhaps we should think about local councils being given the same option. There is nothing magical about the first Thursday in May.
This Bill has some good points but it is overly bureaucratic and remains overly centralised. Let us hope that the Government are prepared to listen to what noble Lords have to say today and in Committee and are prepared to make some changes.
Lord Adebowale: My Lords, I should declare an interest as chief executive of Turning Point, an organisation that provides community commissioning services in many local authorities; and as a member of the Audit Commission, which, as I have often said, is a struggle.
The Government's Bill initiates a power shift; a shift of power from central government to local communities, and in my view that is a good intention. The experience of my own organisation in working with many local communities is that communities in
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However, my concern is that many of the local communities that would benefit from being empowered are often in the most deprived areas and are the most deeply affected by unmet needs, with the related unemployment, low skill levels and health inequalities that are the inevitable result. Communities often know what they want, but are denied access to the resources necessary to become empowered. It is true that all communities should have the chance to assert the right to challenge, but my concern is that there will not be equality in resource and social investment in these communities. This point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford.
Turning Point's experience of supporting over 100,000 people in these communities to develop new services has led me to believe that, by empowering communities, a challenge to the local authority is often created. Generally, power is not given up without a fight. While I can see that the intention is to give communities the right to request, there is no duty to provide the resources necessary for communities in the poorest areas to gain the necessary skills, infrastructure and resources to fight the power. It should not be assumed that local communities, particularly in the poorest areas, are formed by some magical process, and it should not be assumed that such infrastructure and empowerment is free. Indeed, Turning Point has found that it is not a lack of money in many places, it is how the money is spent and who is making the decisions on behalf of communities. There is a risk of the Bill unintentionally exacerbating the inverse care law as it applies to power and power differentials between the poorest and the richest communities.
I turn to housing issues, which again were also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford. There is of course a crisis in the balance between supply and demand for housing in the UK, and no more starkly are the effects of this imbalance felt than in social housing. I am concerned about the intention to remove lifetime tenancies while reforming the homelessness duty accorded to local authorities. These reforms are intended to free up the availability of social housing, but they will have the opposite effect. These proposals may have unintended consequences that will oppose what this legislation is setting out to achieve.
It is acknowledged that there is a need for a significant period of stability when someone is given access to social housing. I question whether the time limits set out in the Bill are long enough for individuals with entrenched and complex needs to make the changes required to create stability in their lives. Limited tenure is likely to obstruct the social good of mixed and diverse communities. The social housing population is likely to become more transient, which could lead to further alienation as the social capital which maintains
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Similarly, limited tenure may act as a disincentive for people to improve their situation, which would go against the intention of the Bill. Those who excel in education and employment opportunities, or who work to challenge their substance misuse or seek support in addressing their mental health difficulties, could actually be penalised, and the security of their home may be taken away. This uncertainty is likely to increase if local authorities are given the right to discharge their homelessness duty through offering a private-sector tenancy of 12 months without the prior consent of the tenant.
We all know that the private rented market is more unstable than social housing. There is also the increased risk that those with complex needs may become further alienated from the source of support that they should expect, which again is a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford. The vagaries of some private landlords who put profit before tenants will be given free rein to take advantage of some of the most vulnerable in society. For instance, research by Shelter found that some landlords target those with substance misuse difficulties and other challenges in the belief that they will be more amenable to poor-quality, shared accommodation. The links between mental health and housing also show the wider effects of these reforms. Poor housing can contribute to mental health difficulties and, similarly, people who experience mental ill health can find it difficult to access quality accommodation. According to the mental health charity Mind, research suggests that people with mental health difficulties are twice as likely to be unhappy with their housing and four times as likely to say that their housing makes their health worse.
The impact of complex needs can mean that it is harder for some people to maintain private sector tenancies, especially without the increased support often available through social housing. Yet it is possible to have a situation in which the most vulnerable in society can be given private tenancies without their consent, which could exacerbate their problems and cost more in the long run. Housing is a crucial element of health and well-being-an agenda that is given increasing prominence. For the clients that Turning Point and other organisations support, stable, appropriate housing is well established as a key component in recovering from substance misuse, mental health and, indeed, managing issues such as learning disabilities. These reforms should not be allowed to endanger this hard-won progress and further obstruct government policy in other areas. I should like to hear specific remarks from the Minister on how those risks will be mitigated in the Bill.
To address that oversight, I should like assurances that those with complex needs who are given private sector tenancies will have the right to access social housing if they are again made homeless. It is important that any proposed reforms to social housing achieve a
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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I was quite tempted to address many different aspects of this Bill which have a curious familiarity, but I will concentrate on the planning sections. I am wearing two hats: first, as chair of English Heritage, I thank the Minister for what has already been done to improve the Bill in another place, and I shall come back to that at the end of my speech; secondly, I want to record my dismay both at the regressive nature of some of the proposed changes to planning and-in this rather curious combination of legislation-at the untested and confused nature of some of the more radical elements around neighbourhood planning. My fears are shared by many of the professionals and people outside this House who will have to make the Bill work.
Like many Members of this House, I can welcome some of the proposals, such as the specific proposals for a community right to buy and a community right to challenge, but the key question, which has been raised already by many noble Lords, is how we can guarantee that the Bill will work. The job of this House, in addition to guarding constitutional proprieties, relates to the workability test. At the moment, sadly, I am not convinced how the Bill, with its many good aspects, will achieve the ambitions for growth in planning and housing given the inherent contradictions in it.
The first contradiction is over what the Government want and expect from the planning system and these reforms. Planning is essentially about the best use of land and resources. It is about achieving a balance between all the things we need, whether that is about more jobs and affordable housing, energy security and green space or agriculture and high-speed trains. They all have to be accommodated, and the challenge for a modern planning system is to balance potentially infinite demands with finite resources. That is why the system must have the capacity to be strategic and it must be informed by a wider view of how things can fit together-a spatial view. That is precisely what we have lost in this Bill. With the loss of regional spatial strategies, we have lost the strategic content for planning and any means of mediating tensions between national, or even global, imperatives and local perspectives. Floods, minerals and housing have to be planned for across boundaries; they play out on wide spatial scales and they are contentious issues.
The Minister has already spoken about the duty to co-operate, but she will know from her extensive briefing that there is grave concern about the efficacy of a voluntary duty to consider co-operation which does not require local authorities to co-operate. We do not even know yet which areas of policy or which geographical areas will be covered. What is likely to happen when it comes to issues which divide local authorities and which have to be planned for beyond boundaries, such as waste incinerators or flood risk?
There are few more contentious issues than housing supply. Whatever the complaints about the regional spatial strategies, they had some merits: they were evidence based, independent and offered a coherent way of looking at where housing was needed and could be provided according to land resource. The regional spatial strategy also provided a mediating process for local authorities; now local authorities are on their own and face unforgiving housing pressures.
The Minister said that only 110,000 homes were built last year, but now that the national housing and planning advice unit has been abolished can she tell me how the housing needs for the nation as a whole will be assessed? How many houses does she think the country will need this year, next year or the year after? Perhaps she will refer me to the new homes bonus. I accept that that may act as a spur to housing in growth areas, but it will not help poorer communities where the need is for regeneration and renewal-take the case of Liverpool, for example. Indeed, the TCPA and the Joseph Rowntree Trust suggest that it will reinforce structural inequalities between regions. I am afraid that, on the analysis, the outcome is all too predictable. How would the Minister interpret that dichotomy?
My noble friend has already referred to Clause 124, on financial incentives. I and many others have grave concerns about the clause, because we have for the first time in planning legislation an explicit priority given to financial incentives in the planning system. This is a major distortion of what planning is there to do. It has set many alarm bells ringing, because it could lead to grave consequences. Where is the wider planning interest in this? Where is the interest which compensates for sustainability or affordability? Much wider issues should be taken into account.
I turn from the regressive to the untested elements of the Bill. We are told that the key planning document will now be the local development frameworks. Barely a third of them have been completed, but the neighbourhood development orders, these radical new powers, are required to conform with them. What will happen where there is no LDF in place? How many neighbourhood forums does the Minister anticipate? I have seen a figure of 25,000. Can she confirm what has already been put about, that some of them could cost as much as £200,000? But the crucial question is what exactly they will be free to plan for. If they do not cover housing allocations, waste or minerals, what are they left to do?
The lack of reference to sustainability opens up a second major contradiction. Whereas the Budget statement seemed to take a very simplistic view of planning in which growth and sustainability were at odds with each other, we now seem to have a default position in which economic growth is to be the principal determinant of planning.
The Minister in the other place was insistent that this and many other aspects of policy would be made clear in the national policy planning framework, which will be the key to getting the planning system right. Its purpose is to streamline all existing planning guidance, but we do not yet have the final version. We have only a draft version, apparently commissioned by CLG and produced by a group of "practitioners", which has been described by the TCPA, for example, as
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I come back, finally, to heritage protections. What concerns us in the heritage community is that the protections around the historic environment in this draft document are in fact weaker than existing protections in the recent, modernised planning document on heritage protection-PPS5-which was praised as valued and successful, only two weeks ago, by the Minister for Tourism and Heritage. Indeed, he expressed his concern that it must not be thrown out with the bathwater in order to make the NPPF an all-new document, because it is such a useful and clear document. I am sure that the Minister will want to talk to him. The problem is that this document, for example, fails to recognise the spectrum of heritage assets, which extends from undesignated to nationally designated assets, or how to find new viable uses for useable heritage assets. If these elements were to find their way into the final draft, we would be left with a weaker set of protections around heritage. We do not want to do that.
I will let the Minister have a full list of areas of concern, which will also include the problems raised by undesignated archaeology, which again is in a rather unfortunate position in relation to the NDOs. I know that is something she will want to know about. I know the Minister is going to respond to me in the very positive way that she has already done when we raised issues with her at an earlier stage of the Bill. Indeed, without her interventions, we might now be faced with a clause that explicitly removed protections around conservation areas and listed building settings in relation to neighbourhood development orders. I am extremely grateful that the Government have now corrected this and I am very grateful to her personally.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister is able to respond to some of my concerns this evening. I have raised them in the wider spectrum: the increased uncertainty, reduced confidence in the objectivity of planning and abolition of the necessary ability to plan strategically-not least because we are at a time when we have never needed greater foresight, intelligence and objectivity in the planning system. The Minister began by saying she was willing to listen. I would expect nothing less from her and I am sure that, across the House, we can improve this Bill in the way we need to.
The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, like many in the House, I warmly welcome this Localism Bill and the desire to empower communities and shift power to local communities. Many of us will be aware of the
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The clue comes in the language. The Bill uses the phrase "community empowerment". As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, talking about Athens and Pericles, you might just about imagine a community in Athens, which was, I think, about 5,000 people. You might also have a sense of community in a medieval town, with its segments of people living in different crafts. However, since the rise of 19th-century industrial cities, modern cities and now the mobility of people in rural areas, the physicalness that created community has disappeared largely from people's lives. The Bill recognises this, in that although it talks about communities and community empowerment, it majors in its solution on the notion of neighbourhood, which is rather different. It talks about neighbourhood forums, neighbourhood plans and referendums-mechanisms for a neighbourhood to try to help community happen. But there are very important informal elements that create community and give people a sense of well-being and direction in life which need to be taken account of if these neighbourhood mechanisms are going to be inhabited as the Bill envisages.
I would like to share the results of research by the Church Urban Fund, which has looked at 232 faith-based projects working in the 10 per cent most needy areas of our country. It would seem to me that the test of any localism is how you include those normally excluded. This research looks at the 10 per cent of those in the most needy areas and the projects working with them. Sixty per cent of those projects report an alarming collapse in their capacity to engage with this local agenda-partly through the withdrawal of grants and partly through the collapse of the capacity of local government to be an agency in making communities. That is a very serious picture. If one test of localism is how we involve the most easily excluded, we have to think carefully about inhabiting this Localism Bill and how it can really work.
The danger in the way the Bill is couched is that neighbourhood mechanisms will most easily be inhabited by those who already have economic and social capital. There is a great danger that assets and services could be taken over and controlled by private finance and particular interest groups and not really draw on the local community. Research that the Church Urban Fund has done in my own diocese showed the struggles of a family centre trying to create families with stable lives and, in youth work, with trying to bring young people into society. We have to invest in these things. Besides trying to create the opportunity and structures that the Bill highlights, you will empower people's participation only if you give them the resources to do it. There is a tremendous resource deficit, particularly in the most needy communities. There must be some joined-up thinking in government if we are really going to make this Localism Bill operate. It is a thing
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Lord Wei: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as a voluntary adviser to the Community Foundation Network, a movement that seeks to improve society in the UK through philanthropy. I thank the Minister for sponsoring the Bill and for introducing it in such a listening manner-a Bill in which there is plenty to welcome as well as to discuss.
The Bill is an incredibly significant piece of legislation in that it sets out some of the key foundations for the big society, enabling a major shift by decentralising power and strengthening local initiative. In doing so, it creates a tangible empowerment of communities and neighbourhood groups. While community empowerment is only one ingredient in the big society recipe, alongside public service reform and encouragement of social action, it is a very important one. As those of us who have worked closely on local issues will be only too aware, for too long many communities have seen their hopes and ideas frustrated by an overly bureaucratic system or felt powerless against overbearing third parties, whether public, private or voluntary, which for whatever reason have, often unintentionally, overridden the wishes of local people.
This Bill and the big society itself are an attempt to redress that state of affairs, bring balance and help rebuild trust between those who have power and those who are subject to it. This Bill will bring together many provisions to eliminate some of the hurdles in local government planning and housing that make people feel powerless and apathetic. I want to highlight a few in particular and outline some areas that will need to be handled with care.
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