June 15, 2007
Nick Hurd moves a new Clause 6 of the Sustainable Communities Bill as amended by the Public Bill Committee.
As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 6
LOCAL AUTHORITIES: TRANSFER OF FUNCTIONS
’(1) After considering the information in a local spending report a local authority may, subject to this section, make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for a transfer of functions from one person to another.
(2) A local authority may not make a recommendation for a transfer of functions pursuant to subsection (1) unless it has consulted-
(a) the person whose functions it relates to; and
(b) the person to whom the local authority considers the functions should be transferred.
(3) Within 6 months of receiving any recommendations the Secretary of State must either adopt and implement (or commence the process of implementation) or reject the recommendation, and in either case shall give reasons for his decision.
(4) If any functions are transferred pursuant to this section,
(a) the moneys for the discharge of those functions shall also be transferred, and
(b) any local authority to which the functions are transferred may determine the policies to deliver the objectives of the function, having regard to the authority’s own community strategy.
(5) At least once in every calendar year the Secretary of State must publish a report listing all decisions taken by him pursuant to this section and containing the reasons for those decisions.’.- [Mr. Hurd.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 22, page 4, line 21, clause 4, at end insert-
‘( ) The Secretary of State must make the first arrangements under this section within the period of 18 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.’
No. 23, page 4, line 26, leave out ‘commencement of that subsection’ and insert
‘day on which this Act is passed’.
No. 24, page 4, line 27, leave out ‘commencement’ and insert ‘day’.
No. 25, page 4, line 28, leave out clause 5.
Mr. Hurd: I rise to move the new clause, numb with the realisation that it is almost five months to the day since the Bill passed its Second Reading in this Chamber. At times it has seemed a lot longer than that; there were periods when it seemed that the Bill would never leave Committee and that it was the fate of those condemned to serve on it to spend every Wednesday morning of their elected life turning up at Committee Room 10 to be told that they had to wait. I was once asked whether we were waiting for Godot or for Gordo, but the truth is that we were waiting for Government amendments, which were necessary because the version of the Bill that was considered on 19 January was honest but imperfect.
Amendments and new clauses have finally arrived, and they reflect the fact that we still have a bit of talking to do on Report. That is unsurprising, as the Bill is controversial. It plays a modest part in a wider process of great change in how decisions in the public sector on behalf of the communities we serve will be taken in future.
In considering new clause 6, it is important to remind Members of the premise of the Bill. In shaping the future of the communities where we live and work, meet our partners and friends and raise our children and grandchildren, we must accept that local people know best. If we want to engage local people in decisions we must give them greater influence and power over them, and as we agreed during our proceedings-the Minister accepts this-power is money.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting his Bill to this stage. In terms of new clause 6, I agree with the thrust of what he says: local people know best and they should have more control over things. However, does he agree that the Bill is only as good as the Secretary of State, and that it is implicit in it that the Secretary of State thinks that local people know best? Does he have confidence in that?
Mr. Hurd: I accept the premise of my hon. Friend’s intervention. In the end, these matters will be down to the will of the individual Secretary of State. There are always ways and means that they can use: if the Secretary of State of the day is unhappy with the mechanics, processes and principles underlying the Bill, I am sure that clever people will be engaged to throw as many obstacles as possible in the way. However, I sense that there is a cross-party consensus in the House in favour of greater devolution. The test is how far any Government are prepared to go.
That brings me on to the main point on new clause 6. It is intended to replace clause 5, which is the key clause in the Bill as it is the ultimate test. It is the real test of how far any Government are prepared to go in giving people power, because it is designed to give them much greater influence over how money is spent in their community. As I have said, our sense during our deliberations is that the Government are genuinely committed to devolution; a large body of their legislation travels in that direction. However, we appear to have hit a buffer in terms of the test I have described and what the Government are prepared to accept.
New clause 6 is supported by the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). It is intended to be a compromise, and it is important to set it in context. You do not need me to tell you that five follows four, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Clause 4 is important, and therefore so is what follows it. I like to think of it as a small grenade thrown into the tranquil pool of public spending. There are currently plenty of fish swimming in that pool leading a calm life, but clause 4-an emotive term historically for the Labour party-will stir the waters. If the provisions of the clause are implemented, for the first time every community will be able to see how almost every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in that community; it is currently impossible to trace such money in that way. The example that we used in Committee was of £9 billion of taxpayers’ money being invested in Kent and only £2.5 billion-still a huge amount-being under the control of the local authority. That left £7 billion being spent by central Government in a way that is very hard to map.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): My hon. Friend will know, as will the Minister, that the London borough of Bromley has raised this issue on an number of occasions. We have highlighted the difficulty of tracing precisely how much funding all the agencies receive. In relation to formula grant, the headline figures often bear little relation to what is actually available and frequently render meaningless the various indices by which the Government calculate deprivation and so on. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important proposal for much greater transparency and local planning.
Mr. Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for his constructive intervention. It is helpful for us to understand that this is a real issue in Bromley.
The Minister fully understands the significance of clause 4, and the opportunity that it provides to place every public sector budget under scrutiny with a much greater degree of transparency than exists today. The question is: how will the public react? They might shrug with a great gesture of collective indifference, but we believe that they will not. Once the spotlight has been shone into every nook and cranny of public expenditure, great curiosity will be aroused and elected representatives will be encouraged to campaign for something different. This will really stir things up.
The importance of new clause 6-and old clause 5-is that it has to follow on because it enables a response. We will give people the information and show them the money. This provision provides a mechanism that will allow them to respond and to argue for the reallocation of resources in the light of the information that they have received.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind my making a minor criticism. Why did he not include in subsection (5) a duty on the Secretary of State to report back to the House?
Mr. Hurd: The short answer to that question is that we did. We had considerable debate in Committee on the mechanics of accountability. The great driving forces behind the Bill are transparency, accountability and empowering people. There was a debate about the need for the Secretary of State to report back to Parliament, but there was push-back from the Government on that. Perhaps the Minister will comment further on that when he responds today. I would also encourage my right hon. Friend to come back to the Minister on that point.
The new clause will allow a local authority to come back as a clear first among equals and to say, “We and the communities that we serve know that we have different priorities.