Thursday, 28 February 2013

John Pugh's ten-minute rule bill

While waiting for the result from Eastleigh, parliamentary anoraks should enjoy John Leech's witty speech from mid-day yesterday introducing his Ten-Minute Rule Bill drawing attention to the fraught relationship between local and central Government (, Column 316).

Given where we are in the parliamentary timetable, one would have to be wholly ignorant or severely optimistic to assume that the Bill I propose stands any chance whatever of becoming law—this year. Although as a Lib Dem I am equipped by necessity with boundless reserves of cheery optimism, I have no expectation of seeing the Bill mature into legislation. So confident am I of seeing it strangled at birth that I did think of calling it the “Local Government and Futile Measures Bill”, only to realise that the additional phrase probably applied to much of the legislation in this place. I am far from disheartened, however, because such events, apart from seeming a piece of typically British, eccentric constitutional indulgence, or useful occupational therapy for Back Benchers, can have an effect, by putting, or keeping, on the agenda important key themes. My last foray in this role was an attempt to introduce a Bill to enhance, or provide, democratic accountability for NHS services. The Government have now actually done that, although I would like to think that my proposals, which involved the creation of no new institutions or structures, offered a more elegant, less expensive and less complex solution than that contrived by the Government in the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

Parliament, Brussels notwithstanding, has unfettered power, or what Lord Hailsham referred to as elective dictatorship. Local government also has powers, but they can be increased, decreased, removed or added to, fettered or unfettered, by us in Parliament. Governments often promise—I have heard them do so—to liberate or empower local government, but the liberation of local government by central Government often resembles Stalin’s post-war liberation of eastern Europe, as it simply allows discretion to decide on how to implement unpopular policies, thereby sharing or deflecting the blame.

Largely, and insistently, central Government retain all their rights to interfere in any area, at will, with little or no notice. I am not making a party political point; it is not in the DNA of central Government, irrespective of who is in power, to give away power that matters, and one can understand why. Local government deals with huge areas of national importance—education, social care, transport, the environment, the economic vitality of communities—and Ministers simply cannot be uninterested in what local government does or how it does it, so they keep in reserve, understandably, a range of powers, regulations and incentives to influence how local government performs. Parliament will not have its will crossed—it is, as they say, an elective dictatorship. The Bill aspires not to change any of that, but strives more modestly to stop elective dictatorship becoming or turning into elective tyranny.
The distinction is rather helpfully illustrated by the exemplary behaviour of our current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [Eric Pickles]. Only someone as gifted as him in the art of irony could possibly have introduced a Localism Bill—with over 100 new powers ascribed to himself. Only someone with a feel for the truly comic could wring £250 million out of the Chancellor in hard-pressed times in order that statesmen can interfere with the nation’s bins and council collection times, or could instructively chastise and threaten councils that have set their council tax exactly within the limits he himself laid down. As he himself has said, he takes liberties, but presumably only to demonstrate through a process of reductio ad absurdum how little power local government really has and how it can be removed, changed or denatured by the whim of Whitehall.
It seems to me that having to make clear Whitehall’s interest in interfering, as it does, with council’s planning policies, housing targets and borrowing arrangements, which are all contentious areas, and having to make a case and then abide by it, could hopefully throw up a plethora of anomalies and unjustifiable restraints and perhaps expose the dead-weight influence of state bureaucracy accrued over a fair period, which cannot be a bad thing. It might, in the process, rid me of an abiding and disturbing image of the Secretary of State as a languid eastern potentate or sultan governing by mood or arbitrary decree, and it would hopefully put the fraught relationship between local and central Government on a business-like footing. This issue, which has been raised in various parts of the House and in a number of different places, will not go away, unlike my Bill, which I commend to the House.

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