Amendment 61

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords am 4:00 pm ar 13 Gorffennaf 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Earl Howe:

Moved by Earl Howe

61: After Clause 78, insert the following new Clause—“The Common Council of the City of London: removal of voting restrictions(1) In section 618 of the Housing Act 1985 (the Common Council of the City of London), omit subsections (3) and (4).(2) In section 224 of the Housing Act 1996 (the Common Council of the City of London), omit subsections (3) and (4).”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment removes the restrictions in section 618 of the Housing Act 1985 and section 224 of the Housing Act 1996 on members of the Common Council of the City of London from voting as a member of the Council, or a committee of that Council, on matters relating to land in which they have a beneficial interest.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the amendments in this group are all concerned in one way or another with devolution. To start, I beg to move government Amendment 61; I will also speak to Amendment 309. Taken together, they pick up a proposal made by my noble friend Lord Naseby in Committee about the voting rights of members of the Common Council of the City of London. Having considered the issue raised by my noble friend, the Government are of the view that there is merit in correcting the disparity that applies uniquely to members of the Common Council of the City of London, preventing them voting on housing matters when they are also tenants of the council. These government amendments will allow common council members to apply for a dispensation to vote, bringing the City of London into line with the disclosable interest regime that applies to all other local authority members via the Localism Act 2011. I commend them to the House and will be happy to respond to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, once she has spoken to it.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Llafur

My Lords, for the last two years a very nasty, cruel war has been waged only two or three thousand kilometres to the east of here by the Russians who attacked Ukraine quite gratuitously under the orders of Mr Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. He is a man who, I think everybody knows, identifies with the most imperialistic Russian traditions of former tsars such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

We could have flinched from our responsibilities when this invasion took place but we did not, and I congratulate the Government on the strong line that they have taken in support of Ukraine and the good example they have set, which has been followed by many other members of NATO, in supplying vital arms to the Ukrainian forces. It is very important to respond to aggression because, if one does not, one will quite clearly have more of it.

My reason for speaking today is that there has been a very important meeting in Vilnius over the past few days in which the leaders of NATO have set out the kind of policy we should adopt in relation to Ukraine over the coming months and possibly longer. I am glad to say there has been a large measure of consensus and some important developments—very important is the fact that Sweden has now joined NATO. Sweden is an influential country, much respected throughout the world, and a great asset to us in this difficult situation.

The other countries—most recently France and Germany, in the last few days—have also agreed to supply new weapons, which is very important. The West generally has shown that it will not be ignored in a matter of this kind, which threatens the fundamental sovereignty of the peoples of Europe and the peace of our continent. We must always remember—we learned it in the 1930s, of course—that aggressors invariably come back for more, and what one must never do is give in to them. What is very important is that we do not conduct ourselves in such a way as to send a signal to Mr Putin that he can get away with invasion with impunity and that he can alter the frontiers of Europe quite deliberately at his own behest. That must never happen.

There is something personal that I should mention. If I am alive today, it is thanks in large part to the remarkable work of the medical profession. I pay tribute to all those who work in it, most particularly in the NHS. My father was a GP all his working life and was devoted to the founding principles of the NHS. My eldest son has volunteered for years with St John Ambulance, and he gives me graphic and often disturbing accounts of what life is like on the medical front line. The emergency intensive care and trauma teams at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre defied the odds when they saved my life after my near-fatal car crash three years ago. I am eternally grateful to them, together with the wonderful rehabilitation team in London, who got me back on my feet.

I am gravely concerned at reports of insufficient numbers of staff and hospital beds, plummeting staff morale, crumbling buildings and other problems which beset the NHS. The Government owe it to the country to do whatever is necessary for the health of the nation, and the time for taking urgent action on this matter is now.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, it is a great honour and privilege to follow a characteristically eloquent speech from my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford. After so many years’ service in both Houses since 1987, we owe him a great debt of thanks for the work he has done for the people of this country and for our country. It is my great sadness that I have known him for only such a short time. I was appointed as his Whip just a few months ago. It is a great regret that we have not been able to get to know each other better during that time but, as my noble friend sets off on what I hope will be a long and peaceful retirement, I hope we can keep in touch. I thank him greatly for all the things he has done during his time serving the people of the country.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I listened with much regret and enormous respect to the valedictory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford. He served as Member of Parliament for Grantham and Stamford for 23 years—for the vast bulk of that time on behalf of the Conservative Party. It did not take long for him to make his mark in the other place, as was evidenced by the Guardian naming him parliamentarian of the year in 1996. The BBC named him Back-Bencher of the year in the same year.

The noble Lord served in the shadow Cabinet in the early years of the last Labour Government and demonstrated there his very considerable political and personal abilities. I remember how shocked and saddened his Conservative colleagues were at his decision to leave our ranks, but then how proud we were on his behalf and that of his family that his manifest abilities were recognised by his appointment in the Labour Government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Equipment, a position he held for two years and one which I know he greatly enjoyed.

In your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord has been a doughty and persuasive debater, an assiduous support to his party and a most congenial parliamentary colleague. We wish him well in his retirement.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the Minister for those words. I say to my noble friend Lord Davies that there is of course a special place in our hearts for those who see the light, and we are very pleased that the other side’s loss was definitely our gain. We too wish him a long and happy retirement.

Back to the levelling-up Bill—and I thank the Minister for clearing up the long-standing anomaly relating to the Common Council of the City of London—my Amendment 62 would require the Government to publish a draft devolution Bill setting out their plans for comprehensive devolution across the United Kingdom to empower all local authorities in a wide range of areas where we know they do not currently have the powers to act for their communities in the way that we know that many councils are keen to do. These powers could include a whole range of areas that would enable councils to support local economic growth and help to rebalance and equalise living standards, potential and opportunity across the UK to ensure that every area gives its residents the best chance of contributing to the post-pandemic, post-Brexit economy, and would bring some much-needed hope back to every corner of the UK.

The PACAC report governing England from last October set that out very clearly. The key question this raises is whether decisions are being made in the right place to provide effective government to the people of England. We found that the dominant reason for continued overcentralisation is a prevalent culture in Whitehall that is unwilling to let go of its existing levers of power. The trouble with the way that the levelling-up Bill deals with devolution is that it imposes the long arm of Westminster in selecting the chosen few who will benefit from additional powers. In many ways, that has the potential to add to the complexity instead of making the lines of responsibility and accountability clearer. Surely the devolution agenda has now demonstrated that decisions are best taken in the local interest—for local people, by their local elected representatives. That view was backed up in the Institute for Government’s recent report, How Can Devolution Deliver Regional Growth in England?, which argued that councils should have greater responsibility for transport, skills and planning to enable them to better support their areas.

The draft Bill would set out plans to ensure that the Westminster apron strings were untied for good and a new relationship of mutual respect and trust—of course, with the appropriate mechanisms for local accountability—could exist between government and local authorities. That would see an end to the expensive and wasteful bidding bingo to which local authorities are currently subjected just because they have ambitions to make things better for the areas they represent and their local people.

Additional powers could relate to, but not be limited to, housing; energy; childcare; transport, including buses and trains—we have an amendment on bus transport in a later group; and skills, training and employment. Many of those areas will require intense and effective partnership working, but councils are no stranger to that; the financial constraints that councils have been under in recent years have meant that almost nothing can be achieved without working across the public and private sectors and between all local agencies. This would require a new relationship of mutual respect and trust between local and central government.

I am sure that many of us hoped that the incredible, extraordinary response that local government delivered during the pandemic and in other recent crises, such as the cost of living crisis and the arrival of refugees from Ukraine, Syria, Hong Kong, Sudan and other places, would encourage the Government to think more broadly and deeply about devolution.

There was a powerful debate on local devolution in your Lordships’ House on 15 June led by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. We have already seen the power devolution has to deliver better outcomes for people, places and communities as well as for the economy. A Bill setting out a plan for comprehensive devolution across our country, building on what we have learned already, rather than a piecemeal approach where Whitehall picks the chosen few and keeps them tethered with promises of further jam tomorrow, is long overdue. At the end of the debate on 15 June, we were pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Rainow, state:

“we recognise the importance of local democracy, and that devolution is essential for flourishing local democracy”. —[Official Report, 15/6/23; col. 2194.]

Devolution is a process, not a moment, and the country continues to see the model evolve and the benefits it brings. Let us take that on to its next steps and give local authorities all the powers and encouragement they need to do their best to deliver everything, everywhere, if not quite all at the same time.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 4:15, 13 Gorffennaf 2023

My Lords, my name appears on Amendment 62 in this group. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, for referring to the debate I moved a few weeks ago on the importance of local government and of renewing it, reviving it and devolving more to it.

The problem is that the Government think that they are doing devolution within England, but they are not; they are effectively replacing with combined authorities, combined counties and mayoral combined authorities all the different forms we had of devolution, such as the regional development agency structure that we had until some 11 years ago. We have seen the problems caused by the fact that no comparable structure exists. The combined authorities are effectively doing spatial planning, strategic housing policy and strategic transport policy, but what we have not got is devolution to local government. The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, is terribly important; I could add to the list in subsection (2) of the proposed new clause—we could all do that.

Subsection (3) of the proposed new clause really matters. It states:

“The Bill must also include provisions for a new framework of cooperation between local authorities and the Government based on mutual respect”.

I think that is really important. What we have at the moment is an attempt by the Government to run England out of Whitehall, and it simply cannot be done with 56 million people in England; it must be done through devolved structures.

So far, with the replacement of the regional development agency structure, in practice what we have is now a hub-and-spoke model in which schools are effectively being run through a regional structure and, more and more in Whitehall, one can see structures being created which are its attempt to manage the delivery of services across England. Whitehall is undertaking the management of services—as opposed to the policy which underpins those services, which is the role of Whitehall in the main—when it should not be managing the delivery of the service.

That met a major problem with Test and Trace. You simply cannot operate something as big and fundamental as that centrally out of one of the Whitehall departments. I hope the Government will understand that this really matters. It is not just a question of fair funding, money or, indeed, powers in some areas but about a fundamental reset of the relationship between central and local government across England.

If there were to be a change of government, I really hope that I would hear from the Opposition Front Bench that they would keep to the commitments that they have prioritised, that the new Government would do the same thing by producing a devolution Bill within 120 days of being elected, and that that would

“include provisions for a new framework of cooperation between local authorities and the Government based on mutual respect”.

We are here having a preliminary debate about what might happen over the next two or three years, but I sincerely hope that the Government understand the seriousness of this situation. With all the funding problems there are now, I do not think the situation can last that much longer.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Amendment 62 from the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, seeks to place a requirement on the Minister of the Crown to publish a draft devolution Bill within 120 days of this Bill gaining Royal Assent. I understand and agree with noble Baroness’s desire to ensure that local authorities can request powers from central government. However, this is already possible for any principal council under our existing devolution legislation. Any such council could ask for functions to be conferred on it, and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 provides that public authority functions can be conferred on local authorities by statutory instrument where the statutory requirements are met. These include consent from the local authority and approval from Parliament.

The devolution framework in the levelling up White Paper sets out our policy offer. It provides a comprehensive menu of options for devolution within a functional economic area or whole-county geography, underpinned by four key principles. The options are multifarious, whether that is moving towards a London-style transport system to connect people to opportunity, improving local skills provision, or being able to act more flexibly or innovatively to respond to local need. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to English devolution, and areas will want to choose the right model for them.

There is no need for this to be set out in a new Bill: these functions all already exist in primary legislation and, as I said, can be conferred on a local authority via secondary legislation under the 2016 Act. I hope that that is of some help to the noble Baroness and that she will not feel the need to move this amendment when it is reached.

Amendment 61 agreed.

Amendment 62 not moved.