I beg to move amendment 26, clause 18, page 14, line 35, at end insert—
“(1A) But notwithstanding subsection (1)(b), if a CCA prepares and submits a proposal for conferred powers under section 17(1) and the Secretary of State has already made provision for another CCA to be granted identical powers, the Secretary of State must consent to that proposal.”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to accept an application for conferred powers from a CCA where they have already accepted an identical application from another CCA.
At the end of the previous sitting, the Minister started the debate on this issue, which is a point of distinction, so I think the amendment will be an interesting one to discuss. Notwithstanding the sorts of functions that the Minister has in mind, which he will follow up with, the clause sets the rules by which county combined authorities can receive more powers from central Government. We are supportive of that: we want to move powers from Whitehall to our town halls, but in doing so the Bill can be improved.
I touched a little on the asymmetry of the devolution of power in England, and it is worth covering something of that. Metro Mayors hold powers over spatial planning, regional transport, the provision of skills training, business support services and economic development. The detail of the powers and budgets devolved, however, varies massively between areas.
For example, in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire the powers of the police and crime commissioner have been merged into the mayoral role, but not in other mayoralties. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority oversees devolved health and welfare budgets, working in partnership with the lead Whitehall Departments, but other combined authorities do not have such powers. All Mayors can establish mayoral development corporations, except for the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. All Mayors can raise a council tax precept, except in the West of England.
That is an odd hotchpotch. If we were to sit down and plan a devolved settlement, which we are doing quite a bit of, we would never pick a model that is quite as uneven and such a mishmash. That is what happens when settlements are negotiated case by case behind closed doors, on the basis of what Ministers judge communities are ready to have. Furthermore—this is part of what we are addressing today—those disparities in power do not even account for the fact that vast swathes of the country do not even have combined authorities; they just have their council.
We are in the odd situation where Manchester gets to elect a Mayor with a PCC, but in Nottingham we cannot vote for a Mayor—we don’t have one; we do not have a combined authority in the county terms yet—but we vote for councils and a PCC. That gets very hard to explain to constituents, and means that different parts of the country get access to different powers. I think we should do better there.
The Minister characterised that position as being for either a one-size-fits-all model or moving at the pace of the slowest. I am not saying that. My dissatisfaction with asymmetry aside, I live in the real world; we have an asymmetric settlement and it would not be practical or desirable to change that. Where those combined authorities are motoring along, they must keep doing so; they are doing crucial and impressive work, and of course we would not want to change that. However, we have the power to ensure that the combined county authorities, which cover big parts of the country, and will hopefully bring devolution to the bulk of the country, have some sense of commonality in the powers that they are able to access, but not have to access—not a floor but a ceiling.
I do not think that I am actually asking the Minister to do anything more than has already been set out by the Government. The White Paper itself sets out those three tiers of powers. We will get to the point about the governance structures at a later date, and as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said earlier, I also completely dispute the point that we should have to accept a Mayor in order to get tier 3 powers.
Nevertheless, the Government have established a common framework—a common menu, as it were—from which to pick. This is the significant point of difference: I believe that should be a local choice. It should be the local leaders and local public deciding what powers they want. I must say that I think the bulk will want something towards the upper end, because they will understand that decisions will be made better locally and that they will have a better understanding than the centre about what they want for their communities and how to get it. The Government’s approach—the approach of the past 12 years—is to pick and choose, depending on the qualifications, or otherwise, they think the local leaders have. I think that is a significant mistake.
Amendment 26 seeks to improve that. Essentially, it would prevent the Secretary of State from doing a blizzard of different side deals with different communities, based on the powers they confer on a CCA by saying that, if they confer a certain power on the CCA, then an identical application from another CCA must also be accepted. That is saying that, if new ceilings are set, then everyone should have access to that. As I said, that will not result in perfect symmetry—anything but—that is not the intention of the amendment. However, it will mean that all communities have access to the same powers.
I am interested in what the Minister says to that and will listen carefully. If, in practice, the way in which the amendment is worded does not deliver that effect but, in the Minister’s view, there is a better way of doing it, then I would accept that heartily—it is the substance, rather than the amendment itself, that means something to me. However, it is a very important point.
This is the moment, on county combined authorities, to say that we are going to break free from this individual deal-by-deal way of devolution, and say that we just think the powers are better exercised locally—we should be explicit about that because it is a good thing to say—and that in doing so, everybody gets access to them, not just the ones that are deemed to be good enough. I think that would be a significant step forward for this legislation.