By Paul Goodman
Oral questions in the Commons is changing its tone and nature, at least as far as Communities and Local Government is concerned. The last section of each departmental oral question session is headed "Topical Questions" – a series of open questions to Ministers. It begins with a brief statement by the Secretary of State of his or her responsibilities. When I was in the Commons, Hazel Blears and John Denham gave anodyne and unexceptional summaries. Here is Eric Pickles's offering yesterday –
If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.
"This week my Government will be co-operating with interfaith week, celebrating how faith communities are adding to the well-being of our society. We have published details of our plans to build 150,000 more affordable houses over the next four years. We have welcomed the decision of the Local Government Association's chief executive to take a cut of £200,000 a year, and we hope that more town hall chiefs will follow his example in these austere times. At the 2010 British curry awards, the Government paid tribute to the spice industry's £4 billion turnaround-a real bhuna for the British economy. From bin collections to small business tax relief, we will do our utmost to ensure that Britain's curry industry is second to naan."
The last line threw the questioner, no less an old hand than David Blunkett – proof, perhaps, that there's nothing the Chamber enjoys more than a bit of argy-bhaji. But before readers are driven insane by more excruciating puns, a serious point: no set of Departmenal oral questions better demonstrate how the Coalition is working and the culture is changing. Here's an exchange between Andrew Stunell, the Liberal Democrat Under-Secretary of State, and Esther McVey –
Esther McVey: Does the Minister agree that the Government need to do more to empower communities to improve their local areas and take over amenities, such as community centres and allotments? What steps will the Government take to ensure that those initiatives are taken up in the forthcoming localism Bill?
Andrew Stunell: First of all, I commend Wirral borough council for setting up its own fund for the transfer of community assets and for making the launch of those much more feasible. I hope that other local authorities will look at that example. The community right to buy will be a powerful option for neighbourhoods and community groups that want to take on assets, and that will be backed by money. The asset transfer unit and Communitybuilders, a project lasting through to 2014, will be there to provide support. I also want to make quite sure that the House understands that the big society bank will be there to assist as well.
– And here's another from Greg Clark, the Localism Minister, and Zac Goldsmith.
Zac Goldsmith: I welcome the Government's commitment to include local referendums in the localism Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the results of those referendums are not binding, their status will be only marginally higher than that of an ordinary petition, although they will be a lot more expensive? Will he bring in proper referendums that are legally binding?
Greg Clark: I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of referendums, as he has organised one in his own constituency. The localism Bill contains binding referendums on subjects such as whether to introduce mayors, the neighbourhood plans that I mentioned earlier and excessive increases in council tax. It also contains provisions for advisory referendums that will test public opinion and can influence policies. Sometimes it is appropriate to nudge councils to do the right thing. This will be perhaps more of a shove than a nudge, and I think it will be difficult to ignore.
The prospect of local referendums, or of Ministers championing Councils who transfer community assets, would have been unthinkable during the last Parliament. A small snippet from Hansard. An illustration of changing times. And now I've gohst to go.