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4.28 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) on his maiden speech. They are always extremely difficult, and making them during a quiet Bill, when antagonism is not anticipated, always helps. I also thank him for his praise for his predecessor, and for his predecessor's predecessor.

In the same vein, the Minister referred to the resurrection of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on the Front Bench. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in particular is experienced in local government. We have shared tables and arenas in the past, and it looks as if this is to continue.

In a funny way, this is in effect a maiden speech for me. In the last days of the previous Parliament, the boundary commission decided to reduce the number of seats in Croydon from four to three. I lost out, and went looking for another seat. I was delighted to be selected and elected for the seat of Mole Valley.

My predecessor, Kenneth Baker, is extremely well known and has had a distinguished career. He was particularly effective, well liked and popular in Mole Valley, which he had served since 1983. To us, he is one of the stars of the Thatcher Government. In the limited time available, I shall touch on two areas for which he is particularly remembered. The media remember him more as a Conservative Central Office magician, who managed to pull tremendous successes--sometimes they were displayed as greater than they were, but I must be cautious in saying that--out of a hat when everyone was anticipating defeat. The second area was as Secretary of State for Education. It is now accepted across the board, and, I believe, on both sides of the House, that he laid the foundations for modern education. He introduced the core curriculum and testing, which, in spite of the hoo-hah, nonsense, complaints, screaming and so forth by all and sundry at the time, have been accepted as the right move, and as a basis from which the previous Government and the present Government seem to have moved forward.

Interestingly, Kenneth Baker had a career in politics, in government and as an author. He also had an extremely successful career--I was going to call it valuable, but that is a difficult word--in business, but last week he was tempted back, and we now have his presence in another place. I am sure that, at least on the Conservative side of the House, his comments and contributions will be recognised and accepted.

I am delighted and proud to represent the Mole Valley people. The area is superb. It is the epitome of England's green and pleasant land--helped at the moment by the constant April showers in the wrong month. We have two delightful English country towns in Dorking and Leatherhead. Both need careful and sympathetic regeneration--that goes particularly for Leatherhead. I am afraid that one or two small voices in the area see conservation as stagnation. The area has not been assisted by the Liberal councillors, but they are slowly being moved off the scene and replaced with Conservatives.

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One of the key aspects of Mole Valley is that it is green belt, and that is extremely precious to the people there. In spite of that, the area is highly residential. I have mentioned the two main towns, but there are dozens of villages, all of which are exquisite, and some well known. They range in size from Bookham and Ripley to some picturesque small villages--Abinger Hammer is a famous one.

All the villages have their post office and general store--or almost all--and they will benefit from the previous Government's move on the business rate and rural areas and villages. Like any good English village, they all have at least one pub--probably more. I can recommend just about every single pub in the area to those of us who are prepared to stagger down there when the House releases us and we have a summer recess.

A large percentage of people in the area are commuters. We have a good rail service through to Dorking, Leatherhead and Effingham Junction, which is showing the benefits of privatisation in spite of a few union difficulties at the moment--I am sure that those will be resolved. In addition, we have a good network of main roads, A roads and motorways, which are both assets and threats to the local people, and are being watched carefully--the same applies to Gatwick airport.

Due to Surrey county council's long history of Conservative control, the education standard was high. The council has now returned to Conservative control, and we will move back to a high education standard and resulting low unemployment.

Many of the major contributors to the local economy and local employment in this country are extremely hard working, and potentially quite wealthy, people in the area. There has been a tendency, especially in some newspapers, to sneer at those people, but I believe that they should be encouraged and congratulated, because they stimulate the economy and create employment. I shall wait until 2 July to see whether they will have received that encouragement.

The Bill is small and necessary, and has come clothed in flag-waving by the Labour party, which has suddenly decided that it accepts the private finance initiative. It has been extremely slow on partnership with the private sector, and had a knee-jerk reaction to competitive tendering. I suspect that, if some Labour Members realised what we were talking about, especially where Labour local authorities are concerned, they would not touch it.

That explains the difficulty that many firms have had in introducing the PFI in many local authorities. The previous Government changed the ethos and thinking, and adopted and adapted the rules. There have been complaints about the lack of local government finance, and the reality of the tight budgets for local authorities has forced many difficult left-wing authorities and councillors suddenly to realise the benefits of PFI. Without it, many of them would have continued with the same old procedures, thinking that they knew best and not accepting that, quite apart from the financial benefits of PFI and competitive tendering, the innovation of the private sector was a gem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch spoke of some of the successes. Considerable benefits have come against the background of suspicion and difficulty

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and of a change to a new system that even the private sector was cautious about. We have new prisons, trains and roads, and about £7 billion-worth of PFI schemes in the offing, including hospitals, one of which I understand has already been started.

The private sector was particularly cautious about local government. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch touched on a few flag-wavings--instances in which local authorities had frightened off the private sector. If I were in local government now, considering the private sector, of if I were in the private sector considering local government and PFI schemes, I would be extremely cautious about schemes with many of the Labour local authorities, as their attitude often belies the face that the Minister put on it in her opening speech.

Fortunately, the Local Government Association has a dedicated unit. That at least shows that some councillors are accepting the PFI, and moving in the right direction. The Minister was right to say that one case hit confidence extremely hard, and the Bill must be seen in that light.

I have one or two points of caution, if not of concern, about the Bill, and I hope that Ministers will introduce changes or regulations in Committee. I am concerned about some of the regulations being under negative resolution, and I hope that the Minister will review that. The area of concern is the certificated contract provisions. As the Bill stands, those provisions could be abused.

Any change in legislation that restricts the power of the courts or the district auditor needs considerable safeguards. Those safeguards are not apparent at this stage, and I seek assurances that they will be put in place and made effective, either in the Bill or in regulations, preferably requiring affirmative resolution.

As many hon. Members know, and many people outside realise to their discontent, the twisting and turning of some local authorities is legendary, and the Bill as it stands could provide enormous opportunities for that. The district auditor must be able to act prior to the council certifying any contract. That means that the auditor must have a fully disclosed copy of the contract well in advance of the council's decision. I recognise that one could go to the court afterwards, but it would be more appropriate to take the action beforehand and allow the district auditor to react to it.

It would be a further safeguard if the monitoring officer or the local authority's director of finance were required to confirm the probity of the contract. Furthermore, I assume that certification will apply only to long-term contracts, where the value of the contracts and that of the assets are above a certain considerable minimum. Finally, although this may seem ultra suspicious, experience of the ways of some councils is such that I hope that the Bill will restrict the assets to be provided to those that are reasonably necessary for the service concerned with the contract being considered.

Such matters will be discussed in Committee, and, in general, I accept the need for the Bill, in spite of the flag-waving that went with it. There must be an opportunity for public services to be provided by the private sector, which has the necessary expertise and lateral thinking. We should recognise the points that have been made and carried through successfully by many Conservative councils, which regard themselves as enablers rather than necessarily as providers. I suspect

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that, under this Government, the tendency will be to roll in the opposite direction until such time as councils progressively return to Conservative control.

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