Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 105) On Invest to Save Budget Round 4 Projects and Local Government On-line

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie: Oh dear, I have tempted the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Yes. The Minister has tempted me. The problem is that BT has a monopoly. It is, to say the least, not being as helpful as it might be about local loop unbundling in its exchanges, so Government intervention is needed.

Some 66 per cent. of households may have access to broadband passing their homes, but the other 34 per cent. of households are mainly in rural areas, as the Liberal spokesman the hon. Member for Torbay said. Those households particularly need access to e-government, because they are often in very remote areas with little transport, and find it difficult to get to local government offices to pick up the information that they need. The failure to roll out broad band access is, as I said, creating information apartheid in this country.

Mr. Leslie: I would not go that far, but I take the point that we need to find a way of encouraging not just greater supply but greater take-up of broadband services. We would like the content of the services provided to be more compelling, so that people would purchase services more readily.

I also hear the points made by the hon. Member for Torbay about the benefits for rural and sparsely populated areas, not just in terms of broadband roll-out, which is not the subject of this report, but in terms of local government e-enabled services. I understand that the benefits are significant. It is also important for city dwellers in urban environments to have access to a variety of services. It is all about treating the citizen as a consumer of services and trying to respond with the best, most efficient and customer-oriented provision possible. That is the intention behind some of our work with local authorities.

The hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned the Audit Commission report that was published recently, which showed where local authorities stood about eight months ago. It was a very helpful report, and I welcome the detail that the commission went into. This whole agenda is very challenging, and the commission highlighted—warts and all—some of the most successful and least successful work. Broadly, however, I share the view that there have been positive steps forward, and we are responding as best we can to some of the commission's points.

The special grant report touches on other aspects of general e-government expenditure. There is spending on a number of other projects, such as implementing e-government plans and statements. About £200,000 is available for that, and lots of local authorities are involved. A special grant report on the issue went through the House some months ago. National

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projects are also under way under the auspices of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I commend to the hon. Gentleman some of the tables in the draft national strategy, which he may want to study.

The hon. Member for Torbay said that the Government should not, in general, ring-fence grants so prescriptively, but we are dealing with targeted grants, not ring-fencing. None the less, we are still ensuring that the money is spent on particular areas. As the Government make clear in the White Paper, we eventually want to move away from the concept of ring-fencing. However, it is sometimes necessary to be specific about what we intend resources to be spent on, because we want to deliver particular outcomes and services quickly. In other ways, we are trying to increase local authorities' freedoms and flexibilities, not least as regards letting them set their own targets. In the case of e-local government, in particular, we are allowing them a lot more freedom to set targets.

I am not wholly convinced that publishing a list of unsuccessful bidders—naming and shaming them—is the best way to encourage local authorities to come forward.

Mr. Sanders: The Minister is not very keen on lists to name and shame authorities on education and health matters, but they would be useful in showing us where bids came from and whether there was a link between particular types of area and success or failure. That would give us a headline view. There will obviously be reasons for successes and failures, and such information should be published. Unless we have the list of those that were unsuccessful, we shall not know whether we should be chasing up our own authorities to put in a bid, because they did not bid.

Mr. Leslie: My view is that it would not, on balance, be best to do that. We recognise that there is an issue over how we encourage local authorities to bid for new resources, and my feeling is that we must encourage them with a carrot rather than a stick in this policy area. We should allow them to bid for new resources when they become available and we should encourage those whose bids have been less thoroughly pulled together to bid for the development funds in part three of annexe A. The hon. Gentleman will see that different types of partnership grant are available, some of which are for authorities whose bids may not have been of the highest quality, but which nevertheless deserve greater support and assistance. That is the approach that the Government would choose.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree with the hon. Member for Torbay. Open government means that we should be able to see exactly which bits have been successful and which have not. I will certainly table a question to prise that information out of the Department, although whether I will get an answer is a different matter. Will the Minister tell us the criteria for the bids that were successful, and how many bids had a substantial e-government element?

Mr. Leslie: My understanding is that about 80 per cent. of round 4 invest to save projects had a

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significant e-government element; for example, in Bromley there was a project to implement electronic booking systems for services for the public and private sectors. One should examine the criteria to discover why some bids were not given the highest level of support. The hon. Member for Torbay asked whether we would publish details of unsuccessful bids, but I do not regard local authorities that have gone to the trouble of bidding but have not met the criteria as unsuccessful. The system is more sophisticated than that. We should assist and encourage them, and help them to enhance their work.

The authorities that met the criteria were those that showed an ability to innovate, may have been successful before, and showed strong evidence of partnership working. They were the bids that contained citizen-focused elements, concentrated on tackling social problems and included good project management in their design. Those were the criteria that we used to judge which of the various levels of funding in the report bids should receive.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way—one last time?

Mr. Leslie indicated assent.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the Minister. He has been very generous in giving way. My point, which I also made in my speech, is important. It is clear from the criteria that the Minister described that the authorities that were unsuccessful were the weakest—their strategic partnership working was not good enough, for example. They are likely to be the ones that fail to meet the Government's 2005 targets. What will the Government do to ensure that those authorities meet the targets?

Mr. Leslie: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the special grant report, especially to part three of annexe A, in which he will find that we are helping many authorities whose partnerships are deemed to be embryonic—a useful word in this context. We are offering pump-priming funds to develop their business cases more effectively, so that they will be in a better position to compete for funding in the next financial year. Some of those resources will, I am sure, be well targeted and well used.

Mr. Sanders: By that answer, the Minister appears to mean that if a council does not appear on the list, it did not make a bid. Is he saying that there are councils not on the list that did not even reach the pump-priming stage?

Mr. Leslie: I understand that there are some councils that are not on the list. However, I must fall back on the right to write to the hon. Gentleman, and the rest of the Committee, with a list of such councils if we can find one.

The report will enable the Government to help local authorities to establish innovative projects, complete the pioneering work that has already been funded and develop effective e-government partnerships for the future, including pathfinder schemes.

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Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 105) on Invest to Save Budget Round 4 Projects and Local Government On-Line.

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Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Hara, Mr. Edward (Chairman)
Austin, John
Brazier, Mr.
Clifton-Brown, Mr.
Cryer, John
Gilroy, Linda
Howarth, Mr. George
Leslie, Mr.
Sanders, Mr.
Sedgemore, Mr.
Todd, Mr.
Woolas, Mr.

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Prepared 22 July 2002