Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 88)(HC 305) on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken by Beacon Councils

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Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I have heard what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. Today is the first time that I have had that pleasure, and I am sure that I will not be disappointed.

The reports are yet another example of top-down government. The Government are setting the criteria and standards for local government. In the old days, the electorate used to decide whether a council was performing well and could boot it out via the ballot box. Today, if a council wants a little more than what is available through the grant system, it has to go through what is for many a wasteful exercise of having to apply for what little has been top-sliced from the sums available to it. It is another example of the Secretary of State rather than local people deciding what is or is not a good council. It is to that that Liberal Democrat Members object every time that we serve on a Committee such as this one.

Why the different levels of grant? The Minister explained that some councils apply for more than one beacon award, but it is odd that there is a set amount per award. An auditor working on the books of a series of local authorities in different parts of the country to assess their expenditure on different projects would start to question how they had all come in at £39,069 precisely. In fact, of course, they will not all do so, which is one of the problems with this way of distributing money. Ministers are able to go round the country saying, ``We've put £1.7 million into beacon councils, which is money going into local authorities,''

but at the end of the year not all of it will have been spent. Because of the way in which the money is distributed, the Government are able to get away with saying that they are spending money that they are not in fact spending—as becomes clear when the final outcome is analysed.

We have no objection to money being spent on gypsy sites. However, the report states on page 5 that the approval letter was

    sent by the Secretary of State to the authorities in March 2001.

Later, it states that the work must be completed by December 2001. It is November, so the work must already have started. What is the point of the Committee if the Secretary of State has already given his approval and work is beginning? Although in theory the Committee can vote against the measure—not that it will—it is highly questionable whether there is proper scrutiny and accountability in terms of the way in which such grants are distributed.

My final point, which may be regarded as pedantic, is a plea for good and simple English. The calculation ``R = Q x T/10'' that appears on page 9 of the report surely means no more than that one will have to pay back one tenth of the cost per year for periods when the site is not being used by those for which it is intended. Such obscure algebraic calculations are unnecessary; I tried to work it out for five minutes, only to discover that it is a simple matter that could be better expressed in real English.

5.18 pm

Dr. Whitehead: We have had a brief but helpful debate. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) made several points, mainly about special grant report No. 88. He suggested that it is a matter of the Government approving of those areas of local government that they want to succeed and not approving of those that they do not want to succeed.

Mr. Moss: I am sorry to interrupt, but I did not say that. I implied that the Government, the Minister and his Department have their own agenda for what local government should be doing, and that favouritism is shown only to those councils that successfully follow that agenda in one way or another.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his elucidation. However, it is fair to say that he is suggesting that the Government have an agenda for local government that they want to be discharged through the operation of, among other things, the beacon council scheme, and that that scheme—the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) described it as a top-down scheme—will reinforce the agenda and ensure that it is carried out. I reject that suggestion.

The existence of beacon councils and the various rounds that have taken place suggests the opposite: local government is involved in a commendable and absolutely essential process of self-improvement. The best way to extend good practice and good ideas is for

the councils themselves to disseminate information on best practice to their fellow councils, and for councils to learn from each other's mistakes. Indeed, that is the aim behind the Improvement and Development Agency, which is proving very successful in terms of peer reviews, courses and discussions between councils. As a result, councils are improving themselves.

Beacon council status does not provide access to huge sums of additional money, or allow entry to an inner chamber that offers new freedoms and removes legislative impediments. Rather, such status constitutes recognition that a local authority has provided a particular service in respect of which the round invited applications. In return for that recognition and for a funding contribution that is by no means a simple restitution of the money expended—different councils spend different sums, and we should not expect otherwise—an authority agrees to undertake various activities that will disseminate good practice to other local authorities.

Mr. Sanders: If in response to a local council consultation exercise council tax payers and residents said that they wanted something special done on fire prevention and an application was made under the scheme, it would be ineligible because the priorities have been determined not by the council but at the centre. It is a top-down scheme.

Dr. Whitehead: I am puzzled by the philosophy behind that remark. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that an authority could do anything that it likes at any stage and still be considered an excellent authority. If we are to make a concerted attempt to disseminate good practice through a partnership between Government and local authorities, we need a scheme with some structure. The fact that there are certain priorities does not imply the agenda of centralisation to which some hon. Members have referred. The simple explanation is that a number of different areas of excellence are highlighted. They do not magically appear from nowhere; they arise from discussions involving local authorities, the Local Government Association and the IDeA.

Those discussions provide a general picture of good practices that are worthy of dissemination. As hon. Members can see, they consist of a wide range of activities under a number of headings that differ from year to year. If the hon. Member for Torbay examines the suggestions that have been made, he will see that they do not constitute a tight, centrally driven agenda that the Government want to impose on local authorities. By and large, they consist of many of the themes about which local authorities worry and on which they want to do better. The beacon council programme allows those themes to be systematised. Local authorities can engage in the programme and obtain funding for their costs. That ensures there is a structure through which others can undertake the learning experience, which allows improvement to take place. I reject the idea that the Government are imposing centralised organisation to further their agenda.

Mr. Moss: To pursue that argument, there are many Government initiatives, of which the beacon council scheme is one, that relate to local government. What about public service agreements? The majority of money that goes to councils is through specific grants.

Mr. Sanders: Best value.

Mr. Moss: Indeed—best value. The beacon council idea is one of the Government's plethora of top-down initiatives.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that the majority of money that goes to local authorities takes the form of special grants. The majority of revenue funding that goes to local authorities in Government grants is not hypothecated or earmarked. The programmes that he mentioned, particularly public service agreements, are welcomed widely across local government and not only by local government of a Labour persuasion.

One of the most enthusiastic councils participating in public service agreements is Kent county council, which has, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a long tradition of being led by Conservatives. The Conservative leader of Kent county council is high in the hierarchy of Conservative local government and may, therefore, be regarded as a trendsetter in Conservative local government. He has placed his view on record, and he continues enthusiastically to participate in public service agreements because he sees that form of partnership working. The negotiations that surround PSAs allow local government to decide its priorities in consultation with central Government.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): As the Minister is referring to my county council, it may be worth putting it on the record that although Kent county council is enthusiastic about PSAs, it has complained repeatedly about other matters. In nine separate areas of education policy, it has received hypothecated sums tagged to particular programmes. Such practices fetter the ability of local authorities to make local decisions in the best interests of local people.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about Kent county council's complaints. However, he confirms that Kent is an enthusiastic participant in the public service agreements programme. PSAs, which allow for negotiation rather than imposition, pull the rug from under those who claim that the Government have a non-negotiable central programme that is being imposed on local government.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire mentioned that there have been fewer applications as the programmes have rolled out. That is arithmetically true.

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