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19 Nov 2002 : Column 574—continued

Mr. Turner: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I remember having to go to speak to the Minister for Transport about an important issue in my constituency: a sub-regional road that I said should be built. I had to explain to him in great detail what that was all about. That kind of detail would not have had to be explained if the person responsible were a member of a regional assembly, because he would be aware of what was happening in the region and able to make those decisions by consulting not a Whitehall civil servant but a north-west civil servant.

That is what we are talking about when we talk about regional government. It is about ensuring that the democratic accountability of the civil service is much closer to the people and the decisions that are necessary for communities in the regions. It is important that we understand that what we are talking about here is not a new level of democracy and a new tier of government but replacing the counties with government in the regions and making the existing bureaucracy accountable through the democratic process. Whitehall is inflexible. Being hidebound, it has difficulty meeting the needs of local and regional communities. That is why it is important that we have regional government.

I am sure that the referendums will be successful in the north-west, as they will be in the north-east, with possibly Yorkshire and the west midlands following shortly after, but I am a little concerned about some of the phrasing that I have heard: that we will get the Bill Xwhen parliamentary time allows". It is essential that the two follow one another very quickly: that after Ministers have passed the Act to set up the referendums, it will be followed very quickly by the Act to set up the regional assemblies.

I was pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that what we are talking about is ensuring that there is a transfer of powers from central Government to

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regional government, not a transfer up from local government. That is an essential part of the proposals. It is about devolved powers from the centre to the regions and ensuring that accountability is at the lowest possible local level.

I turn to the second Bill. Criticisms have, rightly, been made that its proposals are timid. That needs to be addressed. I hope that the Bill will include provision for a statutory instrument to transfer further powers down. I understand why the Government are a little wary of passing too many powers straight away. They want to ensure that regional government is successful, properly accountable, effective and efficient, but once regional government has proven that it is, I hope that some form a statutory instrument will allow further powers to be passed down, where appropriate—in tertiary education, strategic health, regional transport and so on—without further primary legislation.

I welcome the powers that will be extended to local government by the Local Government Bill. Revaluation was promised; it is important that we have that. If local government is to be successful, it must have a buoyant tax base. I suggest that having a 10-year revaluation would not be not appropriate. I ask the Government to consider having an interim five-year regional percentage increase in the tax bands, and a proper revaluation every 10 years, so that we can iron out the anomalies.

One of the problems is that a millionaire living in a mansion will pay only three times more council tax than someone living in a #30,000 terraced house. That is ridiculous.

Norman Lamb: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Turner: Yes, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to be quick as I have used up my extra time by taking two interventions.

Norman Lamb: Would the hon. Gentleman reach the conclusion that council tax should be abolished and replaced by a local income tax, which is a progressive tax based on the ability to pay, such as applies nationally?

Mr. Turner: If I went down that road, a whole new debate would open up, so I say merely that I do not agree that an income tax for local government should be introduced. It may be an interesting issue for regional government but not for local government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said from a sedentary position earlier, we should widen tax bands much more greatly. One of the other things that we need to examine closely is the weighting that is attached to each of the individual bands. As I have said, there is only three times the difference between the lowest and the highest council tax, which cannot be right.

One of the criticisms that was rightly made about the rateable value system was that it was grossly unfair. If we do not take the opportunity of examining both widening the bands and changing the weighting within those bands, the council tax system will be seen as being more and more unfair.

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When the Government look at the local government Bill, I hope that they will take the opportunity to ensure that they do not merely revalue the existing bands, but that they widen them and tackle the weighting problem. If they can do that, along with giving local government wider powers and a greater ability to trade and to raise charges, it will be the better for it. I welcome those proposals, along with those relating to regional government. If we can implement them, we will have a better overall system of government.

7.40 pm

Sue Doughty (Guildford): This is a welcome opportunity to talk about some of the issues that have arisen from the Gracious Speech, and some which are missing. I am sorry that a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not here this evening, because the Gracious Speech does include environmental legislation such as the water Bill and the waste emissions trading Bill. The water Bill has been a long time coming. Its aim—to manage the abstraction of water—is very welcome. Some 152 wildlife sites of national importance in England could be damaged by water abstraction, and we need to recognise the importance of our wetland heritage.

The proposals could have gone much further, however. On this occasion, I agree with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that nothing has been included to address flood management and prevention. A Bill that included such measures—along with marine habitats legislation, which was lost at the end of the previous Session—could have provided a comprehensive approach to water management and river basin management. Responsibility could have been allocated, so that we could tighten up our handling of this important problem.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of the waste and emissions trading Bill, but the Government rushed it through the Lords last week, even though we are expecting an imminent announcement on waste from the strategy unit. It would be much better to examine that legislation in the context of the strategy unit's comments, rather than picking off a single aspect of waste management. We need to understand what is happening.

I welcome, however, the proposals on waste trading that deal with the question of biodegradable municipal waste that is sent to landfills. As recently as last week, when efforts were made in Guildford to separate garden waste at source for recycling, rather than sending it to landfill, Conservatives said, XNo, we don't want this scheme." They would not even allow us to discuss how it might be funded. Disgracefully, they got Labour support because, for some curious reason, the Conservatives said, XWe don't want the Liberal Democrats to add that to their recycling figures." Next, they will criticise us for our recycling figures. That is the way it goes.

We also need a clear definition of what recycling rates really mean. Do they mean what we collect for recycling, or what is actually sent for recycling? So often, householders complain to us, XI fear that, in the end, what I put in my green box will be sent for landfill." We need clear standards and definitions. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to examine the

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European Committee for Standardisation's draft definition of recycling, so that we can compare how we perform not only within this country, but across Europe, according to internationally agreed standards. We can go a lot further in this regard.

I turn to the problems associated with living in the south-east. Those of us who represent constituencies in the south-east often wonder why the Government have it in for us. The concept exists that we must all be fearfully rich because we live in the south-east, but that is not true of teachers, policemen, or those who work in administrative jobs in the region. Yet underpinning the proposals for Government funding in the south-east is the assumption that, for some reason, teachers do not have live in the expensive houses that we have in the region. Such an assumption would explain why we do not get decent allowances for teachers living in the south-east. Every child in the region knows what it is like to have a good teacher who moves away once they have acquired two or three years' experience. Year on year, there is a 25 per cent. churn of teachers leaving Surrey for jobs outside the county. The situation is similar with the police: officers are leaving either for cheaper areas, or for London. Yet the figures for local government funding, and for national funding for the police, ignore the fact that ours is an expensive area. The attitude is, XYou are doing badly now, but by the time we have finished with you, you'll be doing even worse." We in Surrey expect the police to be able to look after us, yet the funding will reduce policing to an unacceptable level.

On social services, as I have said before, I have never been given a satisfactory answer as to why funding for older people in Surrey is much lower than elsewhere, even though people live longer in counties such as ours. Just because people live longer, it does not mean that they are sprightly to the end of their days. They have their needs, yet funding for them is penalised. Where do the Government think that social services are going to put older people? There is constant underfunding, and the threat of fines. Social services can pay only #480 a week for a place in nursing home accommodation, yet the likely charge in Surrey will be #840 a week. There are precious few places for people. We do not want to incarcerate people in acute wards; we want them to receive appropriate care. However, the Government have done nothing to generate the care home and nursing home places that we need.

I turn to the scandal of the 49 delayed discharges at the Royal Surrey County hospital. Of those 49 delayed discharges, 17 were awaiting funding. Eleven were funded, but there was no place for them to go to. Fines will not help that situation, but a realistic approach from the Government might.

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