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7 Jan 2003 : Column 111—continued

Mr. Clifton-Brown: How does the hon. Gentleman square the provisions to allow the elections to be held on the same day with the Welsh Assembly's postponement of the Welsh local elections from 2003 to 2004 so that they would not coincide with the main elections? How does he square those two events?

Mr. Turner: I shall not try to square anything that the Welsh do with anything that we do. I merely point out that it is entirely up to the Welsh to decide when they want to hold their elections, although I believe anything that applies to the British electorate as a whole could apply to the Welsh electorate. They might not wish to hold their elections at the same time, but that is a matter for them.

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I welcome the Bill. It is not the sort of Bill that I would have wanted, as I would have liked it to go much further. Nevertheless, it makes a lot of very good proposals. Some of them are modest, but some are positive and some bold. Once it is enacted, I am sure that local councils will be much better able to serve the needs and meet the aspirations of their communities than they have been previously.

9 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), and I should like to begin by dealing with his final point concerning elections held on the same day. The reason why my election to this place was not announced until 2.30 on the Friday afternoon following the day of the general election was precisely because we were trying to hold three elections on the same day. [Interruption.] It does no harm to remind the House that my victory was indeed a Conservative gain.

The point about holding such elections on the same day is that they are elections about different things. Doing so means that people concentrate on different issues, because different campaigns will be waged on different issues. If possible, one wants to encourage an improvement in turnout by giving people information on a specific election. I did not notice the hon. Member for Wigan pointing out that there was a low turnout in the county council and general elections in 2001 because they were held on the same day. Perhaps that was entirely a coincidence.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: There is a more fundamental point. Elections are the fount of a democracy, and holding general, local government and European elections on the same day restricts the amount of discussion that could otherwise take place on them. Democracy is therefore diminished by holding such elections on the same day.

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but democracy is also diminished if Ministers and Governments seek to move elections for party political advantage. Indeed, that is an even more significant diminution of democracy.

Local government has been responsible for some of the best services—from the time of Chamberlain in Birmingham, to that of my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who gave distinguished service to Wandsworth council. However, local government has also been responsible for some of the worst services. As a former parliamentary candidate for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, I had great opportunity to experience and observe the appalling quality of its local authority services. My last job before being elected to this House involved helping to sort out the failing local education authority in the London borough of Southwark. I doubt whether many Conservative Members have done that job—that is probably better for the borough of Southwark—but I did. There were problems in that authority not because the officers were poor—in fact, there were many very good middle-management officers—but because they were unable to exercise the control and discretion that would have been good for the delivery of education in that borough. In part,

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they were prevented from doing so by excessive political intervention, but also by excessive, sustained and continually changing Government intervention. I have to say that such intervention began with the Government whom I supported, and it has continued with the Government whom I did not support.

Local government is not the creature of Government, but it is and remains inescapably the creature of this Parliament, so there are some things on which Parliament is entitled to pronounce. For example, it is entitled to limit the ability of local councils to trade at the expense of, and in competition with, the business rate payers who operate in the local areas. However, Parliament should be able to set a limit on only a restricted number of matters. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will undoubtedly agree that local government needs greater stability of regulation, which would ensure greater responsibility on the part of local authorities. Greater responsibility itself engenders, and entitles local authorities to exercise, greater autonomy. The more we can stabilise the systems of local government finance and regulation, the better the public will understand them. People will therefore be better able to exercise their discretion at the ballot box, on the day of the European elections or otherwise.

I hope that we will move towards a more transparent local government system that everyone understands. The least transparent part of the present system for electors is the annual finance settlement. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions is not in his place, but I thank him for agreeing to see a delegation from the Isle of Wight authority next Tuesday. On 18 December, he stated that the local government settlement for the Isle of Wight took account of my area's special circumstances. I hope that he will be able to convince councillors from all parties in my constituency that that is the case. It might help if he were to let them know in advance exactly how the specific needs of the area are taken into account. I asked him whether the settlement took account of the cost of delivering statutory services on an island. I know of no reference to those costs in the local government settlement, but I am prepared to be convinced.

The Bill gives many additional discretions to the Secretary of State, rather than to local authorities. One such is contained in clause 31, and in clauses 36 to 42—the ability to make grants unconstrained by any regulation by this House, or by any resolution of this House. Indeed, that ability is unconstrained by anything but the wording of the Bill. It may not be what Ministers intend, but that is an invitation to pork barrel politics.

Mr. Mole: Would the hon. Gentleman welcome the use by the Secretary of State of one of these powers to award a specific grant to authorities that exist on islands?

Mr. Turner: Of course, but I should prefer the Secretary of State to place in regulation objective criteria according to which such grants would be made available. Those criteria could then be discussed by this House. The point is that such criteria must be objective and transparent, and able to be scrutinised by the House.

I shall give the House an example. It comes from the Department for Education and Skills, but is none the worse for that. It is one of 12 different schemes by which

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that Department gives money to local education authorities. One third of all LEAs do not benefit from any of those schemes. They are not distinguished by being suburban authorities as opposed to shire county authorities, nor by their prosperity or their super-duper results. That is because so few objective criteria are set out for the distribution of the grants.

I shall refer to the criteria set out by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for the allocation of Xdiversity pathfinder" grants. The first criterion is that the LEAs involved should have Xa good track record", but that is not defined. The second is that they should be Xinnovative" in their approach, but no objective measurement of Xinnovative" is supplied. I accept that the third criterion—that the LEAs should have good Ofsted reports—is objective. The fourth criterion is that the LEAs should be a mix of rural and urban areas, but in what proportion is not specified. The fifth is that the LEAs should have


but when in the past is not specified. The final requirement is that the benefiting LEAs should have implemented


That criterion is modestly objective. The money went to Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Newham, Portsmouth, Essex, Wigan, Medway, Leeds and Tower Hamlets. That is good for them, but poor for the other LEAs, and especially for the one third of LEAs that received no money at all because of the lack of objective criteria to govern the distribution of the grants. What criteria there were could not be scrutinised by the House.

If the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is to take the power to allocate money in that way, I hope that he will set out objective criteria. I acknowledge the fact that he said earlier that there will be clear criteria and that they will be scrutinised objectively—excellent, but does he mean that they will be scrutinised by the House? That is what is needed.

I shall move on to other aspects of the grant and council tax arrangements. I welcome the proposed changes to the second homes rebate. I have always thought it curious that there is so much objection to the second homes rebate at local council level because it is, in fact, a subsidy from the national taxpayer to those who are fortunate enough to own second homes, but it is no more justifiable for that. I wonder why it is necessary to retain a 10 per cent. mandatory minimum payment for second homes, or maximum payment—[Interruption]—I am not sure which it is.

I welcome the changes to the empty property rebate. I ask that local councils should be able to keep that element of rebate as well, but I question clause 76, which will give billing authorities the power to reduce the tax payable for any class of council tax payer. Is that not a curious power to give to local authorities? It is one thing to say that they should acknowledge when someone has gone bankrupt and cannot afford to pay the tax, but to say in advance that the council tax payer or a class of council tax payer need not pay anything—again, without objective criteria—seems particularly difficult to justify. I hope that the Minister will justify that clearly if he attempts to do so, and I am sure that, if I am wrong, he will tell me clearly as well.

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A final element of council tax that causes a great feeling of injustice, although possibly less injustice than a feeling of injustice, is so-called dual taxation. In fact, it is the non-taxation of non-parish, as compared to parished areas, in rural authorities. There is a feeling of injustice where a local authority provides a service in the non-parished area but expects the parish and town councils to pay for that service at the cost of the parish and town council tax payers in the parished areas. Of course the taxpayers in the parished areas are contributing to the cost of providing the service not only in their area, but in the non-parished areas through their local authority council tax. Although local authorities have the discretion to add an element to the council tax in the non-parish areas, they have no obligation to do so, and it may be appropriate to impose that obligation in the interests of fairness.

I should like to discuss briefly issues relating to the new council structures. I doubt very much whether the new council structures are any better than the old ones, but the fact is that we have got them. I wonder whether we should examine how effective scrutiny committees are, especially in local authorities where one party has the majority on every scrutiny committee and the chairmanships of those committees are held by members of the party that forms the majority on that local authority. That happens in my local authority, and it is felt that scrutiny in such local authorities is not of such high quality as it is in those areas where there is a diversity of chairmanship and perhaps a greater diversity of membership on those committees.

My last point but one relates to the creation of local partnerships and community forums. I am concerned that local authorities are handing over powers and cash to local partnerships and community forums, which are allowed to meet in private. It is a long time since, I think, my noble friend Baroness Thatcher introduced the legislation that required local authority committees to meet in public. Many of the responsibilities are now being passed to community forums, which are meeting behind closed doors. That seems to be a means of evading some of the responsibilities of parish and town councils.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley spoke of the Bill interfering in the setting of rents by local authorities and rents for social housing. I hope that the Minister will examine this issue. In my constituency, the maximum rent set by his Department, through the Housing Corporation, for new social housing is so low that it cannot pay enough to construct a decent house. It is as simple as that. Construction costs are high on the island, although housing values are low relative to the rest of the south-east. The amount of money that our housing associations are allowed to charge in rent is inadequate to support the cost of constructing a decent house. I hope that Ministers will be prepared to address that issue in this Bill or elsewhere.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) described the Bill as itty-bitty. It is itty-bitty because it contains quite a lot of new regulation and very small elements of freedom. In fact, the elements of freedom are so small that they might be

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described as itsy-bitsy bits—itsy-bitsy and teeny-weeny. I wish that there were more, and I hope that we can improve the Bill in Committee.


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