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Local Government Finance Settlement 2004–05

The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Further to the Pre-Budget Statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I am today announcing the proposed allocation to English local authorities of an extra £340 million of revenue support grant for 2004–05.

The Government are clear that it is right to provide this extra support to authorities to help them to improve public services. We are particularly conscious of the pressures for improvements in the areas of the environment and social services for children. The additional support will be provided as revenue support grant, which is not ring-fenced, and so can be used for any purpose.

The increase in grant distributed by formula will now be 5.5 per cent. compared to 2003–04, on a like-for-like basis: overall grants to local authorities will increase by 7.1 per cent.

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The floors and ceilings on grant increases will change for authorities with education and social services responsibilities, to 4 per cent. and 7.5 per cent. respectively. In some cases, however, authorities will receive more than 7.5 per cent. because we are continuing to provide support for increased capital investment outside the floors and ceilings system.

For shire districts, the additional grant is sufficient to raise the floor to 3 per cent. so all districts will get an above inflation increase. There will be no effective ceiling for districts, giving grant increases of up to 12.2 per cent. for individual authorities.

There will be no changes in floors or ceilings for police and fire authorities.

This will mean that for the second year running, every local authority will get at least an above inflation increase, with many getting substantially more.

Tables showing grant totals and the revised provisional allocation of formula grant to all English local authorities for 2004–05 have been placed in the Vote Office and are also available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Given the scale of this change, the consultation period on our proposals will be extended and will now end on 9 January 2004. The House will then have the chance to debate the Government's final proposals in late January or early February. As is normal, the detailed allocations to individual authorities may still change as data on council tax base and capital allocations are updated.

Given the scale of the investment in local services and the scope for efficiency improvements in local government, the Government believe next year local authorities must aim to deliver council tax increases in low single figures. Unreasonably large council tax increases will be neither justified nor acceptable.

So the Government are prepared to use targeted capping powers next year if that proves necessary.

When considering whether to cap authorities, the Government will look at a range of factors including the level and increase in the council tax and the level of the budget. In areas where there is a combined fire authority, budgets for 2004–05 will not be comparable with 2003–04 because the combined fire authority is precepting for the first time in 2004–05. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is today issuing a consultation document which sets out the proposed methodology and the notional budget figures as a result of this change. A copy of this will be made available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Draft Fire and Rescue Framework 2004–05

The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford): In June the Government published the White Paper, "Our Fire and Rescue Service". It set out a package of reforms designed to improve the service and to save more lives. Today the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is publishing a draft fire and rescue national framework that will outline how to implement the White Paper's proposals. It sets out the Government's objectives for the Fire and Rescue Service and what Fire and Rescue Authorities should do to achieve these outcomes. It also sets out what the Government will do to improve the service and what support it will provide to Fire and

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Rescue Authorities. In due course, the expectations in the Framework will also help to shape the Audit Commission's fire and rescue Comprehensive Performance Assessment.

The Framework is based on a partnership approach. The Government is committed to giving Fire and Rescue Authorities adequate support and flexibility to help them meet the specific needs of their local communities. For this reason we are initially issuing it in draft form and welcome comments and suggestions by 12 March 2004 both on the proposals in the draft Framework and on how to make the future versions as helpful and relevant as possible. We aim to publish the first National Framework in Spring 2004.

The legislation announced in the Queen's speech will place the Framework on a statutory footing. It will require the Government to report to Parliament on the extent to which Fire and Rescue Authorities are acting in accordance with the National Framework and any steps the Government has taken to ensure that they do.

We are also today publishing Mott MacDonald's most recent study into fire and rescue control rooms, and HM Fire Service Inspectorate's review of the subject. The study reinforced the report's conclusions that regional control rooms would significantly enhance national resilience. The Government is persuaded by the conclusions of the study and proposes to establish regional control rooms in England, including the one already established in London, working closely with Fire and Rescue Authorities through their Regional Management Boards. We have written to the Practitioners Forum asking for their views on our proposed approach.

The Fire and Rescue Service is, rightly, widely admired for its professionalism and the dedication of its staff. The White Paper made clear, however, that it was also in need of urgent reform. Publication of the draft National Framework sets out the Government's expectations of the Service, what Fire and Rescue Authorities should do and the support the Government will provide. It demonstrates the Government's continued commitment, in partnership with Fire and Rescue Authorities, to driving down the number of fire deaths and injuries, improving fire and rescue services and saving more lives.

Copies of the Draft Fire and Rescue National Framework 2004/05, the full Mott MacDonald report, the summary of the Mott MacDonald report, and the HM Fire Service Inspectorate review are available in the libraries of both Houses.


BBC Charter

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The BBC's Royal Charter—the seventh in the history of the corporation—is due to expire on 31 December 2006. I have today launched the first phase of a process of review that will result in a strong BBC, independent of Government, from the end of the current Charter and beyond. That period will be marked by continuing rapid advances in technology, and changes in society, culture and practice—the way people receive and make use of broadcast content. Charter review will

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be characterised by our openness, our efforts to engage as broad a section of the population as we can, and our commitment to listen to what people have to say. And I am being helped in this by Lord Burns, who will provide me with independent advice throughout.

Charter review is not a single process. It will take in a range of existing and planned work, including Ofcom's review of public service television, the independent review of BBC online and the forthcoming reviews of the BBC's new digital services.

But it will also feature widespread public involvement, built around a three-phase process of consultation. Phase one starts today, based on a very broad consultation document—The Review of the BBC's Royal Charter—which I have published today. I have placed copies of the document—and a supporting leaflet—in the Libraries of both Houses.

Phase two, timed to begin around the end of 2004, will aim to bring together the results of phase one, the conclusions of various reviews taking place over the course of next year and the findings of our own programme of research into a green paper, which will be published for a further stage of consultation.

A White Paper will follow, with a further round of consultation. We will conclude the process with a full and formal opportunity for both Houses to contribute their views.

Today's publication forms the central plank of phase one. It sets out a framework for consultation—based on a series of key themes—within which there is plenty of room for discussion of all aspects of the BBC's role, structure and function. The consultation will be supported by a programme of survey research and direct engagement with the public and stakeholders.

The BBC belongs to everyone. It is one of our most valued institutions. In many ways, it reflects what is best about the values, culture and society of the United Kingdom, at home and abroad. Charter review gives the whole country an opportunity to have its say about the kind of BBC it wants for the future.

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