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Mr. Binley: I thank the Minister for his kindness in giving way. I am in the businessor at least my business is in the businessof data collection, databases and related matters, and I can tell him that the average database degrades at a rate of 15 per cent. per year compound. Given that, does he accept that the data collected over the past two years will be almost totally useless?
Mr. Woolas: No, I do not. The hon. Gentleman regards that as a valid point, but he misunderstands the one that I was trying to make. Ministers, rightly, must listen to the advice of the Valuation Office Agency. The figures that I have put before the House in written answers and here today are the agency's figures and I have to take its advice. I doubt that the hon. Gentleman would like it if Ministers strode around pretending to be experts on software programming.
Mr. Pickles: The Minister will be pleased to learn that my question is not about software. He said that the research papers would be published in the autumn. The leaves are now falling; when does he think that autumn will have ended? Are we talking about next week, or some time in November, or will we have to wait until the actual end of autumn, which is 21 December?
Mr. Woolas: Autumn is defined as the period before Christmas. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government answered this question during oral questions a short while ago. The scene-setting report is expected this term, but we do not have a specific date. To be serious, Sir Michael's report is independent and the process that he follows is under his control.
Huw Irranca-Davies : I fully understand the logic of a wider remit for a full-scale review, but will my hon. Friend touch on how it relates to Wales, where local government functions are a devolved matter? Is a parallel process expected to take place in Wales? Will the Minister discuss the ramifications with the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister? Although the finances translate across England and Wales, the detailed restructuring of local government has significant implications from the point of view of the Welsh Assembly Government.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Our policy is that matters relating to local government in Wales are, rightly, devolved. Having said that, there is a relationship, which is why I have been engaged in correspondence with my counterpart in Wales and why meetings are due to take place as the process unfolds. Whether the shape of the debate is the same in Wales as in England is a matter for Welsh representatives, but I am aware of the interaction between the two.
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I was outlining the importance to the country and to communities of the role of local government. That has to be placed in the context of our manifesto commitments to public service reform. From continuing the improvement in our schools to making social services more responsive to the people who use them, local government will be in the forefront of driving up performance. However, the communities that our local councils serve are growing ever more diverse, with a greater range of needs and higher aspirations than ever before. We should celebrate that, but we should also acknowledge that it means that local government's role will have to change along with the communities that it serves.
There are several pointers to that debate, in which we are now engaged. The local council must lead and represent the local area by harnessing the efforts of local people and representing their interests. It must lead the community through building partnerships with other local service providers, voluntary and community groups and the private sector. Hon. Members may know that every area in England will have a local area agreement by April 2007. In my view, local area agreements, whereby councils come together with other public service partners, the voluntary and community sector and the private sector to serve their area in a joined-up way, are a significant development in local governmentone of the most significant developments since the second world war.
The debate on the role of local government within the local area agreement takes place alongside other debatesfor example, the debate on neighbourhood and community empowerment, the debate on how we achieve a step change in service delivery to users, and the debate on how we involve the disadvantaged and improve services to them as well as to everyone else. Those significant local government changes are in the pipeline, which is why the decision to postpone the revaluation was the right one.
Andrew Selous : Does the Minister agree that the test of the worth of local area agreements will be based on highly practical issuesfor example, the junction between the medical assessments of children with special educational needs and the services that they receive? Such children often cannot get the assistance that they require because the bodies involved do not communicate. Only if my LAA deals with specific issues such as that will I think that it is worth while.
The point made by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is a serious one. Local area agreements help to join services together and
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ensure that objectives are shared. Crime can be tackled better if the police have the active co-operation and participation of other public service agents, such as schools, the probation service and local councils. That type of change is being driven forward in parts of the country and the best examples are showing the way to others. Sir Michael Lyons said on that subject:
"One of the strongest conclusions emerging from my work to date is that well-founded recommendations on possible reforms of the funding of local government need to be based on a clear understanding of the expectations and responsibilities of local government, which continue to change".
Mr. Raynsford : I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend and I understand entirely his point on the need for a wider remit for Sir Michael. Does he accept, however, that Sir Michael was not convinced of the case for a postponement of revaluation of longer than one year? Sir Michael has stated on the record that he understood why Ministers would seek to postpone for one year, but, by inference, he is not supportive of the Government's position.
Mr. Woolas: In fact, Sir Michael did not even go that far: he said only that there was a case for postponement of a year. I acknowledge that he did not recommend a postponement such as the one that we announced. I hope that we have never given the impression that we are hiding behind Sir Michael. We have extended his remit because it is the job of Government to ensure that reviews of financing such as his complement other areas of public service reform and wider social and economic policy. The advancement of local area agreements to ensure that they cover the whole of England by April 2007 is a significant step change in our policy that builds on the tremendous work of my right hon. Friend.
Sarah Teather: I agree that local area agreements are a sensible and practical way of joining up things that have been divided because of the way in which central Government organise their financial regime for local authorities. Surely, however, local authorities themselves should join things up? If we allowed local authorities more flexibility to think across portfolio areas, we would not need mechanisms at the other end to join things up.
We would all agree with the sentiments behind that, but, although I hate to use the word, the hon. Lady is being naive. Of course, it is desirable that public service agencies work together and there are many good examples of them doing so. Local strategic partnerships existed for many years before Government guidelines were issued, and the best ones work well together. Public services use taxpayers' money, and the review is predicated on the belief that the funding system is not as fair as it could be. If we give that responsibility to local authorities, as devolution allows, we have to give them the financial mechanisms to work
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meaningfully with public sector partners. The hon. Lady has clearly never read Chairman Mao, who was absolutely right about that.
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