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The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of concessionary fares. That exposes an important point about devolution. Local authorities and Members of Parliament often argue for devolved powers and against ring-fenced budgets. When the Government
provide non-ring-fenced budgets and devolve power, we are often told that the money is not enough, which is the argument on the concessionary bus fares scheme. When the money was provided on a non-ring-fenced basis through the local authority revenue support grant settlement, some councils said that it was not enough. One cannot have ones cake and eat it. If it is such a priority for the local authority, it has to take some tough decisions, just as Governments do. There is further good news, however, because the Chancellor has announced not only a nationwide concessionary fare scheme for buses for the elderly and disabled but a national scheme. Discussions are taking place in Government on how the funding mechanism for that should be handled. Representations made by the hon. Gentleman and others are of course being considered as we work out how the scheme can best come about.
The hon. Gentleman made a rather startling claim when he said that this Government were the least democratic for two centuries. Universal suffrage has not been around for two centuries. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, For two decades. That gives me a get-out, because I think that I would come out on top were he to make claims about the previous Conservative Government, particularly as regards the abolition of councils and interference in local authorities in that period. Indeed, I could refer to the memoirs of Kenneth Baker, who described how he had to tackle, as he saw it, the views of local authorities in the 1980snot a lot of devolution around then.
The local area agreement, which pools and aligns Government and local government money in local authority areas, is a significant devolutionary measure. Every local authority in England now has such an agreement. Approximately £500 million is channelled into local area agreements, and that frees up local agencies, especially local councils.
The legislative framework under which councils operate has changed and is changing again with the Sustainable Communities Bill through the key measures of the statutory duty on the partner agencies to co-operate with local councils. Clause 108 provides for a duty to involve, inform and consult, thus fulfilling many of the Bills goals. Part of my task in Committee is to discuss with members how we can best move forward on that.
Local authorities financial and legal frameworks are changing, especially through the measures that I have mentioned. Crucially, the performance framework is also changing through the freeing up by the Government and the Audit Commission of the regime under which councils operate.
The accusation has been made that central Government tied down local government. We introduced tough measures, which, along with the hard work of councillors from across the political spectrum and the extra money over the yearsno one quibbles that it has been provided; many say that it is not enough but none says that it is too muchhave meant a significant improvement in the quality of local authorities. That is not only my view but that of the Audit Commission and other independent bodies.
We are now in a position where we are freeing up local authorities, especially through the significant reduction of targets. There is a strong consensus in the Local Government Association about that. I therefore believe that I can meet some of the measures for which the hon. Gentleman argued but I still resist the accusation that we are the most undemocratic Government for two centuries.