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Life in communities across England has improved enormously over the last 10 years. There are more jobs, our streets are cleaner and greener, and vital public services have improved. Those are real achievements, and the Government are proud of them. Local government should be proud of the role that it has played, too, leading the way in many areas. So I welcome today’s debate on the future of local government.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ruth Kelly: In a moment.

But I am surprised that the Tories have launched this debate with so little to say. I had hoped that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) would take this opportunity to enlighten the House on the Conservative vision for the future of local government. Sadly, we are none the wiser on several key issues. I should like to ask three simple yet vital questions.

First, what exactly is the Opposition’s policy on council tax? Keep it? Scrap it? Reform it? We are none the wiser. Secondly, the Opposition claim to be in favour of devolution. So why did the hon. Lady, her colleagues and the Front-Bench team direct all Conservative councillors to oppose any restructuring, no matter what the council tax benefits to people who live in those areas? Should not those decisions be left to local councillors themselves?

Mr. Jackson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ruth Kelly: In one moment.

Thirdly, the hon. Lady’s party claims to want to give people more control over what happens in their local areas, so why does it not support the Government’s devolutionary local government Bill? The hon. Lady seems to suggest that the answer to local government finance lies in scrapping regional assemblies, which have an administration cost of £21 million a year, and scrapping the comprehensive performance assessment, which is being replaced in the local government Bill. I
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am afraid that without the answers to the questions that I have set, the Opposition simply do not have a clear vision for the future, and in the absence of that, we should judge them on their past and present record, which I shall come to in a moment.

Chris Mole: Will my right hon. Friend ask the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) a fourth question, which is: in a debate where we should be celebrating local democracy and local decision making, did she really just say that the public should vote in a national referendum on the performance of the Government in local elections? That is what I heard her say, and that to me is a complete contradiction of the whole essence of local democracy and its purpose.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend, who has a strong track record in these areas, makes an absolutely vital point. The Opposition need to decide whether or not they trust local councils.

But we should look for a moment at what the Opposition did to local government when they were in power. Perhaps Conservative Members would like to intervene on that point.

Mr. Dunne: I should like to intervene on the question of trusting the people and believing that individuals have a right to say how they want their local government to be run. Where they take a ballot, the Government completely ignore it. Does the Secretary of State believe in local democracy or not?

Ruth Kelly: I know that the hon. Gentleman is very concerned about the issues in Shropshire, but I remind him that it is the Tory-controlled council there that has proposed to Government that it should be able to run a unitary council. It is the Tory-controlled council in Shrewsbury that has decided that it will not go down that route. Perhaps it should pick up the phone and call Dave, rather than have these arguments in the House. Somewhere, someone needs to sort these things out.

The Tories’ record on local government when they were in power speaks for itself. Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) acknowledged that the 1980s had brought centralisation of power and control. But he did not take the opportunity to mention the under-investment, the neglect, or the sheer arrogance that characterised the Tory years. He certainly did not mention the devastating impact on all our communities. The Opposition may not care to remember, but millions of people throughout the country do. They remember the years of diktat and demoralisation. They remember the funding cuts. Even in their last four years, the Tory Government slashed funding by 7 per cent. in real terms. Millions of people remember schools with leaking roofs and outside toilets. They remember the contempt for local democracy. They remember Nicholas Ridley’s maxim on councils: “The more they squeal, the more I know I’m right.” They remember Tory Ministers’ disdain for the local government work force. They remember the thousands of committed workers who had to fight for their pensions and holidays as a result of compulsory competitive tendering. We all remember the low point of the poll tax, with councils and Government locked in bitter opposition and people rioting on the streets. That is the history. Those are the facts of what the Conservative party did to local government when it was in power.

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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Secretary of State makes a powerful point about how the people hate the Conservative party in local government. If that is the case, why is it that the Conservatives now control twice as many councils as all the other parties put together and have twice as many councillors?

Ruth Kelly: I remind the hon. Gentleman that according to the figures of the hon. Member for Meriden, the Conservative party now controls 167 councils out of a total of more than 450. I suggest that local people sometimes have some common sense.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): If it is true that the general public believe that the Conservative years were so catastrophic and the Labour years so uplifting, how many gains does the right hon. Lady expect to make for Labour councils in 10 days’ time?

Ruth Kelly: May I just remind the right hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in great admiration, that in areas such as Manchester and Sheffield there is still not one single Conservative council, for the very good reason that Labour has revitalised the towns and cities in the north in a way that has never been managed before.

The right hon. Member for Witney tries to convince us that things have changed. But we need only look down the river to Hammersmith and Fulham to see the Thatcherite flame still burning bright today. The local Conservatives are proud of their first budget; proud of cutting essential services to support a tax cut; proud of making meals on wheels £200 a year more expensive for some of society’s poorest and most vulnerable people; proud of making it harder for the elderly and sick to get home help.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con) rose—

Ruth Kelly: Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman I just want to ask the hon. Member for Meriden whether she supports what the local Tories are doing in Hammersmith and Fulham. I give way to the hon. Gentleman after a resounding silence from the hon. Lady.

Mr. Pickles: I actually went to that council meeting and I have to tell the right hon. Lady that the Labour group did not vote against that budget cut. I also have to tell the right hon. Lady that I heard the Labour leader of Hammersmith and Fulham say that they would have produced a lower council tax and they would have cut deeper.

Ruth Kelly: If the hon. Gentleman is right, why is it that the Labour party in Hammersmith and Fulham is reporting the Tory-controlled council to the Audit Commission for the changes that it is making? I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s response and from the resounding silence from the hon. Lady that this is the Tory future vision for local government—charges and cuts.

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Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab) rose—

Ruth Kelly: I give way to my hon. Friend, who has some real experience of life in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Hon. Members: Tory gain!

Mr. Slaughter: One of the reasons why it was a Tory gain might be that in their manifesto last year the Conservatives said that a Conservative council would not reintroduce home care charging, yet last week they proposed an £11 a week charge for the most vulnerable people who need home help. In other words: “Say something when you want to be elected, and when you get elected do exactly the opposite.” Perhaps that is what we can expect on 3 May.

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend— [ Interruption . ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I want Opposition Front Bench interventions only if they are proper in nature, not sedentary.

Ruth Kelly: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must make some progress with my speech.

It is clear that the Opposition do not like to talk about their record in power or when they were last in government. I can tell the House that we are proud of our record. In 10 years, Labour has transformed local government. We inherited services that were run-down, demoralised and starved of cash. Since 1997, we have increased funding to local councils by 39 per cent. in real terms. Our massive investment, together with the commitment of local government workers, has turned things around. Today, local government is not just up to the job: in many areas, it is leading public service reform. It is delivering results on the issues that really matter. Rates of recycling have more than tripled in the past eight years, antisocial behaviour is falling, 3,500 neighbourhood wardens are helping to cut crime on our estates, and the streets are getting cleaner. The Audit Commission shows councils improving year in, year out.

Mr. Ian Austin: I remind my right hon. Friend of the appalling failure of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) to condemn the activities of Dudley council, which, despite having received an above-average settlement this year, is increasing council tax by 5 per cent., cutting services for the elderly and special needs children, and even closing swimming baths. Will my right hon. Friend, on behalf of the House, condemn what Dudley’s Conservative-controlled council is doing? Will she look at her diary to try to find an urgent opportunity to come to Dudley and see for herself the reality of Conservatives in power in Britain today?

Ruth Kelly: I condemn what the Conservatives are doing in Dudley and think that it is a disgrace that the hon. Member for Meriden has not condemned them. I will certainly look for an early opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Dr. Starkey: In relation to my right hon. Friend’s remarks about recycling, can she try to explain how the
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Conservatives square the circle whereby they wish to be environmentally friendly in encouraging recycling, yet, in their motion, cite weekly rubbish collections as a bad thing although that can be the most sensible way of encouraging people to recycle more and to have lower amounts of residual waste?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I do not think that the hon. Member for Meriden can square the circle. On the one hand she talks about devolving real power to local councils and local people; on the other, she still seems to believe in central diktat from Whitehall. She cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ruth Kelly: I will make some progress.

Under this Government, we have had 10 years of local government going from strength to strength. That has paved the way for devolution to the town hall and from the town hall. Those are the principles behind the ambitious reforms set out in the White Paper that I published last year and in the Bill that is currently before the House. Our proposals are the culmination of many months’ work and extensive consultation.

Now that local government has raised its game, the next stage is to give it greater freedom, greater discretion about how it meets its goals, and the opportunity to build places that people are proud to call their home. It is time for local government to empower its citizens and to give them a greater say over the services they want and how they are delivered. This is what our proposals achieve. That is why they have cross-party support in the Tory-led Local Government Association.

Let me remind the House of some of the measures that we are introducing. We are introducing the community call for action. Where people have concerns about a local issue, the call for action will help them to get a response from their council. It could be graffiti; it could be youth facilities: whatever the issue, local people will have a new way of getting things done. We are freeing local government to get on with the job by slashing red tape. We are strengthening local area agreements, which set out what councils and key partners will deliver for local people, and how. I believe that in the future they will be one of the great success stories of local government. We are trusting councils to understand the needs of local people, and giving them greater freedom to meet them.

Mr. Stewart Jackson rose—

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ruth Kelly: Not at the moment.

Indeed, last week the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) described local area agreements as “the future”. I welcome his support. Does the hon. Member for Meriden agree with her hon. Friend, or does she still believe in the central diktat of the olden days?

The proposals in the White Paper and the Bill will make a real difference. They will help local government
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to take on the challenges of the 21st century. If the Conservatives support localism, as they say, why have they consistently opposed our Bill? Is it because they prefer rhetoric and photo shoots to the tough policy decisions that government is all about?

Mr. Stewart Jackson rose—

Ruth Kelly: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Hon. Members: Hooray!

Mr. Jackson: I thank the right hon. Lady for her generosity. I am a patient man.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) made the sensible point that local elections are about local people making a local choice. If everything is so wonderful in the land of milk and honey under this Labour Government, why is the Labour party failing to contest 40 per cent. of all the council seats at the elections on 3 May? Is it because it has not got a record worth defending in those seats?

Ruth Kelly: I do not recognise that figure, but I would ask the hon. Gentleman why the Conservatives have made no inroads whatsoever into any of the cities in the north.

I saw that the right hon. Member for Witney was in Dartford last week gathering rubbish; I read the report of his performance in The Times. The council leader explained how that event was set up:

That sums up the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution to local services.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the difficulty that the Conservatives have in getting people elected in the north, particularly in cities such as Manchester, might be the example of Tory-led Trafford council? Perhaps it is time to condemn that council, which is not prudent. It has not only increased its council tax by the largest amount in Greater Manchester—4.9 per cent.—but is making its citizens pay the council tax every month on days earlier than they are used to paying it, and has wasted money on the new council logo and £400,000 on consultants at the same time as closing two day care centres and an elderly people’s home.

Ruth Kelly: I certainly condemn the Tory councillors on Trafford council. It is worth reminding the House that those in Labour-controlled councils are seeing their council tax go up by much less than those in Tory-controlled councils throughout the country.

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