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I see the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) in his place. He has probably forgotten—indeed, he probably never registered the fact in the first place—that he and I were in the same room together in the dim and distant past, sitting on the so-called Consultative Council for Local Government Finance. It was not very consultative. The hon. Gentleman was one of the Ministers sitting on one side of the room; I was one of the local government representatives sitting on the other. I had been on a deputation to see the hon. Gentleman to discuss council funding and to seek help from the then Department of the Environment. Going as a representative of a local authority to ask for better treatment from a Government Department certainly
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gives one a worm’s eye view of how democracy works in this country. That was not a devolutionary experience.

The hon. Member for Meriden is asking us to believe that something has happened, that the hon. Member for Mole Valley has had an event on the way to Damascus, and that St. Paul is now going to be lowered in a basket from the Marsham street towers to get away from all those centralists.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman seems to be railing against centralisation rather than local decision making. Will he explain his party’s policy towards regional government? If he does not like regional government, does he acknowledge that it is being used as an excuse to rescue the Liberal Democrats from badly run Liberal councils?

Andrew Stunell: What I like about the hon. Gentleman is his capacity to read his Tory brief. What I do not like is his incapacity to understand Liberal Democrat policy, which is to take powers from central Government Departments and bring them back to the regions and local authorities, where they can better be exercised. I am astonished that he has not grasped that. Given that he has not grasped it, I wonder how he can support those on his Front Bench who say that they want more devolution. He does not seem to understand what devolution is or how it works.

Mr. Francois rose—

Paul Farrelly rose—

Andrew Stunell: Let me take these interventions from alternate sides. I give way to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly).

Paul Farrelly: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is all my own work, because the one omission from my brief is that there is no mention of the Liberal Democrats. I hope that the Secretary of State will look into that for next time. I am still grappling with all that I have heard about the proposed local income tax. The hon. Gentleman and I come from the west midlands, which is a region. Will he please tell me what the upper percentage limit for local income tax would be in that region? If he cannot give an answer, presumably it is because the Liberal Democrats have not worked it out yet, or because there will be no upper limit.

Andrew Stunell: We supplied figures to Sir Michael Lyons. Assuming that the income tax rate includes the upper income tax band, it would be 4.5 per cent. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. A great deal of practical detail and information is available on that subject.

Mr. Francois: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Stunell: It is probably time for me to make some progress, if I may. [Hon. Members: “Give way!”] Well, okay, let us take another one.

Mr. Francois: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. He will know that the Secretary of State’s policy is to impose large numbers of houses on local
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authorities through national and regional housing targets, irrespective of whether they have sufficient infrastructure to accommodate them. She is doing that even though she frequently objects to planning applications in her own constituency. What is the Liberal Democrats’ policy on regional housing targets? Are they in favour of them, even when local authorities resist?

Andrew Stunell: We clearly need more homes, and there needs to be a way of allocating them. We have said clearly that there needs to be a partnership in that decision-making process. It is just as absurd to have regions attempting to impose more houses on their local authorities as it is to have regions restricting local authorities that want to see growth, yet both of those situations exist—

Mr. Francois: So is that a yes or a no?

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): It is building on the fence.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May we please follow the rules of parliamentary debate? We are getting far too many comments from a sedentary position.

Andrew Stunell: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am more than happy to explore the intricacies of housing policy and national allocations, but I suspect that we are probably straying from the broad themes of the debate. It is certainly the Liberal Democrat view that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical level, and that relates to planning decisions just as much as to financial and service decisions on health care, highways and public transport. Any diligent listener to our debates in this place should be well aware of that.

It is disappointing that, when the official Opposition create an opportunity to talk about the future of local government, they fail to take it. The motion has offered us nine lines of nothing to debate, and it is hard to believe that their conversion, as announced from their Front Bench, is genuine. I looked for a local government policy in the Conservative party’s previous manifesto, which I understand was drawn up under the supervision of their current leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I found a policy with a hard figure on it: a £500 council tax rebate for pensioners over the age of 65. No doubt that seemed an attractive vote-winner somewhat analogous to the £100 that has been mentioned. What it is, however, is another step in centralising local government finance and reducing the independence of local government, which is exactly the opposite direction to that mentioned by the hon. Member for Meriden. Perhaps that is a good reason for not mentioning any policies whatever: the only one that seems to be extant goes in the opposite direction to the philosophy outlined.

In the years since the Conservatives left power, the Government have taken many steps in the wrong direction. During the passage of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill and at other times, my party has spelled out its concerns. As a Liberal Democrat, I am proud that we could table an amendment that set out clearly our prescription for the difficulties faced by
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local government. First, we need a proper proportional voting system for the election of local councillors, which will ensure much more representative and responsible local government. Secondly, we want a secure financial base for local government, which means returning the business rate to local control and introducing local income tax. Thirdly, we want a partnership of equals between local and national Government. I am only sorry that we will not have the opportunity to test those propositions in the Lobby tonight.

Liberal Democrats in local government have a proud record of service to their local communities in every part of the country, from the deepest rural areas to suburban and inner-city areas. The people of our country are happy and ready to support Liberal Democrats in those situations, but until the House has the guts and determination to change the balance of power fundamentally between local and central Government, Whitehall and town hall, our country and our democracy will lose out.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. In view of the time and the number of Members hoping to catch my eye, however, Members might want to reduce their contributions voluntarily.

8.37 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): Whenever the future of local government is debated, it inevitably becomes a discussion about the need for greater localism. Few Members would dispute that when localism means greater local management and devolving more power to front-line management, it is highly desirable. Local accountability and control, however, raise more difficult questions. I will discuss that in relation to my constituency in Swindon.

Funding lies at the heart of accountability, and as long as national Government are responsible for allocating some proportion of local authority funding, local accountability and control will be limited. National Government remain accountable to national taxpayers for the money that they spend, and therefore need to retain some measure of control over how effectively it is spent. It is important that local authorities are not required to raise all the funds that they need locally, because the uneven distribution of resources across the country would inevitably result in an inequitable meeting of needs. Moreover, in my experience in Swindon, the Government’s ring-fencing of funding to ensure that the greatest needs are met first, whatever the competence or bias of the local authority, has protected some of the most vulnerable people.

In my constituency, the Conservative council has demonstrated repeatedly that the poorest and most vulnerable people in the borough are not among its priorities. Cuts made by the council have always tended to fall most heavily on the most vulnerable. For example, it has butchered the Parks advice service, which served the most disadvantaged people in Swindon. Its grandiose launch of a vision for Swindon in 2010 contained 50 promises, not one of which mentioned tackling poverty, deprivation or disadvantage. Despite the fact
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that Seven Fields primary school, in the most disadvantaged ward in my constituency, was falling down, it took months of public campaigning to persuade Swindon borough council—even after it had received unprecedented capital funding from the Government that would more than cover the cost—that it should allocate funding to rebuild it.

What matters to the individuals who depend on public services is not an ideological fixation with localism, however it is defined, but the construction of the most appropriate partnership between local authorities and national Government to ensure that need is met equitably everywhere. Of course, such partnerships will vary according to the circumstances of each local authority, and earned autonomy has its place alongside direct intervention from the centre, but advocating pluralist partnership of this kind does not constitute an argument for the status quo.

We have heard a few stray remarks from Members on both sides of the House about the importance of transparency in the relationship between local government and national Government, and I associate myself with those remarks. The current relationship needs to change. It is not that I think transferring power from one bunch of politicians to another bunch of politicians will necessarily improve the position. The key at all levels of power is accountability, and at both local and national level politicians clearly need to become more accountable. My primary concern is that the relationship is opaque and does not encourage leadership at local level. The experience of Swindon exemplifies that. A recognition of the role of partnership and of the part played by other partners is a crucial requirement for all leadership, but Swindon borough council is currently failing in that regard.

Since it became a unitary authority in 1997, the council has struggled to deliver the services that Swindonians deserve. The problem is simply that it is too small to be a unitary authority and has struggled to find the capacity that would enable it to do all that it needs to do. That, coupled with a cynical division of resources by Wiltshire county council in 1997, left the Labour group, which ran the council until 2001, struggling. It failed to deliver what was necessary, as its members recognise.

When the Conservatives took over in 2001, the electorate expected them to do better; but the electorate were disappointed because they were not able to do any better. Social services continued to receive zero stars and the local education authority remained in special measures. Today, however, Swindon borough council is improving. I pay tribute to the officers—now ably led by a new chief executive—for all the work that they have done, but the crucial turning point was intervention by the Government. The Department for Education and Skills drove through a new structure for education, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, as it then was, worked tirelessly to teach Swindon borough council how to transform the delivery of services. Thousands of pounds were spent on teaching Conservative councillors how to do their jobs properly. Since 2001, funding from national Government has increased by well over 30 per cent., supplemented by one-off additional funding such as
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£1 million for building capacity. National Government have enabled the borough council to take part in a local area agreement that is innovative and will make a huge difference to the people whom I represent.

Of course, councillors from all parties deserve credit for their willingness to embrace the agenda for change, and I pay tribute to the current Conservative leader for his determination to improve the town. The fact remains, however, that the improvements would not have been possible without all that funding and support from the Government, and—crucially—we have never heard a word of acknowledgement or thanks from any Conservative councillor. Reading Conservative councillors’ election literature, one would think that they had personally raised the money to build all the new schools for which they are now claiming credit, not to mention the libraries and other community services on the basis of which they are trying to persuade people to vote for them. That is no way to provide decisive and visionary leadership. Any consistently visionary and successful local leadership must be based on coherent and consistent policy positions, which is not the case in Swindon.

Swindon is a growth area, and it is expected that 35,000 new houses will be built there. Privately, Swindon borough council wants that to happen, subject to the provision of proper infrastructure; publicly, it says that it is a threat being imposed on them. To say one thing privately and another publicly—to say one thing in Swindon and a different thing in London—does not provide leadership for the people of Swindon; nor does it provide any basis for the relationship between all the strategic partners who need to work together to secure Swindon’s future.

All partnerships depend on trust. Trust and partnership cannot exist together when one partner persists in saying contradictory things to different audiences depending on a narrow and sectarian view of what they think will maximise their vote. We must have greater clarity about mutual responsibilities. If there is greater clarity about the relationship between local and central Government, that will stop this kind of dodging and diving and encourage local authorities to show more leadership.

I shall now heed your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, by concluding. I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the need to provide greater transparency, so that all the partners in delivering services to people who depend on them will acknowledge their role in a mutually supportive partnership.

8.45 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I shall be succinct. I wish to make only two points, which I am delighted that the Minister is present to hear as they are aimed predominantly at him.

First, I recommend that the Minister change the system of listening to local government following the distribution process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and I regularly did that, and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) mentioned it. Some councils have good causes and it is possible to change things to help them. In respect of others, revealing information can be
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discovered, especially if one does a bit of work beforehand. I found a few Labour councils to be difficult in terms of some of the positions that they took, and I found that some Liberal Democrats’ positions were extraordinary.

I cannot remember if it was the Liberal Democrat group that came with the Minister for Hazel Grove, or rather the hon. Member for Hazel Grove—that might have been a Freudian slip, although I hope that we never have a Minister from the Liberal party. The Liberal Democrat council members came after having worked all night—or so I was told—on a project, and they were determined to put their case, which they did. We listened carefully to them. Their case was demonstrated with graphs, until it was pointed out by me and one or two of the officials that if the axis of the graphs were changed slightly exactly the reverse argument to that they were making applied. That is an entertainment that I suggest the Minister tries. He will find that the position of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove is often pretty fraudulent.

Andrew Stunell: I am happy to report that that group was an all-party deputation from the authority.

Sir Paul Beresford: What a shame—I could have gone on a little further, but I do not have the time.

My second point is that the Secretary of State and Ministers have in the past gone on at some length about the fact that they were removing some of the ties and burdens on local government. That was a little fraudulent because the burdens referred to had been imposed on local government by this Government. It is a bit like someone having an arm handcuffed to a wall for a number of years and then the people responsible saying, “We are now going to release you,” and then asking him whether he feels better—when at the same time another Department has nailed his other arm to the wall.

Some of the effects can be followed. The best value system was introduced—that title is a misnomer if ever there was one—as was the comparative performance assessment, which brought with it myriads of targets and books of prescriptive guidance, and other Departments joined in. The best example I can give involves Mole Valley district council. It is a tiny council with a budget of £10 million. The last comparative performance assessment cost it £250,000, plus weeks of getting ready and dealings with auditors and so forth. The Audit Commission has been mentioned—I understand that it is five times greater than when we left power and Labour came to office—and it is merely hounding local government. When that £250,000 was geared—it is geared, as it moves on to council tax—it added £1 million to local tax for that little council with a budget of £10 million. That is outrageous. The Minister has said—and the Secretary of State has said it too—“Well, we are taking it away,” but other things have been added, not only by his Department but by other Departments.

The Secretary of State spoke with some glee about the local area agreement. It has been hyped as a new way of streamlining funding and reporting. I invited the Minister to come with me to a certain well-known Conservative council that he likes very much and that endears local government to him, and to listen to it independently on what this means to it. It means excess
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bureaucracy and time-consuming work. There are hundreds of pages of prescriptive guidance on process, on format—on all the agreements. It means minute scrutiny.

I rang the council and spoke to the chief executive and some of his senior staff to ask whether the situation got better after my attempts to get the Minister to take notice and to reduce bureaucracy. The chief executive said, “No, it’s worse. There are more mandatory indicators, all of which are based on national priorities and all of which effectively remove the so-called local aspects. Moreover, there are more than just the six-monthly reviews.”

The chief executive also said that he was looking forward to September, when the local government section of the Department will descend on him and his council. Little boys and girls just out of university and with no real understanding of life will descend on the council to tick it off and to tick various boxes. Rather than looking at actual outputs, they will be looking at process. That will cost the council a lot of money, and the situation will then be exacerbated by the gearing. An horrendous amount of time will be wasted, the costs will be ghastly and the gearing will exaggerate the process. If the Minister actually believed what he has been saying and got off local government’s back, there would be a reduction in costs and a reverse gearing effect on council tax.

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