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5.8 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to be able to take part in this debate. I apologise for not being here at the start to hear the remarks made by the Committee's Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), but I was taking part in the Westminster Hall debate on pensioner poverty, a subject that is undoubtedly linked to this one. Although I will not spell those links out, I think it fair to say that two very interesting debates have been arranged for this Thursday afternoon.

I shall keep my remarks very brief, but I am delighted to be able to say a few things on this topic. My starting point is the fact that, when it comes to the relationship between central Government and local government, all is not well in the kingdom of Denmark. I want to turn these relationships on their head, because like my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), I have a long history of involvement in local government. I am still a councillor in Stonehouse town council and I have much to say about how I admire what this first level of government does. It is often left out of all our discussions on local government, but I wish to put it on the record that we underestimate what parishes and community government can bring. I shall say something about that in a few minutes' time.

I want to turn this on its head, because although it is easy to blame central Government for all the ills that local government feels have been done to it, local government has much to answer for in its timidity in failing to stand up to central Government. In my 30 years of involvement with local government, it has often been too easy to blame the centre when local government could have done more to reform radically what is happening and to address the loss of power and responsibility.

That situation is potentially linked to the changes in structure and the movement towards a cabinet and scrutiny system. Such a system is not intrinsically wrong; what is wrong is the way in which many councils tend to
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operate it. They tend to believe that once they have a cabinet system, their councillors have inherent powers that they accrete to themselves and, thus, other councillors can do nothing about that. Other councillors ought to use their scrutiny powers more. However, one of the failings occurs when a dominant political group appoints itself not only to the cabinet, but to the chairs of the scrutiny committees. Such an arrangement is wrong; just as we have a balance of power here, it ought to operate properly in local government. It is simply a scandal that a dominant grouping can use its own people in such a way as to not scrutinise what it is doing.

One thing that is wrong and that needs to be changed is that the professionalisation of local government has excluded, rather than included, a lot of people. There are those who argue that we should never allow people's means to enter into the question of whether they can stand for election as a councillor, but we have gone to the other extreme whereby their income is entirely dependent on whether they keep their seat. That should not be the way of it; people should go into local government because they believe in public service and want to serve their communities, not because it is a paid form of employment. It is sad that the question of money is entirely bound up with that of whether people stand for election and try to keep their seat.

Sir Paul Beresford: The situation is more difficult than that, because the power of the elected leader of the group over his cabinet is extreme as a result of the finances that accrue to those other cabinet members.

Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not wish to cast aspersions or try in any way to wish even more problems on Stroud district council, even though it is run by those with a different political persuasion from mine, but I should say that the groupings on that council have that problem. The Conservative group is split according to who has got a position and who has not. This is a worrying development and we need to see it as a whole, because it causes great disillusion among the local populous when they see that people apparently get elected because of the associated money. I regret that we have seen that happen. Local government could revisit the issue and do something about it. It does not have to have this system imposed on it, and it might feel that it wants anything but that.

The point about the public service ethos is referred to in the Library debate paper, and from memory, I think it is in the very good report from the Communities and Local Government Committee. It concerns the payment not only of councillors but of staff. We are now completely out of kilter with what some chief executives and senior council officials are paid, and that needs to be revisited quickly. If we must navel gaze at our own situations, it is only right and proper, in the light of the bonus culture, that others should re-examine what they can expect, morally as well as financially. Some of the salaries that are now being paid have achieved the opposite of what I would have liked-they have destroyed the public service ethos, rather than supporting it.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) would be staggered if I did not take this opportunity to mention the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Some of us feel that it is a move in the right direction, because it is about re-introducing localism. I caught the
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end of what my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said, and we need to recognise that we cannot isolate local government from other aspects of the statutory and voluntary sectors. It is only right that the Sustainable Communities Act should be linked in with what the Government are doing with Total Place, which I find very exciting, to try to find an overall approach to the way in which we govern local areas. That must make its way through the morass of difficulties, which we all know about. If we can get it right, we will get a much clearer system for the accountability of local decision making, which can be made properly accountable, rather than being seen as local administration.

I welcome the efforts that are being made. I know that the Secretary of State makes many speeches nowadays about our planning and consideration of local spending reports. We can argue about how that is being done and whether it is being done quickly enough, but if the work of Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt can be applied so that we can track funding appropriately and begin to share it in a different way, money can be saved. I am not interested in saving-I am interested in much more effective and efficient use of service provision. If we can do that, that will be very exciting. I think the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has chosen the "sustainable communities Act mark 2" as his private Member's Bill. I shall be a sponsor of it, as I think he has stolen the Bill that I promoted. I am only too happy to lend it to him.

I want to make two more points, and then I shall not detain the House any longer. It is about time that we took a grown-up approach to moving forward the structure of local government. I ask those who think that it is quaint to have three-tier local authorities and who have moved to unitary authorities in their own area to please revisit the issue. We should have a structure that is fit for purpose for the 21st century.

We need some form of regional government in this country. It can either be unaccountable-as it was under the last Conservative Government-or it can be made more accountable. I have enjoyed being on the South West Regional Select Committee. It is a lonely existence, particularly because if I go out of the room, the whole Committee is disallowed because it becomes inquorate. We need to recognise that some form of regional accountability and scrutiny is necessary, and those Select Committees have, in their short existence, already done some invaluable work.

We need to move forward. We need clarity about proper strategic local government delivery, which I hope can be done through unitary authorities. If Cornwall can do it, please can Gloucestershire follow suit one day? We are so far out of the loop now and so far behind the times that it is just embarrassing. That would give greater powers to parish and town councils, which can be the delivery arm in many respects, and that would differ from the situation at the moment in which we are squabbling over who repairs the pavements. If hon. Members can explain who has responsibility to any member of the public, they are a better person than me, because all three layers of government squabble over a number of responsibilities, and that is not a happy situation.

During the summer recess and beyond, I conducted a survey on some of the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee-I was glad to have been elected to serve as
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one of its members. One of the questions in "Up for Debate", as we called the survey, asked whether the general public wanted local government to get more power and funding. That question produced one of the most disappointing responses, because there was strong opposition to giving more power and funding to local government, but that shows how far we have to go to rebuild local populaces' trust in their local government. We received 7,000 replies to the survey, so we heard from a fairly good cross-section of the Stroud constituency, but the results show that local government is unpopular and not trusted. Although it is easy, as I suggested at the start of my speech, to blame the centre for that, local government must do a lot more in its own right to rebuild trust. I hope that the Committee's report and what happens on the back of our debate will go some way towards achieving that.

5.21 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a shame that more hon. Members have not had the opportunity to participate in this important debate, but pressing business is taking place elsewhere. However, those of us who have been able to discuss the report and hear colleagues' contributions will feel that we are getting to the heart of what government ought to be about: dispersing power and involving people in the decisions that affect them.

The report presented by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on behalf of her Committee makes several key recommendations. It is clear that the Committee's work on several areas all relates back to the fundamental points of how local government works, its relationship with central Government, and its ability to deliver on local people's agendas.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) gave us a history lesson although, as we heard from other hon. Members, it seemed to begin in 1997 and there is a tale to tell from before that. However, I accept some of the hon. Gentleman's points, especially about the burden that targets and the inspection regime have placed on local authorities. He had less to say about capping, the centralising of business rates and other measures that were introduced on his party's watch during its time in government, but we move on, and I hope that the Labour and Conservative Front Benchers will be able to reassure us that they are looking at those things anew.

The speeches made by Labour Members with a long experience of local government showed that there was no recent golden age because problems have been faced over some time. However, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said, there has been a centralising tendency, so we urgently need to rebalance that and to bring back a sense of freedom to those who are engaged in local government. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said that people, sadly, sometimes have low regard for local authorities. That is a function of the way in which local authorities are unable to deliver on aspirations as they would like, because they do not have the necessary powers, and also arises because there is a lack of transparency and no link between funding and accountability, which has been a key aspect of our debate.

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I am delighted to say that a lot of what is in the report has been my party's policy for a long time. I point that out not to say, "I told you so," but because if a group of distinguished Members considers the evidence and comes back with a set of policies that concur with the ones I promote week in, week out, that is a nice place to be. I accept that the Committee does not agree with us on every matter, because there were a few problems with local health boards and elected responsibility for police oversight. I accept what the hon. Lady said, and, as she heard from Liberal Democrat councillors, I recognise that democratic accountability is still the subject of debate in our party, even though our policy is moving in that direction at the moment. The issue stems from the need to get around, at least initially, the problem with the public's perception of local authorities. However, if we introduce democratic accountability, first, to the local health service, longer term there may be opportunities to bring in other measures.

I certainly support a power of general competence, and I was very pleased to hear the hon. Lady say that in light of recent events, the Committee's position would have been stronger had it issued the report today. That is welcome, because such a power would clearly demonstrate that local government was able to innovate, consider local factors and come up with solutions. Currently, without that power or the freedom to be more innovative on finances, whatever the priorities that are identified locally, there are real limits on how much can be done to meet them.

Finance issues were raised, and I was pleased to hear that the Committee wanted to re-localise business rates, because, again, the Liberal Democrats have argued for that for a long time. We need to consider the issues associated with equalisation, because some local authorities will do very well out of it. However, that measure would restore the connection between what is going on in the local economic sphere and what the local authority is doing. It would be a huge step in the right direction.

I was also interested in the fact that the Committee favoured a form of local income tax, if only on a supplementary basis to council tax. Although my party has favoured a local income tax for some time, we have been up front in saying that it could not be done overnight. It would take a long time to introduce and enact in a way that did not cause huge upset to the delivery of public services locally. However, we are sticking to that aspiration, and we want to introduce it.

Mr. Betts rose-

Dan Rogerson: I sense that the hon. Gentleman is ready to jump in on that point.

Mr. Betts: The hon. Gentleman tempts me, and I thank him for giving way. It is interesting that local income tax is now an "aspiration"-I heard the word-but how long is a long time? Does he accept, moreover, that if local authorities had to rely on a local income tax for their major source of funding in the current economic circumstances, many would be in deep financial difficulties?

Dan Rogerson: When I say a long time, I am not talking about decades but, ideally, within the period of a Parliament. It might take longer than that, as the experience of Scotland is showing-whatever the aspiration might be to introduce a local income tax there. Nevertheless, I would certainly want to look at local pilots as a way of
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bringing forward the proposal. I accept that with all taxation systems there are winners, losers and issues to address, but we must tackle the fundamentals of equity and inequity, which the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) mentioned, and the problems of the current council tax system. In my party's view, the council tax system is not delivering and is not fit for purpose.

I was also pleased to hear the hon. Member for Wigan mention revaluation. My party would rather this country did not stick with the council tax system, but if we do, revaluation is the logical way to keep it relevant. That presents a problem for parties that want to stick with council tax but either put off revaluation or argue that it is unnecessary.

Mr. Betts: When the hon. Gentleman answered-half-answered-the question in my previous intervention by saying that a long time is not decades, he did not address the buoyancy of a local income tax during an economic recession. If people's incomes fall and people lose their jobs, there will be a real problem for an organisation that relies for its main source of funding on a local income tax, particularly when compared with council tax, which is fairly stable despite the current economic difficulties. Is that not a fair point? How does he answer it?

Dan Rogerson: That is a fair point. Obviously, there need to be equalisation measures. As the hon. Gentleman has said, if unemployment was rife in particular parts of the country, they would be worse affected by a falling off of incomes. Such things would need to be reflected in the formula. However, I do not consider that an argument for discounting local income tax altogether, and I am pleased that the Committee was prepared to consider it as a supplementary local taxation system.

In her introductory remarks, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West was giving marks out of 10 to other Government Departments in respect of how they engage with the issues in the report. That is crucial, too; we have to have a commitment right across the Government to agree that local government plays a vital role in delivering services-sometimes on a sort of agency basis, as other hon. Members have said, but, I hope, increasingly in their own right and as part of a constitutional set-up. Unlike most democracies, we do not have a written constitution, but I hope we will make the move to having one; during my political life, that has been at the heart of what I want to see as part of constitutional reform. That could allow the position to be set in a more concrete way.

I noted that the recent publication "Putting the frontline first: smarter government" took the opportunity to discuss the proliferation of quangos and the amount of public money that they spend. At the moment, it seems that the solution is to merge and amalgamate quangos. We will wait to see how that agenda develops, but that would not get us around our need to bring some of the funding to local authorities, which are well equipped to spend the money and be accountable for it. The Local Government Association has been giving traffic-light markings to quangos, which shows that it is keen to discuss how it could do more to influence how quangos deliver spending locally.

I appreciate that I am moving slightly off the subject of the Committee report, but it is important to see how
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things are perceived right across the Government. There are a few gems in "Putting the frontline first"; for example, I love this:

that sentence, of course, is a fantastic way of engaging people and increasing understanding. On the issue of quangos, the document states:

If we want to encourage people to engage and feel confident that they can have a role, we need to make sure that things are as accessible as possible.

We have to hear from the other Front Benchers. In conclusion, the report makes a great contribution to our debate. It is a shame that in their response, the Government do not pick up on as many of those issues as we would have liked. The clock is ticking, of course, on their ability to respond-at least in this Parliament; we will see what happens in the next one. I am pleased that the members of the Committee have undertaken this work and presented it to Parliament and Government in this way. It takes us a little further forward.

5.33 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), I think this has been a useful, interesting and thoughtful debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and her Committee on their report. It is interesting and raises a number of important and serious issues. It is a shame that more Members have not come to participate in the debate. I am sure, however, that what has been said will be circulated and come to the notice of people beyond those who are in the Chamber this afternoon. It deserves that.

Virtually all of us in the Chamber today might be termed "local government usual suspects", because we all have a background and track record in it. Most of us would probably say that we were unashamed local government enthusiasts. Part of the task for those of us who willingly wear that hat is to persuade to our point of view many other hon. Members and people outside the House who may not have our direct experience of the value of local government and the efficient and effective way in which it delivers many crucial public services.

The report and the debate are worth while on several levels. All hon. Members who have spoken have followed the tone of the report. They have a wealth of experience, and they made some very constructive points. Although I might not agree with them all in detail, it is striking that there were several themes on which Members on both sides of the House could find a degree of commonality-an awful word that sounds rather as though it has come from a DCLG report.

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