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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, the pupil premium is designed to achieve precisely that. We are absolutely doing everything we can to try
to protect people and share out the burden of the very difficult decisions that have to be made-decisions that were ducked by the Opposition when they were in government. Labour Members could not outline one penny of how they would have reduced the local government budget-not one single penny. I invite the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen to come to the Dispatch Box if he now wants to explain where the cuts were going to come from. Until Labour Members acknowledge that they had no answers and were not proposing alternatives, they will not have earned the right to lecture anybody about what should and should not be done by way of making these difficult cuts, because we have not heard anything about it from them.
We have protected the £29 billion formula grant-the main source of funding for front-line services such as rubbish collections, street cleaning and libraries. Moreover, we have not cut any of the main Supporting People budget, which is in excess of £1.6 billion, despite needing urgently to cut funds from this year.
John Hemming: Does the right hon. Gentleman share my mystification as to why Labour Members are fussing about whether there is a cut of 1.08% or 1.1%, given that the real situation is that over the next five years we potentially face cuts of 25% in real terms, and we should be planning and preparing for that now?
Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The simple truth is that Labour Members still have not understood the depth of the problems that they have got us into. Until they acknowledge that and start to address it themselves with some real plans, and identify where some of the money is coming from, nobody will take seriously their complaining and calling of Opposition day debates about this subject.
We will continue to remove the ring fences from non-school revenue and capital funding. This year, we have de-ring-fenced £1.2 billion, and we intend to go a lot further. This gives councils the extra flexibility they need to concentrate on local priorities and to protect these front-line services. We are also reducing the management burden imposed on local authorities from the centre, cutting down on undemocratic and unaccountable quangos, and putting local government front and centre in meeting local residents' needs. When we took over, there were 27 different quangos relating to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Again, I invite the shadow Secretary of State to come to the Dispatch Box and explain how he was going to hand power back to local people by removing even one of his 27 quangos.
As with every profession, local authorities will need to take some difficult decisions about how to prioritise their spending. Local authorities have already made great strides in achieving efficiencies, but they need to do more. There is still a lot more potential to gain through new practices-for example, shared services, joint working and smarter procurement. Perhaps most important, however, will be radical town hall transformation. We must be clear that councils will need to build in improved productivity as a matter of course. They need to learn from the best commercial practices. Sainsbury's does not go out and tell people that good food costs more when it comes from Sainsbury's, but that it costs less, and public services are going to have to do the same thing. In the public services, in
future, we have to get more for less. I know that that is a concept that Labour Members struggle with, but it is the reality of the financial mess that they have left us in.
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I am proud that in Great Yarmouth our council, which faces a 2% cut, has reacted by saying, "We can deal with this. We realise the situation that the previous Government has left us with, and we've got to get more efficiencies." That is a good and positive move forward. In my view, having spent many years as a councillor and council leader, the best thing for our councils is to get rid of some of the ring-fencing and the tick-box culture that wastes officers' and members' time and give them back the ability to make real decisions about real things locally, which means they are more accountable and that our residents will care more about what they do. Does the Minister agree?
Grant Shapps: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who gives us an opportunity to talk about matters such as the comprehensive area assessments, which somehow, through ticking boxes and using- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) says from a sedentary position that we have done all that, but the truth is that £39 million was still being spent on that budget on the day we entered office.
Rather than having a tick-box culture, in which town halls are answerable to Ministers, there is a better way, and it is the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) has identified-local people being the ones to whom officers are answerable, through the ballot box. That is a radical concept that can be expanded much further by allowing councils, by the end of this year, to publish online details of all their spending, tenders and contracts over £500. That will be proper transparency and empower a new army of armchair auditors to go through local authorities' books and help identify wasteful spending, helping to protect front-line services. [Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members calling out, "Well, that will help." As a matter of fact, we really do think that it will help in a dramatic way, and I will explain why.
We are going to extend the idea to national Government with a higher limit of £25,000, and this is how it will work. In my Department alone, openness and publishing this stuff online would have avoided, for example, the scandal of £134,000 being spent on 28 luxury socialist-red sofas by a Parisian designer, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, which were bought as part of new Labour's-get this-efficiency initiative. That pretty much sums up its approach.
"relax and refuel in a natural ebb and flow."
Proper accountability would surely have stopped the £6,000-apiece deluxe chrome coffee machines fitted at each of the white elephant regional fire control rooms, which are completely empty, by the way. Come hell or high water, we would at least have known in future that officials would have had a nice cup of cappuccino even as disaster struck and the phone system failed, as it famously does in those buildings. That is what transparency
and openness will deliver-it will mean that people can see what is going on inside government, both nationally and locally.
Mr Slaughter: I wish the Secretary of State had bothered to come, partly because this is so incoherent and we might have had something a bit better, but mainly because I wanted to pay him a compliment for proposing to cut a bit of town hall waste. He said at the weekend:
"Councils should spend less time and money on weekly town hall Pravdas...our free press should not face state competition from propaganda on the rates dressed up as local reporting".
My Conservative council spends £750,000 on just that type of propaganda. When will the Government cut that, and in addition to consulting the councils themselves, when will they consult local people, MPs and newspapers about the problem? It is a disgrace.
Grant Shapps: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his particularly eloquent contribution. Local authorities spending their time publishing weekly newspapers, or weekly Pravdas as the Secretary of State described them, is just not their role. We talk about front-line services, supporting people, homelessness and priority programmes to ensure that the sick, elderly and vulnerable are protected, but Opposition Members want to talk about local weekly Pravda newspapers published by local authorities. It simply is not the answer. What we want to do is ensure that local authorities are engaged in front-line services that help their population, not services that rival the local newspapers. We want to allow the local newspapers to operate without interference from local authorities.
Everyone knows that money is tight. Every strategy that we employ nationally and locally should focus on getting more for less. Innovation and efficiency must be king. The emergency Budget makes it clear that there are challenging times ahead. We want to ensure that local government is fully engaged with the next spending review. In particular, we expect councils to be involved in the series of events over the summer to discuss and debate various aspects of public spending. We will use the spending review to drive decentralisation across local government and national Government.
Toby Perkins: The Minister has said a couple of times that councils will have to do more for less. As a member of the best value and efficiency scrutiny panel on Chesterfield borough council for the past seven years, I know just how hard our council and many others worked to produce the efficiencies demanded under Gershon. Can the Minister tell us of any council leaders who have not been trying to give more for less in the last years of the Labour Government?
I accept that the hon. Gentleman and local authority leaders and councils throughout the country work hard to do those things. However, sometimes just doing something in a closed situation is not enough and we have to invite the whole general public to take part. We need to publish the stuff online, make it fully transparent and let people see what is really going on. As I explained in the context of my Department's responsibilities, if that had been done, I do not believe that those tens of thousands-and even hundreds of
thousands-of pounds would have been wasted on pointless projects. On a smaller scale, there will be examples in town halls throughout the country of money being spent on unsustainable projects, which best value committees sometimes do not reach, but a large army of armchair auditors will. It is called the general public; it is called transparency, and it will work effectively.
Grant Shapps: Central Government obviously have a large budget-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] They do have a large budget, so the limit will initially be set at £25,000- [Interruption.] Opposition Members are making a great deal of noise, but each of the projects that I mentioned a moment ago would have been captured under such a system. We would have known about the red sofas, the tranquillity centre and all the adverse expenditure. That would have helped. One has to wonder at the Opposition-after 13 years without such transparency and openness, when the coalition offers to open up government, they just want us to go further. That is fantastic, but they had 13 years in which to go much further, but they did not and they wasted taxpayers' money.
The coalition agreement makes it clear what to expect. The time has come to transfer power away from Westminster and Whitehall into the hands of communities and individuals. We will make rapid progress because we have already announced several shake-ups of power. The move to a more democratic planning system will sweep away arbitrary top-down targets and hated regional spatial strategies, introducing powerful financial incentives to local people instead.
"DCLG ministers are changing the planning system."
"Ours was too top-down".
Hon. Members can read that online-a road to Damascus conversion from Labour, now in opposition. The new coalition intends to prove that Ministers can be localist in government, just as we can in opposition. There will be no switch-around.
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): In the spirit of transparency, will the Minister confirm that the £1 billion fund that he mentioned earlier is the regional growth fund to fund regional capital projects in 2011-12 and 2012-13, to which the Red Book refers? If so, the Red Book mentions no figures, but he has gone a little further. Would he care to speculate on whether he will decide who gets the regional growth fund, or will he hand it over to local authorities to determine their own regional capital projects?
Yes, that is the same fund, and it was mentioned to the House verbally, at the Dispatch Box, by the Chancellor on the day. No, I cannot confirm how it will be divided up. Members would quite properly expect that to be announced in a statement to the House from the Dispatch Box, and they would not expect me to do that today, because today's debate- [ Interruption. ] It is a bit rich of Labour Members to express surprise. We had 13 years of spin and statements
on every breakfast TV sofa in the country but, now that they have now switched sides and gone into opposition, they are making a big deal of this. I can assure the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) that that statement will be made to the House from the Dispatch Box in due course.
Claire Perry: I am fascinated by the disclosure about the tranquillity room. I have had many people coming into my surgery recently who have been really struggling with their household budgets and housing problems. The idea of a tranquillity room is quite entertaining, but it is also deeply insulting to hard-working British people. How will the Minister use the tranquillity room? What does he intend to do with it?
Grant Shapps: I think that it would be only right to invite people to come and try out the tranquillity room. It was paid for with the hard-earned money of the people outside the House, when the previous Government seemed to think that it was a good idea to spend hard-earned taxpayers' money on building tranquillity rooms and putting in expensive sofas. This is an indication of how they talked about helping the poor when they were really helping themselves by refurbishing their offices with bizarre and extraordinary furniture.
Grant Shapps: I cannot tell my hon. Friend how the approval process used to work, but I can tell him that, in the new Department for Communities and Local Government, that kind of expenditure would never be signed off without someone political taking the decision right from the outset.
We have announced that we will move away from the wasteful inefficiency of central targets and towards incentives involving more carrot and much less stick. Last week, we scrapped the comprehensive area assessment, saving the taxpayer £39 million.
Mr Blunkett: It will help us over the next five years if the right hon. Gentleman can give us an answer to this question. Is he seriously suggesting that every sum over £5,000 spent in government will be individually signed off by a Government Minister?
Grant Shapps: No, I did not mention the figure of £5,000, but I did say that decisions approaching anything like the levels of the £134,000 spent on Parisian-designed sofas would require sign-off-and they would not get that sign-off, either.
We have introduced a Bill to stop council restructuring in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, which will save the taxpayer £40 million of unnecessary costs. This was a botched restructuring; even the accounting officer at the DCLG had no confidence in it, and issued a letter of direction to the former Secretary of State about it. There was no reason to spend that £40 million, but the Labour Government did not believe that the country was in a financial mess. They seemed to miss that point entirely.
There is more to come. We will promote locally led joint working, building not just on the Total Place pilots, but on innovations-such as joint chief executives-
being championed by many councils. In the Queen's Speech, we announced a localism Bill that will free local government from central control and give voters more power over local government and over the way in which money is spent. As part of this, we will introduce a new general power of competence for local authorities, so that they are free to give local communities exactly what they want.
The public coffers are nearly empty, and the nation's credit card is maxed out. Shadow Ministers are fighting the wars of yesterday, trying to justify why their pet projects were notionally signed off by the Treasury, but ignoring the huge elephant in the room, in the form of a looming public debt of £1.4 trillion. But in these tough times, we are defending the interests of families, pensioners, small firms and the underprivileged. We are empowering councils to put the front line first, and to make the right choices on how best to protect the vulnerable and the needy in our society. We are putting councillors and the people in charge of going through the state books and highlighting waste and inefficiency, rather than relying on unelected and unaccountable quangos and regional structures. There is a difference between this Government and the last one: we trust people. That is something that the centralising, nanny-state, interfering Labour Government never did.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. As the House will see, this is a very popular debate. Mr Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on speeches, but if Members do not take 10 minutes, more will get in.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I am still trying to understand what the Minister has just said. It seems to me that he is applying the solutions of the 1980s. I do not know where he was at the time, but some of us were in local government and on the receiving end. I am sure that some of my colleagues will remember how capital programmes and rent revenue accounts were capped. The Minister talked about transparency, but I remind him that the Labour Government introduced the freedom of information legislation, so there are no accolades for him there. When I was involved in local government in the 1980s, we used to get a green memo-he mentioned Government interference-prodding us to privatise all sorts of things, from public transport to public toilets. So we need no lessons from the people over there.
I hope that the Minister will clarify the position on regional development agencies. What will happen to Advantage West Midlands? Many people will know that it has been very important to the west midlands economy. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago I received representations from small businesses in the area expressing concern about the threat to abolish that organisation. Let us consider Ansty business park. When we created a business park at Warwick university about 25 years ago, we were criticised by the then Tory Government, but later on it became the greatest thing since sliced bread. People in Coventry see the Ansty business park as preparation for the economic revival-
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