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Mr. Speaker: Order. The language that the hon. Lady is using is sailing a bit close to the wind. Perhaps she should remember that we use temperate language in the House.

Mrs. May: I apologise for any intemperate language that I used, Mr. Speaker, and I trust that the rest of my language will be suitably temperate.

We have been promised by the Secretary of State that the White Paper

We have been promised freedom for councils and deregulation, but, sadly, the statement and the White Paper do not deliver on that promise. In one of the early paragraphs in the statement, the Secretary of State says that he wants to

I do not know whether the House noticed that the Secretary of State was not even able to keep it up for the whole of his statement—[Laughter.] I cannot think what hon. Members are laughing at.

Later in the statement, the Secretary of State goes on to say:

There will not be any excessive central prescription, but the Government will decide the priorities for local government. Local government will not be able to decide those priorities itself.

The Secretary of State says that the White Paper

and that it is about increased freedoms, but it is not about increased freedoms for all councils; it is about freedoms for the chosen few. If councils do what the Government tell them, they will be given a little reward, but not all councils will get the opportunity to respond in the way that they believe is right to meet the needs of their local communities.

We have heard such language before. In the education White Paper published earlier this year, the Government promised that where schools were successful,

Yet in the Education Bill introduced in the House last week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said, we saw a Bill that

in the hands of the Secretary of State for Education

We are likely to see the same in the case of local government reform.

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If the right hon. Gentleman is serious about freedom for councils, he will want to ensure that his Cabinet colleagues are serious about it too. Will he therefore give the House an undertaking today that the Government will remove those centralising measures from the Education Bill? Will he commit his Cabinet colleagues in all other Departments affecting local government not to introduce any more net regulation for local government?

What confidence can the House have that the rest of the Government are signed up to a freedom agenda for local councils, if we see them doing something very different? From the way the Secretary of State's Cabinet colleagues have been keeping away from him in recent weeks, we can have no confidence that his agenda will be driven through.

The Secretary of State says that the Government

and give councils

The aim of reducing the bureaucratic burden is interesting. We are to have a joint study report next year on reducing the regulatory burden; then we are to have

The right hon. Gentleman might like to explain to the House what that means. If it means that the Government will not introduce further regulation, why does he not say so? The best way of ensuring that local councils have freedom from regulation is abstention by politicians from imposing new regulations on councils. Will the Secretary of State tell us what his target is for reducing the number of new regulations to be introduced for local government each year?

Then we come to the clear performance profile for each council—the scorecard—and more mechanistic targets and league tables that will be set by the Government. Most voters, when they vote in local government elections, assume that they are making decisions about the performance of their local council. They do not expect their council to be told what to do by central Government.

That is what is sad about the statement from the Secretary of State. If he is really interested in local democracy and in increasing voter turnout at local government elections, he will want to restore to local government true democracy and true autonomy for all councils, so that when people vote they know that their vote will make a real difference and that they are not merely electing people to be agents of central Government.

We are told that there should be

That will lead to unitarisation by creep. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that it is Government policy to abolish county councils or to see county councils removed from local government through the imposition of regional assemblies and regional government? With regard to the league tables, will he set out to the House how the performance of each council will be determined? How will it be determined when a council's performance is high in one area of service but not others?

Then came an amazing statement. The Secretary of State announced with a flourish that he had decided to abolish the standard spending assessment mechanism.

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[Interruption.] Labour Members seem to think that that is some great new announcement, but I must tell them that their Government announced in 1997 that they were going to reform the standard spending assessment. Obviously, they were not listening to the right hon. Gentleman last week, as he made the announcement then as well. Again, all that we have this week is a promise of details in future. When will those details be published and what opportunity will hon. Members have to question him about them?

One of the main ways in which the Government control local authorities is through ring-fenced funding. They claim that they are going to reduce the amount of such funding. What is the Secretary of State's target for the amount of budget that will be ring-fenced in future? It has increased under this Government from just over 4 per cent. in 1997 to 15 per cent. next year. If the right hon. Gentleman is so interested in reducing the proportion of budget that is ring fenced, why did he not make the announcement last week in respect of the local government settlement, and why did he increase the proportion of ring fencing in that settlement?

The Secretary of State has announced four bands or performance levels for local government. He has gone from being the blue-eyed boy striving to do his master's bidding, through being a coasting Minister, to being a poor performer. He had the opportunity today to take radical measures to restore local government and local democracy and to bring forward a programme of decentralisation and deregulation to all councils. Frankly, he has flunked it. He has run scared from that challenge and local democracy will be the poorer for it.

Mr. Byers: Of course, the Conservatives have one fundamental problem with local government: they do not have any time for it at all. That is not only my view. There are Opposition Members who served in local government while a Conservative Government were in power. Indeed, the hon. Lady did so, as did I and some of my Labour colleagues. We know full well that the Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s destroyed local government because they had no time for it. Local councils that were prepared to stand up for jobs and services were denigrated by Conservative Governments. They were attacked by the Conservatives and funding was cut, and when the local electorate continued to return Labour councils, what did the Tories do? They abolished them. That was their response to local democracy.

The White Paper represents a fundamental shift in the way in which central Government relates to local government. The hon. Lady said that the centralising tendencies are still there. She prayed in aid the fact that there is to be a single list of priorities and suggested that it was somehow being imposed from the centre. When she has time to read the White Paper, she will see that that list of priorities will be agreed between Government and the LGA. This proposal, which she criticises as centralising and as not taking into account the views of local government, was suggested by the LGA itself, including Conservative members as well as Labour ones, and Liberal Democrat members as well as independent ones. We can see where the divisions are. The hon. Lady does not speak for Conservatives in local government, because the proposal was theirs and we were prepared to sign up to it—but there we go.

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The hon. Lady spoke about the bureaucratic burden on local councils. Plans are to be cut by more than a third and we will abolish 50 consents—changes that will make a real difference. We are reviewing the best value regime because we believe that it has become bureaucratic and can be improved. I remind the House that we created best value so that we could abolish compulsory competitive tendering, which was another Conservative party creation. It had nothing to do with quality of service; the cheapest provider and privatisation drove the policy. We removed it and put best value in its place because we believe that the quality of the services count.

The hon. Lady disapproves of the fact that we will have four categories of council. She would prefer it if local electorates could not compare their council with neighbouring councils. It is time for effective quality assurance. It is important to have a balanced scorecard and to examine a range of performance indicators for local councils. However, the Audit Commission, not politicians, will have that responsibility.

The hon. Lady asked about funding for schools. The White Paper makes it clear that schools are in a special position and that we need to safeguard their funding. There is no Government policy to abolish county councils or to impose regional government on parts of the country. That is for local people to decide.

The hon. Lady did not even provide a hint about Conservative party thinking on local government. That is no surprise, because she knows that her policy does not celebrate local government but denigrates it. Conservative Members have no time for local government. Consequently, thousands of Conservative councillors throughout the country have lost their seats.

The White Paper marks a fundamental shift in direction. It celebrates local councils. When Opposition Members have had a chance to digest the proposals, they will realise that they mean a new beginning—a renaissance—for local government. I hope that when they have the opportunity of discussing it with their local government friends, they will be able to support it.

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