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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.
Then we come to the clear performance profile for each councilthe scorecardand 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.
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 itbut there we go.
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 consentschanges 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 beginninga renaissancefor 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.