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Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and on starting on the long road back from local administration to proper local government. What is the timetable for the proposals? Will there be a bonfire of regulations in the next few weeks and a pause until legislation can be introduced? How soon does my right hon. Friend believe that we can revert to the position whereby local government has the same sort of powers that he enjoyed when he was first elected to a local authority on Tyneside?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point in not perceiving the White Paper as the one and only act to change the relationship between central Government and local government. It is the beginning of celebrating all that is good in local government, and much is good. However, we also need to ensure that we are prepared to intervene to help people who live in areas that have poorly performing councils.

We can introduce some of the White Paper proposals immediately. They include the reduction in the numbers of plans and consents. We do not need to delay the abolition of the council tax benefit subsidy limitation, which can be introduced from April next year. Other changes require primary legislation, and we shall make them as soon as parliamentary time is available.

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My hon. Friend made another important point. When I took up my post in June this year, I realised that the constraints on the powers and responsibilities of local councils are dramatic now compared with 1980, when I was first elected as a local councillor. Local councils do not have the opportunity to respond to the needs and demands of local people. I hope that the White Paper will contribute significantly towards changing that. As my hon. Friend said, we are at the start of the process, not the end.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Taken at face value, the White Paper represents a sea change in the Government's attitude towards local government. That is welcome, if long overdue. I also welcome the clear commitment to change the obscure, out-of-date and unfair funding system for local government. I especially welcome the announcement on the abolition of the council tax benefit subsidy limitation, which was a backdoor capping scheme.

However, given that this is a Government White Paper, will the Secretary of State assure the House that all Ministers support it? In particular, does the Secretary of State for Education and Skills back it? On 4 December, she announced very clearly that she was tightening the strings on local education authorities. She said that the Government were putting even more pressure on local authorities to delegate more money to schools. In addition, the right hon. Lady recently introduced a new Education Bill that will strip more powers away from LEAs.

I welcome the commitment to reduce the number of ring-fenced grants, but the Secretary of State proposes to do so in part by introducing targeted grants, which the White Paper states may have eligibility conditions attached. Is not that simply another form of ring fencing?

I also welcome the long-overdue proposals to reform the capital funding regime. However, many people will be disappointed that the White Paper contains only one sentence about the abolition of the standard spending assessment. That states:

When will we hear what those principles will be?

More generally, does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that, unless local councils themselves are able to raise more of the money spent locally, the Government will still control local government purse strings? Has the time not come for local government to be able to put its own money where its mouth is?

The Secretary of State was right to speak in his statement about giving further powers to local councils, but I fail to understand why he continues to say that they must earn their additional freedoms. Should not local councils' autonomy be theirs as of right, and not something that they must earn?

Why does not the White Paper mention proportional representation in local government elections? The Secretary of State would be disappointed if I did not ask that question.

Finally, we all know that crude targets have led to the distortion of clinical priorities in the NHS, and that the Department for Education and Skills has acknowledged serious deficiencies in school league tables. Why, then, does the Secretary of State feel that the time is now right to introduce crude league tables for local government?

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The White Paper contains some welcome measures. However, actions speak louder than words, and we look forward to the actions.

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for certain parts of the White Paper. I can assure him that it is a Government White Paper, and that it is supported by all Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. When he has had time to look at both the White Paper and the Education Bill, the hon. Gentleman will see that there is no contradiction between them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about ring fencing. The House will know that the Government have just begun our spending review for 2002, the outcome of which will be announced later next year. In that context, the question of ring-fenced grants to local authorities will be one of the matters for consideration. Our objective, during the process of the review, is to have an outcome that will reduce the amount of ring-fenced grants going to local authorities. It would be a mistake to try to move more quickly, as that would have a detrimental impact on services that are provided at present.

The proposals regarding targeted grants and eligibility are not the same as ring fencing. I shall give an example of what would amount to a targeted grant. Recently, my Department and the Department of Health have provided an extra £100 million to support local government initiatives on bed blocking. That money has been targeted on certain authorities facing particular pressures in the sense that those authorities become eligible for those grants.

I welcome what the hon. Member for Bath said with regard to capital. We want to move as quickly as we can, but the changes are so fundamental that they will require primary legislation, and will have to wait until a suitable slot is available.

It is not true that I announced last week that we would abolish the standard spending assessment. What I said was that we would change the formula, although I did not give an indication of the sort of changes that we would introduce. Today, I am able to say that the new formula will not be based on a standard spending assessment. Relatively early in the new year—I cannot give a precise time yet—I would like to find ways of sharing with hon. Members the various options that we are considering in relation to that new formula.

There is an issue about the balance of funding between central and local government, to which the Government are giving close consideration. All authorities will benefit from the deregulation and the cutting back of bureaucracy proposed in the White Paper, but we felt it appropriate that there should be greater freedoms and flexibility for high-performing authorities. I do not think that people will see the four categories that we are proposing as crude league tables. This is a scorecard for individual authorities, and I think that most people will see it that way.

The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no mention in the White Paper of proportional representation for local government elections. It is not in there because it is a daft idea.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): It was pretty good, that last remark. We, on this Bench, have spent the last

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few minutes assessing the Secretary of State's performance indicators, and they have come out reasonably high for the last month. I think we have been in a Byers market. He gets pretty high marks for taking Railtrack back into public ownership. The same applies to his abandoning the public-private partnership on the London underground—I think that is what he said last week. He was also pretty good to take power from the quangos and hand it back to democratically elected local authorities. Very good! We will measure him on that later, and if he comes up with more money for Derbyshire and Bolsover than Westminster, his rating will be 10 out of 10.

Mr. Byers: In everything we do, we will be fair in ensuring that finances are allocated on a needs-based approach, which may well benefit Bolsover and Derbyshire. Decisions will be taken over the next few days in relation to the single capital pot that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will announce later this week, and also in relation to the local transport plans, which will be published, I think, on Thursday or Friday. Many authorities will benefit from those proposals.

I hope that, when the House has had the opportunity to look at the White Paper, it will see that what we are trying to do is to get a settled position with regard to central-local government relations. Local government does not want constant chopping and changing, and it is important to establish a system that all political parties feel is, on balance, right. I happen to believe that the White Paper achieves that. It proposes a shift in direction, and recognises that many issues are best dealt with not in Westminster or Whitehall but locally, by people who are elected locally and who know the demands and priorities of local people. I hope that that is reflected in the White Paper.

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