Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that a question on this issue that I tabled to the Chancellor was not answered by his Department, but was referred to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? I am still awaiting a reply.

Mr. Tyler: That does not surprise me in the least. My hon. Friend touches on a subject that I would like to discuss again, but we had a debate in Westminster Hall last week on the way in which Ministers tend to juggle questions for their own convenience rather than the convenience of the House.

To give an idea of the scale of the problem, the hon. Gentleman answering for the Church Commissioners said that the

26 Mar 2002 : Column 730

I take that to be an annual figure, but it seems incredible—and that

Those are quite large sums, and other denominations face a similar problem.

I appeal to the Minister to ask appropriate colleagues, by whatever means may be most convenient and speedy, to give us all guidance on how the schemes operates, to try to find a simpler way for those applying for grant support to obtain it, and to give us a clear undertaking about what will happen next. This is an interim scheme for the transitional period until it is possible to review the whole VAT scheme, and that cannot be before 2003–04, or perhaps even later. In those circumstances, those directly involved with the repair and conservation of historic churches and other buildings and those who represent them in the House feel that this is an important issue.

I have campaigned on this issue for years and, last year, when I tried to impress upon the Chancellor the urgency of the matter, I received more letters on this subject than on any other, including even cruelty to children or cruelty to foxes. I hope that that fact alone will persuade the Minister that the issue is of some importance. I suspect that he, too, has received a similar volume of correspondence.

2.4 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise some thoughts on local government before the House rises for Easter. Like many hon. Members, I served on borough and county councils before I was elected to this place. I first became involved in electoral politics 40 years ago when, I am pleased to say, I was still too young to vote. Several fundamental changes have taken place since then.

The fall in turnout at local elections exercises the minds of people both nationally and locally. When I first campaigned in the early 1960s in Southend-on-Sea, turnout was normally 50 per cent. It was poor if it was 40 per cent., and it often reached 60 per cent. However, over the years, turnout has gone down and down. Last Thursday, there was an election in my division of Braintree Central—I cannot resist adding that there has been a 4 per cent. swing to Labour since the general election—but the crucial point for my argument is that the turnout was only 21 per cent., which would have been unbelievable 30 or 40 years ago.

The only year that I can think of when the general trend was not followed was 1990, after the poll tax legislation. Some people thought that it was marvellous legislation, but others took a different view. Consequently, the local elections in 1990, in effect, performed the function of a referendum on the merits of the poll tax. In some ways, that was unfair because local authorities had no power to decide whether to have the poll tax, but electors saw a clear and divisive issue on which they could make a judgment, and responded accordingly.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The hon. Gentleman is correct. Although he might be right to suggest that the elections in 1990 were a referendum on the poll tax, another possible interpretation is that people took more interest in what local authorities were doing

26 Mar 2002 : Column 731

because they had to pay for their services. One problem with the council tax is that it has reduced the number of people who actually pay for the services.

Mr. Hurst: I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the purpose of my remarks is to stimulate thought on why local government prowess has declined over such a long period.

I was first elected to the borough council in Southend-on-Sea in 1980 and I served on the airport committee and the bus or transportation committee. The borough owned an airport and ran its own bus services. I could speak to those who had served on those committees before me, and I could see the minute book for the Shoeburyness urban district council's gas works committee. Shoeburyness owned its own gas works, and I could also speak to those who served on Braintree rural district council, which owned its own water works.

By the late 1970s, a whole range of municipal enterprises, including electricity supplies, were in their final phases and had passed the more glorious stages of their development. However, if there was something wrong with our water supply, we could speak to Councillor Jones or Councillor Smith. If the gas service was defective, we would see Mrs. Brown, the local councillor on the relevant committee. There was an immediate connection between the voters and the supply of public services. Those we elected sat on the committees that could make changes.

These days, the problems are at their worst with bus services. When I served on the bus committee, I would be asked, "Why does the bus not stop at the top of Acacia drive?" Now, I can make representations to the local private bus undertaking in a town distant from the one that I represent, and it will provide me with many arguments. The main one is that it is uneconomic to provide such a service. I am sure, however, that the private undertaking thinks, "If we withdraw a service, the Government will come along with a subsidy to reinstate it." Because we have moved away from democratic local control, there is not the pressure on those providing services to respond to the wishes of the people in the localities that they serve.

There has also been a decline in the number of councils employing their own labour force. I entered municipal politics when that was a hot issue. Indeed, the borough of Southend had the great claim to fame that it privatised refuse collection in 1980. However, it is significant that it did not privatise anything else after that. The then Conservative leader of the council, Norman Clarke—he is still with us, but not as a member of the council—told me that privatisation might have been right in that case, but the ultimate advantage of a council having a direct labour work force is that they are accountable to the council. With contracts, councils have no day-to-day supervisory role and can judge only whether to renew them. By its very nature, that process could well diminish local councils' effectiveness and responsiveness.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Southend borough council, but will he consider unitary authorities, of which Southend is now one? Does he think that such authorities constitute a way to reconnect

26 Mar 2002 : Column 732

local people with councils and councillors, and will he comment on the fact that the council tax levied by Conservative-controlled Southend council for a band D property is just over £700, whereas Labour-controlled Castle Point council charges well in excess of £1,000 for the same category of property?

Mr. Hurst: It would be discourteous to other hon. Members to debate unitary authorities as such. I strongly opposed them when I served on Southend borough council and the county council. My purpose is not to argue that one form of council is better than another, but that we should consider the crucial reason why the influence of councils has declined. We have sought to change councils many times in the past 25 years, but without making a fundamental difference to the electorate's participation in local government.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): One other attitude is important. Has my hon. Friend noticed a change in reporting of what happens in council chambers since he and I served in local government? Virtually no reference is now made in my local papers to the work of the council; indeed, only pejorative references are made. Is it not clear that, if people do not know what councils are doing—other than through receiving political propaganda—they may fail to make any connection with their elected representatives?

Mr. Hurst: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I recollect when local papers would report almost word for word what councillors said. To read such verbatim accounts, electors must have had a high boredom threshold. Nevertheless, such accounts enabled people to ascertain what took place in local authorities, unlike the "crash" headlines that tell readers very little.

The rise of compulsory competitive tendering, which was introduced apace in the 1980s, followed fast on the decline of municipal enterprise and direct labour forces and sounded their death knell. There may or may not be an argument in favour of compulsory competitive tendering, but we should remember that, when a local authority bid for a contract, the overheads included the cost of the mayor's car, and a proportion of the costs associated with the town clerk, the running of municipal elections and almost every other element. There was never an argument in favour of that. Of course, the private contractor did not have to account for such factors in making his tender bid. I do not know whether such nonsense still applies, but the process was blatantly unfair to local authorities.

With the rise of so-called best value, I thought that the worst days of compulsory competitive tendering were over. However, some local councillors have forcefully drawn to my attention a procedure known as competitive procurement, which I thought had been abolished by the Street Offences Act 1959. Apparently, competitive procurement sets, and urges the adoption of, standards and values that make it increasingly difficult for councils to qualify as offering best value, unless they put most of their services out to tender.

Next Section

IndexHome Page