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15 Oct 2002 : Column 267—continued

Mr. Hawkins: I understand that the Minister is going to write to the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) with various details on the number of staff and so forth. She answered my question about funding, but she has not given the undertaking that I requested that people will no longer suffer inordinate delays in getting a simple acknowledgement of correspondence and papers, as some of my constituents have done, from the Office of the Public Trustee. That is the sort of problem that was highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee in successive reports on the manifold sins and wickednesses of the Public Trustee. I want an assurance that correspondence will be answered promptly.

Ms Winterton: Of course, we will do everything within our power to ensure that that happens. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not want those vulnerable people, or those who care for them, to suffer any inordinate delays. I hope that the changes that we have put in place following the criticisms from the Public Accounts Committee and the quinquennial review will lead to that result.

I commend the Bill to be read a Third time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.

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Local Government Finance

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

8.52 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): First, we very much regret the late start for this important debate; it could not be predicted when the time was originally allocated. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House stated earlier, we will explore options for a further debate to give the many hon. Members who want to speak on this important subject the opportunity to do so.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of the Minister's statement, those hon. Members who may be called to speak briefly this evening may want to participate in the continuation debate. Would that be in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Obviously, an hon. Member can speak only once in a debate, so the hon. Gentleman should make no such assumption.

Mr. Raynsford rose—

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I appreciate that it is not the Minister's fault and we are looking forward to hearing what he has to say, but his advice will no doubt be sought, so I hope that when it is he will say that, because of the number of hon. Members who want to speak and the importance of the subject, the debate should be held on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Raynsford: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and I can give him the assurances that he requests because I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the importance of having an early opportunity for a further debate. How that can be arranged will obviously depend on discussions between the usual channels. There are constraints, but it is important that we should have that debate and I was certainly very reassured by the view taken by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) rose—

Mr. Raynsford: Before I take any more interventions, may I point out to hon. Members that, given the short time available, I have deliberately chosen to limit my speech? We will make swifter progress and Back Benchers will have a greater opportunity to speak if Members limit their points of order or interruptions. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Foster: I apologise for taking up some of the Minister's time, but I for one want to hear in some detail what he has to say.

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), is the Minister prepared to say whether he believes that a further debate should be held on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House for some time, so he ought to

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know that it is not the role of Ministers to determine the business of the House. I have already given a perfectly clear undertaking. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that he is wasting the time of the House, which should rightly be focused on the issues.

Despite the extremely technical nature of many of the issues involved and the difficulty of making sense of all of them, the grant distribution system is one of the most important things done by the Government. Local government accounts for about 25 per cent. of all public expenditure—about #60 billion in total. More than #40 billion of that comes in the form of grant direct from the Government. Until now, the grant has mainly been distributed using standard spending assessments, which cover money for key services such as education, social services, waste management, sports, arts, libraries, police and many others. The spending review has confirmed further increases in substantial investment in those services. This debate is about how we channel that money through to councils.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am interested in my right hon. Friend's criteria for the success of that proposal. Will one of them be that he will reduce the disparity between authorities, thereby making the system fairer?

Mr. Raynsford: I shall explore in some detail some of the key principles behind the consultation but I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that there are many definitions of fairness and that it would be wrong for me to give a particular commitment when there are also many others to consider. After all, we are engaged in a consultation exercise and no decisions have yet been taken on the final formula.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Raynsford: Although I am happy to give way—hon. Members know that I am usually happy to do so—it will limit the amount of time available for Back Benchers if I have to take too many interventions.

Michael Fabricant: In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not try to catch your eye later on.

In a spirit of helpfulness, the Minister raised questions about fairness. Will he give an assurance that counties such as Staffordshire will be no worse off than they are at present—and, believe me, they are pretty badly off at present?

Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself, I shall cover that specific point later in my speech. I have given undertakings that will have been heard by many Members who attended the seminars held yesterday and a week ago.

It is important to emphasise one significant change that we are going to make from the old SSA principles. The original idea behind SSAs was to deliver a standard level of service for a standard level of council tax. If that ever worked in the past, which frankly I doubt, we certainly do not believe that it works at present. Furthermore, we are also clear that such an approach is fundamentally incompatible with our objective of giving

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greater freedom and discretion to local authorities. Rather than pretending that we can say how much every council should spend, we are, under our new framework, focusing on how we distribute grant to councils.

When we began to consider how to improve the system, we examined the range of options. Some authorities told us that formulae did not take their circumstances into account, so we offered local government the choice of using assessments of their own plans as the basis for distribution rather than formulae. We consulted on that in a Green Paper two years ago. In response, a large majority of councils said that they would prefer to keep the system based on formulae that look at their circumstances and their ability to raise council tax. If people ask why we are sticking with a system that is not fundamentally different from current arrangements, the answer is because that is what local government asked us to do.

If the underlying approach is not fundamentally different, the detailed formulae will change. That is because everyone—Government, Opposition, councils, schools, individuals—had lost faith in the old formulae. They had been in place for over a decade. Some of them were based on very old information. Some were perverse. Many did not adequately reflect the conditions and circumstances that we face today. So while we are not abandoning the use of formulae, we are taking a fresh look at the formulae; and it is those formulae that determine how the money is divided between councils.

In looking afresh at the formulae, we have fully engaged with local government. Technical work has been discussed in detail with representatives of local authorities, including, of course, the Local Government Association.

We have also had a number of discussions with councillors and MPs, and we have tried as far as possible to involve those who are concerned about the process in evolving options for change. We have also conducted all this work as openly as possible, sharing options, evidence and ideas as we have gone along. I and my ministerial colleagues—I am very grateful that many of them are present tonight—have also seen many delegations on the issue. We have held several seminars for Members of Parliament, the most recent one yesterday. I am delighted to say that some 90 Members attended, which shows the interest in this important subject.

Inevitably, many of the representations that we have received, and much of the evidence submitted to us, have been contradictory. That is understandable, since people come at this with different priorities and different ideas about what would constitute a fair system. We recognise that we shall not be able to agree with everyone, or address all the issues, or give everyone a bigger share of the cake. But we have tried to give everyone the opportunity to be heard and we are trying to ensure that the outcome does reflect, as far as possible, the many good proposals and suggestions that have been put to us.

Let me at this point make one thing crystal clear. Contrary to what some people have suggested—indeed, contrary to what some hon. Members may hope—we have not approached this review with any pre-determined outcome in mind. There is no agenda to shift

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resources from one part of the country to another. Of course, in any major change such as the one that we are undertaking there will be distributional consequences.

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