Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 105) On Invest to Save Budget Round 4 Projects and Local Government On-line

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is chancing his arm.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We shall see whether the Government can meet their targets, and we look forward to many similar debates.

4.58 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): As always, when we have such debates on budgets that local authorities have had to bid for, the Liberal Democrats want to put it on record that this is not the way to distribute Government money to local councils for them to meet local need, although we have no objection to the statutory instrument. Furthermore, we do not object to extra money going to local authorities, nor do we object to the Government's aim of introducing online services.

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It is important to remember, however, that not all local authorities want to go wholly online. Some might want to concentrate on the basics. For example, the rubbish cannot be collected by e-mail, although a lot of rubbish can be received by it. The key principle in going online is to assess a local authority's population and the likely number of people in a given area who will benefit from online services. The successful councils are usually, but not exclusively, urban or metropolitan. However, in many respects, the real benefit of online government will be to sparse rural communities.

Being able to go to a town hall or post office to access a terminal and communicate straight away with a council official or a councillor, pay council tax and other charges or chase up queries with the local authority could be enormously beneficial to residents of sparsely populated rural areas. They may become closer to the authorities that serve them. Even in terms of rural or urban planning, there are many ideas to open up the planning process to involve the public. We have heard a great deal about planning for real in a physical setting, with people considering plans, moving around buildings and colour-coding options.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): Has the hon. Gentleman seen the lists? The authorities given grants through the previous mechanism are a fairly well balanced mix of rural and urban areas.

Mr. Sanders: I did not say that the areas were exclusively urban and metropolitan, but some of the larger counties—excluding my county of Devonshire—are not on the list. Some very rural areas and district councils are missing.

Mr. Howarth: Surrey and West Sussex.

Mr. Sanders: I would not necessarily describe Surrey, in the overheated south-east, as a rural county.

Ideas such as planning for real, and involving the public in policy-making processes, must be welcomed but do not have to be high-tech. Some fairly basic technologies, which would not be described as high-tech, are being applied to local government services. Alarm schemes for elderly people are not high-tech, but they are a new development. Communication systems by radio or landlines for people in sheltered accommodation or care for the elderly have made enormous differences to the quality of life of elderly people receiving local services.

I do not want the Government to pursue the line that broadband is essential, as the hon. Member for Cotswold suggested they should. It is not essential for the delivery of council services or for individuals assessing information. Yes, we should all like to be on broadband, but that should not be a barrier to rolling out as many other online services as possible.

The hon. Member for Cotswold made some pertinent points, particularly about the skills gap and the fact that many local authorities do not see themselves as having the skills to exploit new technology in the right way. He rightly pointed out

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that a number of councils are lagging behind, but we must distinguish between those that are doing so because they lack skills and have not been able to access funding and those that have chosen to concentrate their energies and resources on more conventional mechanisms for delivering services and involving communities.

It would be extremely helpful to have a list of authorities that had applied for funding but were unsuccessful in their bids. That would give us a clear idea of the urban-rural mix, and of which authorities did not bother to put in applications in the first place. Can the Minister supply one?

We shall not oppose the grants. They involve large sums of money, and if all local authorities had a share of the pie, they might be able to determine their own priorities; they might not be diverted by the carrot of the grants money into a line of business that they would otherwise not have chosen. The danger for local government is that if the more areas that the Government set down more approach through special grants and initiatives, the more local councils will be forced, not guided, in certain directions. They will be forced to go down routes that they might otherwise not have chosen, even if those routes would be e beneficial in the long term. They Government are not allowing local communities to determine their own priorities, aims and aspirations, and—and not allowing them to achieve for what they want to achieve for their local communities.

5.5 pm

Mr. Leslie: I welcome the engagement of both Opposition parties in this important debate, and I hope to answer some of their questions. The hon. Member for Cotswold said that special grant report No. 105 had not yet been scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I have today apologised to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who chairs that Committee; I have also written to him. The draft report was sent to the Committee with the aim that it would consider it on 16 July. In the event, consideration had to be scheduled for tomorrow, 23 July. We needed to make progress as soon as we could, which is why we are considering the report today. I understand that the Joint Committee will consider the report tomorrow. We intend to do these things in the right order in future, but on this occasion we wanted to make progress as best we could.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. The Minister has openly admitted that the instrument has not been referred to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. If, when it considers the matter tomorrow, the Joint Committee finds the statutory instrument to be defective, will the whole matter have to be discussed again? It seems incredible that we could be discussing a report that could be defective.

The Chairman: I am not sure what the Joint Committee would want to do with the order, but that is not for me to determine. I can only report that this Committee has considered the statutory instrument. That is as far as we can go.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Hara. This is a most unsatisfactory way of doing business. We are being asked to consider an instrument that might be defective.

The Chairman: Order. If the Joint Committee finds it unsatisfactory, the Joint Committee will express its view. This Committee has a duty to discharge: it has to consider the statutory instrument. I am charged with the job of seeing that the Committee does so.

Mr. Leslie: No doubt, Mr. O'Hara, if this Committee finds the report defective, it will say so. We shall find out at the end of our debate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cotswold that local e-government work is important. I share his view that we need to strike the right balance between giving incentives and targets to local authorities and allowing them the freedom and flexibility to get on with the job—a point that the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) also raised. We have national e-government targets as well as the local ones, and the Audit Commission has acknowledged that by having high ambitions, we have kick-started a lot of the work done by local authorities. By July 2001, 27 per cent. of the measures had been achieved.

However, that was some time ago. The next best value performance indicator data will be published in September, when we will have a more up-to-date picture of where we stand. In the draft national strategy that recently went out for consultation, we raised the issue of the targets and acknowledged that there was a case for considering whether the performance indicator should be supplemented by one or more measures. Those measures could include assessments of the take-up of e-enabled services, the extent to which services are joined up, the quality of customer services and customer satisfaction with the outcome. That is a useful way of approaching the target, which I accept is very broad.

The hon. Member for Cotswold talked about the skills basis required to cope with information and communications technology issues at a local level. I believe that we should encourage local authorities as much as possible. The Government recognise that this is an important issue and that is why some of the measures in the special grant report are concerned with the practical tools with which we can best encourage the development of the necessary skills basis.

The report focuses particularly on enhancing partnerships and improving best practice. Part four of annexe A relates to a number ways in which we are trying to help local authorities to disseminate their work. The methods will include conferences, seminars, mentoring schemes and shared practice schemes, some of which the hon. Gentleman talked about in some detail. All such schemes are covered adequately by the provisions.

The roll-out of broadband is not strictly speaking the subject of the report, but my understanding is that at present about 66 per cent. of households have broadband capability passing their door. However, we want to be a world leader in the development of broadband technology and access to it. In December 2001, the Government published their plan for

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stimulating demand for broad band. Inevitably, much of the work related to that is market-driven and not wholly in the hands of Government. It is curious that the hon. Member for Cotswold, as a free-market Thatcherite, should say that BT needs firm encouragement from the Government. His conversion is encouraging.

 
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Prepared 22 July 2002