(HANSARD) in the second session of the fifty-third parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the thirteenth day of june in the fiftieth year of the reign of




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Monday, 13th January 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Neighbourhood Renewal Unit

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the purpose and annual cost of the neighbourhood renewal unit, and how many committees have been generated by it.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the purpose of the neighbourhood renewal unit is to drive forward delivery of the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, which is designed to tackle deprivation in England's poorest communities. This financial year the costs of the central unit are expected to be nearly 7 million. The unit's work is overseen by a Cabinet sub-committee and a steering group of Permanent Secretaries from the principal government departments involved.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will take the matter seriously. I am glad that it is he who is answering the Question, because he has an enviable reputation in your Lordships' House for doing his best to look into problems. Perhaps he will look into the unit and bear in mind that complexity of organisation tends to exacerbate problems, not to solve them. The organisation has no fewer than seven divisions and 14 sub-divisions—sub-units, or whatever they are called.

Its habit of breeding, which is endemic in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, has spread to boroughs. It may be news to the Minister that in the borough of

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Tower Hamlets alone there are at present 28 committees, which so far, as far as residents of the borough are aware, have achieved no concrete results. All that is being done in the name of "joined-upness". At the end of the day, the Government will be able to congratulate themselves on producing an indissoluble union between gobbledy and gook.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am more than happy to answer the noble Lord's questions. The central unit has approximately 157 staff. It is co-ordinating expenditure of hundreds of billions of pounds of central government money in the 88 most deprived areas of England. I am not saying that everything has been a success, because the unit has been going for only a couple of years, but I could read out a success list of its achievements.

The private sector is involved—the chambers of commerce are involved in the business broker scheme—because we cannot renew the community unless we ensure that business is up and running. Crime has been reduced. Rubbish has been removed from estates. In one area, 620 tonnes of rubbish were removed from an estate, which helped to cut the dumping of cars by 80 per cent. If people know that an area is being looked after, they are more likely to look after it themselves. That is why the effort is targeted on those 88 most deprived areas of the country. There is a big success list, and those achievements are, by definition, in the 88 most deprived areas of the country.

The unit is designed to provide safer communities and higher quality schools. I appreciate that that is not how things were done in the past, but because of past neglect—that is not an issue between us in this House—the nature of the problems is different and they require a different solution.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, how are the various projects under neighbourhood renewal initiated? Is the initiation local? Do proposals then have to be put forward to the central office and await its comment, or can they be proceeded with?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is essentially local. Local strategic partnerships are being set up, which are sometimes led by the voluntary or private sector, not necessarily by local authorities, to get decisions made at the neighbourhood level. The 88 specified areas are set out in the public prints, based on census information and indices of deprivation. We want the strategy to proceed from the bottom up. Obviously, we must be careful with the massive public expenditure involved. We are considering the grand total of government expenditure, but the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and the New Deal for Communities alone total more than 700 million this year, and will rise to 900 million by 2005-06.

It is essential that initiatives start locally. It requires co-ordination across various government departments to obtain value for money and ensure that what occurs is sustainable, but the scheme is not imposed from the centre—it is not a top-down exercise.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the co-ordinating role of the neighbourhood renewal unit is vital, especially to places such as Burnley, as is shown by the experience last year when an examination was conducted into the troubles of 2001? The unit played a vital role in bringing together the local authority and a local strategic partnership, which was invaluable to those people in the deprived areas of Burnley. Does he further agree that the unit should be encouraged to do as much as it can in such areas?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, my noble friend is perfectly right. I do not want to oversell the unit. It is less than two years old; it was established in April 2001. Various initiatives have resulted, such as the street wardens programme. The business brokers pilot, to which I referred, was launched only last February. The fund for post offices in deprived areas was launched only last December. It is vital to maintain infrastructure, rebuild communities and give everyone involved in them, including business, confidence to invest for the future.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, will the Minister confirm what I think I heard him say: that hundreds of billions of pounds are involved in neighbourhood renewal and regeneration? Is it hundreds of billions of pounds or rather less? If hundreds of billions of pounds are involved, is he concerned that the bureaucracy involved in neighbourhood renewal and other regeneration programmes is becoming top-heavy and that the organisation so colourfully described by my noble friend Lord Peyton is becoming a little overladen?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it may have sounded like a slip of the tongue; but it was not. I have double checked that because I was looking at the figures anyway. The Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, the New Deal for Communities and the New Venture Fund are the unit programmes. I mentioned that the budget this year is 727 million, rising to 917 million. But the

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purpose of the central unit is to harness the hundreds of billions of pounds of central government expenditure right across the piece; to ensure that in the 88 areas identified, we receive good value for money across the piece, rather than having time-limited funds.

There is work to be done here. There is the 700 million for the unit, but it is also responsible for ensuring that we receive value for money for the totality of government expenditure in those areas.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I am not denying the existence of a very serious problem? Will he take a serious look at the existing organisation, which might possibly be rather too complicated?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I freely admit and accept that the access to various streams of funding to localities is complicated for people to understand. It can appear like a bowl of spaghetti. We are doing our best to sort that out.

I am happy to take on board the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil. However, one of the targets for the whole exercise is that within 10 years or so no one in this country should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live, which is what happens at present. That is a target and we must do something about it. It is part of the whole exercise. However, I shall be happy to look at the extra bureaucracy to which the noble Lord has drawn attention.

Tax Self-Assessment

2.44 p.m.

Lord Russell-Johnston asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the operation of the self-assessment tax system is satisfactory.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, self-assessment is operating successfully. The National Audit Office, in its most recent report on income tax self-assessment in July 2001, said:

    "Our overall conclusion is that self assessment has improved the administration of income and capital gains tax. It has made assessments more straightforward and allowed a more focused approach to compliance work".

In July 2002, the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee reported the findings of its review of self-assessment. It made a number of criticisms and recommendations and we have accepted all but one of those recommendations.

Lord Russell-Johnston: My Lords, the Minister has given a somewhat un-self-critical answer. Perhaps he would agree that, whatever else, the new system has been an absolute bonanza to accountants, rather less so for those who cannot afford accountants and who are intimidated by complex income tax forms. Will the

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Minister give some idea of how many people have been paying fines for late presentation? Will he confirm that, generally speaking, those are the people who are less able to pay? Surely it is an endemic weakness in the new system that incompetence is treated as cupidity? Is there any proposal to change the system? How many people have been paying fines and, in particular, have there been any custodial sentences?

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