§ Order for Second Reading read.4.39 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Judging by the representation on the Opposition Benches, that is an uncontroversial statement. As this Government's local government policies unfold, and fewer and fewer members of the Opposition parties turn up to oppose us—or even to listen to us or criticise us—it has become self-evident that we are winning the intellectual debate day after day.
The Bill is about preparing local government for the 21st century. It involves a review of all local authorities so that we can bring local government closer to the people. It involves the extension of competitive tendering, which will continue the disengagement of local authorities from direct service provision and which will promote their strategic and enabling roles. The Bill requires the publication of standard performance measures, which will give local electors the information that they need to judge their own council's performance.
The new local government commission for England, which is proposed in part II, will review the structure of local government. It will have a rolling programme of reviews, examining the shire counties area by area, and assessing the case for unitary authorities in those areas. We know that most local authorities want unitary status and we believe that such status will provide a better structure for the future in most areas. However, it will be open to the commission to recommend that there should be no change to the existing structure in some areas. We have already made it clear that we do not intend that either the county or the district tier of the local authorities be abolished as a whole. People want local councils with which they can identify and local people will be given a significant voice in the commission's reviews. I expect to see more unitary authorities with a strong local identity.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson ( (Chichester)
I apologise for asking my right hon. Friend to give way so early in his speech, but I intervene on an important point. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that what really matters is the quality and cost of the local government services that are provided to the people whom we represent, yet nothing in the Bill specifically refers to that need as a criterion for change? Before a costly and traumatic reorganisation of the structure of local government is embarked upon, is it not necesary to show ordinary people that demonstrable improvements are available to them as a result of that change and that, without those improvements, there is no case for change?
§ Mr. Heseltine
My hon. Friend raises a most important point. If he studies the draft guidance that we have issued for the local government commission, he will see that we have placed considerable weight on the need to demonstrate that there is an economic case for change. I know that my hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am to consider that part of the legislation which provides for an extension of competitive tendering and which gives the Audit Commission the ability to reveal comparisons 38 between one authority, and one service, and another, which is what he is interested in achieving. I shall come to that part of the Bill in a few moments.
§ Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)
I too am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend but, as his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) referred to the economic case for change, does he agree that if there is such an economic case for change, it must be made on the basis that where there are unitary authorities, which, as a matter of principle, I strongly support, those authorities must be of an adequate size? If we have endless small unitary authorities, we shall simply add enormously to administrative costs.
§ Mr. Heseltine
My hon. Friend has raised an interesting issue that will involve the House and local government practitioners in much debate in the years ahead. As my hon. Friend and I remember all too well, that was the argument that was made in the early 1970s when it was suggested that we should establish a minimum size standard to cope with the provision of certain services. However, at that time we did not give sufficient attention to the concept of an enabling authority, which has the possibility of buying in services from larger, perhaps neighbouring, authorities. Therefore, it is possible to have both a larger-scale provision of services and more local, smaller-scale authorities which buy in and then provide services. It would be wrong for us to block the option of seeking to have an advantage of scale, through private sector or other public sector providers, while placing the structure much closer to individual people.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On a factual point, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are looking positively and constructively at the de minimis provision, and at providing an increase from the current level of £100,000 to about £250,000, which was promised in the debate on 17 December last year?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for being unable to identify the issue to which he refers. However, if he writes to me, I shall do my best to respond in specific terms. The de minimis provision with which I am familiar cannot be the one about which he is talking, which is the old cut-off point below which capping did not apply. As I do not wish to fail to provide an adequate response to the hon. Gentleman, perhaps he will let me know exactly what de minimis provision he has in mind.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I am talking about the Scottish authorities and their concern about de minimis provision.
§ Mr. Heseltine
In that case, the hon. Gentleman can be absolutely sure that he will receive the diligent reply from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), to which he is accustomed.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
I am sorry to have to intervene in my right hon. Friend's speech when two important questions have already been asked of him. I hope that he will not be too bored to hear again my concern that we do not make the same mistakes that we made in 1972. Is he aware that there is still widespread anxiety that, when his Department establishes a commission, there will be a hidden agenda on, say, size or functions? What can he say to those of my constituents, 39 especially in Christchurch, the priory of which celebrates its 900th anniversary in 1994, to assure them that, contrary to the universally expressed wishes of the local citizenry, they are not likely to be subsumed into some suburban, subtopian and grotesque unit of local government, which they would detest universally, to a man and to a woman?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I cannot believe that my hon. Friend would suggest that I, of all people, have ever had a hidden agenda—[Laughter.] Well, I can assure my hon. Friend that the horrendous spectres which he has waved before us and which the local government commission will doubtless address do not in any way form part of our plans for the future of local government. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that a constructive reply.
Trying to address the issue of local accountability will be a crucial task for the local government commission. We are pleased that Sir John Banham, with his experience at the Audit Commission, has agreed to become the chairman of the new commission when he stands down from the Confederation of British Industry this summer. As I have already said, we have issued a draft of the guidance that we propose to give the commission. Copies have been made available to all hon. Members and we have invited views on the draft by the end of this month. The guidance should require the commission to assess community identities and the impact and effectiveness of any proposed new structure. It will be important for the commission to consider the most effective exercise of functions and the delivery of services, consistent with community identities and the wide public interest.
The commission will be able to obtain advice from other expert organisations, and particularly from the Audit Commission, to assist it in its work. However, it will be the following matters that will influence decisions.
I cannot stress too often that money spent on excessive public relations campaigns will be wasted cash. Although I have said this before, perhaps I may trespass on your tolerance, Madam Deputy Speaker, by repeating this advice to local authorities. They will not enhance their case by employing expensive public relations consultants to spend the local people's money trying to create a synthetic case, which will be looked at in great detail and dispassionately by the local government commission when it begins its work.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
I have listened carefully to the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box today. His speech was similar to that which he made when he told us that he would get rid of the poll tax. Is what he is trying to say an apology to the people of Britain who have been struggling under a local government system that has never really worked, ever since the Conservatives put it through the House in 1972? Is it not an admission of failure that he has had to come to the Dispatch Box today and introduce the Bill?
§ Mr. Heseltine
If what the hon. Gentleman suggests is true, the only apology that is necessary is from the Labour Government who ruled Britain for significant periods after 1972 and did nothing whatever to put the defects right. Once again, when reform is required, it is a Conservative Administration who address the issue.
§ Mr. Heseltine
If another apology is required, it is from the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) for psyching up the level of community charge bills and encouraging local authorities to increase their expenditure, to add another burden to the tax increases with which we are already threatened by a future Labour Government. [Interruption.] Although few Opposition Members are present, I hope that they will allow me to make progress with explaining to the House the merits of yet one more piece of refreshing Conservative legislation.
The Bill sets out a framework for the procedures that the commission will follow in conducting its reviews, including the arrangements for consultation with local authorities, local people and other interested organisations. The commission will initiate a review, with publicity. If appropriate, it will outline proposals or options. There will then be an opportunity for local authorities and other interested parties to put their views.
The commission will then prepare draft recommendations and invite comments on them. We are particularly anxious that local people should put their views on the local government structure that they want to see in their areas. Once the commission has considered comments on the draft recommendations it will draw up final recommendations which it will publish and submit to the Secretary of State for the Environment. If necessary, I can ask the commission to carry out further investigations or, indeed, to supply more information. Finally, an order implementing the commission's recommendations will be laid before Parliament.
As well as conducting reviews of local government structure, the local government commission will take on the work of the Local Government Boundary Commission. It will be responsible for any reviews of boundaries and electoral arrangements which are needed as a consequence of structural review. It will also be able to carry out separate reviews of local government boundaries or electoral arrangements, at my request.
As now, there will continue to be reviews of electoral arrangements at mandatory intervals of not fewer than 10 and not more than 15 years. Therefore, the Bill also provides for the abolition of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Any reviews begun by the Boundary Commission but not completed by the time that it is abolished may be transferred to the new Local Government Commission. Our aim is that the commission should consider the structure of local government area by area so that it can make tailor-made recommendations for each area about the most appropriate structure to meet that area's particular needs and circumstances. That calls for flexibility. Therefore, the Bill provides for parliamentary orders to change the structure of local government area by area. Such orders will be subject to affirmative resolution procedures.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
When my right hon. Friend says "area by area", what does he mean? When the commission gets down to its job, will it look at a county at a time or, in some cases, units smaller than a county? How will the commission decide which areas to select for review?
§ Mr. Heseltine
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting question. We do not anticipate that the areas will be smaller than counties. Indeed, we expect that they will usually include several counties. Undoubtedly, there 41 are areas where local ambitions or requirements might indicate that cross-county boundary reorganisations are appropriate. For example, in certain areas old counties disappeared. They might reappear and county boundaries might have an effect on the matter.
Part II of the Local Government Bill also contains enabling powers, subject to Parliament, for setting up a residuary body or bodies, or a staff commission or commissions. As the House will know, such bodies have been found helpful in previous reorganisations. But we intend to set them up only if the need for them is clear.
Part I of the Bill deals with competitive tendering. It is almost uncontested by local authorities—at least in private—that competitive tendering has powerfully changed local services for the better.
§ Mr. Heseltine
If the Labour party intends to abolish competitive tendering, that is an additional interesting revelation about its policies. I am only too anxious to give way if anyone wishes to suggest that there will be no more competitive tendering. It is obvious that the winds of change have blown such socialist nostrums from Labour Members' minds. Competitive tendering is one more item on the long list of items that the Conservative party has implanted in the national culture of how to deliver services.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a difference between competitive tendering and compulsory competitive tendering?
§ Mr. Heseltine
Yes, there is a difference. In the case of voluntary competitive tendering, Labour authorities do not do it. In that of compulsory competitive tendering, they do.
Research by the Institute of Local Government Studies has shown that work awarded through the competitive tendering procedures costs 6 per cent. less on average, and that in general standards are maintained or improved.
§ Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that only 40 authorities were surveyed by the Institute of Local Government Studies? On page 132, paragraph 13.36, in its conclusion it says:Confidence in the financial assessment of the impact of competition must be limited. Outturn figures for the post-tender period are not available. The changing accounting practices that have resulted from competition have made the provision of information and comparisons of cost before and after competition difficult.In other words, it said that it did not really have the evidence, but it took a good stab at it.
§ Mr. Heseltine
If the hon. Gentleman is so sceptical about the benefits of competitive tendering, why does he not have the courage to pursue the logic of the argument and say that his party will get rid of it? He knows, as everyone knows, that competitive tendering, imposed where necessary by the Government, has shaken up service delivery standards in local government like nothing that we have seen in recent decades. That is why the Conservative party has the courage to say so, and intends to extend competitive tendering. We will obtain better value for money and higher quality services, despite the worst attempts of the Labour party to frustrate that aim.
42 The costs have materialised at 6 per cent. less on average and in general terms standards have been maintained or improved. But that is an average position. The truth of the matter is that there are many more extreme examples. No one in the House will forget the state of the city of Liverpool when its trade unions, encouraged by the Labour party, tried their customary strong-arm tactics against the Labour council of the time. We had the unedifying sight of pile upon pile of rubbish towering in the city centre streets. When the city went to tender, the in-house team bid £7.9 million. The private sector bid £3.9 million. The private sector cleaned up the city.
Liverpool was not the only dramatic example. When we used our powers to force Camden council to re-tender its street-cleaning and refuse services, it replaced an ineffective and costly in-house service with a private sector contract that swept the streets and saved the local taxpayer millions of pounds.
So the question remains whether those who oppose compulsory competitive tendering seriously believe that without that process those cost savings and management improvements would have taken place in many local authorities. There is a stunned silence from the Labour Benches because Labour Members know in truth that those improvements would not have taken place without compulsory tendering. The fact is that in the past too many authorities ran their services more for the convenience of their work forces than for the communities that they should have served.
Where authorities, on behalf of their chargepayers, wish to employ an in-house team for these services compulsory competitive tendering has forced them to demonstrate that their team can do the job as efficiently and effectively as an outside contractor. That discipline has meant that they have had to knuckle down and get on with the business of providing services for the citizen, and not jobs for the boys.
We now have to extend competition into local authority white-collar services.
§ Mr. Heseltine
Here we go again. The question is again asked immediately. The Labour party says that it will not prevent competitive tendering in respect of the services to which it now applies. I shall be very interested to hear whether the Opposition intend to prevent its extension and thus deprive people of the further enjoyment of improved services.
Last November we published a consultation paper entitled "Competing for Quality—Competition in the Provision of Local Services". That document proposes initially to extend CCT to a number of construction-related professional services, such as architecture and engineering, and then eventually to bring the stimulus of competition to a range of core corporate services, such as finance, legal services, personnal and administration. The consultation paper made it clear that we recognise that the existing CCT procedures under the Local Government Act 1988 may need revision for such services.
For the activities already covered by the 1988 Act local authorities decide on the quality of services that they want and then set specifications for the job. Once they have received tenders it is up to them to ensure, in a fair and objective fashion, that tenderers can meet their 43 specifications. But in the case of professional and technical services considerations of quality are more complex and more difficult to measure. It is for that reason that we are prepared to consider a modified tendering procedure with a separate quality threshold and double-envelope tendering. This would enable authorities to look at the prices tendered by those who come up to the standards that they and their local communities require and then to judge on the basis of price alone. It is our intention that this Bill will provide powers to modify the existing CCT procedures for the professional and technical services to take account of this and other concerns.
As it stands, clause 8 does not not do that. Instead, it purports to provide a wholly inflexible and unusable power which could not address the particular concerns relating to professional services. It would treat quality in architecture on the same level as quality in refuse collection. I give notice that, in Committee, we shall table amendments to restore the necessary flexibility to this power.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I wonder whether the Secretary of State can answer a question that bothers West Lothian district council. In the event of the authority's having misgivings as to the capability of the lowest tenderer to maintain a quality service, what remedies are available to it at the tender-evaluation stage? This is a matter that bothers serious people.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, and I have just answered his question by my reference to the concept of double-envelope tendering, whereby quality thresholds are set and firms have to ensure that those are met. Above the quality thresholds, it is a question of price. The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly legitimate question, but it is one that we have anticipated and answered.
§ Mr. Allen McKay
On the question of quality, it is well known that firms submit tenders even though architects would advise that those firms could not do the job. On paper the costing looks good, but practical experience is another matter. In such a case, would an authority, on the advice of its officers, be able to eliminate a tender?
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman must be fully aware that invariably officers advise against competitive tendering techniques. They invariably produce a range—
§ Mr. Heseltine
I have twice given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I want now to reply to his questions.
If we had not introduced the rigour of competitive tendering regimes, we should not have seen the dispersion of activity towards the private sector. Local government, if it had had the will, could have done these things on its own initiative. However, it took legislation to change the minds not only of local polititians but of local officials and, in particular, of the trade unions behind them.
§ Mr. Heseltine
I have dealt with the issue, and I wish now to move to the third aspect of what I have to say.
Clauses 8 and 9 contain enabling provisions, and they will not affect local government activities until we bring 44 secondary legislation before Parliament. The consultation paper sets out a number of ways in which we intend to use these enabling powers if Parliament grants them. We shall carefully consider responses to the consultation paper and shall bring forward our proposals for secondary legislation in due course.
I should like now to come to a question that has been raised by Conservative Members—local authority performance standards. Everybody knows that service standards vary. We know about authorities in whose areas rents are not collected and repairs are not done. We know about the bins that are not emptied and about the streets that are not swept. We know that costs too vary. The whole House must know that, in general, costs under Labour authorities are higher than costs under Conservative authorities. It is still true that, on average in local government, a vote for Labour costs the individual payer £80 a year extra.
The citizens charter White Paper promised that electors would be given the information they need to enable them to judge the services provided by their local councils and the costs. Those electors should know that it costs 8.69p per head to collect the rubbish in Tory Wandsworth, and 23.28p—nearly three times as much—in Labour's Camden. They should know that it costs £10,000 per km to maintain the roads of Labour's Lancashire, but only half that in Tory Lincolnshire. We know that these variations exist. [Laughter.] I am not surprised that hon. Members find it funny that services in Labour-controlled areas should cost so much more.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that when the Conservatives were in charge of the Lancashire county council the standard and maintenance of our roads were well above the national average but that they are now below the national average?
§ Mr. Heseltine
But not in cost. As we should expect, my hon. Friend makes a most eloquent point.
We all know that these variations exist, but the electors should not have to rely on stray admissions to find out what is going on. I refer, for instance, to the admission of Keva Coombes, the former leader of the Liverpool council. In July 1990 The Independent quoted him as having confessed:The council's problems are not down to resources, rather inefficiency. It costs four times more to pick up a piece of litter in Liverpool than it does in other areas.Some hon. Members—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I among them—will remember Maureen Colquhoun, an ex-Member of Parliament and an ex-councillor in Labour Hackney. She summed up the situation in Hackney in these words:There was only one reason for Hackney council losing seats at the 1990 elections—the total failure of the Labour Group … to deliver services. The record is shameful.She went on to make another observation—and this is a matter of which I have experience and in respect of which I know how she feels. She said:Tenants were not treated as people at all.These are the words of a former Labour Member of this House describing Labour in local authorities.
We do not think it good enough to rely on these accidental admissions, so clauses 1 to 4 provide the basis for systematic comparisons. Standards of service and costs should be reported on a common basis determined by an independent body. That is what the Bill provides, and the 45 Audit Commission is already preparing proposals that will allow the public to compare the cost in their area with the cost in other areas of services of similar standards.
§ Mr. Blunkett
The Secretary of State has made comparisons. Does he believe that all comparisons are fair? Would he say that it is fair to compare the costs for collecting a single tonne of rubbish? Will he confirm that in Wandsworth it costs £39.28 to collect a tonne of rubbish, in Westminster it costs £21.33, but in Haringey it costs £16.62 and in Newham £19.08? Will he confirm that in Chiltern, a Tory-controlled authority in Buckinghamshire, it costs three times as much to collect the rubbish as it does in Labour-controlled Milton Keynes, down the road? If there are to be comparisons, will they be across the board, so that we can see the kind of rubbish that the Secretary of State is talking?
§ Mr. Heseltine
As on so many other occasions, having listened to what I have had to say, the hon. Gentleman has come round to agreeing with me. We shall give him exactly what he wants—all the statistics for all the services for all the authorities. I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that, because now he will come through the Aye Lobby in support of our Bill. We have another convert on the Labour party Benches.
§ Mr. Enright
Will the Secretary of State also look at the statistics on additionality in RECHAR areas?
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman is as aware as I am that this matter is being carefully considered by the Government, and when we have something to say, we shall make a public statement. However, to the best of my knowledge, that policy is not covered by this Bill. If I am wrong, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will correct me, because I have nothing about it in my briefing notes.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
If it is not in the Secretary of State's briefing notes, he cannot say anything about it.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Before he leaves accountability, will my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the proposed changes that are made, accountability will be achieved only if responsibility and authority are vested in the same pair of hands? Whatever he does in this review of local government, will he ensure that that principle is scrupulously adhered to?
§ Mr. Heseltine
My hon. Friend will have heard what I said earlier about the local government commission because it is with the intention of seeing the emergence of more unitary authorities that we are introducing the Bill. My hon. Friend will therefore be able to support us with enthusiasm.
The Audit Commission has issued a paper—"The Citizens Charter: Local Authority Performance Indicators", and I have arranged for copies of it to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The paper sets out the Audit Commission's preliminary thinking on how it would set about its new tasks. The paper is most important and one that the House will want to consider with great care. As I have said, all the figures will be published and 46 the resulting publicity will be a powerful motivator. Authorities will no longer be able to hide behind vague definitions of standards and vague assessments of costs.
Let me make two things clear. First, standards of performance are central to the provisions in clauses 1 to 4 and to the future development of the so-called league tables. There was some confusion about this matter in the other place. The Bill makes it clear that the subject matter of comparisons is to be standards of performance achieved, as is set out in clause 1(1) at the beginning of the Bill. The criteria of comparisons follow, and are cost, economy, efficiency and effectiveness.
Secondly, the requirement for the Audit Commission to give directions to local authorities requiring them to give the public information on their performance in no way detracts from the freedom of authorities to decide for themselves what standard of service to provide. The Bill is concerned about the reporting of levels of service delivered. This will enable the public to make their judgment on whether their authority is delivering good value for money.
Clauses 5 and 6 implement another aspect of the citizens charter. In too many cases, local authorities do not respond to their auditors' reports and recommendations. Clause 5 imposes on bodies a new duty to respond promptly, formally and in public to auditors' public interest reports made under section 15 of the 1982 Act.
There are doubts about the ability of the Audit Commission to publish information about individual authorities—in other words, to name names. Clause 7 will enable the Audit Commission to disclose information on which bodies fail to comply with the requirements of performance standards or contravene the accounts regulations—for example, by failing to publish their accounts on time—or are subject to an auditor's report. They could also disclose the contents of such a report and the body's response. I see no case for shielding authorities which do any of those things from the publicity that their performance should properly attract.
Both in the citizens charter provisions and in the proposals for structural reform, the Bill puts the interests of the people first. It will provide voters with the facts about the way that councils discharge their responsibilities. It will extend the benefits of competitive tendering and it will lead to a local government structure that takes account of the needs of each area and of the views of local citizens. I believe that it will lead to a significant advance in the quality of local government, and I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham
Long-suffering local government has been an all-too-familiar battleground for the major parties over the past decade and that has been particularly true of local government finance and competence, where a vast gulf separates the two major parties and where we have differences of a profound nature not only about the practice of policy but about its objectives.
As we approached the Bill, it was possible to hope for some consensus. After all, who could disagree with some of the Government's stated aims, such as better-quality provision or the restructuring of local government so that it is simpler, more democratic and more efficient in its 47 operation? Labour yields to no one in its enthusiasm for those causes. We were there first with our quality street proposals and our proposals for a quality commission.
Labour local government has led the way in practical terms with proposals on how such changes should be implemented. We have been long-standing critics of the 1974 reorganisation. When I represented Southampton, Test I was a strong supporter of what we then described as organic change—a champion of the county boroughs, of their rights and of their capacity to run their own affairs.
Therefore, in principle, we should be able to look for consensus on the Bill, but I am sorry to say that it is simply not possible on the basis of the Bill. The Government have thrown away a chance because they take too narrow a view of how to achieve quality and of what quality means in local government services and because they have been unable to approach the issue of structure in anything other than a spirit of narrow, party advantage.
We have no difficulty in supporting the provisions in the first part of the Bill that require publication of information on the performance of local government. Indeed, we would go well beyond the Government in demanding the public setting of standards, the provision of information to citizens and the ability of citizens to monitor those standards and demand redress when they are not met.
The Government have been hopelessly narrow in their definition of what should be measured. True to form, they are concerned exclusively with cost. They do not concern themselves with the quality of provision. They are looking for an accountant's measure, which will always suggest that cheapest is best. We believe that, on the contrary, quality of provision does matter and that local communities should be able to decide for themselves what quality of service they want. That judgment will necessarily differ from one locality to another. The needs of one community will be very different from those of another.
The circumstances in which a service is to be delivered will vary enormously from one area to another. That factor alone means that the Government's proposals and their insistence on an across-the-board, national set of measures are deficient in terms of the definition of what is to be measured and in respect of how it is to be done. There is no provision in the Bill for local variation—unlike the Government's national health service charter, in which the importance of locally set standards taking account of local needs and circumstances is recognised. Nor is there any recognition of the complexity of the measurements that are to be attempted if fairness is to be achieved and like is to be measured with like. Even a simple task such as grass cutting, for example, cannot be measured unless we are clear about many variables, such as the length of the grass and frequency of cutting. That is—[Interruption.] It is easy to laugh, and I know that the point sounds a small one, but how is such a measure to be used and relied upon? If that is true of grass cutting, imagine the difficulty of measuring the quality of more complex services.
§ Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne
The hon. Gentleman has said that the Government's approach is an accountant's approach. It seems that he and I were listening to a different speech. I thought that I heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say that, even 48 where service arguments and cost arguments demand large areas, local people might want small areas. Was not my right hon. Friend saying that if people want small areas, that is what they should have? That is exactly the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
§ Mr. Gould
The hon. Gentleman must be doing his best to confuse the House generally. He has intervened on an issue that does not arise at this stage in my speech. I shall gladly deal with restructuring later. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will try to follow the argument a little more closely. If he does so, he will be able to judge more accurately when to advance his prepared arguments.
The Government should recognise the problems to which I have referred, at least to the extent of acknowledging that a good deal more work must yet be done on performance criteria by the Audit Commission—the report that it is publishing is most welcome—and by local government, so that there is at least an attempt to reach agreement between the commission and local government before local authorities are, in effect, put in the dock by the Government.
The Government's accusatory attitude remains the main thrust of part I. There is the suggestion that local government is inherently inefficient. If not, why is there the emphasis on cost? Why not measure rather more important matters and rate local councils in accordance with their success in delivering important services such as meals on wheels or nursery school places? If we are to measure, let us measure things that are important. I assure the Secretary of State that if that sort of measurement is undertaken the pecking order will be rather different from the one which he has suggested.
That is our main criticism of the citizens charter, on which the Bill, at least in part I, is based. Every page of the charter is redolent of the view that the only thing to be done with public service—especially local government service—is to privatise it or to import the so-called disciplines of the marketplace. The charter is a pathetically inadequate document which has come and gone virtually unnoticed. Even the Government have recognised that it has been a non-event, as is shown by the need to relaunch it later this week. Its impact so far has been zero, apart from its being said that the Prime Minister is pleased with the improved public recognition that he has enjoyed as a result of wearing his own name badge.
The charter is a document without any content. It is an attack on failures for which the Government are responsible. Those are failures of funding and of understanding local government. The charter's prescriptions miss the point and merely reflect the Government's prejudices.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
If the citizens charter has had no impact, how is it that the portion of it that is called the patients charter has had to be reprinted, and has so far sold nearly 1 million copies?
§ Mr. Gould
If my experience is anything to go by, I imagine that it has been reprinted many thousands or millions of times. The patients charter arrived through the mail at great cost to the taxpayer, no doubt. When I bothered to read it I found that it contained nothing of any value. Everything that it promised was contradicted by the experience of patients in the NHS.
If we really want improvements in service delivery, we should be looking to Labour's quality commission 49 proposals. Labour local government already has an impressive track record. It has pioneered customer contracts, customer care training and the provision of immediate redress if things go wrong. It is significant—I say this in response to all those ignoramuses on the Conservative Benches who laugh—that when the Government were drawing up the citizens charter they made a discreet approach to—guess who? The answer is the Labour party. They approached us to ask us whether we could send them a handful of the brochures that had been produced by Labour local authorities on customer care contracts, on customer care training and on the provision of redress. It was to those Labour authorities, such as York, Islington, Oxford, Norwich, Harlow and North Tyneside—I could go on because the list is long—that the Government turned for practical examples when they were drawing up a citizens charter.
This part of the Bill is a great disappointment. It is too narrow, too doctrinaire and too permeated with a lack of sympathy for local government. It is all too typical of the charter, of which it is, sadly, all too predictably a manifestation.
That is even more true of the next subject that is tackled by the Bill. The intention here—this was reiterated by the Secretary of State—was to extend the provision of compulsory competitive tendering to a range of professional services, despite the lack of any evidence that such an extension was either desirable or practicable. It might have been thought that before any such enterprise was undertaken it would be sensible to survey the effects of CCT so far. The Government have failed to do that. The studies undertaken have been partial and inconclusive. The only conclusion that can be drawn from the work undertaken by the Institute of Local Government Studies and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy is that small cost savings in service delivery of about 6 to 7 per cent. have been at the very least matched and offset by the costs of the tendering process. That is to say nothing of the costs that have not been measured, such as the costs of corners cut in service delivery and of the downward pressure on wages and working conditions, which are already shamefully low.
That is why we believe that the way forward is not through compulsion. A Labour Government will largely remove the element of compulsion, reserving it only for use when a local authority has shown over a period that it has failed to meet acceptable standards. We do not accept that there is any case for extending CCT purely on ideological grounds. The Government have not been able to show any evidence for doing so. They have refused to publish the PA report that they commissioned, presumably because they felt—as it turned out, quite rightly—that the report provided no support for their prejudices. They were duly embarrassed when the report was leaked. It showed that in respect of some of the services proposed for CCT—legal services, for example—costs were substantially higher in the private sector than in the public sector. It showed that no market exists for other services and that process costs would outweigh any cost advantages in yet further examples.
The Government, true to form, were undeterred. They pressed ahead, issuing a consultation document and specifying that consultation would end on 31 January, conveniently after the Bill had received a Second Reading in both Houses. So much for consultation.
50 The consultation paper was hardly free from mystery. The Prime Minister went out of his way last year to specify housing management as a prime candidate for the extension of CCT, yet it is not mentioned in the document. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to resolve the mystery of whether housing management is in or out. I see the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) courteously waiting to intervene, but on the point of leaping to his feet. If he wishes to intervene, I shall gladly give way.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
The hon. Gentleman is basing much of his case on the PA Consultants' report, yet his noble Friend Lord McIntosh described it as poorly written and inaccurate. The hon. Gentleman says that he believes every word of it. The Opposition cannot have it both ways.
§ Mr. Gould
My noble Friend Lord McIntosh is entitled to make his own judgment of the report's literary style; I am entitled to put the report's conclusions before the House. I have taken the trouble to spare the hon. Gentleman the pain of listening to the language used in the report, which I have paraphrased. However, I assure him that not only are the conclusions impeccable, but so are the language and the grammar.
Even the Government were forced to recognise in the debate in the other place that, if competition was applied to many services according to ordinary principles, it would be most unlikely that the private sector would get much of a look in. The Government accordingly proposed a quality threshold. The very phrase should send a shiver down the spine, in the light of the television franchise debacle. At the same time, they resolutely refused to recognise that any reference to quality was needed in the services already subject to CCT. If it is right for one group of services, why is it irrelevant to others? Who is to decide the quality threshold? Is it, as the Secretary of State implied, to be him? Is it, as one of his noble Friends conceded late in the debate on the Bill in the other place, to be for local authorities to set that threshold?
Not surprisingly, their Lordships objected to the whole farrago of nonsense and prejudice and they wrecked the Government's proposals, not least on the ground that the Henry VIII clause—part of clause 8—was a constitutional monstrosity. Unfortunately and sadly, as we heard from the Secretary of State, the Government intend to override their Lordships and to restore a provision that has no defenders outside the ranks of the Government's ideologues. We shall resist that restoration.
Part II of the Bill is an even greater disappointment and an even bigger missed opportunity. We have always made it clear that the 1974 reorganisation had failed and that what was needed was a simpler, more comprehensible, more accountable unitary structure for local government. The Secretary of State appeared to accept that, too, so we looked to common ground on that score.
We also supported the idea of a commission that would attempt to measure local needs and interests and come forward with flexible answers to suit local circumstances. We made it clear that if such a commission were properly set up, comprised a proper balance of people and interests, and had sensible terms of reference, an incoming Labour Government would be glad to pick up its work and to act on its conclusions. Those hopes have been dashed by the provisions of the Bill. I say nothing about the membership 51 of the commission, which presumably has not yet been decided, but the heart sinks at the prospect of the Secretary of State's yet again being unable to resist the chance to play party politics.
We are, however in a position to judge the terms of reference of the commission, and they fill us with alarm and despondency. Apparently, it will roam the countryside, guided only by the whim of the Secretary of State, proposing or not proposing—as the case may be—change which may or may not introduce unitary government in one part of the country rather than another. Its recommendations, again subject to whim, will be made and implemented piecemeal and over a long period. It is impossible to imagine a surer recipe for confusion than what the Secretary of State proposes. At any given time, some parts of the country will have unitary and others dual forms of local government. Some will be in the course of change, others threatened with change, yet others absolved from change, with others not knowing what to expect. No one with an ounce of understanding of local government could contemplate such chaos with equanimity.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I wish to take up the hon. Gentleman on his point about some authorities having unitary and others having dual forms of local government. I am against two-tier authorities, but if local people matter as much as the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say they do, we should not rule out what local people want, even if he and I think that to be wrong. Is he againt local variation and against local people? Does he still want to dictate from the centre?
§ Mr. Gould
The hon. Gentleman must be a very late convert to that view.
It is remarkable that the Government so lack confidence in their espousal of unitary government that they dare not use that principle to frame the terms of reference of the commission. They are not only a sure recipe for confusion, but they entirely fail to deal with some of the fears about, for example, major environmental responsibilities such as the future of structure plans, whose importance Labour is committed to emphasise, and the role of specialist services such as the county archivists. The terms of reference exclude that potentially—indeed, actual—valuable element of local government, the local parish and community councils. They should feature prominently in any future reorganisation of local government.
Most surprising of all is the refusal to recognise the demand for a Londonwide administration for our capital city. The great majority of Londoners—this is shown by all opinion polls—know all too well the price that they pay for the absence of any Londonwide voice, and the handicap that our capital suffers in comparison with other major cities at home and abroad. Even Tory voices, ranging from the chairman of the Tory party—although somewhat muted, it is true—to Lady Porter, recognise that something has to be done. However, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, for once united, are frozen in indecision. They have decided that Londoners must make do without the benefit of a strategic body to plan the capital's future and that London must be excluded from the Bill. They will pay a price for that indecision and the next Labour Government will specifically remedy the omission.
52 The Bill is, in the end, the Secretary of State's Bill. It reflects his peculiarly partisan approach to all these issues. It is local government's misfortune that he brings to his task a perspective that is too narrow, too partisan and too lacking in understanding of what local government is about and the value of the contribution that it can and must make. Local government now needs a proper debate about its true role and function and an appreciation of the importance of decentralising power in a hopelessly over-centralised country. From that debate should flow conclusions about the best structure for local government. Function should determine structure, not the other way round.
The structure should be decided in the long-term interests of local government and the communities that it serves. It should not be influenced by short-term and partisan considerations about where party advantage might lie. It should not be driven by a passion for centralisation and a determination to strip local government of its remaining functions and independence. Yet the Secretary of State's personal style and his record in local government inevitably lead to the conclusion that that is precisely what he is about. We do not trust him and neither does local government. That is why the twin objectives of the Bill—quality services and a democratic and efficient structure for local government—must wait for their achievement until the election of a Labour Government.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
Parts of the speech of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) were astonishing, especially his latter remarks and his attack on part II of the Bill. If we do not proceed in the way outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we shall be condemned to many years of uncertainty before any change is made in the structure of local government. My understanding of what the hon. Gentleman was saying was that there should be a long debate and then a future Labour Government—should there be such an animal—would put forward proposals, which would then be subject to major legislation. The hon. Gentleman is putting off the day of reform for many, many years. That may be the wish of some members of the Labour party, but it is not the view reflected in the other place. It certainly does not reflect the views of many Labour party supporters. Indeed, in my constituency, Labour party members are among the most enthusiastic supporters of part II. The hon. Gentleman made a misguided attack on the Bill.
I welcome both parts of the Bill, and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the further moves towards competitive tendering and contracting out. My local authority, Southend, was one of the first to contract out its refuse collection services—a move that has been outstandingly successful, and is now entirely non-controversial. A much better and more economical service is now provided. That is only one example of what local authorities can achieve—and, indeed, are increasingly achieving throughout the country.
Part II, which deals with the structure of local government, is the most crucial section. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the reforms of the early 1970s, no one 53 can claim today that they have met with popular support. They have proved unpopular in many areas where services could previously be provided much closer to hand.
§ Mr. Channon
In many cases, yes.
I represent part of what used to be one of the old county boroughs. It seems to me, in retrospect, that that was an excellent arrangement. It allowed decisions to be made at a "responsive" level: it enabled people to feel that they had some control over their local authorities. When the education committee met, for example, everyone knew every school that was up for discussion. Everyone knew which school needed more money. The old system provided more accountability as well as less remoteness, and I suspect that people in virtually all the old county borough areas regret the changes that were made. My constituents certainly do. But I make no criticism of the county council that took over my borough. Despite the inevitable remoteness that has followed the change, that council has proved both effective and economical.
If we are to change the structure of local government—a proposal that has, I believe, been widely welcomed—what should be our aim? Clearly—as my right hon. Friend explained—it should be to provide high standards of public service at a reasonable cost to the citizen, and to respond to the wishes of local people. If the word "subsidiarity", as used by Mr. Delors, has any meaning, it surely applies to local government: decisions should be made as near to the people as is conceivably possible.
I am sure that I am right in expecting my right hon. Friend to ensure that the new local government commission is open to new ideas. After all, he has said in his consultation document that he wants an enabling authority. That, I think, is the direction in which local government will move in the next few years. More services will be provided outside the traditional field of local government. When all schools have their own local management, the structure of local government will be affected; when a vast number of schools become grant maintained—as I confidently expect them to do—the impact will be enormous. If, as I expect, there is a dramatic increase in the number of applications, local authorities will have a smaller role to play.
If we look ahead to a time several decades from now—as we should at least try to do—we should ask how we want services to be administered. I do not see why a national blueprint should be laid down; administration may well be different in different parts of the country. Both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Dagenham mentioned housing. The increase in the role of housing associations—as even greater increase than the one that we are seeing now—will mean a smaller role for local authorities, and a greater role for individuals. I have already mentioned some aspects of contracting out.
We do not want local government for local government's sake. We want to provide the best possible standard of service, and I believe that that can be done differently in different parts of the country. Whatever unit of local government finally emerges will, I think, be able to delegate downwards if it wishes, conferring on local communities many of the functions that local authorities now perform.
I am convinced that, in most instances, unitary authorities provide the best solution; but I do not see why 54 the hon. Member for Dagenham should attack my right hon. Friend for enabling parts of the country that may wish to retain two-tier authorities to do so. I know that some of my hon. Friends feel strongly that the dual system is better for their areas. If that is so, good luck to them: why should we try to lay down the unitary system as a general principle? The point of part II, surely, is to give the citizen more say in deciding what form of local government should operate in his area. Most, I believe, will choose the unitary system, but if some do not want that, let them get on with it.
§ Mr. Martlew
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that, when the proposals are ready, they should be put to a referendum so that people can choose the form of local government that they want?
§ Mr. Channon
I doubt that that will be necessary in most areas; but it is essential—and, indeed, it is clearly laid down in the consultation document—that the decision that is finally reached should be reached by the vast majority of local people. People in my part of the country would be in no doubt about what they wanted. [Interruption.] I have seldom been more convinced that I am right than in this instance. I am not opposed to the idea of a referendum if that is what people want, but I think that in most cases it would be unnecessary. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman's point is that the decision must be welcomed by the majority, he is entirely right. The White Paper provides for a presumption in favour of unitary authorities unless clear reason is given for different arrangements to be adopted.
I should like to know more about the local government commission. How will it carry out its enormous task? Who, for example, will set its programme of work? Will the commission decide how to proceed, or will my right hon. Friend say, "Tackle Avon now, Cornwall next and Essex after that"? That question has prompted a good deal of interest.
In another place, the Minister of State implied that a history of dissatisfaction with the existing structure would be a factor. I hope that that is true; if so, I concede the prime claims of Avon and Humberside. None the less, I wish to draw to the Government's attention the need to deal soon with the problems of Essex, and particularly those of Southend. As in many other ex-county boroughs, there exists in my area a community of interests—as laid out in the consultation paper—and a strong desire not to change the boundaries that existed under the old system, or to become predatory.
I hope that the areas in which dissatisfaction is known to exist will be among the first to be dealt with. I also hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us a little about timing. When will this great process be finished? It is a long and arduous business, and we shall all be kept in uncertainty for quite some time unless rapid progress can be made in areas where agreement is likely.
Will the commissioners split up into different groups, or will all, or only one, carry out each review? Timing, about which there is so much uncertainty, is not only important to the local population; it is crucial to local authority employees. Is the commission big enough? Will there be enough people to do the work in a reasonable period?
My right hon. Friend mentioned costs. I am disturbed by the figures that have been revealed in this week's Local Government Chronicle about the costs that local 55 authorities incur in defending their position. We do not want ridiculously expensive solutions to be adopted at the expense of charge payers—and, later, ratepayers—whose money might be squandered on unnecessary reports. I welcome my right hon. Friend's condemnation of such practices, and hope that he will say more.
The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) challenged me on the need for a local referendum. I agree with him strongly that we need to consult the people before a decision is reached. Could we have some guidance about that from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment?
§ Mr. Channon
No. I have already given way on that point. All I am saying is that there must be adequate consultation so that we ensure that the community that becomes a local authority agrees with the decision.
I welcome the Bill. I suspect that most people welcome it. I am surprised that the Opposition intend to vote against it, just like that. Although I disagree with it, I understand their opposition to part I. However, to vote against reforming local government in this quick and efficient way strikes me as very surprising. The only consolation is that it will be extremely popular. That will encourage us in the weeks and months that lie ahead. I hope that the Bill will soon become law and that before too much time has elapsed these welcome changes will be in place.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Halton)
I intend to speak about part II. I assure the Secretary of State for the Environment that we are opposed not to the principle of revision of local government but to the ridiculous way in which the Government are attempting to do it. The Opposition will therefore vote against part II, just as we shall vote against part I. Before I deal with part II, may I say how much I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said about part I, particularly in his closing remarks.
What the Conservatives do in general and what the Secretary of State for the Environment does in particular is to build up an image of Labour local authorities. That may apply in a few cases, but it does not apply to the vast majority of Labour local authorities, including my own. The Secretary of State extends that image beyond Labour local authorities; it embraces local government in general, including Conservative local authorities. Unfortunately, we do not now benefit from many Members of Parliament, particularly Conservative Members of Parliament, having served their apprenticeships, before coming here, as local government members. Many Members of Parliament used to serve on local, district and county councils—even on parish councils. They knew what they were talking about.
It is nonsense for the Conservative Government to say that they introduced competitive tendering during the last 10 years. There has been competitive tendering in local authorities for generations. What the Conservatives introduced was a narrow basis of compulsory tendering. What the Conservative party has done generally and what the Secretary of State has done today in particular is to build up an image and then to attack it.
56 I prefer what my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham said about the Bill. It is a last vindictive attempt by a dying Government to take a swipe at local government, local democracy and locally-elected people—devoted men and women, of all parties and of none, who are trying to do a good job. They were elected on the same franchise as Members of Parliament. We are here to do a job. They are there to do a job. They try to do that job to the best of their ability. They face the electoral consequences if they do not do so. They should not be put upon by a Secretary of State who wants to be able to tell them how they should do their job. That has been a characteristic of every Act of Parliament relating to local government that has reached the statute book since 1979.
The Bill expands the categories to which part I applies. It embraces the legal system, architects, library services, archivists and archaeologists. All these tasks are now performed by local government on a very cost-efficient basis. The Opposition object to the fact that these services are being driven, by dogma, into the private sector, regardless of the quality of the service provided.
§ Mr. Wilshire
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that competitive tendering implies dogma, but does he not agree that to say, as he appears to say, that local government is the only and the best way to provide these services is also dogma?
§ Mr. Oakes
If it is dogma, it is the dogma of democracy. It is the dogma of believing that those who are elected to do a job do it. It is ridiculous for the Government to proceed in this way. It will affect quality. Moreover, the widest possible powers will be given to the Secretary of State. He will be able to decide, on whim, what services shall be privatised and what services shall not be privatised. What is even worse, he will be able to decide, on whim, that services shall be privatised in one part of the country but not in another. Local government will not have the slightest idea of what he intends to do under part I.
Compulsory competitive tendering will apply to the most minute services. I wonder how the Department of the Environment will police it. For instance, a row is going on in my constituency between the admittedly Labour-controlled but very efficient Halton borough council and the Department of the Environment. The Department served a section 12 notice under the 1988 Act regarding the refuse collection service. I am still waiting to hear from the Secretary of State about the matter.
The one service about which I have never received a single complaint, either in my surgery or by letter, is the refuse collection service in Halton. The Department of the Environment issued a notice saying that Halton had not fairly operated its refuse collection service under the 1988 Act. It transpires that the saving involved is about £9,000. That is the difference between the provision of the existing service and the next highest tender. The Department of the Environment notice included the wordsIt has come to our notice".There had not, apparently, been a complaint from any of the other tenderers. Who brought it to the Department's notice? Does it carry out spot checks on what local authorities are doing? Even if it carries out spot checks on big services, such as refuse collection, I do not know how the Department could carry out spot checks on small services such as the archaeological unit.
57 The Secretary of State inhabits the building that I once inhabited as a junior Minister. When I reached the Department of the Environment my first impression was that it must look exactly like the headquarters of the former KGB in Russia. It looks that sort of place. The Department seems to be behaving in a similar manner. How many staff are involved in checking local authority tenders when the difference involves a mere £9,000? That is and must be dogma.
§ Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)
Even in the commercial sector, if a tender is 3 per cent. lower than the in-house bid, is it not usual for that tender not to be accepted because the margin is thought not to be large enough for it to result in real value for money and efficiency?
§ Mr. Oakes
I cannot give the exact figure, but the figure would be far less than 1 per cent.
I turn now to part II which deals with the dramatic restructuring that will be entailed. I have to declare to the House not a financial interest but the fact that I am the honorary vice president of the Association of County Councils and that I have held that post for many years. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It is an honorary position, but I declare it so that the House knows exactly where I stand on the matter. No money is involved. In fact, the position costs me money.
I remind the Government that our county council structure is the oldest, the biggest and, I would argue, the most cost-effective tier of local government, yet it has few friends in Government, or on the Conservative Benches. I regret to say that it has even fewer friends on this side of the House.
The ancient structure of county council government should not be abolished or castrated to the extent that it exists in name only. I argue that because of its age, antiquity and long-standing nature. I am proud to have been born in Lancashire. Other hon. Members are equally proud to have been born in Yorkshire. In fact, people who were born in Kent, Durham, Cornwall, Cumbria or Cheshire are proud to have been born in those counties.
§ Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)
The hon. Gentleman's point will attract some traditional local support. My constituents thought that they were born and lived in Lincolnshire, hut since 1974 they have lived in a place with which they have no sympathy—Humberside. They want the commission to get rid of Humberside and to return to the old county structures.
§ Mr. Oakes
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I served on the Committee that bitterly opposed the ideas of the then Conservative Government, yet no notice was taken of his constituents' concerns. I would not object to the old east riding and Lincolnshire again becoming two separate counties because their marriage has been unnatural and uneasy.
At the end of the loyal toast, even in London, where I should not do so, I still toast the duke of Lancaster. Overseas visitors look at me strangely because they think that I am muttering a Jacobite treachery. But someone across the room will be saying the same thing. We look at each other and ask, "Where are you from?" I am sure that such territorial bonds exist in all areas—and rightly so.
Under the 1972 Bill, the part of Lancashire where I was born was transferred to Cheshire. I owe an allegiance, dedication and devotion to my new county of Cheshire, 58 but that would not be true if it had been removed into some region. Unless the Government are strict in the guidelines that they issue, such problems may arise under part II of the Bill.
I fear and distrust the joint arrangements that can be made under the Bill. I know that the Secretary of State has advised the commission to be careful about joint arrangements, but the Government's draft guidance makes it clear that if unitary authorities are to be based on existing districts, joint arrangements will be needed in many counties for existing services such as police, magistrates courts, probation, fire, emergency planning, probably for strategic planning and for education and social services.
§ Mr. Oakes
The hon. Gentleman says "No", but what does "joint committees" mean? It would mean not unitary local government with authorities being individually responsible for services but an expensive, bureaucratic hotchpotch of unselected bodies and committees unaccountable and unintelligible to the public, unable to switch resources between each other and arguing endlessly about crucial decisions.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
My right hon. Friend is warning the House about the situation that has arisen in London following the abolition of the Greater London council. Londoners do not know whom they can hold to account for lousy services. That is the point: the Bill removes democratic accountability.
§ Mr. Oakes
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the Government say that this should be the exception rather than the rule, as the great Nye Bevan used to say, "Why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book?" The Greater London council and the other metropolitan councils show what will happen. More than 60 per cent. of metropolitan counties became three joint boards for police, fire and civil defence and transport. It would be worse if that were to happen to existing shire counties, because education and social services would have to be added to that list. Unless the Government are careful in their guidelines, I foresee such danger from the creation of joint boards.
Another example of what happens when a metropolitan council breaks down occurred in my constituency just before Christmas. There was a major chemical breakdown in Halewood, which is in the metropolitan borough of Knowsley. Unusually, the wind was blowing from the east, so the spill out blew towards the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). Had the wind blown from the west—as it does usually—it would have gone over my villages of Hale and Halewood, over the river to western point and perhaps even further afield. Neither Halton council nor Cheshire council was notified under the emergency procedures. Hospitals and ambulances were not alerted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, that is the purpose of joint boards. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill is rightly pursuing the incident on behalf of his constituents, but he cannot discover who is responsible. That will happen again unless it is carefully dealt with in the Bill.
59 County councils are pretty cost-effective bodies. There are about 28,000 employees per county council, yet only six out of 100 are in central administration. No other tier of local government can make such a claim. No county council invested in BCCI; county councils are prudent bodies. Europe is now used to dealing with county councils, but I cannot see it dealing with joint boards. Such a concept is unknown to Europeans.
I plead with the Government to instruct the commission carefully to consider the ancient tier of county government. If it did not exist, I am sure that it would be necessary to invent it. If it is abolished, another local government review will quickly reinstate it.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)
I am pleased to speak in the debate. I have great regard for the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) and his knowledge of local government, but I think that as vice president of the Association of County Councils he has received its brief and decided to speak on its behalf. That is not the purpose of the debate. We should consider the Bill impartially, but I understand his strong feelings.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he had never received any complaints about refuse collection. When I am in London, I live in Lambeth. I am on the board of directors of my block of flats—an unpaid job—which asked me to contact Lambeth borough council about the street refuse. I wrote to its chief executive. I said that perhaps it had become too difficult and that the council had decided not to collect refuse any more, because the streets are filthy and the collection service is appalling. One cannot say that there are no problems with refuse anywhere. Of course, standards vary and they may be good in Halton—they are not that bad in Reading—but the services should be put out to contract wherever possible.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I also live in Lambeth, in a block of flats inhabited by many other hon. Members, including some Tories. I also belong to the management committee which consists of residents. We have never had any problems with refuse collection in my block of flats, so it is highly misleading, to say the least, to suggest that Lambeth in general has massive problems. The experience described by the hon. Gentleman is not so widespread.
§ Sir Anthony Durant
I shall invite the hon. Lady for a cup of tea and to look around my block of flats. I shall then look around hers and we can settle the argument in that way.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes
I live in the same block of flats as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe). It is interesting that she talks about rubbish collection but forgets the street cleaning, which is disgraceful. The streets are absolutely filthy—and that is Lambeth's direct services.
§ Sir Anthony Durant
I must get back to my speech because we seem to have begun a dialogue about Lambeth's streets and refuse. However, they provide a good example of the necessity to contract out.
60 I am delighted with part I of the Bill and what are called performance checks which are essential. The electorate knows too little about how their services are managed and whether they are cost-effective. The more that can be revealed the better. Were it not for their lack of knowledge, people would express views about what is going on.
My local council spends wildly. I must not mention the subject of bollards. The last time I did so, I swore in the House and Mr. Speaker—rightly—rebuked me. He said that it had gone too far even for Reading. The mayor had to write to Mr. Speaker saying that Reading was not so bad. Nevertheless, Reading council has spent vast sums on bollards costing £100 each and they have been put everywhere. The council has spent all the reserves that the Tories had before it took control. It has not collected the rents and is far behind in collecting the community charge. It is a Labour council. We need the Audit Commission to check what each local authority does, and that is why I welcome part I of the Bill.
Competitive tendering is essential. I said that refuse collection was not too bad in Reading, and the reason is that it has been put out to competitive tender. The dustmen made a bid and reduced their costs by about 50 per cent., so they cannot have been running the service very efficiently. Clearly, competitive tendering works and we must do more to encourage it.
I wish to spend most of my time on part II of the Bill, which deals with the necessary setting up of the local government commission. The electorate is confused about who does what. When one knocks on doors, one finds that people do not know what Berkshire county council does as opposed to what Reading does. That is understandable. It is not the electorate's fault that it does not know who does what. That is one of the weaknesses of a two-tier system. It is essential to create unitary authorities, and that is the right way to proceed. I look forward to its happening.
I regret the loss of the county boroughs. It was a good system of local government. Reading was a county borough—
§ Mr. Enright
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the principal reasons why the Conservative Government reformed local government in 1972 was the inefficiencies of the county boroughs? It was the county boroughs which were destroyed by the Tory legislation in 1972.
§ Sir Anthony Durant
I was not here, so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question, but I know about the county borough system in Reading. I can speak only as I find locally and. as I said, the system worked extremely well and was popular there. I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I accept that he has his own view.
There is a fear, especially among those representing county councils, about education. I was a district councillor on Woking urban district council, as it was then. We were an excepted district under the education system and we managed 26 schools, and did so, I believe, reasonably competently. We appointed the heads and the rest of the staff and we considered their budgeting. I think that we ran a good system. Therefore, I do not think that there is any handicap in setting up a unitary authority at the lowest level which could also run education. We have now increased local management of schools and many schools are opting out, so why should not we let the local 61 district run education at a unitary level? There is nothing wrong with smaller units. That is one of the arguments that the counties use with which I do not necessarily agree.
On the local government commission, I agree that we should not merely draw a lot of lines on a map, which is what happened the last time. I was on the receiving end of that reorganisation as I was on the district council and was chairman of the committee which was supposed to carry out the reorganisation. It was a confused period. I do not foster the previous idea of drawing lines on a map and putting chunks here and there. It must grow like Topsy—the commission must consider the issues in their broadest sense and must make recommendations.
However, we must urgently consider our historic cities. They are part of our national heritage and it was perhaps a mistake to take local government responsibility away from them. They have civic traditions, community interests and civic pride and a unitary state that could be well run. As hon. Members may know, such historic cities are waging a campaign, and I should like to foster that idea. Their philosophy is right—they are trying to re-establish themselves. They demand that we proceed with that idea before some others, but that is a matter for discussion.
The Secretary of State is on record as saying that size should not be the be-all and end-all; it should be possible to have small and large units. As has been stated, we can buy in the services. We must consider the issues more broadly. We must consider the region as a whole to determine how things fit in and take account of local demand, of what local people want. They want to be associated with the area that governs them. If they are citizens of Reading, they want to be part of Reading and to know that Reading town rules them. Whether Reading is good, bad or indifferent is not the point. They want to feel that it is their town and they want to be governed by it, not necessarily by a county.
As several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), have said, uncertainty will be a problem. There will be uncertainty, so we must get on with the job as fast as possible. In cases where everyone agrees on a tidy change, there is no harm in getting on. I do not agree with the Opposition that it will be chaotic if one thing is done and one thing is not. There is no problem with that. Why should not it be done one piece at a time?
There is no doubt that each level will fight for its existence. I agree with the Secretary of State, who condemned the expenditure of counties and districts in fighting their corner. That is a complete waste of money. The commission will be independent and will make its own judgment. It will not be influenced by a public relations company producing a smart glossy brochure. That must be stopped as a matter of urgency. My advice is, "Let's get on with it."
I strongly support the Bill and want to see implemented the changes that it proposes so that we can get people closer to the local government that they want.
§ Mr. David Bellotti (Eastbourne)
After almost 13 years in government and after the horrors of the 1974 reorganisation which most of us can remember, it is right 62 that the Government should now introduce these proposals. I warmly welcome them, especially those in part II of the Bill.
I hope that the Government will seek cross-party consensus in favour of people in local communities. If the Government take that as their trust, it will gather momentum and the reforms could work. We all know that in 1974 the reforms did not work.
My party's contribution on this occasion is set against the background of its either being in control or sharing control of about one quarter of local authorities. After six years on a town council, 12 years on a district council and 11 years on a county council, I feel that my 15 years' service—29 years' service in all—may put me in the unique position of not taking sides, but of being able to see the way forward constructively.
Although welcome, the local government changes must above all be seen to be fair across the country. The Secretary of State proposes that the local government commission should go to certain areas first and that those areas should gather some confidence and momentum, which is not only sensible, but will be welcome. When the Secretary of State appoints the other members of the local government commission, it would be wise for him to consider some cross-party recognition of the role of the parties in local government and the role of people outside politics who could bring their expertise to bear. In that way, some confidence could exist even before the commission arrives in a particular area.
It was also wise for the commission to be called a "local government commission" and for the Government to abolish the Boundary Commission at the beginning. The only clear point from the 1974 organisation was that it was false, as the hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) suggested, to begin with the idea of having a map and drawing boundaries. Nothing could be more preposterous. We should look at the local community, decide on the services that need to be delivered and then find areas that will enable those services to be delivered properly and responsively.
Part II also refers to the Audit Commission and to the need for "economy, efficiency and effectiveness". I hope that we shall also identify as a separate aim the point that we should be concerned about the delivery of quality in local services. It is all very well to consider the price, but it is even more important to discover what the quality of a given service is in a particular area.
The point made by the Secretary of State about comparisons of one authority with another were not helpful. We must study each local authority and decide what the challenges are for the councillors, of whichever party, in delivering a particular service in their authority. In one area, there may be many children who have English as a second language, so clearly the cost of delivering education there will be far greater than the cost of delivering education in another authority where there are few pupils who have English as a second language. If that factor is not taken into account and if we take into account only global spending allied to the number of schoolchildren in a local authority, we could come to some very false conclusions.
The same point applies to the collection of refuse, to which other hon. Members have referred. In my 12 years on Lewes district council, I received massive correspondence and many complaints about local services, but not once did I receive a complaint about local refuse services. 63 Other hon. Members have said that they did not receive complaints about local refuse services while they served in local government. In other areas, hon. Members will have received a massive number of complaints. The only conclusion to be drawn is that each local authority will be different and that we must examine the nature of each one before making comparisons.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I, too, spent 11 years on a district council and I also had almost no complaints about the quality of the refuse service. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not only cost but quality that matters, even if there are no complaints? Surely he understands that there can be a huge waste of money which the public do not easily see and so do not complain about. My own local authority never had complaints about quality, but when tendering was introduced, massive savings were introduced although the quality stayed marvellously high.
§ Mr. Bellotti
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, although it is not sufficiently all-embracing. There is a question of cost and a question of quality. The two factors put together produce the service that local people deserve. In the local authorities on which I served, we were extremely mindful of the cost of delivering the services, but not to the exclusion of the quality of service delivered. Anyone can deliver a service of sorts very cheaply, but to deliver a service of the necessary quality is an extra challenge to the hon. Gentleman's point.
As we look towards the implementation of the proposals, it is important for us to bear in mind the question of timing. I and my party were concerned that the first information on the local government commission seemed to suggest that the implementation could take a long time. I encourage the Secretary of State to consider the point that a shorter period for implementation would be desirable, because the implementation period may otherwise lead to considerable difficulties. Senior staff in local authorities will see new posts being advertised in other authorities and may, quite properly, apply for them, leaving some local authorities in a void because they do not know whether their life will be continued. A shorter period should be the aim of the Secretary of State.
Another question is the continuity of services during the transition period. It is important that local authorities do not pass responsibility to new authorities which then do not take on those services with the continuity that is needed. The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) mentioned joint authorities. I assume that the Secretary of State was by and large saying in the Bill that such authorities would be the exception rather than the rule. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State could confirm that tonight, because there is a great fear about joint authorities. There is no real problem about police authorities, which have been mentioned, because there are many joint authorities for the police already.
There is no need for joint authorities for service delivery in education and in social services. They are not necessary and it would be helpful if the Secretary of State would confirm that they will not be the normal mode of delivery for education and social services. They could be undemocratic and unaccountable, and they could become very bureaucratic.
64 If a county council finds that it is to be abolished, what will happen to structure planning? That is probably the only function of the existing county councils which deserves some more detailed thought and we may have an opportunity to explore that point in Committee. The Secretary of State has an opportunity between now and then to consider whether structure planning might be an ideal function of a regional tier of government. Structure planning, involving ports, airports, motorways, the countryside, areas of outstanding natural beauty and especially our national parks, would be important if dealt with at regional level. If we had regional government, the case for a government for London should be made at that time.
As a former chair of education in East Sussex—the hon. Member for Reading, West referred to education—I know that it is alarming for a councillor to have to consider visiting 240 primary schools, 39 secondary schools and six colleges. I find it hard to believe that any councillor could keep in touch with such a large section of service delivery. During my time of service, I visited about one quarter of those establishments and the knowledge that I gained was useful but certainly not sufficient for me to oversee such a responsibility.
The right hon. Member for Halton, referring to a brief from the Association of County Councils, spoke of the need to have joint committees if education authorities were smaller. That seems unnecessary and inappropriate. I should have thought that a population base of about 60,000 plus was more than enough for a tier education authority, because the main point is to have a post-16 option in each area. The Government's proposals for colleges—some of which we welcome—make it less likely that a tier of 60,000 could not work. I am sure that it could. The Secretary of State should make it fairly clear that that could be an option if the local government commission arrived at that conclusion and if it was supported by local people. That would do a great deal to reassure people that they would not be put into very large structures.
The Association of District Councils, under the former chairman, Mr. Thomason, and the Association of County Councils, presently chaired by Mr. John Chatfield, have not been extremely helpful to our debates as they have obviously lobbied from vested interests. Having served on both district and county councils, I understand their thinking, but I call on both those associations to put their vested interests to one side during this process. We want to achieve the best structure that we can. I have no doubt that in East Sussex, for which I speak, people living in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings would love the opportunity to put forward proposals for unitary authorities for those districts. I have confidence that they would succeed in doing so if permitted.
I invite the Secretary of State to come to East Sussex in the near future; I am sure that both he and representatives of the local government commission would receive a warm welcome. I also ask the Secretary of State to consider inviting representatives of the local government commission to go to the Isle of Wight soon. I understand that all the political parties and virtually everyone on the Isle of Wight would like one tier of local government on the island. There is currently one county council and two district councils, so the island would make an ideal starting point for the local government commission, which would receive great support.
65 The Secretary of State said that he—I am paraphrasing—deprecated organisations that spend substantial amounts of charge payers' money on public relations campaigns to preserve themselves. I was pleased to hear that and am sure that he will join me in condemning East Sussex county council for unnecessarily spending £6,000 to join a consortium of county councils in the south-east of England with the sole aim of putting forward proposals to keep the county councils of Kent, Surrey, East Sussex, West Sussex, Hampshire and others. Oddly enough, the consortium did not invite the Isle of Wight to join it—the only county council in that region not controlled by the Conservatives. That gross misuse of charge payers' money deserves investigation and I hope that the Secretary of State will consider commissioning one.
I also hope that the Secretary of State will join me in confirming to communities across England that he has no intention of forcing anyone into a local identity in the form of local government if they do not want it. Clearly, we must decide how to proceed if communities cannot agree, but the present structure of boroughs and districts forms a possible way forward.
If a district or borough wishes to join with another, the proposals must include that as an option. It is an essential principle—one in which I hope the Secretary of State believes—that if parts of districts and boroughs wish to stay as they are, they should not be moved against their will. I have previously raised that matter with the Secretary of State. Although I believe firmly in that principle, it is of no help to me in my constituency when the local Conservative party distributes newsletters claiming that I believe the exact opposite. I now have an opportunity to place on record yet again that I do not believe that parishes and communities should be placed within structures of local government against their will. I believe that the Secretary of State shares my view and confirmation on that would be extremely helpful.
§ Mr. Martlew
Is the hon. Gentleman advocating local referendums to decide the boundaries of boroughs?
§ Mr. Bellotti
In the small number of cases where there is a clear division of opinion, a local referendum would be extremely helpful as it would be one way to make absolutely sure that the community backed the proposals. I support the idea of local referendums where appropriate. Where the bulk of the local community agrees on what they would like—I believe that there is consensus in Reading, Southend, Bristol, Brighton and Eastbourne—progress could be made without the need for referendums.
The plans to change the structure of local government desperately need all-party consensus if they are to be implemented. I hope that my comments will encourage the Government, because the future of the services that local people so rightly need and desperately want are far too important for us to play party politics with them.
Part I of the Bill refers to the citizens charter. I think that everyone will support—Labour party spokesmen have already done so today—the publication of information on the performance of local authorities. I hope that when we publish league tables and information we shall ensure that true comparisons are made. I also hope that we shall develop that proposal and give people meaningful information. Most of the work that the Audit Commission has produced is really only intelligible to those who understand local government. Many people will 66 not necessarily understand many of the Audit Commission's reports and much of the information sent to local government. In Committee the Government might address the issue of how to communicate to local people the level of services delivered, which is much more important than the cost, and whether the services are working.
I welcome the emphasis that the Government place on parish councils. If there were unitary authorities across England, with active parish and community councils, that would be almost ideal. Active parish councils at grassroots level could bring forward proposals and run some of the services. I do not see why they should not be in charge of some of the leisure and recreational services as well as the village halls and community centres that so many of them have pump primed and some of them run. That proposal would also provide a much more active understanding of how a unitary tier would work.
It is important that we encourage competitive tendering in local government, but if we make it compulsory we shall be going one step too far. There are many examples where compulsory competitive tendering has resulted in higher costs than those formerly charged by direct labour organisations. The report from Strathclyde clearly shows that a range of services provided through compulsory competitive tendering arrangements does not meet the necessary quality levels.
The Bill provides an opportunity to help local government serve the community in the years ahead. I hope that we shall be able to achieve consensus. The Bill has many factors which the Liberal Democrats, from their experience in local government, want to change. However, the local government commission is so important that I hope that if the Government are prepared to compromise, other parties will put their differences to one side. Ultimately, local communities and the services that they deliver are the most important aspects to consider.
§ Mr. Michael Alison (Selby
The verdict of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) seems to be that the Bill is good in parts. We should be grateful for small mercies and the modest approbation given to the Bill. The hon. Gentleman mentioned East Sussex county council, and I gained the impression that the town of Eastbourne was casting hungry eyes at the possibility of the takeover or demise of the county leading to the town moving into a larger single unitary authority.
I wish to carry forward the theme of the place of counties in the future structure, but to move from the scale of an ant—East Sussex county council—to the size of an elephant—my own county of north Yorkshire which is, I believe, the largest in the country. I shall consider the future of north Yorkshire against the background of two important guidelines that I believe have been placed before the House. The first is the Government's indication in their draft guidance to the local government commission that they wish local government in principle—and as a preferred option—to move in the direction of unitary authorities broadly as the norm. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier that "no change" would be an appropriate solution or option in certain areas and in certain circumstances.
I want to make some observations about the implications of those two distinctive guidelines for my 67 shire county of north Yorkshire. First—and I mention this only to dismiss it and eliminate it as a serious option—there is no case, in my view, for turning the existing North Yorkshire county council into the single unitary authority for the huge geographical area which constitutes north Yorkshire. That is an area of more than 830,000 hectares which extends virtually from the outskirts of Leeds in the south to virtually the outskirts of Darlington and Teesside some 80 or 90 miles up the Great North road in the north. It stretches from the western Pennines on one side to the North sea on the east. That is too big an area for a single county authority to become the unitary authority for the area.
In its public statements, North Yorkshire county council gives a nod in the direction of the proposition that it should become the unitary authority for that huge county. However, it does that I believe only as the ultimate fallback alternative to the possibility of its total demise as an authority.
I want to put before my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities the proposition that the north Yorkshire county area might be one of the areas where no change—or at least no absolute change—might be the proper option for the local government commission to consider. I advocate that option because if the county area of north Yorkshire is too big for a single unitary authority, its very size paradoxically involves the deployment of certain services, above all, police, fire, highways and coastal protection and also perhaps some strategic planning functions, which must be organised in an integrated and cohesive fashion if they are to be efficiently organised and deployed over an extended area. For those reasons, they are probably best deployed under a single eye from a single vantage point or base.
Those services could be administered by a consortium of smaller unitary authorities, based on the existing districts, under the so-called joint arrangement or agency facilities. However, if such agency or joint arrangement provisions are to be necessary for certain services in north Yorkshire, a strong case can be made for the retention of North Yorkshire county council precisely for the oversight of the long-distance and strategic services to which I have referred.
I do not believe that the case for retaining North Yorkshire county council rests only or principally on the argument for retaining the education and social service functions at Northallerton. I am agnostic as to where those services might be best located in future in north Yorkshire. They could be devolved to geographically smaller unitary authorities based upon the existing districts, such as Selby district council which is an efficient authority with a commendably human interface and local responsiveness.
I make that point about the potential for placing education and social services with the smaller districts if they were to become unitary authorities, simply because so much devolution and dispersion to local levels is nowadays inherent in the modern approach to running schools and to enhancing the local community dimensions of social services.
However, whether or not North Yorkshire county council should retain education and social services under a retained, two-tier structure, I must place on record the view that the very fact that one can argue cheerfully and 68 with conviction that North Yorkshire county council should survive in some form into the new era is a powerful testimonial to the calibre of the elected representatives and to the outstanding quality of the local government officers who serve the public from Northallerton under the politically moderate but dedicated and conscientious leadership of John Clout, the leader of North Yorkshire county council.
John Clout leads a good and efficient team and its dissolution would be a loss for local government. I want to place on record how greatly indebted I am for the prompt, courteous and efficient responses that I receive regularly from the county chief executive, Mr. Leyland; the county surveyor, Mr. Moore; the county education officer, Mr. Evans; the county's director of social services, Mr. Ransford, and the other officers of the authority, to the many approaches that I have had to make to them on behalf of my constituents. It is the service which my constituents receive from the county council——
§ Mr. Alison
Indeed, a great many lunches would have to be deployed if all the satisfied customers were to be given lunch by the county council.
It is in response to the services that my constituents and I receive with such great efficiency from the county council in Northallerton that I advocate the "no absolute change" option which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned this afternoon and which my hon. Friend the Minister will understand. He has repeatedly been kind enough to receive representatives of the county council and discuss some of their peculiar difficulties, such as clearing snow and ice from the extensive roads in the county, and other problems facing the council, to which he has so courteously and helpfully responded after the deputations from my right hon. and hon. Friends and I with John Clout and others.
I hope that the "no absolute change" option will be considered seriously for north Yorkshire against the background of the earlier remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
§ Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)
This is proving to be a fascinating debate not only because of its subject, but because we have learnt a new adage from the Government Benches—I paraphrase: "My authority is wonderful, so please leave it intact because it is Tory-controlled, but look at all those wicked Labour authorities elsewhere with which we must deal." In some respects, it is depressing that such a vital part of democracy in a modern thriving country should be so derided and undervalued by Conservative Members.
I want to defend the principle of local government. The principles of local democracy and accountability should be enhanced. Our local authorities comprise officers, professionals and workers who, on the whole, are dedicated people. They are dedicated to the principle of local government. They include teachers, housing workers and social workers who try daily to deliver services that millions of people depend on.
It is a shame that some local authorities have been wrongly accused of self interest in the discussion of local 69 government reorganisation. Local authorities are attempting genuinely to participate in the debate on local government reorganisation. In Bristol, we have a two-tier authority. We have Bristol city council, which is for the district, and we have Avon county council. Reference was made to whether we would toast Lancaster. I suppose that we in Avon would toast a cosmetics company. I am not quite sure how people identify with the county. The county council has discussed the matter with all the district authorities that make up the county. They have jointly commissioned two universities to examine local government reorganisation and to consider how best to continue delivering the services that local people decide that they want from local government in action. It simply is not true that local authorities are motivated by self interest.
Conservative Members should not be surprised that we do not take seriously their commitment to consultation. We do not believe them when they tell us that they are committed to the principles of accountability and democracy. The reason is that they abolished a level of local authority. I did not see them consult anybody when they got rid of metropolitan authorities or the Greater London council. I do not remember extensive consultation on how fundamentally to change the method of local authority finance when they introduced the poll tax. Lo and behold, as we approach yet another pre-election period—it is difficult to know how many more there will be before election day—the Government claim to be interested in service delivery.
Local authorities in Bristol employ about 41,000 people. They deliver services to hundreds of thousands of people in the county of Avon. They approach with fear and trepidation the instability and insecurity of another chaotic, badly thought out reorganisation of local government. Such an environment is the hallmark of the Government's approach to local authorities. There will be chaos and destruction, not the enshrining of democracy and accountability. The Government, in restructuring local government, have missed an opportunity to provide certainty about the future of local government because of the way in which they have set up the reform process.
I wish to widen the debate to see whether we have a common view of local democracy and accountability. In the mid-1960s, the Labour Government set up a royal commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Redcliffe-Maud, to examine local government in England. The commission considered that local government wasnot to be seen merely as a provider of services.It said:The importanceand thereby the purposeof local government lies in the fact that it is the means by which people can provide services for themselves; can take an active and constructive part in the business of government; and can decide for themselves, within the limits of what national policies and local resources allow, what kind of services they want and what kind of environment they prefer.That is exactly the principle that the Government are trying to avoid in setting up the commission for local government reform. The matter is to be finance-led, with all the simplistic answers and the lack of reality that are involved. The Government present artificial debates as though some hon. Members who would gaily burn £20 notes and waste local money rather than spend it on delivering the valued services that people desperately need.
More recently, Professor John Stewart has been exploring a new basis for local government which 70 embraces the ideas of Redcliffe-Maud. Instead of the term "local government", he prefers to use the term "community government". Either way, we know what we mean—local democracy. He says:The concept of community government or local government is built on three crucial ideas—an enabling authority.He describes that as one that adopts management structures and processes, that focuses both on community concerns and problems and also on the means of meeting those concerns and problems. This will involve direct service provision, but it will also require the ability to work with other agencies. As authorities adopt a wider role, they have to abandon the assumption that they are a self-sufficient authority—all-knowing, all-seeing, all-doing. That is what the Government assume. They think that they know what everybody thinks, what everybody wants, and exactly how they would want something done in the first place. We must move away from that attitude.
Professor Stewart describes new ways in which local authorities could work with the voluntary sector, with the private sector, and with joint ventures. That is part of our discussion. Professor Stewart talks about a responsible authority seeking to provide services not to the public but for the public, and with the public. That is a different concept of local democracy from the one that is advocated by Conservative Members. In plain language, a responsible authority tries to find out what people actually want and attempts to meet their needs.
Before we hear cries of derision from Conservative Members about current local authority practice, no one is advocating that everthing in local authorities is perfect. Councillors and officers know that, and they are struggling with limited resources, instability and insecurity to try to meet their objectives.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I know Professor Stewart well, and I have great respect for him. Does the hon. Lady accept that his point, and my point, that needs extend beyond local government services is a key to the issues that we are debating? People need their dustbins emptied, and they need grocery shops, doctors, schools, fire brigades and solicitors. Needs go much further than the argument that the hon. Lady is deploying. Sensible local government and the Conservative Government are concerned about the needs of all people, not just the services that local government provides.
§ Ms. Primarolo
I tried to indicate that local authorities should have power to co-operate beyond their boundaries and not assume that they are totally self-sufficient. I do not subscribe to the view that we should regard local authorities as public utilities from which people demand exactly what they want. What is missing from the debate that the Government have engendered is the idea that participation in a democracy also requires responsibilities in the provision of services. We are talking about much more than ringing up and demanding that our dustbins are emptied. The debate is about participating in the decisions that are made in the area in which one lives.
Better local government means improving access to services and learning from the public, which is something that Governments find difficult if not nigh on impossible sometimes. It means listening to people and communicating with them about both the services and the standards that they demand. It means extending choice and involving people in decision-making. It means working with people 71 to provide responsive services. If Conservative Members think that such things are not already happening in local authorities, then, as the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) said about schools, I can say only that they cannot have paid much attention to or visited many local authorities. We need responsive authorities that are accountable to the communities that they represent.
We need to look at the very structure of local government and at why so many women are excluded from participating in it. We need to discover ways of devolving decision-making to ensure that more women can become representatives and locally elected councillors and get involved in the wider debate about local democracy.
§ Sir Anthony Durant
I have been listening closely to the hon. Lady and agree with much of what she has said, but she has not said whether she favours retaining Avon or wants to get rid of it. She said that "Avon calling" is the only toast that she can think of, so would she prefer Bristol to be the most important authority? I should be interested to know her view.
§ Ms. Primarolo
I have already said that I favour a unitary authority. I have been trying to say that, before we decide a structure, we must know what we expect that structure to do and how we expect it to meet the hopes and aspirations of the people whom it seeks to represent and who have expressed their views. However, none of that has been taken on board in the criteria that have been set for the commission. The crucial issue of fiscal control in a local authority also determines whether the services that that authority wants to deliver can be delivered.
I should like to demonstrate the sort of things that are happening now in local authorities. As a former councillor, I know that many local authorities have what are called "performance review committees". The Government seem to think that they are the only ones who think about performance and review, but Bristol city council has a core strategy for its performance review committee, which is a sub-committee of its policy and resources committee. It has called the objectives that it seeks to achieve the "six Es for good local government". They are economy, efficiency, effectiveness, equity, empowerment and environment. The council talks about making sure that the community has a representative voice to speak for Bristol and the interests of its people. It talks about encouraging and expanding democracy in Bristol by maximising participation in public life and extending community empowerment. Its objectives refer to accessibility, communication and research into identifying needs. It talks about how to maximise the use of council resources and about how to employ external resources in co-operation. It refers to providing high-quality services and facilities where resources are available. It strives to eliminate disadvantage, discrimination and deprivation. Bristol city council also talks about a corporate management style and about behaving as a model employer.
As we enter a period of local government reorganisation and review with the establishment of the commission, we should be laying down clearly exactly what we believe local government should be about. We must decide 72 whether it should be simply an outpost of central Government, doing whatever it is told, or an integral and important part of local democracy.
Local government is about services. It should not be used as a basis for ad hoc competition—which is what the Government have sought—because that simply enhances and entrenches inequalities; it does not eradicate them. Local government should reflect local needs. It should be about ensuring that people control their lives.
It is interesting to note that the Government would not extend these proposals to British Gas, British Telecom, the electricity companies, the water industry, the Bank of England, the judiciary or even Government Departments. Imagine if they were subjected to the constraints now facing local councillors in terms of their financial duties and the Government's ability to surcharge them.
The Government are about destroying local government and local democracy and replacing it with pathetic charters that promise everything but guarantee nothing, while isolating people from power and ensuring that they cannot participate in the decisions that govern their lives.
We are facing a golden opportunity that should not be missed. The commission should be given a wider brief to state clearly what is meant by local democracy, how people can be encouraged to participate in it, and how local government can discharge its duties locally.
§ 7.6 pm
§ Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)
I shall concentrate my brief remarks on part II. We are a conservative nation, with the word "conservative" spelt, I hope, with a capital "c," but certainly with a small "c": we do not like change. That is certainly true of people in the north-west where the local government changes of 1974 were, and to a large extent still are, resented by many people. The move from small urban authorities to large authorities was generally not welcomed. It was accepted only because the new authorities that were eventually established could have been even larger.
Hyndburn, for example, is made up of the former urban districts of Oswaldtwistle, Clayton-le-Moors, Rishton, Great Harwood, the parish council of Altham, and of Accrington non-county borough. Despite the fact that the people of those districts had much in common and that, with the exception of Great Harwood, they comprised a parliamentary constituency, there were many misgivings about the changes. It has taken 17 years of dedicated hard work, not least by the mayors of the new borough, to make Hyndburn acceptable to the majority of its residents. Even now, however, a sizeable minority still yearn for the pre-1974 days. The changes that are now being considered are, therefore, a matter of concern and interest to them.
In all their local government reforms, the Government have always placed much emphasis on accountability. I believe that accountability is greatest when the unit of local government is closest to the people and when people are represented by someone they know, someone whom they see around as they go about their daily lives, someone who lives among them and who knows the area. That is why I support the abolition of the county councils.
If asked, the majority of people would be unable to name their county councillors. They rarely see them and there is little coverage of their activities in the local press. Indeed, press coverage of the activities of the county councils, which account for 88 per cent. of local 73 government expenditure, is sparse. It could almost be said that the publicity that is given to district and to county council matters in the press is in inverse proportion to the amount of money that the two types of authority spend. Consequently, at county council elections, people do not vote according to the achievements or otherwise of that council but use the occasion to pass judgment on the Government of the day. If local government is to be accountable, it must be local.
When the latest proposals to change local government were announced, I was concerned that we might see an unseemly scrabble, with existing districts seeking to extend their boundaries, especially in east Lancashire, with Blackburn wanting to take over Hyndburn or at least part of it, and with Burnley looking covetously at Pendle. That has not happened. Existing districts throughout Lancashire have acted responsibly and have considered the options open to them seriously and in detail.
Along with the hon. Members for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Carr), and my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Lee) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), I recently met the leaders and chief executives of the six district councils of east Lancashire. They told us that all the 14 district councils of Lancashire were committed to becoming unitary authorities on their existing boundaries. I and my colleagues were happy to give our support to that case because we are acutely aware of the sense of community that the districts represent.
In my constituency of Hyndburn the council carried out a survey in which all electors were asked questions about what they wanted from local government in the future. The outcome was a ringing declaration of support for the council's case which, needless to say, has all-party support. Let me give some idea of how local people feel. When asked whether a single council providing all services would be more or less responsive to their needs, 60 per cent. said that it would be more responsive. When asked whether that single council should be at county or district level, 71 per cent. preferred the district. When asked whether the local authority should remain at its present size, 72 per cent. said yes and only 12 per cent. opted for a larger council.
The survey also consulted all companies in Hyndburn which employ 20 or more people. Of those, 84 per cent. wanted a unitary authority and 87 per cent. wanted the authority to be based on the district, not the county. In addition, a meeting of religious leaders of Christian denominations and the Muslim community from the whole constituency voted unanimously that Hyndburn was the right size for the unitary authority. I regard that as significant, because clearly those people had no political axe to grind.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities has emphasised that the aim of the Bill is to ensure that the new structure of local government reflects the identities and interests of local communities. As a life-long resident of east Lancashire, I know how strong are the ties that bind local people together. We are fiercely proud of our history, our civic traditions and the contribution that we have made to the nation's well-being, first through the cotton industry and, more recently, through the multitude of new businesses that have grown up since cotton's demise.
I am pleased that the Government have made it clear that any change must be worthwhile and must not be made merely for the sake of it. I was pleased to hear my right 74 hon. Friend the Secretary of State say today that local opinions would be listened to, for it would be disastrous if the Government and the commission thought that they could draw neat circles on the map and lump two or three existing districts together for administrative convenience. Lancashire people are not prepared to be pawns in someone else's game. Only they know what is good for them. The poll that I quoted showed clearly what the majority of people want. They want to be rid of a high-spending county council, and they want unitary authorities based on existing districts.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
It saddens me to have to speak in the debate. We are discussing the Bill because the Government got it wrong again on local government. They did so on the poll tax and quickly changed their minds. On this matter, it has taken them 20 years to change their minds. The trouble is that they have not told us what they want to do. They have told us that they got it wrong in 1972, but not what we can have. We could have unitary authorities based on the district or the county, or a two-tier system. One could have any one of three there. It does not make any sense.
In response to my intervention, the Secretary of State blamed the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979 for not changing the structure. What a cheek! What would have happened if, in 1974, soon after the reorganisation, we had reorganised again? We had to let the system settle down. We had to suck it and see. By the end of the term of office of the Labour Government, we had decided that the system needed to be changed. Then the Conservative Government came to power and did nothing about it. They left us for almost two decades with a mess.
I feel sorry for councillors of all political persuasions, who have been struggling on since 1974 with a system that does not work. It was introduced by the Conservatives, despite Labour Members telling the Government that it would not work. Since I entered the House in 1977 I have been shocked at the way in which the Conservatives denigrate local councillors. It is an absolute disgrace. Often they denigrate councillors of their own political persuasion. There is an arrogance about the Conservatives. They think that they know what is right and what will happen. I suspect that if we read the fine print of the Bill we would find somewhere a provision to enable the Secretary of State for the Environment to appoint the mayor of Carlisle. That is how extreme the Conservatives are in destroying local democracy. They do not give a fig about what councillors think.
It is important for a political party to control the local council which can stand up to the national Government. We need checks and balances. If the Conservatives are in power, the only way to check their abuse of power is to have Labour councils. That is why the Conservatives have tried to shackle Labour councils over the years.
There is some anxiety that we do not know when the local government reorganisation will happen. Will the commission start in Cornwall and work up to Cumbria, or start in Cumbria and work down to the Isle of Wight and Southend? We are not told. We are told that the reorganisation will not be uniform and will not take place on one date, such as 1 April 1994. It is a timetable for chaos.
75 The Government's proposals will be a fiasco if the Government have the opportunity to implement them. At any one time some councils will be getting ready to change, others will already have changed and others will not know what is to happen to them. How will it be possible to appoint officers to those councils? Will the best officers settle for an authority of which the structure is already settled? Will they wait in an area which may no longer exist? How will it be possible to hold local elections in such areas? We need annual elections, but will councillors wait about to see whether their authority will be dissolved? It will not work.
Many Conservative Members have spoken about their experience in local government, so I suppose that I might also parade my campaign medals. I served on a county borough for two years before it was abolished. I served until 1988 on a county council and for two years had the pleasure to be the chairman of that council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes)—his constituency is basically Widnes, with bits added on—said that people born in Cumbria were proud to be called Cumbrians. That is all right if one comes from Cumberland, but not if one comes from Westmorland or the furthest parts of Lancashire. Down there we are still proud to be called Lancastrians. It would be nonsensical to give any serious thought to unitary authorities based on counties the size of Cumbria.
We have heard a great deal about whether education or social services could be administered by district authorities. It would depend on the size of the authority. No one has suggested for one moment that housing could be run by a county council. We all see housing as a service which must be near the people. That would be difficult to achieve in a large county council.
The Government appear to be giving the nod to unitary authorities. I said that it would be a fiasco if all the councils did not change on a certain date. I hope that if the Government look to unitary authorities to set the lead they will consider the historic cities which have perhaps 800 years history of looking after themselves and controlling the way in which they develop. In two decades that tradition and that expertise have not been lost. I am sure that the councils of the historic cities could very quickly become all-purpose authorities. I come from the historic city of Carlisle, which has had a royal charter for 800 years. I hope that if it is decided to go for unitary authorities in my area that fact will be taken into account.
Here again, we are talking about compulsory competitive tendering. This is an aspect of the Bill that concerns me deeply. In my maiden speech in the House in 1987 I said that one would find it easy to save money if one were to cut wages and holiday entitlement, get rid of entitlement to sick pay and do away with pension provision. That is not a measure of efficiency, although perhaps it is a measure of meanness which will be easily recognised by Conservative Members, who do not care what price the workers have to pay so long as the poll tax payers or ratepayers—or whatever they are—have to pay less. It is not difficult to have that kind of efficiency in services if one is prepared to create a pool of unemployed people willing to take jobs at any wage better than the dole that the current Government provide. That is what this is all about. It is not about efficiency; it is about cutting costs.
76 That is one of the reasons for the Conservatives' strong objection to our plan for a minimum wage. If the minimum wage were set at £3.40 an hour many of the cowboys who are running the services would have to increase the wages that they pay. Thus they would not be able to compete with local authorities and would go out of business. Of course, in many areas that will not happen as the local government structure has been destroyed. In many areas it would be impossible for refuse collection to be carried out by local authorities because all the wagons have been sold off. People will end up paying more to private contractors when those contractors get away with paying low wages.
Under other provisions of the Bill the same thing will be done to white-collar services. I do not understand. No one would run a private business like this. No one would suggest that the personnel function of a multinational company should be tampered with to the extent of 25 per cent., as is proposed in the Bill. [Interruption.] On that point I am prepared to give way to any hon. Member.
§ Mr. Wilshire
Surely the hon. Gentleman has heard of consultants. Firms, large and small, the length and breadth of this country and of every other country bring in experts to deal with specific matters.
§ Mr. Martlew
If the hon. Gentleman is talking about the personnel function let me tell him that I used to be the personnel manager of the largest boot company in the world. I can assure him that that company was very efficient and that it did not farm out its personnel function to private contractors. It knew that if it were to do so it would not get as good a service and that the cost would be twice as high.
Now there is talk of CCT in legal and financial services. Has any hon. Member ever spent a morning talking to a solicitor or an accountant? Any who has will know that a month later, when the bill arrives, it looks as if the discussion lasted a fortnight. The provision of services in this way is by no means cheaper. One could spend the equivalent of a year's poll tax in a morning's consultation with a solicitor.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Last week I spent a morning with Mr. Alex Linkston and Mr. John Spraggon, who are senior officials of West Lothian district council, and with Councillors Graeme Morrice, Jimmy McGinley and Jim Clark. We were dealing partly with precisely the enormously difficult issue of legal services. The people to whom I spoke are concerned about the fact that low tenders received from firms paying lower-than-minimum wages would be absolutely false in the event of the introduction of a minimum wage or a decent wage. This is exactly the point that my hon. Friend is making.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Later perhaps, but we do not have intervention upon intervention.
§ Mr. Martlew
Let me return to the main theme. Privatisation of this kind will not result in a saving of money. We know that professionals such as architects, lawyers and accountants are probably the most expensive people in the world to employ by the hour. Any councillor who has ever been involved in a dispute about a legal 77 ruling will know that the chief executive says that it may be necessary to get an opinion from Queen's counsel and that, in that event, the council has to consider whether a supplementary estimate is necessary to pay the QC's bill. Once the professional essence of local government has been destroyed it will not be recoverable, and the councils will be ripped off by the private sector.
All this is nonsensical. The Secretary of State, referring to our objections to compulsory tendering, said that what we were in favour of amounted to jobs for the boys. If I have ever seen anything that amounts to jobs for the boys this is it. It is jobs for the boys in the Law Society and the Rotary club, and my constituents and their constituents will pay. It has nothing to do with efficiency, but everything to do with the fact that the Conservative Government do not understand local government and, therefore, fear it. The Conservatives are not fit to pass any laws on local government, as is evident to anybody who looks at their record. Let us consider the poll tax, of which the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, who is on the Government Front Bench at present, was a great advocate. That is not mentioned these days, but it is a fact. The right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), who piloted the Local Government Act 1972 through the House, should have had the decency to come here today to hear his own side denigrate that Act. Conservative Members do not understand it, are afraid of it and will try to destroy it.
This Bill has nothing to do with improvement. It will only create confusion and low morale in local government. Having talked to many local government people at the weekend, I know that morale has never been lower. The Government are creating uncertainty. There will be many early retirements, as there were the last time. It will cost the councils a fortune. In addition, the former officers will reappear as consultants earning twice as much as they did previously. Let us vote against the Bill because it fails to provide for democratic local government to take us into the 21st century.
§ Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the introduction of this Bill. I welcome very much the citizens charter and the financial accountability measures contained in part I.
Like several other hon. Members, I want to address my remarks to part II—in particular, clauses 13 and 14, which establish the local government commission and give it power to recommend single-tier authorities in place of the two-tier authorities, having had regard, as is specified in clause 13(5),to the identities and interests of local communities".The intention is to secure effective and convenient local government, rather than, as the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) tried to argue, to destroy local government.
The Bill makes one thing very clear indeed: there is absolutely no intention to indicate a preference for districts over counties or for counties over districts. It seems to me that that is fundamental to the content of the Bill, and people who seek to read some political point into it are barking up the wrong tree.
My right hon. Friend, in his opening remarks, and my noble Friend the Baroness Blatch, in her speech in another place, made it clear that there was a presumption in favour 78 of unitary authorities but that in those places where the arguments appeared to favour the continuation of two authorities that was a perfectly satisfactory solution. In other words, the proposal being put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison)—that in some circumstances there would be no change—is a positive and acceptable decision. I very much support that approach.
The proposals before the House are of particular relevance to a certain group of local authorities. I refer to those cities which formed the historic cities group following the consultative document on the structure of local government published in April 1991. The participating cities are Cambridge, Canterbury, Carlisle—we have heard from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew)—Chester, Exeter, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Worcester, York and the great city that I have the honour to represent, Gloucester. Hon. Members will notice that those cities display a cross-party political complexion and that the hon. Members representing those cities show some variations in their enthusiasm for the Bill's proposals, although, having spoken to all of them, I have gauged that there is broadly a majority in favour of the Bill.
The councils running those authorities have chosen to join the historic cities group because they see much greater opportunity for securing an effective and convenient local government with unitary status than without it. That is the aim of the Bill. Therefore, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) said, it is surprising that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) expressed himself so firmly against the proposals for unitary status. As has been said, he will find that a number of councillors representing the Labour party do not agree with his views.
All those historic cities, with the possible exception of one, had county borough status up to 1974, so they have had extensive experience of running their own affairs. As long ago as 1483, my city of Gloucester received a charter to run its own affairs, and it continued to do so successfully until 1974.
Many other cities may equally make out a strong case for unitary status but were not county boroughs before 1974 and nobody is suggesting that county borough status should be a necessary qualification for a city to achieve unitary status now. It is only that the existence of previous county borough status is likely to result in the criteria that the local government commission will be looking at being more readily, easily and obviously satisfied.
The local government commission will be called upon to consider the identities and interests of local communities—what I would describe as civic and community loyalties. In other words, it will find out to where and to what group the residents living in that area look. It is, dare I say it, the local government equivalent of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) once described—thereby attracting a great deal of criticism—as the cricket test. Where do loyalties lie? If people live and work and have the centre of their lives in a great historic city such as Gloucester, they are more likely to feel that that city will represent, and protect where necessary, their interests. However well meaning and diligent a councillor living in a rural hinterland may be, he cannot hope to understand the wishes of people who live in the city as well as they do themselves. He has chosen to live in the countryside, and that is what he knows about.
79 Historic cities have an intensely and characteristically strong community identity. They are an integral and highly important part of the country's national heritage, with civic traditions stretching back many years. Local people look to the city for local identity and community loyalty. Therefore, it is logical and appropriate that the city to which they look should be responsible for delivering the services that affect their lives.
One factor that welds together their loyalty is historic tradition. When the Bill was debated in the other place, my predecessor, the Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes, argued that historic tradition should be taken into account by the local government commission when it assessed the suitability of an area and of an authority for unitary status. I entirely agree with that argument. Historical tradition means awareness of, adherence to and respect for the long-established customs and practices of a community.
When the local government commission considers the identities and interests of local communities, it could scarcely ignore the historical tradition altogether, but precisely because some candidate authorities will not have any historical tradition worth mentioning, I should like to see the words "historical tradition" included in the Bill as one of the factors that it should take into account. It is very important that the commission fully appreciates the extent to which historical tradition is an ingredient in community identity in these cities.
I was pleased to see that this theme was acknowledged by the Government in the debate in the other place and is likely to figure prominently in the guidance given to the commission. The draft guidelines published in November refer to taking into account the history of an area. That is a step in the right direction, although the history of an area is not quite the same as its historical tradition.
In my authority, there are many examples of problems caused by division of responsibilities between the city of Gloucester and the county council of Gloucestershire. Despite all the efforts of the county council and those who work for it, who I am sure do their best, they are cast in an impossible role.
Let me give some examples. There has recently been a dispute over the planning permission for a major new building—a magistrates court—to be located in the centre of Gloucester. This received planning approval by the county despite the fact that the plans had been condemned by the Royal Fine Art Commission, English Heritage and Gloucester Civic Trust as unsuitable. The popular view in the city was that the proposed building was inappropriate for the site for which it was planned, which abutted the narrow streets of a mediaeval planned city. However, this factor did not sway the planning authorities on the county council and as a result that application is to go to a public inquiry.
Another example is social services. Three years ago, there was a particularly tragic case in Gloucester of a deaf-blind adult, Beverley Lewis, who was found dead in circumstances of neglect. There was a strong feeling within the city that the social services department of the county had been predominantly oriented towards a rural, affluent country area, and had not been sufficiently tuned in to the far different difficulties of a close urban environment.
Another example is education. Over many years, there has been widespread dissatisfaction with the county 80 education authority, which has not always promoted the best interests of the city schools. Such schools should be administered by people who know and feel for them rather than by people who are remote from them.
Yet another example is the highly dubious roads and traffic planning situation. Here again, the interests of the city and the county do not always come together in a convenient and sensible way. Nor does the existence of two authorities make the preservation of heritage any easier, and the preservation of heritage is of prime importance in any historic city.
In about the past 12 months Gloucester has won four national awards, including those for the best tourist destination and the best practice for regeneration. The best practice award was given to the Gloucester docks development scheme, which is now attracting over 1 million visitors a year. This achievement, which is very much to the credit of the city council, was not made any easier by the overlapping responsibilities of the city and the county. In some instances there was a duplication of responsibilities involving the management and provision of tourist attractions. There were complications over museums, libraries and historic buildings, and the services that go with them. Unitary status would avoid that type of problem.
§ Mr. O'Brien
The hon. Gentleman is giving examples of the various services that could be carried out by a unitary authority. Education and social services are reasonably straightforward, but he referred to planning. How does he see unitary and strategic planning procedures being carried out under the present proposals?
§ Mr. French
My example was of a building which was to be erected within the city of Gloucester, not in the county. It was to be used largely by those living in the city. It was to be seen every day by those people. Yet it was proposed that it be built to a design which was widely regarded as unacceptable to the people in the city. I am endeavouring to argue that decisions that so closely affect one community should not be significantly determined by those who live somewhere else.
When it comes to planning there has, of course, to be consideration of factors that are part of the wider strategic plan. That consideration applies especially to transport and roads. There has to be a broader plan and broader decision-making on the zoning of certain areas. The establishment of a unitary authority does not mean that that authority will consider factors that relate only and specifically to the geographical area over which it has control. Any unitary authority will have to bear in mind also the broader strategic balance. I see no difficulty in that.
§ Mr. O'Brien
The Bill does not bring clarity to any of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, especially that of strategic planning. It does not tell us where functions will lie. If he agrees that there is a need for that identification, will he press the Secretary of State to ensure that it is included in the Bill?
§ Mr. French
The Bill will establish a local government commission, which will be provided with guidelines to determine the work that it does. Within those guidelines several factors have to be taken into account. If the commission follows the guidelines as set out—no doubt 81 they will be refined, but we have a draft set—it seems to be highly likely that it will need to take into account the very point which the hon. Gentleman is making.
I shall complete the examples that I was giving earlier. There is confusion over local taxation as a result of the presence of two authorities. Perhaps the prime example is the community charge. Although the city council had the responsibility of collecting the charge, the county was to spend the overwhelming majority of the moneys. It was not clear to the residents of the city where their money was going. Nor was it clear, unless they examined the small print on their bills and the accompanying literature, how the money was spent. That clouds accountability between county and district.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) said, people do not know who does what. I say that people do not know who spends what or who receives what from funds raised locally.
Why is the situation now different from how it was viewed in 1974? There is a difference for the fundamental reason that has been mentioned earlier, which is that local authorities now are much more enabling authorities than they were before. It is not necessary now for local authorities to be responsible for providing every service themselves. Notwithstanding the argument that has taken place during the debate over the cost of consultants, the fact remains that it is now possible to deliver virtually every service that a resident within a certain area requires even when the population of the area is extremely small. As the role of an enabling authority is now understood and is being practised, the size of the authority, even if it is a small one, does not stand in the way of it achieving unitary status. There will be—I expect this to happen—some examples where unitary status in respect of certain services is not regarded as practical. In that event, joint arrangements can be organised with a lead authority.
The second difference between now and 1974—this is apart from the growth in understanding of the enabling role—is that cities have generally become much more involved in a wider range of local issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said, they are meeting the needs of people and not merely providing services. This is clear in Gloucester, where the local authority plays a part in economic development, tourism, leisure, pedestrianisation plans and conservation. It is now involved in many areas with which it would not have been concerned previously. It is artificial, highly bureaucratic and impossible to try to separate some of the responsibilities and functions that cities perform well from those which they are not allowed to perform at all without having first consulted the county council and obtained its agreement. Responsibilities and functions should be brought together.
Where unitary status is ultimately decided upon, I believe that local government will be more efficient, more effective and more economical and that there will be less duplication, confusion and delay and an end to divided responsibilities that lead to buck passing. Successful democracy requires accountability, which the Bill seeks to strengthen, and that requires people to know where responsibility lies. There must be clear and simple lines of communication and decision making. I think that the Bill and the proposed commission will deliver that, and the sooner the better.
82 One or two aspects of the commission's work worry me. It will examine which structure is best for which area. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West asked towards the beginning of the debate, "What constitutes an area?" When my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities replies, I hope that we shall hear more about the definition as he understands it.
My second reservation about the commission is that it will have a rolling geographical programme. That suggests a rather leisurely timetable. If the commission's work is allowed to spread over too long a period, it is highly likely to get bogged down and to run into unwelcome difficulties.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West suggested that the commission might start its work by considering areas of dissatisfaction, and he cited his constituency as one. That is one possible approach, but I suggest another for consideration: the commission should start its work by considering areas that have common characteristics. I suggest that the historic cities are much at the forefront of that category. They have a powerful case, which I think deserves to be heard early in the proceedings. I believe that the commission should consider the most obvious cases first.
The commission will need to be firm and efficient in the way in which it conducts its work if the ensuing debate is not to become an unseemly squabble between counties and districts. That must be avoided, or the result will not benefit individual residents—whom this Bill is designed to help—and it will discredit not only central but local government. Local residents would be disadvantaged.
The way that the commission conducts itself, the method of operation and the planning of its work are vital to the success of the Bill. I hope that very careful consideration will be given to that.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
The basic lacuna, and a source of great personal sadness for me, is that I never served in local government. I am the first speaker tonight from this side of the House who has not done so. Those who have not served in local government are, in a sense, incomplete in their political education. Therefore, in my almost 30 years in the House this is my maiden speech on local government matters. My reason for speaking is that West Lothian district council is concerned about the Bill. I have a very good relationship with the council. I met senior councillors and officials and listened to what they had to say, and I found their case compelling.
I have given notice to the Scottish Office that I wish to ask the following questions. First, will the Minister confirm that the Government are looking positively and constructively at the de minimis provision being increased from the current £100,000 to £250,000, as mentioned in the debate on 17 December 1991? From the information provided to me, it is clearly counterproductive in terms of value for money to go through the tender procedure for small contracts.
Secondly, in the event of an authority losing a contract resulting in the abolition of the in-house facility, will the Minister confirm that should that authority not be able to obtain satisfactory competitive prices second time around, additional resources will be made available either to fund the higher costs or to re-establish the in-house provision?
83 Thirdly, West Lothian has a clear policy of providing quality, customer-driven services to its community. In the event of the authority having misgivings about the capability of the lowest tenderer to maintain a quality service, what remedies are available to it at tender evaluation?
Fourthly, the cost of a performance bond is a real cost to a local authority and is necessary to safeguard customer interests. The Government's proposal to deduct the cost of that from the private contractor bid at tender evaluation is illogical in terms of value for money. Will the Minister reconsider that aspect?
Fifthly, what proposals do the Government have regarding the way in which future work will be packaged? In the provision of quality services, it is essential that work is packaged in a way that facilitates value for money and customer satisfaction, and is not artificially packaged to facilitate commercial considerations.
All those points were raised 10 days ago with the Scottish Minister—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)—and I today confirmed that I would raise them again in this debate.
I wish to make two other points. The first is the timing of the stages in tendering exercises. West Lothian is a responsible authority and I have worked in harmony with it for 30 years. The timetable proposed would take between eight and 10 months from the date of the initial advertisement to the start of the contract. That would be inappropriate for certain contracts—for example, building works—and there is an argument for setting a de minimis level for such an extended time schedule. For many elements of professional work, speed is of the essence and flexibility for short time scales must be permitted.
The period from announcement to the start of the contract is crucial and it should be kept to the absolute minimum. Otherwise, the council feels that if in-house bids are unsuccessful there will be little motivation to perform well, and the result would be detrimental to the community. Will there be a change to the current tender timetable? If so, the time scale should be restricted to one or two months respectively.
I wish to revert to my comments on the performance bond. The cost of the bond is a real cost to the private contractor, and one that will have to be paid by the client if the contract is awarded externally. The Government's proposal to deduct the cost of the bond from the private contractor's bid would artificially reduce it and could have the effect of the client paying more for the work because of that notional adjustment. That does not equate with the need to obtain best value for money and it should be strongly resisted.
I would not have dared to participate in this debate were I not absolutely convinced that it is an argument about value for money. Mr. Linkston, the chief executive of West Lothian, and his colleagues persuaded me that some of the proposals are, in effect—at least, for smaller authorities—against a decent value-for-money concept.
The case against compulsory competitive tendering must be strongly put. It is against local democracy. Councils will be denied the right to decide how best to organise and procure professional services. Value for money is not determined by cost alone. Commercial organisations, such as that referred to by my hon. Friend 84 the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), recognise that. I am a member of the all-party retail trade group and we visit large organisations such as Sainsbury and Safeway. They recognise that value for money is not determined by cost alone and they do not appoint on the basis of lowest cost.
Professional fees are a small percentage of total project costs, and savings in that area can be quickly eclipsed by poor design and inadequate consideration. First cost will predominate; no recognition will be made of the life cycle cost. Surely any prudent authority must be concerned with life cycle cost. Councillor Graeme Morrice argued at considerable length, and with great persuasiveness, that life cycle costs are all important.
Quality and lowest cost are incompatible. No other country in Europe selects contractors on that basis, so why should we apply that criterion to consultants? The professional institutions—for example, the Royal Institute of British Architects—whose members arguably have most to gain by an increased workload, have firmly and publicly declared against competition. There will be lack of continuity, discontinuity of service delivery and irreversible loss of valuable skills and resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, with his great experience as leader of his council, put the irreversible nature of the loss very strongly.
Proactive team work will be precluded. Service issues of confidentiality, propriety and commercial benefit are at stake in relation to policy advice. Substantial increased costs are inevitable in the tendering process, briefing, monitoring and arbitration of claims and disputes. Role separation will result in design and specifications being changed from practice and practitioners from feedback.
Let me say a word about architectural and engineering services. Clarification is required on design and feasibility projects that are carried out in-house, outwith the architectural services department, to ascertain whether such work is excluded from competition. The market place is currently organised on a single-project basis, with professional services procured primarily by individual discipline. Clarification is required as to whether it would be anti-competitive to package work on, first, a full financial-year basis—or on the basis of a longer period—and, secondly, a multi-disciplinary basis.
My friend and political opponent Councillor Jimmy McGinley has made a special study of the effects on the architectural and legal departments. He, too, was entirely able to persuade me that it would be extremely imprudent not to take account of what really happens in council work. The quality and ability of contractors are crucial, and local authorities must be left with maximum flexibility in assessing those qualities and taking them into account.
The professional organisations have already pointed out that lowest price is not an appropriate method of assessing and appointing professional contractors. Applying CCT to professional services introduces serious problems of confidentiality, conflict of interest, indemnity insurance and so forth without a realistic prospect of improved efficiency or cost savings. Those potential problems will make contractor supervision expensive. In recessionary times, professional services in local authorities may seem attractive to the private sector, but the opposite is true in boom times. There will be serious consequences for local authorities.
Efficiency of professional services is best achieved by the introduction of trading accounts for all professional 85 units. There is no good reason for applying different rules to architects and property management. Trading accounts and league tables of local authorities—coupled with direct comparison of fees from the private sector—is a much better route to the measurement of efficiency.
Concern for quality is identified in relation to a proposed system of "two envelope" tendering, and a plea to professional institutions to recommend that low measurements of competition be built into the quality threshold. Quality and lowest cost are incompatible. The Government indicate pre-qualification on a quality threshold, but determination on lowest cost. The concept of "two envelope" tendering is related to determination and quality.
I have had my time, and I shall leave it at that, but these are serious questions, posed by practical, serious people.
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
I give an unreserved welcome to the proposals in the Bill. They reflect the logical way forward for the development of local government services and structure, taking full account both of the experience and success of compulsory competitive tendering and of the undoubted wish of local people—including my constituents—for the return of unitary authorities.
During the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill 1988, I moved an amendment—it was later withdrawn—to add five services to the seven that, under the Bill, were already subject to CCT. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who was the Minister responsible for piloting the Bill through Committee, pointed out that the amendment was not necessary, because, under the Bill, such extensions would be made later by order. The advantage of this Bill is that it enables us to take full account of the experience of CCT to date.
Fourteen years ago, the country was moving in the opposite direction from that proposed in the Bill. The Labour Government of the day allowed direct labour organisations to provide local government services without a cost-competitive test: it even allowed them to provide other local authorities with such services. Indeed, Labour's 1979 election manifesto anticipated the further expansion of DLOs, in addition to the takeover of local building firms by workers' co-operatives. It was the "winter of discontent" which discredited for all time the notion that public service unions would put patients, and other consumers of services, above their own vested interests.
The present Government began to reverse that trend by putting DLOs to the test of competitive tender in building and maintenance in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. However, the work of pioneering councils such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon)—who earlier reminded us graphically of its contribution—was required to prove that the tendering of service provision to private contractors was needed to expose the waste and inefficiencies that had been tolerated by town halls for far too long.
As we now know from research conducted by Birmingham university, the London business school and not least the Audit Commission, CCT works, achieving savings of 20 per cent. or more. More important, however, has been the direct effect that it has had on the entire 86 management structure of local government at all levels—from the officers at the top to the point of delivery at the bottom. That has been experienced at first hand.
CCT has exposed gross inefficiencies that were formerly taken for granted by town halls and county halls. It has encouraged new attitudes, new methods and new training, and a far healthier relationship has developed between client and contractor, including direct service organisations. To date, however, the vast majority of contracts—some 80 per cent.—have gone to the DSOs, which did the work before CCT. There is nothing wrong with that; value for money is the principal test and, if the DSOs can do the work efficiently at the lowest possible cost, they should receive the contract. It is a pity that the prospect of tendering has had to act as a catalyst to produce improved efficiency.
Now that the private sector has had time to get its act together, with new companies—for instance, the water companies—now prepared to enter the field, I expect it to be more successful in bidding for the service contracts for which the Bill provides, as well as existing contracts when they come up for renewal.
One benefit of not extending CCT to further services until now has been the opportunity of learning from the experience to date—for example, the unfair practices adopted in favour of the DSOs. It is, for instance, clearly wrong to include internal redundancy and the winding-up costs of DSOs in calculating the total cost of a private-sector bid, as it is to define a contract so awkwardly that only the existing DSO would possibly fulfil it. Another example is the denial to all private-sector bids of access to council depots, along with the provision of such access for DSOs. The Bill will, I hope, outlaw all such public-sector biases.
It is, of course, equally fair to insist on a level playing field for public-sector tenderers, to allow them to bid for private-sector contracts. They cannot do that now. For example, the building design practice section of the former architects' department of Dorset county council will have to make staff redundant or cease operation altogether if it does not succeed in its present bid to retain all its duties next year. It has sought permission to tender for work in the private sector which would broaden its experience; unfortunately, it cannot legally do that now. Such a development could only enhance competition, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear it in mind in Committee.
Experience of the 1988 Act also suggests that we should now ensure that the quality of professional services, such as architecture and engineering, is fully taken into account in the contract process, as the original Bill proposed before its amendment in the other place. I am pleased to learn that my right hon. Friend is proposing a new formula for a quality threshold clause. It must be right to insist that those submitting bids have the expertise, experience and resources to complete the contract for which they have put in a bid.
§ Mr. O'Brien
If it is correct that quality should be included in compulsory competitive tendering for white collar services, how can the hon. Gentleman say that that should not apply to compulsory competitive tendering for other local government services?
§ Mr. Atkinson
The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. He intends, perhaps, to say that a level playing field 87 should apply to existing services, subject to the contract process, as well as to what is being proposed in the Bill for white collar services.
As a result of compulsory competitive tendering, local government services are being undertaken today more efficiently, to a higher standard, at better value and at a saving of millions of pounds to the charge payer. Usually they are being undertaken by a happier, more fulfilled and better-rewarded management and work force, yet Labour still talks about abolishing CCT and the Audit Commission which pointed the way to such achievements. On the contrary, I hope that the Government will commit themselves to going still further in the privatisation of local government services. I suggest that the 24 provincial airports, 54 ports and harbours and 38 bus companies should be privatised, all of which remain in council hands.
As for the provisions that will establish a local government commission, I point out to the Minister that the prospect of a return to a unitary authority has been particularly welcomed by those of my constituents who remember Bournemouth as it was until 1974—a county borough council. It was a great mistake to abolish the county boroughs, the finest units of local government anywhere in the world. I do not believe that the schools, roads, libraries, public protection, traffic management and the magistracy in my constituency have been better served by remote control from county hall, given the competing priorities of a mainly rural county and the absence of personal local knowledge and accountability that borough councillors provide.
Unfortunately, unlike my local Conservative association, which has submitted clear proposals for Bournemouth to have as much control over its own services as possible, our local Liberal council is calling for additional tiers of local government, such as neighbourhood councils and regional authorities. Like so much else of Liberal policy—all of which is adopted by default—these proposals will lead to greater bureaucracy, add to the cost of local government, for which the charge payers must pay, and will be unnecessary if local councillors are doing their job properly, with proper two-way communication between themselves and those whom they are elected to represent.
Moreover, the Liberal alternative of a single authority in my part of Dorset, which is dubbed by the local press as Wessex city, for an entire Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole conurbation would be a disaster locally. The common pooling of resources and the sharing of services between two or three of these authorities must arise from sensible negotiation on common problems such as tourism and community care and must not be imposed upon them by statute.
In determining the districts that are to become unitary authorities, the new commission will appreciate that there cannot be a return to what happened before 1973. Thanks to this Government's policies, local government has evolved to a considerable extent. It is local government's new role, as an enabler of services and as the contractor of services, that justifies this important review. There is no longer any question of returning to the unnecessary duplication, by districts, at the expense of economies of scale that justified strengthening the counties in 1973. Nor 88 does any future reorganisation have to be as costly, as was demonstrated by the abolition of the metropolitan counties a few years ago.
It is essential that the commission should include among its membership the practical input of serving councillors at all levels to determine the merits, costs and benefits of the submissions that will be made to it. I look forward to the Minister's assurances on that point. I welcome the appointment of Sir John Banham as the commission's chairman, in view of both his Audit Commission past and his undoubted success at the Confederation of British Industry.
I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment intends the new local authorities to be in place and to take over in May 1994. Presumably, therefore, he has in mind elections to those local authorities in May 1993, next year, and believes that they should shadow the present authorities, as happened between 1973 and 1974 when the previous local government reorganisation took place. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is to be the programme.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
I understand that before the 1974 reorganisation there were no elections and that the local authorities set up joint arrangements for the distribution of services in preparation for subsequent elections. What the hon. Gentleman says is historically incorrect and, in practical terms, is an utter shambles.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I well recall being elected to the new Essex county council, representing a Southend ward, having previously served on Southend county borough council. Between May 1973 and May 1974 we acted as a shadow council, preparing to take over and working with the existing retiring council on our new responsibilities.
I am sure that I speak for most of my constituents when I say that we greatly look foward to this opportunity to restore a Conservative administration to Bournemouth, in view of the increase in the community charge that is threatened for the forthcoming fiscal year. It cannot come soon enough.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Earlier this evening a Conservative Member offered the opinion that this is a conservative country—he hastened to add with a small "c". I think that he is likely to find out before many more weeks are over that the country is less conservative than he cares to believe. It is certainly a lot more conservationist.
It is a pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has had to leave for a meeting. An interesting article in today's Daily Record shows that my hon. Friend has been named as the most environmentally friendly of all Scottish Members of Parliament. That was said by a panel of expert ecologists, led by David Bellamy. Interestingly enough, the same group was asked for nominations for the booby prize when it came to environmental issues. One of the nominees was none other than the Secretary of State for the Environment. That says a great deal about this Government if the Secretary of State can be nominated for the booby prize by those who are most concerned about these issues.
I intend to refer to clauses 8 to 11. I did not hear all of the Secretary of State's speech, but for several hours I have 89 listened to Conservative Members speak about the Bill's provisions. I still have to be told why the Government refuse to make public the results of the PA Consulting Group study. Could it possibly be because they were advised against putting out a number of services to tender? They have received advice that certain services are not candidates, or are not good candidates, for compulsory competitive tendering. The examples given included the development of corporate strategy, committee administration, membership services, electoral registration, financial planning and advice and personnel recruitment, yet we find that they are on the list of services proposed to be pushed out to compulsory competitive tendering.
The Government published a consultation paper at the same time as they published the Bill. If the Government seriously intend to consult people properly, I wonder what time scale they have in mind. What assurance can any of us possibly have that the Government will pay any attention whatsoever to views expressed against the contents of the consultation paper?
That is especially the case when one considers that in Scotland in particular the Government asked for people's views about hospitals being taken out of the national health service and given trust status. Despite the fact that the Government consulted widely and were told by the vast majority of people that they were against hospitals being given trust status, and the doctors were against it, they went ahead and imposed trust status upon hospitals in Scotland. Such consultation must be regarded with much suspicion. We know perfectly well that the consultation period will be short and that the Government do not intend to pay the slightest intention to views, no matter how well informed, that are contrary to their wishes.
I have seen a long list of services that the Government intend to put out to compulsory competitive tender, of which I am sure Conservative Members are well aware. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that home-to-school transport was included. I should have thought that, above all, it is essential to have a reliable service so that parents know that their children are safe. If other, more lucrative contracts are won by the firm that wins the local government contract, it might easily let down the local authority. Where will that leave children? I am not talking only about them making their way home in bad weather, but young school children who are vulnerable and could be endangered by traffic and people of ill will. That proposal requires second thoughts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned corporate services such as personnel. We are all aware of firms offering their services as head hunters and selectors of personnel, but what about the important personnel functions of training for the skills that are necessary in a local authority? What about the difficult issues of discipline and dealing with appeals by employees? I cannot see how an outside firm will be able to deal with such issues fairly. How will employees be able to place their trust in the objectivity of the judgment of an outside firm, paid by the local authority?
I can hardly credit the Government's proposals for financial services. The accounts of large councils such as Glasgow district council run into millions of pounds and have to be brought in on time. Year-on-year estimates are an enormous job. A local council may be left in severe difficulties if it is let down by a company that has been awarded the contract. Local authorities already find it 90 hard to cope because of the Government's impositions on them, but the Bill does not seem to heed the need for efficiency of local authorities.
No Scottish local authority has faced sanctions under sections 13 or 14 of the Local Government Act 1988, which permits the issue by the Secretary of State of a written notice requiring an authority to justify any actions which he feels are anti-competitive, following which the Secretary of State may issue a direction to the authority preventing it from carrying out all or part of the work concerned or stating particular conditions which must be fulfilled before it has the power to carry out the work. Once again, because of Conservative Members' hostility to Labour-controlled English authorities, a Bill is being introduced that is not relevant to Scottish authorities.
Hon. Members have mentioned the commission for local government but they have got that slightly wrong. The commission is for England, not for Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland was asked to explain that some months ago in the Scottish Grand Committee and replied that Scotland was small enough for the commission not to be required. That is an extraordinary attitude. The Secretary of State for Scotland will define anti-competitive behaviour. He is a bit like the queen in "Alice in Wonderland": he defines it and imposes his will.
Last Saturday night, the four leaders of the main political parties in Scotland debated constitutional issues at Usher hall in Edinburgh. The Secretary of State was pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) about his plans for Scotland's constitutional future. The right hon. Gentleman was coy and refused to answer—perhaps because one of the plans was that he will define what is meant by anti-competitive behaviour. He knows that the Bill is not wanted or needed in Scotland and that the majority of Scottish people oppose it.
Despite the Government's hostility, local authorities have succeeded in winning the majority of in-house contracts. The Government want such nice little earners to go to their chums in the private sector. I wonder where it will end. I sometimes suspect that some more extreme Conservative Members will put the monarchy out to tender; if so, I think that the Fyfes may be able to undercut the Windsors! Conservative Members have said how popular the Bill will be, but none of them tried to pretend that it is wanted in Scotland.
It appears that the Scottish national party failed to express a desire to speak in this debate. I am unaware of it expressing a desire to take part in the Committee. It turned down the opportunity to serve on the council tax Bill. Scottish nationalists are often absent from debates and votes on what they call United Kingdom Bills but which seriously affect people living in Scottish constituencies. They have been challenged about their poor work rate for their salaries, but have excused themselves on the ground that they are doing other things in Scotland. Some of us think that more effort is required. Hon. Members can deal with their constituents' needs, campaign for what they believe in, and do their job in here to earn their salaries. We do not think that Scottish nationalists should try to get away with such excuses.
They can talk up a good fight. It is very easy to tell supporters how much one disagrees with the Government, but it requires more effort to be in here, challenging the Government and demanding answers. That is what we shall do in Committee.
§ Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)
No Session, even a short one, is complete without a local government Bill. I am glad that this Bill has been introduced because it is the most important Bill to come before the House for 20 years. It is more important than the flagship Local Government Finance Bill that is being scuttled at the breakers' yard. Indeed, it is more important than the salvage tug Local Government Finance Bill that was recently before the House. It is more important than any local government finance Bill that the Opposition might dream up should they unfortunately be governing the country after the next election. If we are to make sense of the Bill and to understand its importance, we must think through why it seems like that to so many of us. The answer is that the structure of local government is the key to success.
Structure is far more significant for success—or for anything else—than finance, a point which seems to have escaped the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) who, in his opening remarks this afternoon, said that structure follows function. Indeed, his comments were echoed by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo), who said that before one decides structure, one must decide what local government is going to do. I want to show how such sentiments are fatally flawed and, indeed, how such sentiments got us into this mess in the first place.
The Bill seeks to put right the errors of the Local Government Act 1972. It has been suggested that that Act was all about my party, but we have heard two comments from the Opposition which show that if they were in control they would still make the mistakes of 1972.
However, the Bill is not only about the aberrations of Avon and Cleveland. It is not even about the gratuitous insults to some of our historic cities. It is about the whole concept of two-tier local government. When I intervened, I said that I was implacably opposed to two-tier local government, although I would defend the rights of people who believe that it is better for them.
Two-tier local government flies in the face of how people feel about themselves, of how society instinctively organises itself and of how clients and consumers think about the services that they need. Therefore, the key to getting local government structure right is to understand the true nature of the communities to which people think that they belong.
Those communities are not defined by the cost of service delivery, which is why the Opposition are wrong to say that we keep focusing on cost. Cost is not the bottom line when defining natural communities. Of course, that might be true of services, but that is a different issue. Getting structure right is not about defining areas according to managerial convenience but about something fundamentally different. The good news is that, if we can get our structures right, basing them on the correct criteria, local government will flourish.
However, the bad news—especially for my colleagues who say that all one needs to do is to get the community right and all will be well—is that we all belong to many different types of communities. The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) said that when he praised the virtues of the historic counties. Of course we feel strongly about our historic and cultural background, but that has nothing to do with service delivery. If one is proud to belong to Lancashire and one lives in the north of it, one would not 92 dream of sending a child to school in the south of it. One's longing to be back in Lancashire is entirely different. Therefore, the bad news is that if we search for natural communities and think that there is just one such community and that if we could find it all would be well, it would be a search for fool's gold.
If we are to put structures right, we must be absolutely clear why successive Governments—and I stress the word "successive"—keep getting it wrong. I believe that the reason is that successive Governments have failed to think through the simple idea of who owns local government. Some people say that local people own it, and I have heard several hon. Members say that today. Other people will say that central Government own it. I think that one or two Conservatives say that out loud sometimes. Because of those two ideas—that local people or central Government own it—there will be problems, which is exactly what we are experiencing now. If only there were a simple answer, we would not be discussing the issue again.
The reality is that both local people and central Government own local government. Local government has a dual nature, and unless we embody that dual nature in its structure we shall continue to flounder and argue with one another and we shall not make progress.
What do we mean when we say that local government belongs to the people? In those circumstances, it is about meeting people's needs. When people say that they own local government, they want it to meet their needs within areas in which they are prepared to move. However, when we talk about local government belonging to or being created by central Government, that is entirely different. We are talking about just one of a range of vehicles for the local delivery of national services. Local government is just one of many, alongside quangos, central Government and the voluntary and private sectors.
The dual nature arises for a key reason, which is that the needs of the people and the services that are provided to meet them are fundamentally different, and the failure to grasp that fact has got us into this mess. The failure to grasp the fact that needs and services are different led to the 1972 Act and will again lead to mistakes if we continue to organise our structures on the basis of service requirements.
Another issue that we need to think through is why it is so easy to get into this mess in the first place. I think it is because the needs to which I have referred and the services which meet them are territorial. Needs have territories: people expect to go to school in a particular area and to do their shopping in a particular area. Services are territorial: that is how they are organised and managed. For that reason, it is very tempting for those who design them to say, "Wouldn't it be neat and tidy if we could make the same territory cover both needs and services?"
However, the truth is that, except in places such as the Scilly Isles and the Isle of Wight, needs territories and service territories rarely coincide. For example, a district general hospital almost always serves several local communities, but most individual local communities have more than one general practitioner's practice area within it.
It is important to notice that such examples which easily come to mind are outside local government. That is because people outside local government instinctively seem to understand that one designs service delivery according to the requirements of the service, not according 93 to the geography of the communities. For example, electricity companies organise themselves according to where their wires go, and water companies organise themselves according to where their pipes go, so why in heaven's name should anyone argue that fire services and libraries need the same territories? They do not—they need their own. They are nothing to do with needs but everything to do with services.
Whenever I say such things—especially when members of the Opposition have bothered to turn up and join in the debate—I am criticised. Indeed, throughout these debates my colleagues will run into flak not only from the Opposition, but from councillors of all political persuasions and also from a fair number of officers. I say to such people who shrug their shoulders and say that this is nonsense that I should take such criticism far more seriously if it came from an organisation called local government which people liked a great deal more than they seem to.
At the moment local government, despite its protestations, is not held in high regard by the public. One has only to consider the turnout at local elections and the comments that people make about the quality and cost of services to realise that. If I listen long enough—and I spend a great deal of time listening—I hear three themes. The first is that all the talk about such changes is impractical. The second—and we have heard it this afternoon—is that such changes weaken accountability. The third is that the changes undermine local government itself. The claim that the changes are impractical does not bear close examination. I accept that having many different territories is not neat and tidy, but the real world is not neat and tidy, unfortunately for us. I accept that having many different territories means many different arrangements for the delivery of services, but that is the real world as well.
The health service organises itself in its own way and the lawyers organise themselves in a different way. The retail sector, with its grocery shops and other shops, organises itself differently. The whole world of service delivery is different outside local government. We must stop trying to be neat and tidy just because we seek a local government solution that looks nice on the map.
To say that community X is too small to provide its own schools is to repeat the mistake of 1972. It confuses the needs of people with the services that meet them. School territories—deciding how big an area one wants to run schools economically, efficiently and effectively—is a service argument. Children needing education live in communities, whether we like it or not, and they expect to go to school in those communities. They do not expect to be told by county hall or by Whitehall what is convenient for the service.
It is claimed that all my arguments undermine accountability. We heard that argument from the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo), who kept saying that we need accountable local government. We heard it from the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who spoke about the situation in London. He asked how on earth joint authorities could be accountable. I now live much of my life in London, and I have noticed that fires are still put out. A joint fire authority seems to function perfectly well. I have news for the hon. Gentleman. If I called the fire brigade and it did not come, I would not fret about which councillor or 94 which council was responsible. I should go down to the fire station, talk to the fire fighters and hold them accountable. That is the nature of accountability.
§ Mr. Wilshire
Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene to challenge me? Obviously not.
Accountability is not in the ownership of democracy and it is utter nonsense to say that it is. Hon. Members should try telling that to a shop assistant who has sold faulty goods. He or she understands what accountability is about and does not need local government to explain it. Hon. Members should try telling that to a youth club leader when a member of that club has been involved in an accident. The youth club leader understands that he or she does not need local government to worry about that accident. Hon. Members should try telling anybody outside local government, "You cannot be held accountable unless the local democratic process is involved."
Accountability flows directly from the person who provides the service to the person who uses it. It does not go via a third party, whether that third party is elected or not. When I go into a shop, when I go to see a doctor or when I use any other service, I expect the people who are providing it, not some magical person way out in the distance, to be accountable. That is the true nature of accountability.
The reason why accountability gets muddled up is that those in local government who keep arguing about accountability are really talking about power. They are asking what they are accountable for—what they have power and control over. They overlook the other side of accountability, which is to ask who they have duties to. Those duties are to those whom they represent. Those duties are to ensure that all needs are met. If only those who argue about power and control and about local government having to have an oar in something would focus on duties, they would broaden the horizon of councillors to include the provision of all services and the meeting of all needs, not only those of which they can get control.
Another theme is that the Bill somehow undermines local government itself. The Bill touches on all the points that I have mentioned. The people who talk like that, who say that services should not be taken away from them and that they need them under their control, say, "Do not force us to seek tenders because there is something mystical about the way in which we do things. Do not publish nasty facts about us because it might undermine public confidence in local government." Such people, who are not confined to one party, seem to say, "Just remove a tier of local government and then go away."
The Association of County Councils would abolish the Association of District Councils, and the ADC would abolish the ACC. Our mailbags are full of that. The trouble with both arguments is that we are considering boundaries, structures and organisations which were two-tier solutions, and it is the two-tier solution itself that is wrong. We need to go back to the drawing board, and we need to become involved in those issues. That is why I welcome the Bill.
The Bill repairs the damage done in 1972. It gives us a chance to get the structures of local government right and it will enable us, if we do get them right, to get local 95 government closer to the people. The Bill will broaden the horizons of local government so that it concerns itself with all services, and it will switch the focus of local government away from power and control to meeting the needs of local people. If that is right—and I believe that it is—the Bill is vital. It offers us an opportunity to improve local government, to improve local services, and to meet more needs of local people. If we get it right, the result will be a new, respected and secure role for local government in the long term. Such a prize deserves more than party bickering; it deserves the support of everyone in the House.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all hon. Members for my failure to attend earlier. I assure the House that I have not been dragooned in here by people behind the Chair. I have been sitting as a member of the Select Committee on Social Services considering the role of pension funds and especially that of Mirror Group Newspapers. A discussion that should have taken an hour lasted two and a half hours. I hope to make up in Committee for my late arrival; I say that to cheer up the Minister of State.
I am an adviser to the Greater Manchester fire authority, and before I was elected to the House and for a short time afterwards I was a member of the fire and civil defence authority and the Labour party's spokesperson on that body. Since coming to the House, I have maintained an interest in the fire service as an integral part of local government services.
In England and Wales, there are 64 brigades and all of them are concerned about the consequences of the Bill for the provision of in-house services by fire brigades, it is important to make it clear that every hour fire fighters put their lives at risk—sometimes in a futile effort—to protect the lives of individuals in their community. It is vital that the way in which we deliver the fire service and in which equipment is delivered at the point where it is needed is professional and protects the fire fighters in their role in the community.
It is dangerous enough to be a fire fighter on every occasion when the bell goes in the station. It is essential that equipment, such as turntable ladders, extinguishers providing foam and other fire-fighting materials, is provided and maintained to a professional standard which meets the requirements and safety regulations for the fire fighter and for those who, unfortunately, require the use of the service to protect property, lives or, in most instances, both.
The uniqueness of the fire service led to the exemptions in the Local Government Act 1988. It was in 1988 that the Government made their first ideological stab by taking away effective control of many services from local authorities. The hon. Member for Bournemouth. East (Mr. Atkinson) encapsulated the ideological view of Conservative Members when he said that the bottom line was value for money. The fire service is not just about value for money as one cannot give a life a price—whether that life is the one saved or the one being put at risk as a fireman tries to save another life from fire, smoke, dangerous hazards such as chemicals or bombings.
96 Hon. Members, Treasury spokesmen and Opposition spokesmen offer plaudits on the work of the tire service, but in this legislation the Government are prepared to put political ideology before the necessity of constantly maintaining the equipment that protects those who put their lives at risk to save others. That is why the Bill is so unacceptable. It is not just an ideological attempt to undermine other local government services. It is one thing to sit in a local authority office dealing with housing problems, but it is quite another matter when a fireman is 30 ft up a turntable ladder in a temperature of 1,000 deg C trying to save people or at least ensure that the bodies of loved ones are brought out and given decent burials. Those are the realities on the front line of the fire service.
The Local Government Act 1988 recognised three factors—first, the uniqueness of the vehicles provided for the fire service; secondly, the high standards that must be maintained due to the statutory duties imposed by the Home Office. It is interesting that no Home Office Minister is present this evening. The Home Office is responsible for the current review of fire services as they are affected by compulsory tendering, but during the Bill's passage no Minister is available to answer questions or take note of the issues rightly raised by the fire services during the so-called period of consultation.
Thirdly, there is a statutory requirement to maintain the hydraulic pumping and mechanical equipment to a high enough standard to meet the other statutory obligations of reaching a fire within a specific time, maintaining certain levels and types of equipment at all times and ensuring that it is in working order. However, the Government say that, since 1988, there have been developments in commercial vehicle maintenance that overcome the special needs of maintaining fire service vehicles. Will the Minister list the developments, who prepared them and say what report on them is available to the Home Office or the Secretary of State for the Environment? My contacts in the fire service, which are widespread and include those in fire brigades in Labour-controlled and Conservative-controlled local authorities as well as in those with no overall control, all state clearly that they do not know of any of the so-called revolutionary developments. The reality is that such developments do not exist. The truth is that the Minister of State is showing his zeal to maintain the momentum towards compulsory competitive tendering in all sectors of local government services, including the fire service, which provides unique services to the community.
In the debate in another place Viscount Mersey encapsulated the view of all right-thinking people on the Government's position. He would normally be expected to support the Government but he said:Fire Brigades are unique. They are required by law to be at an accident within a specific time. Fire Brigades have their own highly specialised capital intensive workshops which have a faultless track record and which I believe no private competitor could hope to match. Even if they did manage to match it, there would be a learning period in which the Government would literally be putting people's lives at risk whilst the private contractor learned a new craft of fire engine maintenance.A supporter of the Government made the grave charge that, in relation to the Bill, the Government's ideology would put people's lives at risk. In the light of such charges, the professionalism of the fire fighters in the 97 United Kingdom and the advice that the Home Office is already receiving, I hope that the Minister will state clearly that the fire service will be exempt from the proposals.
I wish to put several questions to the Minister and if he cannot answer them all this evening perhaps he will do so in writing after he has had consultations with his Home Office counterparts. If not, perhaps he will give detailed answers at a later stage of the Bill's passage. It is quite clear that there is a serious risk that a contract could cease operation for financial or commercial reasons such as bankruptcy or takeovers. That would leave a fire brigade with serious difficulties in maintaining its 24-hour, 365-day emergency cover.
It would be incredible if competitive tendering meant that the very basis of maintaining a high standard of care of vehicles and other life-saving equipment was put at risk by bankruptcy, impending bankruptcy or other financial difficulties within the commercial enterprise that was operating the support services for the fire brigade. Surely such circumstances should not be contemplated. To say that they would never arise is nonsense. We all know of the present huge number of bankruptcies—there are almost 1,000 a week in the current recession in the United Kingdom. In my district, the north-west, more than 120 companies go bust every week. Who is to say that those firms going bankrupt are not the ones that provide the life-saving back-up facilities for organisations such as the fire brigade? For that reason alone, never mind all the others, the Government should cease promoting the policy of contracting out such an important life-saving service.
There will be conflicts of priority between brigade emergency vehicles and commercial customers. If an organisation is involved in the preparation of materials for the fire service, unless there is an overriding guarantee to cover all circumstances, fire brigade vehicles and equipment could be put to the bottom of the list of priorities in that workshop. That would undermine the maintenance of the 24-hour service—a statutory requirement laid down by the Home Office. There must be day-to-day monitoring of work and changes to agreed contractual arrangments. Unless such monitoring takes place on the spot by fire service personnel there will be no guarantee that a fire tender or fire-fighting equipment will not break down. Such break-downs normally occur at the scene of an incident and put at risk the chances of rescuing people from buildings. They even place fire fighters' lives at risk. That is unacceptable.
On-the-spot judgments about the professionalism of fire fighters and the quality of care of the vehicles and equipment must he taken by the chief fire officers of fire brigades. That will happen only if he controls the day-to-day operation and discipline—it is a disciplined, uniform service.
I shall submit in writing to the Minister of State my worries on matters relating to the expertise of outside contractors, contractors' responses in relation to emergency services and the immobilisation of fire brigade equipment and materials that are necessary, particularly when fire brigades are asked to respond to major accidents, whether motorway pile-ups, bombings or other incidents. It is vital that we have clear guidance from the Minister or from the Home Office about the requirements for competitive tenders in respect of outside organisations, to ensure the maintenance of emergency cover in the face of emergencies experienced by fire brigades daily. When such emergencies occur, the complete mobilisation of all a 98 brigade's resources will be required. That cannot be guaranteed unless workshops are under the direct control of a fire authority and, in particular, of the chief fire officer.
For those and other reasons, I hope that the Minister will provide some guidance tonight. Will the Government continue the folly of putting fire services at risk of competitive tendering? Does the review being carried out by the Home Office reveal opposition from the fire services and, in particular, from chief fire officers? If so, will the Government withdraw such competitive tendering proposals for fire brigades?
The Government must listen to their professional advisers, the chief fire officers. They are responsible to the Home Office by law. They must provide advice about the fire services. No Conservative Member would disagree that the chief fire officers in Britain are part of the most dedicated and professional fire service in Europe.
The Bill must not undermine the capability of Britain's fire services to maintain and save lives from the point of view of those affected by fire and, as importantly, from the point of view of fire fighters who daily try to save other people's lives without thinking of their own. The Bill attempts to put a price on life, but it is impossible to do that.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
The House has listened with interest to the forceful speech made by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and to his impassioned plea for adequate provision for emergency and essential services. No one would disagree with him about that. However, we must recognise that all services, no matter how life saving and essential they may be, cannot be provided without regard to cost. Cost is an essential part of both parts of the Bill, which I welcome.
With regard to part I and compulsory competitive tendering, Opposition Members failed to differentiate between compulsory contracting out and compulsory competitive tendering. We are talking not about compulsory contracting out of services provided by local government but about the right, on an equal and fair basis, for private provision to be assessed in conjunction with direct labour organisations. That is wholly proper and in the interests of community charge payers. As trustees of the public purse, we should welcome that tonight.
The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) mounted an attack on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. He seemed to accuse my right hon. Friend of having little knowledge of local government, of not being prepared to go far enough in his proposals and of not being prepared to embark on radical change of local government in a way, supposedly, the Labour party would. I can think of few people to whom such criticisms should be less directed than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. My right hon. Friend introduced the housing legislation that gave council tenants the right to buy their own homes. He grasped the difficult political nettle of abolishing the community charge and replacing it with the new council tax. He introduced the present Bill. Over a decade or more, he has presided over major reforms of local government of which this Bill is the latest and the most welcome.
While I welcome the provisions relating to the powers of the Audit Commission and compulsory competitive tendering, I want to consider part II which relates to the 99 structure of local government. My constituency of Chichester is in the county of West Sussex and we are well served by Conservative-controlled district and county councils. It is difficult for me to advance a strong case for radical change in the structure of that system of local government when it is providing such good services on an accountable and low-cost basis to my constituents. I hope that the local government commission will recognise that.
We are considering a Bill which is necessary for several reasons. First, there has been a radical change in the system of local government finance. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we cannot consider finance separately from structure. Also, several of local government's responsibilities have changed—for example, in education, in community care and housing. It is appropriate now to consider whether a new structure is called for. Much has also been said about Avon and Humberside, where the need for change may be more apparent.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said that he hopes that we will be able to retain in some parts of the country a structure which has served communities well and which reflects the distinctive nature particularly of large disparate rural communities. There are large rural areas which do not have one predominant conurbation in their midst. The existing structures of some district services and some county services have worked well.
I have one criterion in considering the reform of local government—whether it will deliver to my constituents cheaper or better-quality services. Unless it can be shown beyond doubt that the services that my constituents receive will be of better value, involve a wider choice, or be of a better quality, I do not see the case for a radical, traumatic and costly upheaval in local government. My constituents are entitled to ask, "What is in it for us?" If the answer is that there is not a great deal in reform for them, there is no point in embarking on change for the sake of change.
In the remit of the local government commission and the guidance that has already been issued and which is the subject of consultation, the Government go a long way to relieving some of our concerns, because they lay emphasis not only on the cost of services provided but, first and foremost, on the community identity of local councils. They state a preference for unitary authorities, but, at the same time, they recognise that different structures may be appropriate in different parts of the country.
We in West Sussex believe that we have an exemplary Conservative-controlled county council whose spending last year was 8 per cent. below the standard spending assessment. This year, its spending will be 7 per cent. below the standard spending assessment. Our county council has no debt whatsoever, and therefore no financing charges to bear. As a result of the prudence of Conservative-controlled county and district councils, we pay £58 per head less than we would otherwise have to pay. That is a real dividend in my constituents' pockets. At the same time, a range of services has been improved. On education in particular, The Times lists us as having the third best examination results in the country.
Not only at county level but at district level, that success is reflected in Conservative management. In the Chichester division, for example, we have been able to 100 provide increased housing enablement facilities and improved environmental protection and litter and dog control, yet we have been able to do that by budgeting at or below the standard spending assessment.
§ Mr. Nelson
I shall not give way because of the time.
The cost to my constituents in terms of the average community charge is £170. I advise the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) to go down the road to the district of Adur where, for similar services in a similar area, people pay £266. That is the difference between Liberal and Conservative control in Sussex—£192 for a couple.
§ Mr. Nelson
I have no time. With regret, I cannot give way to the hon. Gentleman on this occasion.
Local authorities should not indulge in a dog-eat-dog attitude. We should not put on their employees a blight of uncertainty pending local government reform. I hope that, as soon as possible, the local government commission will spell out to local authorities and to the Secretary of State areas such as West Sussex in which no change may be preferable to radical reform. However, in other parts of the country, change is much needed and there is no reason why we should adopt the same pattern nationwide.
I hope and believe that the local government commission will serve a real purpose in bringing forward reform which is now overdue, which is in line with Conservative party policies, and which will deliver value for money and improve the quality of services—the hallmarks of good Conservative control. The Bill sets that process on its way, and I congratulate the Government on introducing it.
§ 9.8 pm
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North
I speak as someone who until last May served as a councillor in a metropolitan district. As such, I must be one of the few hon. Members who has seen the practical effects of the implementation of legislation such as this, and not simply the ideology behind it.
The council that I had the honour to serve was Bradford which, from October 1988, suffered thea so-called "people's revolution". That was the authority that caused so much scandal as a result of the compulsory competitive tendering legislation with such iniquitous dealings in the management buy-outs of the school meals service that the Audit Commission had to issue special guidelines for all future cases. Against all advice and costings, the Conservative council awarded the catering contract for Bradford's theatres to an outside company that was even more expensive than the in-house team. After three months, the contract had to be cancelled. The Conservative authority also awarded the contract for vehicle maintenance to a company which, because of its failure to perform, was already in litigation with our neighbouring council. Those are some of the practical effects of compulsory competitive tendering in which ideology takes the place of practicality and common sense.
The Bill refers to the requirement to publish certain types of information. Perhaps we should consider publishing details of the many failures in Conservative councils throughout the country, and not least in the 101 borough in which this House is situated which, while exporting its homeless to other authorities, appears to be guilty of the illegal sale of houses that were not its to sell in the first place. Perhaps we should consider giving widespread publicity to the Audit Commission's account of the Government's failings. That could be done by means of a supplement to the citizens charter and could be delivered to every household in the country. There have been reports on poll tax collection, care in the community, housing benefit administration, the cost of providing bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and into the incredible disgrace of the state of school buildings throughout the country—not forgetting, of course, the report that praised the cost-effectiveness of direct labour organisations, contrary to the thrust of Government legislation.
Omissions from the Bill are perhaps as significant as its contents. The legislation takes no account of the expense that is incurred when a council puts work out to tender. It costs thousands of pounds to draw up the documentation. People put together their bids only to find that the work invariably stays with the in-house team. I am no great lover or defender of the legal profession. Since the admirable legislation relating to guardians ad litem was enacted, and since the passing of the Children Act 1989, social services work has involved much extra legal work. The going rate for solicitors in Bradford to work on such legislation is about £60 per hour, whereas the in-house price is about £14 per hour. However, as a result of this legislation, somebody will no doubt have to go to the expense of drawing up tenders and specifications and of sending them out. In the end, all that expense will probably be wasted.
The failure to recognise the difference between public concern about standards and public concern about price is what makes the Bill deficient. If cost alone is to determine the level of service that is provided, we shall no doubt see Ministers trading in their Jaguars for Ladas——
§ Mr. Rooney
Yes, or Trabants.
In Yorkshire, we have an expression, "You don't get owt for nowt." Unfortunately, there is a price to pay for everything and, under this Government, that price is measured by what we call the poll tax and will soon no doubt be measured by the council tax.
If we had stuck with the fair rates policy the vast majority of people in Britain might have been able to bear that price and public services would remain public services, not sacrificial lambs on the altar of the ideology of the Conservative party. As with a similar Bill that was around at about this time in 1987, this Bill is the product of the Government's imagination. At the election it will undoubtedly turn into a nightmare for them.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
In view of the shortage of time, my speech will be rather more in note form than I intended, but I hope that the points that I make will be clear. I join in the general welcome for the Bill among Conservative Members. When examining the structure of local government and establishing the local government commission, one could not make any better start than the appointment of Sir John Banham as the chairman of the commission if one wants common sense, quality decision making and a tough-minded approach.
102 There is a strong feeling, certainly among Conservatives in local government, that we need to appoint people with direct local government experience to the commission. That has been reflected among Conservatives in Parliament to some extent. When that aim is interpreted, or at least when it comes out of the other end of the machine, it results in the odd ex-chief executive being appointed. That is not what I mean. Of course, there is a place for one or two chief executives, but I can think of several names, which I will not mention, of former Labour and Conservative council leaders who could make an enormous contribution. I hope that some of those names will be borne in mind by my hon. Friend the Minister.
I have a preference, and a preference is shown in the spirit of the Bill, for unitary authorities. Let us make one comparison. If West Yorkshire can manage without a county council and manage well, and the West Yorkshire district councils can carry out the necessary functions, why does Derbyshire have to be encumbered with a county council? There is a strong feeling in Derbyshire that the county council is an encumbrance and that the sooner that it goes, the better. However, I do not intend to get embroiled in the arguments between the districts and the counties. If I do, I may find myself kebabed between the two. They can sort out their own arguments.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right about the public relations campaigns being run by the counties and districts. They are a complete waste of taxpayers' and charge payers' money. The councils should understand that the campaigns will have no effect. Even Humberside county council is launching a campaign to show the people that they have been wrong all these years and should have loved it. Some campaigns are doomed to failure from the start and that one will certainly be a waste of time.
The question to be asked is how the popularity of the final proposals is to be tested. We should not go so far as to hold a referendum, but the people must have the final say.
I wish to say a few words about what measures we would be considering if we had the misfortune to have a Labour Government. Rather than moving towards unitary authorities we would be considering the re-establishment of the Greater London council—a new, larger and uglier version. One would not think that that was Labour's intention from reading the document "London United" issued by the Labour party, but one would know it from reading the draft of that document which the Labour party did not dare publish. If it had published the full document as originally written, we would know that there are some real nasties in it.
For example, housing strategy would go to the GLC. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) rightly told us that it would be impossible for a county council to run housing strategy. Yet that is what the Labour party promises for the new GLC. It wants to give tourism back to the GLC, yet the only contribution that the GLC made to tourism was to destabilise and almost destroy the London tourist board.
Despite the GLC's lack of success with London buses and the London underground, the Labour party wants to give back to the GLC not only the buses and the underground but Network SouthEast. That would not go down well with my constituents or with many people in the south-east of England.
103 To crown it all, it is people like the extremists—in some cases, frankly, nut cases—who run some Labour authorities in London that the Labour party wants to see running London's police. The Labour party's draft document, which it did not dare to publish, refers to London policing functions. No wonder the party did not dare publish that document.
The Audit Commission must be free to cause discomfort. Of course it says things that are uncomfortable for the Government and for local authorities. Howard Davies has done a very good job there. I wonder how long he would last in the emasculated Audit Commission about which the Labour party has talked. The Labour party has form in standing up for secrecy in local government, in opposing the publication of school results or of any other kind of league table. That is why the party opposes this part of the Bill. Its approach to cost comparisons is to say that they are not fair, whereas the Conservative approach is to ask, "How can we do better? How can we provide a better service?"
The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), in a half sentence that he perhaps did not mean to utter, let the cat out of the bag. He said that the real problem was a failure of local government funding. In other words, like all of his Labour colleagues, he is promising paradise when he should be talking about priorities. Labour makes promises: a new council house building programme, more money for community care, more money for roads and pavements, more for teachers, better schools, extra equipment, new capital expenditure, leisure centres and sports facilities—and all of this to be funded without a general increase in taxation.
Labour's deputy leader has been saying to the councils, "You may not get as much as you want, but you will certainly get more." This is a deeply cynical exercise in uncosted but attractive promises. It is not so much a programme to improve services as a Labour gimmick to gain votes.
§ Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)
The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) has just done a first-rate job on behalf of the Labour party. We congratulate him on spelling out the good things that we shall be offering. We also pledge that when we are drawing up the membership of the commission we shall take into account his earlier suggestions about widening the membership. We shall even consider him in whatever new role he has at the time.
If ever there was a wolf in sheep's clothing this Bill is it. It pretends to be about local government when it is nothing of the sort. It pretends to be in favour of the user, the customer, although it does not mention quality at all. That being the case, we are right to ask what the Bill's objectives really are. Clearly, they have nothing to do with extending local democracy or with bringing local government closer to the people or about accountability. They are not even about the accessibility of services, and they are certainly not about the development of economic and social policies—something that is so often ignored in the scramble to fragment and disintegrate what was built up over the last century by local government people of all political persuasions. It is certainly not about quality, and 104 it is not about service. The words "public service" are, and for the past 13 years have been, anathema to Conservative Members.
The content of the Bill, despite its presentation in this House and in another place as being innocuous, is, in fact, a reflection of the views of the No Turning Back group of Conservative Members. Unlike the council tax legislation, its provisions can be embraced with genuine enthusiasm by the Minister of State. Instead of having to stand on his head, he is runing hard and pushing his shoulder to the wheel because, of course, he is a member of the No Turning Back group. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members who are shouting "Hear, hear" indicate the support that the No Turning Back group commands in this debate and in the Conservative party. Members of the Conservative party were nurtured—nay, bottled—on the heady milk of Margaret Thatcher's version of Conservatism. The pamphlet "Choice and Responsibility", which was supported by the Minister of State, spelt it out. It said:Local authorities, like central Government, should become enablers rather than providers … Compulsory competitive tendering should be progressively phased out and replaced by compulsory private tendering … Only public health, civil defence and local amenities need to remain an integral part of local government.That is the agenda of the No Turning Back group. That is what it stands for and that is what the Bill embodies.
Part I, which deals with the tendering process, makes the values clear. Instead of what we would consider to be a reasonable programme for the provision of services, and an increase in control by local people over such provision by holding to account those whom they elect, we have the Conservative party slogans of privatise, centralise and neutralise. Cost, not quality, ideology not competence, delivery for profit rather than service for people—those are the slogans that we have had from this regime. Those who read the Bill, the comments in press releases and the local government commission's guidelines will be able to see that.
The Secretary of State talked about cost, economy, efficiency and effectiveness but not about quality or service. If the Conservative Government were serious about a genuine effort to reach a consensus about the way in which we should mirror what is taking place in the rest of Europe—east, central and west—and in the United States and Canada with the devolving and decentralisation of services, we should be happy to reach an agreement with them. What is needed is not compulsion or dictation from the centre but people working together in the best interests of their local community.
Interestingly, the message spelt out by the ideological right in the United States is rejected by the ideological right in Britain. While they both preach the supremacy of the market and the inalienable rights of the private sector, the Americans preach a pragmatism in the provision of local services. More importantly, they advocate removing the overwhelming power of the central state to dictate, and leaving states, counties and cities to decide matters for themselves. That message is being fought within the Republican party between Pat Buchanan and George Bush.
Here, we have a strange, enforced market economy. If a local authority wins a tender, the Government try to take it away. They invent strange reasons for doing so, saying that it has used anti-competitive practices. One cannot expect the Government to accept European Community 105 rules about the "economically advantageous" projects that should be accepted when any scheme goes out to private tender but one can expect consistency. Three times in the House of Lords spokesmen contradicted themselves when asked whether that phrase should be applied.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) said, the spokesmen got themselves into an even bigger twist over the question whether cost should be the primary basis on which to judge a contract, or whether then to introduce another element so as to ensure that white collar services can be won by the private sector. In other words, they have an enveloping scheme under which there has to be a basic threshold over which people must pass before getting into the realms of simply accepting the lowest possible tender.
All of the contradiction comes because when the citizens charter was announced and the Prime Minister increased the costs of the Cabinet Office by £800,000 to pay for the work to be done on it, bringing the cost of the Cabinet Office to £22.5 million, it was announced that the PA consultancy report had been commissioned. At paragraph 1.4, the report states:It can be argued (and indeed many of our case study authorities did argue) that, given the problems with the application of CCT in the corporate service sector described above and the current existence of strong pressures to reduce central costs (described in section 2), it is neither desirable nor necessary to extend CCT into this sector at all. There is some substance to that argument.The PA report was supposed to justify the Government's programme and ensure that they could press ahead with what they wanted to do. Every professional body that had been consulted has rejected the programme and the proposals attaching to it. The winner of the Queen's gold award for the best architectural projects of the year, Mr. Stansfield Smith—for Hampshire county council schools as it happens, an authority that is proud of local provision by an in-house organisation—has described the programme as being as much aboutcheap politics as about cheap buildings".He referred also to cheap tendering. My right hon. and hon. Friends could not describe it any more succinctly than that.
The programme is intended to ensure that people can make profit out of public service rather than to achieve the goals that we see as important for ourselves. We, the Opposition, do not have only those who are in public service to support what we believe to be right. We have, for instance, the former comptroller of the Audit Commission, the new chairman of the local government commission, John Banham. At the conference of the Institute of Housing at Harrogate in 1985, Mr. Banham praised the authority of the city of which I had the privilege to be leader, describing it as the most efficient authority in Britain.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I think that once was enough, Mr. Banham said that Sheffield was a shining example. He added—this is the importance of the statement—that privatisation was the last resort of a management which had given up. That is about the ticket.
There are local government officers who are engaged in management buy-outs and others who decide to work in the private sector and pretend that they can deliver services better while being paid more than in the public sector. 106 Alternatively, they can get some rewards from shareholdings. We have Whitewater Leisure, Contemporary Leisure and all the controversy about those who used to for the Glasgow authority. They go off and tell untruths about the organisations for which they are working—in fact, downright lies—or for which they worked. I shall say that outside the House if there is anyone who is worried about privilege.
The examples that I have given show that there is a fundamental myth, which is that public service is incompetent and that the private sector is always right. It is not always in the right and we know that it is not. We know, for instance, that 76 per cent. of the services that have been put out to tender have been won in-house despite the fact that in-house organisations cannot develop the capital investment and lease equipment in the same way as the private sector. Everything that they borrow has to be put against basic credit approvals. They are bound and gagged when it comes to extending services by engaging in competition with the private sector outside the local authority.
Some of us were interested to hear the Secretary of State espousing or advocating cross-boundary tendering. I say to the hon. Member for Harrow, West that I think that the right hon. Gentleman's words will have reached the chairman of the Audit Commission. They might even have reached the legal officer, Mr. Tony Child. If that has happened, his view will change overnight. I hope so, because it would be nice to integrate—to subsume—the Audit Commission, in an orderly fashion, into our quality commission. That would provide quality for people and ensure that league tables mean what they should mean, which is a comparison of the delivery of services to people. They should show, for example, how many home helps per thousand of the population are being provided. They should show up Tory authorities for not providing nursery provision. It is 20 years since the previous Prime Minister, when she was Secretary of State for Education, promised universal nursery education for all three to five-year-olds whose parents desired it. Promises fulfilled—people standing on their heads by the dozen.
I shall cite one league table comparison that might be worth considering. Earlier today the Secretary of State chided me and said that in some way I was an advocate of his system because I used the example of refuse collection and its cost to show that his system was simple and that we were in agreement on it. He should ask Chiltern, the Buckinghamshire district that I quoted, and whose refuse collection costs a great deal, why that should be so. It is because collecting the refuse of houses in close proximity, such as terraced houses in the city of Sheffield, costs only one third of what it costs to collect the refuse of houses in the posh south-west of Sheffield, where the houses are spaced out and the collection men have to walk up long drives. In Sheffield, householders do not have to carry refuse to the end of their drives—how do we construct league tables to reflect that?
Conservative Members might like to think about the league table that I am about to cite. The Secretary of State for Education and Science is keen on people reading books. We are all keen on that. I am desperately in favour of my children learning to read books. What about the number of books issued? I am not referring to The Sunday Times cocked-up, distorted version, which CIPFA denounced after it had been printed. I shall give the figures for the number of library books issued per hundred of the 107 population across a sample of authorities. For Manchester, it is 537. Who controls Manchester? It is Labour. For Hammersmith and Fulham, the figure is 382; for Lewisham, 371; for Merton, 366; for Greenwich, 346; and for Islington, 345.
For Suffolk—a Tory authority—the figure is 129. It could manage only just over one book per person per year. For Berkshire, it is 134; for East Sussex, 149; for Cornwall, 153; and for West Sussex, 167. What a fantastically literate lot they are in Tory authorities. People talk about reading and about literacy, but they do not spend the money to enable people to achieve that. The Labour party believes in service and in spending money wisely on providing that service. We believe in a local government structure and a set of functions that enable that to happen.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) found himself in an interesting ideological twist on whether function or structure came first. He denounced function as an irrelevance and said that we needed to set up a structure. Presumably, we could invent anything that we liked. Local government could meet in a telephone box because function is not important. However, we all know that it is important and that it is the driving force of structure. We need the right finance and the right structure, but above all we need the right objectives. We need to know what we are setting out and why. We need to know the principles behind what we are doing.
If we believe, and many of us do, in unitary local government—one door to knock on and one set of people to hold to account—we must give them something to do other than riding around in a civic car pretending that they are important and delivering nothing, responsive to no demands, not aspiring to change and improvement, and not even doing what the Conservatives of old did in the Chamberlain era when there was the sort of socialism that is now anathema to the Tory party. Instead, according to the Tory party, and as spelt out in the guidelines to the commission, we have a structure that accords with the aims of the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). He is ill, and I hope that he is now improving. In one of his speeches, the right hon. Gentleman spoke of a council that met once a year to put out contracts, had a good lunch and then went home. I am sure that all Conservative Members are in favour of a good lunch; but it simply will not do.
Let me spell out what the commission's report is supposed to do. The guidelines do not talk about developing a structure that is crucial to the quality delivery of services. This is what they say about housing:Authorities also own arid manage 4 million houses nationally.Referring to assessment and monitoring, the guidelines continue:Their role in these areas of housing will be passed over to housing associations and the private sector.They speak of opting out in the primary, secondary and further education sectors; as for social services, they speak of monitoring and enabling rather than providing. Every part of appendix A talks about disabling local government, rather than enabling it to perform.
We offer something very different. We offer a decent finance system that can sustain the functions that we give to local government, and a structure that is not piecemeal, 108 but is based on identifiable communities—that is geared not to numbers alone, but to the ability to provide a decent level of service.
What the Bill offers is not local, nor is it government. It is dictation from the centre; it is administration rather than government. What is not privatised will be centralised. All that the Bill contains, and the ideology behind it—the values and principles that it espouses—must be rejected tonight in favour of genuine local democracy, and a Labour Government who will implement real policies for the people whom we represent.
§ The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. Michael Portillo)
I thank the many Conservative Members who have spoken so well in support of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who is one of the most thoughtful Members of the House in this context, described it as historic. It is indeed historic, not because reforms of local government have not taken place before—they have done so often—but because it offers a reform of the structure of local government. That structure can now be diverse, based on local choices, and it can place tremendous emphasis on community identity. Different solutions can be adopted in different places, solutions that are suited to the different needs of different people. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) was particularly strong on that point.
It struck me as extraordinary that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) should attack us on that point. To him, the idea of different solutions in different places seemed untidy—chaotic, he said. It did not meet the socialist ideal of being able to impose the same solution from Whitehall on every part of England. It appears that, over the past 20 years, the hon. Gentleman has slept soundly. The Labour party has learnt nothing about the deep-seated wish of the British people for local government structures that reflect what they feel about their local communities, and units of government that mean something to them and are not imposed on them.
§ Mr. Portillo
I am sorry; I will not give way.
Something very funny must have happened to the hon. Member for Dagenham on his way to the Chamber. Last year, when the Government announced the proposals, Labour appeared to be in favour of the reform of local government structure and the establishment of a local government commission. The hon. Member for Dagenham must have been speaking out of turn at that time; he has certainly been nobbled since.
It may well be that the policy was agreed by the shadow Cabinet, but some chance remark made by the Leader of the Opposition at Luigi's restaurant threw the whole thing into disarray. The Labour party is certainly in opposition now. I am not sure whether I am more appalled at the prospect of the Labour party being in government than I am at the prospect of having the support of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Bellotti) and the Liberal party.
Diversity is the point of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) said, backed up so eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for 109 Southend, West (Mr. Channon), we do not want this reform to result in lines being drawn on a map that will be imposed upon people. There is no need for a minimum size. There is no Whitehall model that could embrace the Isles of Scilly and the demands of Yorkshire. There is no reason, as the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) and the hon. Member for Eastbourne were concerned to know, to presume the need for joint authorities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West asked me a number of specific questions. The chairman-designate of the local government commission, Sir John Banham, is in place. I hope that soon, bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) said, we shall make more appointments to the shadow commission so that the commissioners can begin to plan their work in order that the commission can start its work shortly after Royal Assent. The Bill specifies a maximum of 15 commissioners. That number is enough to operate on a regional basis.
It should be possible for the local government commission to consider four or five different areas throughout England at any one time. The areas will differ in size. I believe that the smallest area that will be considered by the commission at any one time will be a county, with the possible exception of certain islands. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West said, it may be appropriate in some cases to consider a group of counties if clear cross-boundary issues are likely to arise during the discussion period.
The order in which we put the various parts of England under the local government commission's microscope will be for the Government to decide. It will take some years to complete that process, but that is a necessary price to pay for the flexibility that the legislation gives us. It enables us to tailor our solutions to suit the needs of different places.
We are predisposed towards unitary authorities. We believe that there are strong arguments in favour of unitary authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) spoke eloquently about them in general and about how they would apply in his particular case. When there are two tiers of local authority, people tend to become confused about who is doing what. Accountability suffers. People do not know which authority they are paying for particular services. It leads people to believe that there is excessive bureaucracy and overlap and the potential for waste. We do not want to be dogmatic. When he spoke about north Yorkshire, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said that it would be unwise for any Government to impose the same pattern on every part of England because the differences between one part of the country and another are so great.
At the beginning of his speech the hon. Member for Dagenham said that no one disagrees with the Government's wish to introduce simplicity into local government, but the fact is that the Labour party profoundly disagrees with that wish. It wishes to impose an extra tier of regional government upon the country. It does not matter to the Labour party that the regions are unpopular, or that they cannot be afforded, or that they are unwanted. The Labour party still favours introducing another layer of government, imposing it upon the people of this country and raising taxes to pay for it.
What clearly are wanted are the links that people cherish with their traditional counties. Even if the units of government are not based upon the counties, people still 110 hark back to the links that they had with the traditional counties. They are still keen on those links. There is no reason why the traditional counties should not emerge as part of the process, even if they are counties that have no administrative functions in certain places. [Laughter.] The Opposition laugh at their peril. It matters very much indeed to the people of Wirral whether they live in Cheshire or Merseyside. It matters very much to the people of Coventry whether they live in Warwickshire or in the west midlands. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) is in his place. It matters a lot to many people in Bolton whether they live in Manchester or Lancashire. Many of my constituents are deeply concerned about Middlesex.
To the people of England, it is more than a question of who administers local government: the lines on the map, the cricket teams, the Lords Lieutenants and signposts are important. To the Labour party, they are untidy matters, which is why it not only opposes these changes but laughs when they are mentioned.
The hon. Member for Dagenham wants not only to recreate a GLC but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West said, for it to be bigger and for it to control the police, which the old GLC never did. He warned us that we would pay the price. He said that a Labour Government would create a new GLC. Labour will pay the price: there will be no Labour Government because of the London effect. Once again, we shall win marginal seats in Lambeth, Haringey, Lewisham and Waltham Forest, where people are fed up with Labour government. We shall win in Brent and Ealing, where we have already turfed out the Labour party, and marginal seats in Wandsworth and Westminster, where people have seen the benefits of Conservative government. The London effect will again work in favour of the Government. One has only to look around to see Labour government in action in London.
I appreciate the courtesy of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in giving notice of the details that he wanted to raise. We shall address those points in Committee, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be happy to deal with them in correspondence. However, it would be unrealistic to do so in replying to the debate. We have sought evidence that the de minimis rule is inappropriate. In England, no such evidence has come forward, but it is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to decide whether he is convinced by the evidence.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow raised a number of other important issues that we shall want to consider in Committee and, I hope, in response to consultation.
§ Mr. Portillo
That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who will have noted the points that the hon. Gentleman made.
The hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) mentioned the fire service. I do not share his view that it is inappropriate for it to be excluded from compulsory competitive tendering. None the less, we are in a consultation period and the Home Secretary will want to take account of all the points that are made to him. As the hon. Gentleman said, the opinions of chief fire officers will obviously weigh with the Government.
111 There has been a change in the approach of local government to compulsory competitive tendering, but it appears to have been lost on the Labour party. Local government is anxious to provide better value, to improve management, and to seek competitive bids for many of the services that it provides. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I received representations from local authorities about their standard spending assessments. Hardly a single Labour or Conservative-controlled authority failed to mention the strides that they are making in improving the competitiveness of services and in putting services out to competition.
The Labour party is almost alone in the world in questioning the benefits of competitive tendering. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West gave good examples of the way in which it is improving services. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) made an eloquent speech about compulsory competitive tendering; and I was heartened by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) also realised that we were talking not about compulsory contracting out but about compulsory competitive tendering, which means that there is an opportunity for the in-house team to make a bid.
Many local authorities have moved ahead and are putting many of their services out to competitive tender. They are already investigating the scope for putting some more services—management services, computer services and the collection of moneys—out to the private sector. In compulsory competitive tendering the Government are merely bringing up the rear and ensuring that local authorities that have not yet taken advantage of those techniques are brought up to the level of the best.
How the House will have valued yet another statement from the hon. Member for Dagenham, this one to the effect that he would do something only in extremis. On this occasion, he said that if he were Secretary of State he would introduce compulsory competitive tendering only in extremis. That is yet another case of the hon. Gentleman not being able to make up his mind about his policies and he must therefore reserve the right to do precisely what is Government policy.
I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East was extremely eloquent about the importance of levelling the playing field between the private and public sectors. There have been far too many cases of abuse in which local authorities have contrived a system of competitive tendering under which only the direct service organisation could win because special conditions were imposed. Those practices must be brought to an end, and I know that my hon. Friends will strongly support the Government when we say that enough is enough and that if we are to have a compulsory competitive tendering regime, it must be one under which the private and public sectors are able to compete with absolute equality.
The hon. Member for Dagenham said that the citizens charter had been ineffective, but how wrong he was. Here we are, just a few months after the announcement of the citizens charter, legislating to improve the services provided to citizens. We are already halfway through a Bill which is a major step forward in that respect, and it is 112 breath-taking nonsense for the hon. Gentlemen to suggest that Labour authorities were pioneers in the provision of better services to their constituents. We know that Labour authorities in London and throughout the country have become bywords for poor and expensive services, for litter-ridden streets, for badly-managed housing estates, for miserable conditions and for high levels of taxation.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) raised the question of how much it cost to collect a tonne of rubbish in one place as opposed to another. It is expensive in Wandsworth because the streets are swept every day. I suspect that it would be cheaper to collect a tonne of rubbish in Lambeth on the basis of an annual sweep of the streets because, to pick up a tonne of rubbish there, one would hardly have to stir from the spot. That is the experience of many people living in Lambeth. We shall introduce a system of measurements so that people in different local authority areas will know precisely to what standard their local services are being provided.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) criticised the Government for not slavishly following the advice given by consultants. In this Government it is the Ministers who decide on policy, not the consultants. It gave us a good insight into a Labour Government. A Labour Government would bear the impression that the last consultant laid upon them. The Opposition have no philosophy of their own. Presumably, they would set out on one course of action, receive a consultants' report which would blow them off their course, the journalists would then be summoned to Luigi's restaurant and policy would once again be changed.
Labour is offering to people who are presently enjoying the benefits of compulsory competitive tendering a promise to scrap it. It offers to those who demand quality the abolition of the Audit Commission, something to which it is pledged. Labour offers to all those who want simpler local government a new tier of expensive regional government.
We offer higher quality services brought about by competition, we offer better information to the public about the standards of service which they will receive, and we offer to reform local government to reflect wishes and natural communities. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 276, Noes 221.115
|Division No. 43]||[10 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)|
|Alexander, Richard||Benyon, W.|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Bevan, David Gilroy|
|Allason, Rupert||Biffen, Rt Hon John|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Blackburn, Dr John G.|
|Amess, David||Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Amos, Alan||Body, Sir Richard|
|Arbuthnot, James||Boscawen, Hon Robert|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Boswell, Tim|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas||Bottomley, Peter|
|Ashby, David||Bottomley, Mrs Virginia|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Bowden, A. (Brighton K'pto'n)|
|Atkins, Robert||Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)|
|Atkinson, David||Bowis, John|
|Baldry, Tony||Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard|
|Batiste, Spencer||Brazier, Julian|
|Bellingham, Henry||Bright, Graham|
|Bendall, Vivian||Brooke, Rt Hon Peter|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Harris, David|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Burns, Simon||Hayes, Jerry|
|Burt, Alistair||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Butler, Chris||Hayward, Robert|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Carrington, Matthew||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Carttiss, Michael||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda||Hill, James|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Hind, Kenneth|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Chope, Christopher||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Churchill, Mr||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth)||Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Clark, Rt Hon Sir William||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Hunt, Rt Hon David|
|Colvin, Michael||Hunter, Andrew|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Irvine, Michael|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Irving, Sir Charles|
|Cope, Rt Hon Sir John||Jack, Michael|
|Couchman, James||Jackson, Robert|
|Cran, James||Janman, Tim|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Jessel, Toby|
|Curry, David||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Jones, Robert B (Herts W)|
|Day, Stephen||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Devlin, Tim||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Key, Robert|
|Dicks, Terry||Kilfedder, James|
|Dorrell, Stephen||King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Knapman, Roger|
|Dover, Den||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Dunn, Bob||Latham, Michael|
|Durant, Sir Anthony||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Eggar, Tim||Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)||Lightbown, David|
|Evennett, David||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Farr, Sir John||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Favell, Tony||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Maclean, David|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Mans, Keith|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)|
|Fookes, Dame Janet||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Forman, Nigel||Maxwell-Hyslop, Sir Robin|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Mills, Iain|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Franks, Cecil||Mitchell, Sir David|
|Freeman, Roger||Moate, Roger|
|French, Douglas||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Fry, Peter||Moore, Rt Hon John|
|Gale, Roger||Morrison, Sir Charles|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Gill, Christopher||Moss, Malcolm|
|Glyn, Dr Sir Alan||Moynihan, Hon Colin|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Neale, Sir Gerrard|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Nelson, Anthony|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Norris, Steve|
|Gregory, Conal||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Grist, Ian||Page, Richard|
|Grylls, Sir Michael||Paice, James|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Patnick, Irvine|
|Hague, William||Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath)|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Archie||Patten, Rt Hon John|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Pawsey, James|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Hannam, Sir John||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Portillo, Michael||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Price, Sir David||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Redwood, John||Thompson, Sir D. (Calder V)|
|Riddick, Graham||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas||Thorne, Neil|
|Ridsdale, Sir Julian||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Roe, Mrs Marion||Tracey, Richard|
|Rost, Peter||Tredinnick, David|
|Rowe, Andrew||Trippier, David|
|Rumbold, Rt Hon Mrs Angela||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Sackville, Hon Tom||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Viggers, Peter|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Shelton, Sir William||Walden, George|
|Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)||Walker, Bill (T'side North)|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Waller, Gary|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Shersby, Michael||Warren, Kenneth|
|Skeet, Sir Trevor||Watts, John|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Wells, Bowen|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Wheeler, Sir John|
|Speed, Keith||Whitney, Ray|
|Speller, Tony||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Wilkinson, John|
|Squire, Robin||Wilshire, David|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Steen, Anthony||Wolfson, Mark|
|Stevens, Lewis||Wood, Timothy|
|Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)||Yeo, Tim|
|Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Stewart, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Stokes, Sir John||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Sumberg, David||Mr. Nicholas Baker and|
|Summerson, Hugo||Mr. Timothy Kirkhope.|
|Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley, N.)||Clay, Bob|
|Allen, Graham||Clelland, David|
|Anderson, Donald||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Cohen, Harry|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Cook, Frank (Stockton N)|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Cook, Robin (Livingston)|
|Ashton, Joe||Corbett, Robin|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Cousins, Jim|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Crowther, Stan|
|Barron, Kevin||Cryer, Bob|
|Battle, John||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Beckett, Margaret||Cunningham, Dr John|
|Beith, A. J.||Dalyell, Tam|
|Bell, Stuart||Darling, Alistair|
|Bellotti, David||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Dewar, Donald|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Dixon, Don|
|Blair, Tony||Doran, Frank|
|Blunkett, David||Dunnachie, Jimmy|
|Boyes, Roland||Eadie, Alexander|
|Bradley, Keith||Edwards, Huw|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Enright, Derek|
|Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)||Evans, John (St Helens N)|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)|
|Caborn, Richard||Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)|
|Callaghan, Jim||Fatchett, Derek|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Faulds, Andrew|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Fearn, Ronald|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Fisher, Mark|
|Carr, Michael||Flannery, Martin|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Flynn, Paul|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Foster, Derek|
|Foulkes, George||Litherland, Robert|
|Fraser, John||Livingstone, Ken|
|Fyfe, Maria||Livsey, Richard|
|Galloway, George||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Garrett, John (Norwich South)||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)||Loyden, Eddie|
|George, Bruce||McAllion, John|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||McCartney, Ian|
|Gordon, Mildred||Macdonald, Calum A.|
|Gould, Bryan||McFall, John|
|Graham, Thomas||McKelvey, William|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||McLeish, Henry|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||McMaster, Gordon|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||McWilliam, John|
|Hain, Peter||Madden, Max|
|Hardy, Peter||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Marek, Dr John|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Haynes, Frank||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Martlew, Eric|
|Henderson, Doug||Maxton, John|
|Hinchliffe, David||Meacher, Michael|
|Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall)||Meale, Alan|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Michael, Alun|
|Home Robertson, John||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Hood, Jimmy||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Howells, Geraint||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)||Morley, Elliot|
|Hoyle, Doug||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Mullin, Chris|
|Illsley, Eric||Murphy, Paul|
|Ingram, Adam||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Janner, Greville||O'Brien, William|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||O'Hara, Edward|
|Jones, leuan (Ynys Môn)||O'Neill, Martin|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Parry, Robert|
|Kennedy, Charles||Patchett, Terry|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Pendry, Tom|
|Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Kumar, Dr. Ashok||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Lambie, David||Radice, Giles|
|Lamond, James||Randall, Stuart|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Redmond, Martin|
|Leighton, Ron||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Lewis, Terry||Reid, Dr John|
|Robinson, Geoffrey||Stott, Roger|
|Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)||Strang, Gavin|
|Rogers, Allan||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Rooker, Jeff||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Rooney, Terence||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Turner, Dennis|
|Rowlands, Ted||Walley, Joan|
|Ruddock, Joan||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Wareing, Robert N.|
|Sheerman, Barry||Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Short, Clare||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Skinner, Dennis||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)||Wilson, Brian|
|Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)||Winnick, David|
|Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)||Worthington, Tony|
|Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)||Wray, Jimmy|
|Snape, Peter||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Spearing, Nigel||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Steel, Rt Hon Sir David||Mr. Ken Eastham and|
|Steinberg, Gerry||Mr. Allen McKay.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).