HC Deb 09 February 1999 vol 325 cc101-3
1. Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

When he plans to publish his proposals to establish the beacon council scheme. [68263]

12. Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

When he will publish his proposals to establish the beacon council scheme. [68275]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

Today, we have published a prospectus on the beacon council scheme. The scheme will recognise the best councils as centres of excellence, from which we can all learn. We want the best public services for people in this country, and the scheme will help all those councils to give the best value and a better deal to local people.

Mrs. Dean

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the superb timing of that publication. I had no idea that my question would produce such instant results. I welcome the scheme and the opportunity that it gives for local government to develop excellent services for local people. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that beacon councils spread best practice to other local authorities?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend is right—her timing is perfect. The Government intend that beacon councils will be selected by Government on the advice of an independent advisory panel. We are also working in partnership with the Local Government Association to co-ordinate a national programme to spread best practice. The beacon councils will have to be willing to do the job of spreading best practice, because we intend not only that there should be excellence, but that others should learn from it. We are therefore insisting on this approach and encouraging councils to adopt it.

Mr. Campbell

My right hon. Friend knows that Blyth Valley council in my constituency hopes to take up the flag as a beacon council after the May elections. Although I am not entirely convinced, I wish the programme every success. I have my doubts, but we shall have to wait and see. What difference will the scheme make to the taxpayers of Blyth Valley—in other words, will there be any more money?

Mr. Prescott

The House will recognise my hon. Friend's comments as an enthusiastic endorsement. He asks an important question about the costs involved in the scheme. We are concerned about the local taxpayer. We are making available up to £700,000 in various grants for the seminars and visits, so there is no charge as such on local authorities who have the benefit of a centre of excellence. Moreover, if councils enjoy beacon status, they will already have demonstrated very good practice, from which local council taxpayers will already benefit.

Madam Speaker

Mr. Crispin Blunt.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)


Madam Speaker

I thought I was more articulate than that.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

What chance is there of Reigate and Banstead becoming a beacon council, when its resources from central Government are undergoing a real cut? The Deputy Prime Minister told me in the House last Thursday: The hon. Gentleman's authority, like all the others, will receive more than it did last year. That is a basic fact."—[Official Report, 4 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 1140.] That is not true. In his letter to me yesterday, why did the Deputy Prime Minister not have the grace to apologise and admit that he had misled me and the House? He should not pretend that less is more.

Mr. Prescott

I shall deal with one beacon at a time.

I am not aware that the charge of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) is justified at all, but I shall look into the matter and write to him. If I have made a mistake, of course I will apologise. I do not believe that to be the case, but let us wait and see. I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman.

We want to encourage excellence. The scheme goes further than the charter marks that were developed by the previous Administration. Those did reward excellence, but we want other authorities to learn from beacon councils. We believe that the scheme will benefit councils, taxpayers and the cities in which they reside.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

In principle, we welcome any scheme that makes local authorities centres of excellence that enhance the quality of service and the cost-effectiveness of services provided to local communities. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, however, that we question how effective the initiative will be, given that over the past 12 months there has been a cancer of corruption in Labour local authorities such as Walsall, Rotherham and Doncaster?

Mr. Prescott

The House is concerned about excellence in local authorities and will condemn corruption wherever it takes place. The Government have done so wherever corruption has taken place, in Labour or Tory authorities. When the charter mark was given out under the previous Administration, there was mass corruption in Westminster but not a word of condemnation from the previous Administration.

We should lift our horizons a little and get away from the politicking between parties on these matters. I readily recognise that the charter mark was one small step forward. I believe that this scheme is better because it establishes excellence by recognising it and getting other authorities to follow that example. That is what the House would want and that is what we are proposing. A little more objectivity in the comments from the Opposition would be welcome.