The functions of local government have always been subject to change. The Government believe that responsibility should be delegated to the level most consistent with competence, practicality and cost-effectiveness.
Does the Minister realise that millions of people, of all parties and of none, deplore the fact that local authorities have been denuded of so many of their powers and functions since the Conservative Government came to power? Local self-government has been replaced by a vast quangocracy stuffed with Tory placemen and placewomen who are accountable to no one other than the most highly centralising Government in all Europe. Does that not amount to disfranchisement of the electors at local level?
I never quite understand why the hon. Gentleman is so attached to the impenetrable bureaucracy of Whitehall, county hall and town hall. What we are concerned about is the delivery of services closer to the people. It is the people who count—not the bureaucrats or, for that matter, the councils. The hon. Gentleman will know that, for example, in Merseyside there is an urban development corporation, on the board of which there are three councillors, spending £156 million; a city challenge programme with provision of £131 million; a task force; and an objective 1 programme of £354 million. If he takes such exception to all of those, I am sure that we can arrange to cancel the funding.
Representing, as I do, a part of the borough of Macclesfield in Cheshire, which has one of only two councils in the whole north-west region that still have overall Conservative control, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he accepts that among some Conservative Members there is a strong feeling that if local government is to continue to exist it must have a range of reasonable and sensible responsibilities? Otherwise, we shall not get people of the right calibre to serve on councils. Will my hon. Friend ensure that local authorities continue to have proper, full and meaningful responsibilities so that we may continue to have that level of government in the United Kingdom?
Of course—that is precisely why, for example, care in the community and the administration of housing benefit have recently been passed back to local government. What matters is the quality of the service to the person who is receiving it. That is what government at all levels is about. It does not matter so much who delivers a service; what matters is that it should be provided efficiently. The obsession with county hall, city hall or Whitehall seems to me to be forgetting the essential ingredient—the person on the receiving end, whom government is there to benefit.
When considering restoring powers to local authorities, will the Minister do so in the light of the 1991 "Index of Local Conditions", which shows relative deprivation in our cities and which the Minister slid into the Library this morning without even providing copies for the parliamentary press? Will he look at what has happened since he took powers away from local authorities such as Leicester which, instead of being one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, is now among the 10 per cent. most deprived areas in this country?
If the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that that is a function of local government powers, he is rather more imaginative than I had credited him. Local government has a remarkable opportunity in the shape of the single regeneration budget and programmes such as city challenge. Local government can act as an assembler of all the resources of the community to tackle particular problems. That is a new and much more exciting challenge than it has had in the past. The single regeneration budget, working with the private sector and public authorities, can make this work. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman should spend his time telling Leicester to get stuck into all that, instead of complaining about its powers.
While my hon. Friend discusses the possibility of returning powers to councils, especially in Merseyside, will he give me an assurance today that my constituents in Southport will have the chance to have returned to them the powers associated with unitary authority status which they enjoyed before 1974? Will he assure me that the Local Government Commission will listen to their pleas as early as 1995, so that we can get out of Sefton and get back on our own again? Sandgrounders rightly deserve that opportunity.
Nothing better confirms the degree to which current Ministers and the party in Government have become infected with the virus of centralisation than the threat that the whole House heard the Minister issue to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing)—the threat that the funding for various bodies in Liverpool would be cancelled if my hon. Friend did not like what was going on. Does the Minister not understand that it is exactly that kind of arbitrary and capricious exercise of power that voters object to?
If the Minister is seriously concerned to return power to the people, why has he been a member of an Administration who have has passed more than 144 separate Acts centralising more and more power over local authorities and taking away from locally elected people the control of more than £24 billion of public spending?
The hon. Gentleman does not want power to the people—he wants power to the councils, which is not always the same thing. That is the fundamental difference between us. We have passed power to the people. We have passed power to school governors, to parents and to people who live on council estates. That is what passing power to the people means. Why is the hon. Gentleman obsessed with passing power to councillors, which is by no means the same thing or the most efficient way of doing things?
As the review is still in progress, all aspects of local government reorganisation in Nottinghamshire are a matter for the Local Government Commission, including the costing of options for structural change.
Yes, one of the strong arguments in favour of unitary authorities is the straightforward idea of accountability. Having two local authorities can often confuse people and it is not always clear which is rendering a particular service. As my hon. Friend says, this can present particular difficulties in relation to council tax bills, since the lion's share—that rendered by the county council —has to be collected by the district council.
Is the Minister aware that the figures range from about £600 million to more than £1 billion for the transitional changes? Those changes will have to be met by cuts in services as the Government do not plan to put in any other money to meet their cost. Was there a delay in Nottinghamshire because the commission now recognises that no one in Nottinghamshire either wants the change or wishes to pay for it?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman's last comment is accurate. I suggest that he reads the comments of his Front-Bench colleagues in our local government debates.
My hon. Friend says that the hon. Gentleman should not bother, but it might be helpful for him to see that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen purport to be in favour of unitary authorities. As to savings, some of the figures that have been bandied around are grossly exaggerated. Certainly each of the reorganisations agreed so far by the Local Government Commission estimates that the savings and receipts at the outset will well outweigh the initial costs and that thereafter the savings will be continuous year on year. We have made it clear that we expect substantial long-term savings to follow the Local Government Commission recommendations.