I thank the Minister for her kind remarks. In reincarnated form, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and I look forward to plenty of enjoyment as the hon. Lady and the Government face the consequences of dashed expectations among their local government supporters.
Although I have spoken in Committee, this is the first time that I have spoken in the House since my election on 1 May. I begin by paying tribute to the hard work of my predecessor, Mrs. Maddock, for her constituents following her by-election victory in the previous Parliament. She was my councillor when I was the Member for Southampton, Itchen and I now enjoy the responsibility of being her Member of Parliament. Her commitment to local government issues can best be judged by the fact that during the general election campaign, which ran in parallel with Dorset county council elections, many constituents thought, albeit mistakenly, that she was their county councillor.
When I was first elected as a councillor in 1974, the aldermanic system still operated and the person whom I defeated immediately became an alderman. People in Christchurch await with interest to know whether Mrs. Maddock will be appointed to the parliamentary equivalent of aldermanic status—membership of another place.
The Opposition support the generality of the Bill. I understand that we probably would have introduced a Bill in not dissimilar terms if we had been in government. The Bill complements the Local Authorities (Capital Finance) Regulations 1997, which were introduced by the outgoing Conservative Government to facilitate partnerships between local government and the private sector.
We welcome the Government's conversion to the private finance initiative. I am the first to admit that the Minister's conversion goes back many months if not years. In the case of the Secretary of State for Health, we await hard evidence that there has been such a conversion. When he was Labour's spokesman on the environment, he criticised the Conservative Government and emphasised the limits of the PFI approach. Old Labour used to regard the PFI as the son of privatisation and, therefore, to be despised. However, it seems that such attitudes have changed and the Opposition welcome that.
The publication today of the conclusions of the Bates review of the PH is encouraging. One of its conclusions states:
The Government should take an early opportunity to make a confirmatory announcement of its commitment to PFI as one method of conducting successful public-private partnerships.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) questioned the Government's commitment to the PFI, and he can draw support from the implication in that conclusion from the Bates review that up to now the Government have not confirmed their absolute commitment to the PFI. The Minister for the Environment is quoted as having said on 16 May in relation to design, build, finance and operate schemes:
I do think there are problems with DBFO. One of which is finance. The operator provides the money up front, but the payback period is very considerable and that is a constraint on future public expenditure.
The Minister was expressing the underlying Government doubts about the PFI. Far from reinvigorating the PFI, the Government have allowed it to drift for many weeks. Seven weeks after peremptorily sacking the chairman of the private finance panel, the Government have still not appointed anyone to take charge and drive the PFI process forward. There will now be yet more delay before a chief executive is appointed to head the new Treasury private finance task force. Only last week, the Minister of Transport announced, not to the House in a statement, which he should have done, but in a written answer, a moratorium on new road building projects, putting DBFO schemes at risk—so much for speeding up the PFI
. Today's announcement is yet another example of the Labour party behaving in government as if it were still in opposition, rearranging the deckchairs without making any substantive improvements. It beggars belief that the way to inject greater urgency into the PFI should be to give the public sector more control and to put the Treasury in charge.