Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [ Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:06 pm on 1st June 2009.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley 5:06 pm, 1st June 2009

The history of the last 65 years is one of increasing centralisation of democracy in this country, in three phases. After the second world war and until the 1970s, the utilities and health services were taken out of local government hands, in many cases for good reasons. After two world wars and lack of investment, the gas and electricity industries and many hospitals were not in a good state. None the less, services that had been developed locally and were responsive to local electors were nationalised, and eventually, in the next phase, they were privatised.

Baroness Thatcher started the next phase, which lasted through the 1980s and into the 1990s. It involved more centralisation, but with an explicit and direct hostility towards local democracy. The Conservative party then fundamentally believed that services were better provided by the private sector. Nicholas Ridley believed that councils should meet only once a year to hand out contracts to the private sector to deliver services. If something could not be done by the private sector, quangos were considered better than local democracy.

The third phase is that of my Government, who have been much gentler with local democracy; the rhetoric has been different. Even so, there has been an increase in centralisation and central missives to local authorities, to the absurd extent that, in one year, the Secretary of State for education sent out 4,000 pages to head teachers alone. That is extraordinary. Quangos have frequently been preferred to local councils because Ministers said that delivery of local services was often patchy. When considering quangos, "patchy" is a description to which one would aspire when assessing some services that they produced.

Most of the decisions by central Government and by the officials who make recommendations to Ministers have been based on the myth that central Government are more efficient, effective and economical than local government. I am prepared to give way to any Minister or other hon. Member who can provide evidence to show that the delivery of services by central Government is better than by local government. Most local authorities keep within their budgets when most parts of central Government have a poor record of doing so. Indeed, if we assessed the worst local authorities in the 1980s—Hackney and Liverpool are not controversial examples of poor local authorities—against the Home Office, which a previous Home Secretary described as dysfunctional, which would be found to be the better deliverer of services? Would it be the Home Office, which regularly loses my constituents' records and overspends its budget, or the Hackney and Liverpool of the 1980s?

One can make all sorts of comparisons with quangos that deliver government services and with local authorities that are not doing so well currently, and I will give a couple of examples before getting to the details of the Bill. I am not making party political points, but I doubt whether there was any more profligate or inefficient waste of money under the previous Conservative Government than the Child Support Agency, which has not delivered services. If anything was a greater waste of money, as well as being unfair, it was the poll tax, which we are still paying for in extra VAT. The poll tax was completely unfair and cost us about £20 billion. However, the Learning and Skills Council, a more recent quango set up by my Government that we are part way through investigating in the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, has let a capital programme get out of hand in a way that I have never witnessed in a local authority.

The Learning and Skills Council has not only let a capital programme get completely out of hand, but— [ Interruption. ] I suspect that my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford is saying that he has seen some local authority budgets get out of hand, and they have. However, I doubt whether he has seen anything like what the Learning and Skills Council did. Not only did the budget get out of hand, but the Learning and Skills Council changed all the priorities, so that, under a Labour Government, the money went to the wealthiest areas in the country and the poorest areas got very little. In Yorkshire, Bradford got nothing and the adjacent rich Tory areas got a great deal of capital expenditure. Indeed, we can look all around the country for further examples.

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