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Department for Communities and Local Government — Central and Local Government

Part of Estimates Day — [1st Allotted Day] — Vote on Account, 2010-11 — Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 3:47 pm on 10th December 2009.

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Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West 3:47 pm, 10th December 2009

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try and moderate what I say to make sure that there is ample space for other Members.

I want to begin by setting the scene for the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on the balance of power between central Government and local government. Over several decades, the pattern in this country seems to have been that of a pendulum swinging backwards and forwards. First it lurches towards centralism, then it swings back in the other direction towards localism before swinging back towards centralism again. The overall trend in the past century has been towards a reduction in the numbers of elected people, if one takes all levels together and excludes MPs, and there has also been a substantial reduction in the powers of local government. However, although that has been the overall trend, the pendulum has undoubtedly swung the other way too. Those of us who were in local government before we came to this place will certainly have experienced times when local government was even more constrained than it is at present.

I think that we need to be aware that the pendulum that I have described exists. At the moment, it seems to me that there is a willingness-or at least an expressed willingness-among all the political parties to lurch towards localism, and away from centralism. The Select Committee's report is therefore extremely timely, in that it looks at what it considers to be appropriate ways to give more power to local government and ensure that we have a much less centralised process.

Those hon. Members who have read the report will be aware that, in coming to our view, we took evidence from a number of witnesses, and that we also visited Denmark and Sweden. We made that visit because local government in those countries has a lot more freedom than is the case here, and also runs a wider range of services. It was interesting to see their system in operation and to discover that it was not quite as localised and free from central control as perhaps one might have thought from looking from the outside.

I also ought to make the point that we have received the Government's response to many of the recommendations in our report, but we agreed with the Government that we did not want their response to all of them, because at that point they were still consulting on some of the changes that they had proposed. We felt it would be inappropriate for the Government to say either that they had not come to a view and would do so at the end of the consultation or that they had come to a view when the public consultation was still going on-that would have looked somewhat odd. We have received only a partial response, but that was by agreement and we hope that the final response, including the Government's response to the public consultation, will be given at the end of this month.

I wish to go through a few of the main points in the report to set the scene. First, I wish to restate that, notwithstanding the swings back and forth in the relationship between local and central Government in England-of course, the report was considering only the arrangements in England-we have one of the most centralised systems in the whole of Europe. We discovered as we were undertaking our investigation that this is not simply a matter of local government and central Government imposing controls; it is about a whole culture in this country of centralism. We feel that that manifests itself in the way in which even though there has been a lightening up of the controls, some councils have been backward about pushing the margins and taking on the freedoms that they have. It is as if they have got into a culture of waiting for direction from the centre, even when they have the freedom to do more.

The culture of centralism certainly affects the public at large. If they were asked whether they would like more decisions to be taken locally, they would generally speak in favour of that, yet they complain if there is any variation between the service delivered by their own council and that delivered by the one next door-this is the so-called 'postcode lottery'. Of course, there cannot be increased freedom and flexibility for local councils without variations in outcome. Therefore, the public are in a bit of a schizophrenic mood about whether they really want their local council to have the freedom to decide on the level and standard of services or whether they would prefer central Government to lay down standards and their local council to be held to them.

This is also about the press and the media. The example that we cited over and over in our report was the baby P case in Haringey. I do not want to get into the details of that but, in essence, as soon as it happened, horrific though the case was, it was being discussed in Parliament, the Opposition were requiring Ministers to respond and Ministers felt that they had to respond. However, in reality, the case involved a failure at the local level on the part of the council, and the police and the local health service-they are the ones who should be held to account. The local councillors and the local council officials are the ones who should have been put on the spot by the media and by the people in the borough concerned; they should not have gone to central Government level to take people to task. Our colleagues in Sweden and Denmark said that that would not have happened in their countries; if there was a comparable case in those countries, the national press would not demand that the Secretary of State stand up to comment.

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