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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

I am not going to comment on the detail of that, because I suspect that I take a rather different view from the hon. Gentleman on that review, the proposals and the objections. However, this is an example of where a decision is being taken centrally, although it is a matter of debate among members of the public as to whether that is the appropriate place for such a decision to be taken. On child protection, the public have proved themselves to be resistant to leaving local councils to get on with it and appear to have much more confidence in central Government.

In parenthesis, in another inquiry that the Committee has completed on the Supporting People programme, it was very interesting that many of the people who gave us evidence on services for people with drug addictions, the vulnerable homeless and victims of domestic violence-groups who might be perceived to have a pretty low profile with the local electorate-were very twitchy about removing central controls. They were not confident that local councils would respond to the demands. I am not saying that they are right to be so, but that simply is a fact. The people supporting those groups had more confidence in central Government than they did in local government.

I simply want to make the point that was made to us very forcefully by Dr. Vernon Bogdanor, who is of course a constitutional expert. We asked him whether we needed a constitutional change and he said that we need a cultural change. This is not just a question of changing the rules-it is much more wide ranging than changing the rules and regulations, and who decides them. We need a huge cultural change, which it is probably a bit beyond Parliament to create. Obviously, we should do what we can.

That is the opening point that I wanted to make about the background. On the central and local relationship, it is also interesting that although the Government, in their evidence, could point out a number of steps that they had taken that appeared to reduce the level of control over local government and to start nudging it slightly towards greater localisation, the Government's assessment of how far they had gone down the road towards lightening up was a bit further down the road than the progress perceived by most councils.

The Committee effectively recommended that councils must be given much greater flexibility in the breadth and standard of services that they deliver and much greater power to vary that as well as a much greater ability to raise a bigger proportion of their income, and not to be so reliant on the Government. Let me touch on those aspects of the report, but before I do so, I want to make what might be considered a philosophical point. We were in favour of more devolution not simply because locally determined services were likely to be more responsive to local need and therefore more effective and, probably, more cost-efficient, but because we felt that it would strengthen local democracy to have much more decided locally. That itself would strengthen the democratic fabric of the country. Democracy is seamless and if people had a clear understanding of, and greater involvement in, local democracy, they would be more likely to feel that they had more of a commitment to, and involvement in, the democratic process at a national level and a regional level, if appropriate, too.

The second point about allowing councils to raise a bigger proportion of their income is that we cannot get local accountability unless we have much greater local control of income and spending. Otherwise, there is no obvious link for local voters between what they are paying in council tax and the quality and breadth of the services that they receive. At the moment, some 75 to 80 per cent. of the councils' income comes, in one way or another, from central Government grants. The relationship between the level of council tax and the quality and breadth of services is therefore pretty minimal.

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