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I think that in the light of the earlier point of order I should explain that although I am an ethnic minority immigrant from the Commonwealth, I am also a British national. Safety first! No comments about going back, please.
The Chairman of the Committee has ambled all the way through the report, so I will make my speech somewhat shorter. The inquiry looked into the long-standing sources of conflict between central Government and local government. I found it particularly interesting given my history of being both poacher and gamekeeper-or, as some would say, poacher and poacher.
In many ways, local government acts on behalf of central Government; to some degree, it subcontracts to central Government. The situation is very similar in most western democracies. It is therefore understandable that central Government would wish for some measure of control over local government. Again, that applies in most western democracies. The interest and concern arises in relation to the degree of that control. In England, central Government control is clearly excessive, in my belief, and it has increased markedly since 1997. The minutiae of control was imposed from very early on following the 1997 election. When I served on the Committee that considered the "best value" Bill, which became the Local Government Act 1999, I saw these measures being introduced with a very heavy hand. There was monitoring, audits and reports from local government to Government Departments-not just the Department for Communities and Local Government, as the Chairman of the Committee pointed out, but other Departments. In those days, of course, the DCLG was the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The best value legislation is notorious among councils, because it gave the Secretary of State the power to take over local authorities, literally.
Since 1997, councils have been loaded with targets to meet and judgments from the Government on quality, many of which have been based more on process than service quality. The current Secretary of State justified that under questioning by the Committee by saying that he believed the majority of councils in 1997 were of poor quality. He is possibly right; after all, the greatest proportion of councils in 1997 were Labour-controlled.
Hand in hand with councils struggling to manage with those central instructions, inspections and so on have come costs, which are moved on to the council tax payer. There has been a huge rise in council tax since 1997, with little change in the number of services provided. Much of it has been imposed as a result of Government audits and so on. For example, one local authority in my area is a tiny one called Mole Valley district council. A couple of years back, its comparative performance assessment was undertaken. It was a huge event for the council, and its officers, particularly its senior officers, worked on it for weeks beforehand and for the time that the auditors were there. To some degree, the council stalled as a result. It cost it £250,000, but because of gearing it cost the council tax payer £1 million, for little or no gain that I can see.
As I mentioned, one of the biggest bones of contention for local authorities is the myriad targets, and the Government have latterly accepted that there are too many. It has been a source of amusement to see the pride of various Secretaries of State as they have announced with an air of smiling benevolence that the number of targets would be reduced, ignoring the fact that the mountain of targets was put in place by either them or their predecessors in the first place. I suppose one could call it "grand old Duke of York syndrome"-march us up the pile of targets and then march us down again.
The problem, which the Committee Chairman touched on, is that although the DCLG cut the raw number of targets, a number of them were amalgamated so that there was no actual diminution. As she pointed out, other Departments went on loading on new targets. Certain freedoms have been announced recently, often with a flourish, such as in capital borrowing. However, that freedom is not really in place, because although in theory councils can borrow with much greater freedom, there is still a tight rein on grant and council tax, and therefore on the revenue side of capital. Even worse, the Government have taken away many local authorities' capital receipts and redistributed them elsewhere.
At face value, there are now only 198 national indicators. As I said, however, there are sub-indicators within them, so that figure does not give a true picture. The inspection regime has changed, and instead of concentrating on quality of service and value for money it is moving into other areas such as-I could not believe this-inspecting work force management. Councils that like to test the market for service providers are now crippled by legislative changes that make it virtually impossible for them to do that properly. Such action is now essentially a waste of money, particularly for councils with in-house services, because the system set up in law cripples potential private competitors.
For decades, local councils have worked with partners-that is the buzz word and has been for a long time-which may be private sector contractors or other public sector bodies such as the national health service and the police. I remember that before I came into the House, such partnerships were used by most of the local authorities that I knew well without mandatory statutory imposition from the Government. Now the Government are getting in on the act and setting up regulated, mandatory local strategic partnerships. They appear to have rules of engagement and require detailed assessment, with the usual flags of so-called performance all going on to a website that claims to grade councils from "good" to "poor". Once again, valuable senior council officers will spend hours of valuable time rushing around, tailed by Audit Commission officers, ticking boxes that are more about process than the situation on the ground that the public would like. To make matters worse, many of those partnerships are now going to be tied into a system that does not reflect the fact that different partners may have different, conflicting priorities. Those should, but will not, be reflected in the flags that go on the appropriate website.
There is a marked contrast between Ministers' and local governments' view of the balance of power. In fact, the tail end of paragraph 28 of the report puts that in a moderate and generous way:
"There remains a sizeable gap between the newly empowered local government that the Government believes it has established in principle, and the actual impact as witnessed at the local level."
That summarises the essence of the report. It is about time-long overdue-that central Government, whichever party is in control, get off the back and out of the pocket of local government.
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