Local Communities — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:14 pm on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 12:14 pm, 1st July 2010

My Lords, it is a real privilege to speak in this House for the first time and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on securing this important debate.

I note that other maiden speeches normally start with thanks, and I will come on to those. I also note that many have talked about their family associations with this place. I am afraid to tell your Lordships that, in the same way that I have not inherited Labour politics, I have no genetic links to your Lordships' House, but I am delighted to have the chance to take a title. There was much discussion on my Facebook page about what it should be. Someone congratulated me on gaining more titles this year than the England football team. Others suggested an association with my favourite football team, the Arsenal, but having closely studied the Code of Conduct I felt that "Knight of the Emirates" might give rise to the suspicion of sponsorship.

In keeping with a debate on localism, I am delighted to have a title from where I live, Weymouth-a town that I was so pleased to represent in the other place for nine years. I thank the electors of South Dorset not just for those wonderful years as their Labour voice in Parliament but for not renewing my contract in May, because otherwise I would not be here now. I also thank my staff, supporters, and most importantly my family. In the case of the latter, I do so more by way of apology for not being around to reciprocate the support they give me in my political career. Finally, let me thank the staff here as well as so many of your Lordships, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. You have all made me most welcome.

I have wrestled with localism throughout my political career. As mayor of Frome in Somerset and as deputy leader of Mendip District Council, I developed a real appreciation of how much difference an active councillor can make, particularly working in harmony with like-minded comrades. Indeed in those days, especially in planning and economic development, I had more immediate power to influence people's day-to-day lives than I probably did last year when I served in the Cabinet. Localism is close to people, and at its best engages and empowers them, but centralism also has its merits.

Last year, I was responsible for a massive centralised delivery machine in the form of Jobcentre Plus-an executive agency that employs around 80,000 staff who by and large do a great job, as evidenced by the fact that 90 per cent of customers get back into work within a year of unemployment. This machine had to respond to the worst global recession in 70-odd years and prevent the unemployment effects of a large sudden contraction in the economy. The predictions-the almost racing certainty of a year ago-of more than 3 million unemployed and a lost generation of young people were confounded, at least for now, because we in government had the levers and the central delivery system to respond fast and effectively.

Given how necessary and fashionable it is now to talk about doing more for less, it is also worth saying that I had departmental responsibility for procurement. In common with my successor in the new Government, I continued with larger and better value-for-money contracts despite the conflict with localism.

I therefore counsel a pragmatic approach to this subject. Localism is not an ideology; nor should it be yet more government spin. Instead, it should be about delivering power to people to influence change as locally as is reasonably possible: what Sir John Major called subsidiarity. One of the few things that I did in the Department for Work and Pensions that is not now being undone by my successors is the introduction of local flexibility in Jobcentre Plus. Yes, it is a central organisation, but it has room for local managers to respond to local circumstances and find new ways of delivering the agreed outcomes.

In that, I built on my experience as Schools Minister for three years. In England, we have one of the most delegated schools systems in the world. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, who introduced the local management of schools. This has been extended and developed by successive Ministers, so that around 90 per cent of schools' funding goes to schools' budgets without touching the sides. This is unheard of elsewhere and with the consequence that 23,000 schools are all employers with the power to hire and fire. It is easier to hire than fire, but again this is very unusual internationally.

That system of localism works. My biggest regret, looking back, is that I was too timid on pushing further flexibility in the secondary curriculum. Perhaps I should have listened more to my supporting Peers, my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Puttnam. My noble friend Lord Adonis was a valued colleague as a Minister and has transformed education in London through London Challenge, which means that London schools now outperform the national average-although, come to think of it, that was a somewhat centralising programme. However, his academies programme has transformed the educational chances of whole communities by allowing local flexibility and innovation where local authorities were failing to maintain standards-true localism at its best.

My noble friend Lord Puttnam has in turn taught me much about education as the crucible of the future. Aside from the great film that he made with Sir Michael Barber, he also recently introduced me to Sir Ken Robinson. For those of your Lordships who are so minded, please go to YouTube to find Ken's TED lecture on creativity in education. If ever there was the perfect speech about what is wrong with the centralised curriculum that I was responsible for, it is that. I know from my subsequent year as employment Minister that although the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic are important, employers also want other skills. They want communication, team working, leadership and creativity.

Our centralised system reveres the past at the expense of the future. It is still basically a post-war system geared around training people to be academic professors, at its peak, and for the majority to go into unskilled work. That is not what the future needs; it is not what the majority needs; it is not what engages children; and it is not what local economies need. More local freedom to engage children and their parents, to do what it takes to unlock their enthusiasm and skills, to value other talents alongside academic ones and to feed the required skills into the local economy-that is good localism. However, that does not mean 23,000 independent schools. I still believe in accountability. Every school an academy means an obscene centralisation of accountability through the Secretary of State that I believe to be unsustainable, inflexible and doomed to failure.

My Chief Whip advised me to thank everyone, be a bit funny, not too controversial and not too long. I fear that I may have failed. Let me conclude on this. Localism works, but so does centralism. We need both. The current Government are doing and will do both. The former will be dressed up as enabling, as the big society; the latter as efficiency and value for money; and the wheel will come full circle. What is really exciting is how we can then use new technology to digitise public services and get the best of both worlds-but that is a speech for another day.