My Lords, on behalf of your Lordships, I welcome my noble friend Lord McAvoy and congratulate him on his thoughtful and thought-provoking maiden speech. It is no surprise that he decided to make his maiden speech in today's debate as it addresses an issue in which he has considerable expertise and experience. He chaired the Rutherglen Community Council from 1980 to 1982 and was a councillor on Strathclyde Regional Council from 1982 to 1987.
My noble friend has had a distinguished career in the Whips Office in the other place, to which he was elected in 1987. Having been an opposition Whip prior to the 1997 general election, he became a government Whip that year and was Deputy Chief Whip from 2008 to the recent general election. In his career in the other place, he also took a keen and long-standing interest in Northern Ireland affairs. On this side, we await with some trepidation to see whether we get a seal of approval from him on the way our Whips function, or whether we receive something more akin to a rollicking.
I again congratulate my noble friend on his maiden speech. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords in expressing the hope, having heard his excellent maiden speech today, that, taking advantage of his new found freedom having been released from his oath of silence as a Whip in the other place, he will be a regular contributor to debates in this House.
As have other speakers, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, on initiating today's debate. It covers an area of some concern about the coalition Government's intentions
"Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt".-[Hansard, Commons, 10/6/10; col. 450.]
That shows clearly shared coalition Government values in action.
It is hardly the way, either, to say that you are serious about devolving powers if one of your first decisions as the Secretary of State is to let local services and local government bear the brunt of the reductions by accepting over-the-top cuts in funding amounting to some 20 per cent of the additional cuts this year of £6.2 billion. This can only reduce the flexibility and ability of local communities to take on more responsibility and determine their own priorities and courses of action.
The Chancellor has announced an average 25 per cent reduction in budgets across departments and it remains to be seen, when the spending review is announced in the autumn, whether the cut in the Department for Communities and Local Government budget will be 25 per cent, or more, or less. These further cuts, though, will have a big impact on local government and local communities and will be in addition to the £1.165 billion already announced.
This raises the issue of whether it is the coalition Government's shared value to weaken, rather than support or strengthen, local government and locally elected representatives. The Secretary of State's lack of action in fighting local government's corner must be a cause for concern. The early decisions of the coalition Government would certainly suggest that, through the Secretary of State, they are tightening, not loosening, Whitehall's grip on local government, as well as squeezing it hard financially.
The Secretary of State has ordered councils to put spending information on line, without consultation on cost or how this should be done, while, at the same time, not properly explaining where £500 million of cuts will fall. When asked in the other place what estimate he had made of the cost to, first, Durham County Council and, secondly, all local authorities of publishing the details of each item of expenditure of £500 or more, the Minister for Local Government said:
"No estimate has been made of either figure".-[Hansard, Commons, 2/6/10; col. 34W.]
I am sure the Minister will today tell us if a figure is now available.
The coalition Government, without consultation, appear to have watered down powers given to councils to control the spread of houses in multiple occupation where difficulties are being caused, and has replaced it with a system where it is the Secretary of State who decides what is best for local people.
The coalition Government have also stepped in to determine how councils can and cannot communicate with those to whom they are accountable through free council newspapers. Whatever one may feel about council newspapers, that is not the action of a Government looking to devolve power but, rather, the actions of a Government determined to keep and increase their powers over local government.
The academies proposals of the coalition Government will further reduce the role of councils and their locally elected representatives in education without increasing parental involvement in governance. Direct elections for police commissioners and health bodies risk creating conflicting policies and objectives with local councils and within local communities, while proposals on GP commissioning could lead to further fragmentation of responsibility and decision-making in health and social care without enhancing accountability.
There will, of course, be different views about the merits of elected mayors, but they tend to weaken, not strengthen, the representative role of locally elected councillors. The coalition Government are clearly keen on bringing them in in 12 cities, and it is not clear whether the confirmatory referendum will be required before a mayor can be installed or whether it will take place some time after the mayor has taken over.
Proposals for referendums could well hinder joined-up policy and thinking. It is interesting that the Government appear to be thinking of a referendum on the level of council tax increases but not, apparently, of referendums geared to ensuring minimum or improved levels of service.
The danger is that the Government's actions to date and proposals for the future will fragment the provision and accountability for local services when it is important to join them up as envisaged in the philosophy of Total Place, which looks at making the best use of local public service spending as a whole, whether it be, for example, police, school, health or council money. Often that money is being spent on the same particular specific groups or areas in the community, and the question is not whose money it is but how, when looked at in total, that money can most efficiently be spent to produce better services for the specific groups or areas concerned.
Local government, with its elected local representatives and direct accountability, has the vital role in co-ordinating activities in its communities, including those of the voluntary sector, to ensure that overall resources, both human and financial, can be deployed in the most effective manner to the maximum benefit of the communities served, achieving the priorities of those communities. That role has been made that much harder by the coalition Government's decisions to date and there must be real concern that their declared future intentions will make the situation even worse.
With the reduction in local government funding already announced, and those even larger reductions still to come, grants to voluntary organisations that communities value and need to provide services over and above, and in addition to, those provided by local government and statutory agencies are also likely to be significantly reduced. Many charities are dependent on public money to carry out their valuable work, with just over one-third of charities' income being funded from central and local government. More volunteering cannot fill the gaps because there is a cost to volunteering.
Devolving powers to communities, whether through local government, statutory agencies or the voluntary and third sectors, becomes a bit meaningless if it is being done against a background of a Secretary of State who so far has displayed greater interest in grabbing more control into his own hands than he has in protecting local government and local communities from over-the-top reductions in funding. One suspects that what the coalition Government may really be interested in is seeking to devolve responsibility for their own actions down the line but not their power or influence. Only time, of course, will tell, but the coalition Government's actions to date have not matched their declared intentions.