I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the provisions of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 requiring the publication of local spending reports; believes that people have a right to know how their money is spent by public bodies; especially welcomes the assurances given by the then Minister for Local Government, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, that the local spending reports would include all public agencies; further welcomes the Minister’s assurance that the purpose was to achieve a report that identified how much would be spent in each area by the authorities; is therefore very concerned by the limited information available in the local spending reports produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government; believes them to be a contravention of the expressed assurances of the Minister; and calls for proper local spending reports to be published, which will give effect to those assurances.
Obviously, I appreciate the Secretary of State’s apology for the non-availability of the written ministerial statement to hon. Members. However, I am sure that hon. Members share with me just a touch of incredulity that the consultation report is being produced on the very day of the Opposition day debate. That we do not have access to the information will obviously have an impact on the quality of the debate. It is right to record that. We accept the apology, but the impact remains.
I shall proceed by setting out why we feel it is so important to revisit the issue of local spending reports and then spend some time looking at the implications of the Government’s failure to implement local spending reports as they were originally conceived in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. In conclusion, I will look at how the policy should be implemented and at how, as elected representatives, we should go further and faster in responding to the public appetite for transparency and efficiency.
All hon. Members will be familiar with the history of the 2007 Act as many of us took part in its passage. As a Bill, it enjoyed genuine cross-party support and it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to colleagues on both sides of the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), whose private Member’s Bill was responsible for the 2007 Act and who will wind-up the debate, and the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for all their hard work in getting this important piece of legislation on to the statute book.
Of themselves, those tributes emphasise the cross-party nature of the support for local spending reports. It is also fitting to record our thanks to the tireless efforts of Local Works, which has done so much to drive support for the 2007 Act. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have received letters and e-mails from their constituents expressing strong support for the legislation.
Hon. Members will have noticed that the wording of today’s motion is based on that of early-day motion 1064, tabled by the hon. Member for Stroud. That early-day motion, like the original Bill, drew widespread cross-party support—254 signatures in total. In that spirit of cross-party working, let me say to Liberal Democrat colleagues how helpful it is for the debate that they have become co-signatories of today’s motion. I, for one, hope that that bodes for a constructive and conciliatory debate—an example of the new politics that people want to see.
To my mind, the reason why the Sustainable Communities Bill enjoyed so much support—not just in this House, but among the public—was that it was seen as a way of delivering a clear, tangible change in the balance of power between communities and their elected representatives. It was seen as a way of giving the people the tools with which they can better shape the communities where they live. Measures that could help to reverse the pattern of the development of ghost towns or to reduce local carbon emissions were seen to be strong moves in the right direction, and as a way to empower communities and give people more say over what happened in their locality.
However, arguably, the centrepiece of the 2007 Act is section 6, which is on local spending reports, and I shall focus for a moment on why the spending reports are so significant. On the one hand, it is a matter of transparency and accountability, but on the other, getting a clear understanding about where money is being spent is the key to getting better use of financial resources. If local strategic partnerships, which we all support, are really to deliver, they need the information that would have been provided in the local spending reports and must be able to get their arms around the totality of local spending.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that in the case of Cumbria, the Local Government Association—presumably in collaboration with the Department—has managed to publish all of the relevant information, non-departmental public body by non-departmental public body and Department by Department? Does she agree that it is therefore likely that this information might already exist on the COINS—combined online information system—database and other Government databases?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful information. Residents in Cumbria have access to the sort of information that we would all like to have. His intervention shows that providing such information is perfectly possible.
The information is the bedrock for finding out where there is duplication, where spending can be pooled or better aligned to optimise efficiency, and where funds can be reinvested or redirected for a better outcome. These reports are integral to ensuring that we get more for the money spent. In this time of recession, the imperative for that has never been stronger. On that basis, it is no surprise that early-day motion 1064 attracted such support.
Local spending reports are fairly innocuous in name, but hugely significant in nature. As colleagues will know, they were the key to unlocking the level of departmental spending in local areas. The clause provided for all public authorities to insist on local spending being publicised so that people could see where their hard-earned money was going, and if they wished, challenge it. Indeed, this was a clause lauded by Ministers at the time.
The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), said:
“Less of Whitehall calling the shots and more of men and women everywhere working with their council to set the agenda”.
The former Minister, now Minister for Borders and Immigration, said:
“The fundamental point of the reports would obviously be to aid transparency and accountability, but I believe that they would also have the beneficial effect of prompting serious debate in local areas”.––[Official Report, Sustainable Communities Public Bill Committee, 2 May 2007; c. 47.]
Against that backdrop, people rightly had high expectations of the Bill.
Age Concern and Help the Aged have publicly observed:
“A breakdown of all public spending would ultimately be of great benefit to older people, particularly with regards to transparency about spending on things like benefits and public services in local areas.”
The National Federation of Women’s Institutes has said:
“We urge the Government to deliver on their promise to publish the full local spending reports which are so vital to the Sustainable Communities Act. Local communities can only effectively use their right to have a say in their local services if they know how the money which was raised from their taxes is being spent.”
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said:
“The voluntary sector fully supports the need for local spending reports as a breakdown of all public spending by local authority areas. This information would not only be valuable to voluntary organisations everywhere, it would also encourage more people to get involved in the Sustainable Community Act’s exciting new processes.”
There are other endorsements from third-party organisations of the need for local spending reports.
As a result, it may cause some consternation that colleagues find themselves having to use valuable parliamentary time today debating why the Government have watered down the scope of these vital local spending reports. In the consultation paper on spending reports, Ministers released details of a critical change so that the reports would now apply only to local authority spending and primary care trusts. To a large extent, that information is already available, but more significant than what the 2007 Act covers is what it does not cover. It is worth taking a moment to list those organisations missing from the current proposals for local spending reports. They include the Environment Agency; Natural England; Jobcentre Plus; the Health and Safety Executive; local probation boards; probation trusts; NHS foundation trusts; regional development agencies; the Learning and Skills Council; national health service trusts; Sport England; English Heritage; the Arts Council; the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council; the Highways Agency; and the Homes and Communities Agency.
Once again, my right hon. Friend’s observation about Cumbria shows that it is perfectly possible to provide such information for every area. The question is why that is not happening.
This huge chunk of public spending, which is channelled through non-departmental public bodies, including RDAs, has been granted an exemption. So what started out as a means of shining a light on the way that public money is spent seems to have ended up as more of a dull fog concealing the truth. I am sure all hon. Members will share my concern that many supporters of the Bill will see that as a fundamental breach of trust. They will know from their constituencies that when Local Works campaigners held public meetings and signed up supporters, this halfway house is not what they had in mind, and the practical working of this compromised position has set back what pioneers of the Bill sought to achieve. It makes a nonsense of the time spent debating the Bill, with so much work put in by hon. Members, only to end up with such a large proportion of public spending being exempted. In essence, that fatally undermines the power that people have to scrutinise and challenge where their money is being spent.
In my constituency, I am astonished that we are not able to find out where and when public money is being spent by our RDA. What I can ascertain is that significantly less public money is awarded to Advantage West Midlands than to One NorthEast—approximately half, to be precise. The figure is £55 per head in the west midlands, as opposed to £96 per head in the north-east for 2008-11. That will seem very strange to people in my area, which is so badly affected by the recession.
The hon. Lady is obviously not speaking as a constituency MP but as her party’s representative on these matters. May we take what you have just said as a clear indication that you would change the allocation of resources to RDAs on the lines that you have suggested? That would be very important news to many people—
Order. The Secretary of State is very experienced and he knows that he must use the correct parliamentary language.
I am sure that you would not want to have to answer such a disingenuous question, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that the Government are already in bad odour in the Chamber for failing to produce a document pertinent to today’s debate, attempting an intervention that is just point-scoring party politics is not a good start by a comparatively new Secretary of State.
The important point is that we want to know where the money is going. I cannot cross-reference how spending in the north-east compares with spending in the west midlands, but our constituents might reasonably expect us to be able to do so. Constituents in Cumbria are fortunate to have the opportunity to do so, but it is not generally available. Does the Secretary of State understand how infuriating it is to be kept in the dark over exactly where the money is going, and in what sort of quantity? It is not only infuriating, but disempowering for elected representatives and the communities that they serve.
The hon. Lady makes several points about the spending of RDAs. Why is her party failing to participate in the Regional Select Committees, which could look in detail at those very issues?
Most hon. Members find it an extraordinary afterthought that, so late in this Parliament, the Government have realised that there might be a problem with lack of accountability in the regional structures that they have tried to create. All of us understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the regional structures that the Government have set up. My party would seek to solve that by returning powers to local government, where there is democratic accountability.
At a time of recession, when households are having to account for every penny carefully, and our national debt is forecast to grow by £240 billion a year, it is all the more poignant that people cannot see where their money is going. Insulating quangos from public scrutiny will serve only to strengthen people’s suspicion and distrust of quangos. They are seen as mandated by Whitehall to take the decisions that Ministers do not want their fingerprints on, and the bodies which spend taxpayers’ money are free from interrogation.
In recent years, the quango machinery has accelerated. In 2007, spending on non-departmental public bodies rose from £37 billion to £43 billion. That information comes from the Cabinet Office. There are now 1,152 quangos in the UK employing more than 500,000 people. The TaxPayers Alliance estimates that every year £90 billion of taxpayers’ money is spent by unelected quangos—equivalent to more than £3,500 for every household. The fact that the best that we can obtain is an estimate is telling in itself. Surely, we should all be entitled to know exactly how much money is being spent. My sense is that, if anything, £90 billion is probably on the low side.
Under the current regime, the figure will certainly be escalating. Let us take two examples with which the Secretary of State will be dealing. The Infrastructure Planning Commission is forecast to cost £10 million a year and will take the most controversial planning decisions out of the hands of elected representatives, but despite the scale of its finances and the impact of its decision-making power, it is not covered by the 2007 Act.
Just when we thought that public patience with elaborate and unaccountable quangos, which have failed to deliver in important areas such as housing, had run out, the Government have put them on a life support machine in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. RDAs will now be spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on functions that they were never designed to deliver and taking decisions over some of the most controversial aspects of housing and planning. Yet RDAs, along with the rest of the quangos, have been exempted from the 2007 Act.
At a time when every publicly funded organisation is having to demonstrate its value for money, I cannot believe that the RDAs welcome being veiled in secrecy. Ironically, the RDAs might be better placed to advocate their case if they were covered by the 2007 Act. The quango culture is of a piece with public suspicion that politicians seek to abrogate responsibility and spend taxpayers’ money without recourse. That corrosive cynicism is undermining our democracy and we need an antidote to it. People need to know how much is being spent, by whom and on what. Could it be the case that at the back of the Government’s decision to dilute the requirements for publishing spending, there is a genuine concern that people would be horrified at the level of waste? What is incontrovertible, however, is that opening up the books would enable people to see just how their area compares to others in the share of funding that it gets.
Having set out how and why I believe that the Government have got it wrong in compromising the scope of local spending reports, I want to advocate how we might better match the reality of the 2007 Act with the rhetoric of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. For a start, we should honour the commitment given by Parliament to enact the legislation in full. As legislators, we should aim to meet not just the letter but the spirit of the legislation and really open up spending to local scrutiny and counter-bid.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have sought opportunities to do this, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) recently tabled amendments to the Bill to that effect. Sadly, however, those were to no avail. It is clear, therefore, that if the public’s desire for transparency in local spending is to be realised, it will take bold action. On my part, I believe that we should go further than the terms of the Bill, and that we should be bolder and even more radical in the quest to get transparency and accountability into public spending.
The Conservative party has made it clear that under a Conservative Government councils would have to publish online details of all expenditure over £500—already some Conservative councils, such as Windsor and Maidenhead, do that. That will let people see, at the click of a mouse, how their local authority is using their money. The emphasis will be on making the data easy to access, easy to understand and easy to compare with other councils.
That cannot be said of the current format in which the sustainable communities spending reports are being published. I consider myself to be fairly adept with Excel, and those reports are a cautionary lesson in making information at best opaque, and at worst simply indecipherable. However, the key to making those council spending reports valuable as a means of scrutiny is our pledge to abolish the entire regional tier of government and repatriate power to democratically elected councils. That would solve at a stroke the problem of regional bodies not being covered by the 2007 Act.
Our approach of discharging as much power as possible to elected councils, rather than unelected quangos, will give real force to the power of publishing spending online. We would also go back to the source—the grant formula—and make it more transparent. That, along with the power of local referendums and our commitment to phasing out ring-fencing, would deliver a sea change in the way we do politics. We are intent on devolving real power to councils so that they can deliver on the priorities and needs of their communities.
That approach is best summed up in our policy of giving councils a general power of competence—a power to enshrine the presumption that councils could, and should, be free to act in accordance with the wishes of the communities that they serve. However, in return, the communities deserve to be given the tools to hold those councils to account. They have to have at their disposal the information and the levers of power to challenge spending decisions and get things changed.
Is that not at the heart of the original motivation behind the spending reports that we are debating? It is a silver thread that has been running for some time in various incarnations but with very limited success—from local area agreements, to local strategic partnerships, the 2007 Act and, most recently, the Total Place initiative. Sadly, however, none of those manifestations has delivered what we need, which is why we find ourselves here today. We are in the early days of the Total Place pilots, and Conservative Members are watching with interest to see whether the Government can crack it.
It all goes back to the money, however. Bringing budget holders around the table can yield great results, but it is predicated on knowing what money is spent, by whom and on what.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, and I am glad to tell her that this intervention relates to Dorset, rather than Cumbria. Does she think it as important as I do that the Secretary of State explains how, in the Total Place pilot in Dorset, all Government agencies have been able to reveal their figures—this time, not published—to the other partnership authorities in Dorset?
When the Secretary of State replies, he will have a golden opportunity to explain those discrepancies.
I shall draw my opening comments to a close, because I am keen that others have an opportunity to speak. It is an important debate because it goes beyond the subject of local spending reports and to the heart of what the public expect of us and how Parliament responds to them. The past year has been a deeply damaging one for this institution. We have been left with a clear, unambiguous instruction from voters that they are sick of public money being spent behind closed doors. They want to see where their money is going and whether it is being used efficiently. Politicians ignore that at their peril. The Government’s desire to keep public spending under wraps is completely at odds with where the public are.
The organisation Unlock Democracy put the matter well when it said:
“With the current acute public disillusionment of politics it could not be more timely for the government to commit to publishing full Local Spending Reports, as already promised by”
a previous Minister. As politicians, we are on notice that we have to live up to the high standards expected of us, which is why backtracking is so dangerous. The tide of public opinion has turned. It is unflinching and there is no going back. People are no longer content to defer to distant individuals or faceless organisations over how their money is spent. They are determined to know.
I firmly believe that Parliament, as with any organisation in receipt of public funds, has a moral and unquestionable duty to make public how it spends our money. To resist that will only foster more of the kind of distrust, cynicism and resentment that we have already seen when taxpayer-funded organisations refuse to come clean on where the money is going. We have to show that we are better than that. Delivering in full on local spending reports would do that. With sadness, however, I say to colleagues that those reports have not been forthcoming in the way that hon. Members on both sides of the House had hoped. In recognition of that, I urge colleagues to support this motion so that we can go some way to restoring the House’s integrity in the eyes of supporters of the 2007 Act.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“recognises the role of strong, accountable local government in delivering high quality local services and entitlements to services whilst ensuring value for money; welcomes Government investment, through local councils, in providing real help now to families; reiterates the importance of providing information about local spending and service quality to ensuring effective scrutiny and value for money; further welcomes the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Government’s commitment to work with the Selector on its implementation, and believes that the first local spending reports published in April 2009 marked an important initial step in making local public spending more transparent; further welcomes responses to the consultation confirming the desire to see more data published; welcomes the Government’s intention to extend local spending reports to cover all local public spending which can be readily provided in this format at reasonable cost; further welcomes the Government’s proposals to extend local authorities’ scrutiny of all local public service spending in their area; further welcomes the Total Place pilots mapping in detail all public spending in key services in 13 areas; further welcomes Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s work advising Government on how best to make non-personal public data as widely available as possible; believes that these developments will enhance the Government’s ability to provide local spending information in the most effective manner; and asks Ministers to report back to the House before the end of December 2009 on the next stages in developing local spending reports.”
This is an important debate. I want to go through what has been achieved so far and what the next steps are. I did not think that the speech by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) showed an enormous grasp of the nature of public data and how they are made available or of what has been done so far and what will be done in future. I regret that, because I believe that those public data are important. It is also important that we build on what has been done so far.
There are clearly some conceptual difficulties. Whatever the merits of, for example, the Infrastructure Planning Commission—I think that they are considerable, but that is a debatable point and has been debated in the House—it is a national body, as is the Supreme Court. It had not occurred to me to previously that the Supreme Court should be covered by local spending reports. Presumably the spending should be divided by the number of local authorities and put into a report, but would it really help to subdivide what are essentially national institutions into local reports? The hon. Lady told us that the IPC and similar bodies—presumably including the armed forces and so on—should be included in local spending reports. However, we need a bit of clarity about the purposes behind the legislation, because that will enable us to look at what can reasonably be done in future.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that councils, particularly during this recession, are trying to develop policies to help local people get back into jobs? The absence of figures for regional development agencies and Jobcentre Plus is not only a disincentive in itself, but fundamentally works against the notion of partnership that is needed for such activities.
I agree about the importance of such information. I was merely making the point that suggesting, as the hon. Member for Meriden did, that expenditure in institutions that operate at a national level should be covered in local spending reports is a misunderstanding of what the original 2007 Act was about. It would be better to concentrate on how we make relevant and timely information available on genuinely local public spending.
The ground that we are covering today has been fairly well trodden in recent weeks and months, but is no less important for that. There are two things that we should try to do in this debate. The first is to establish the importance of information on local spending in driving the delivery of effective, personal, high-quality and value-for-money public services. However, we also need to establish the deep divide that now separates the two major parties on the future of local government. Perhaps I could start by setting that scene first.
I recognise that there is a superficial rhetorical similarity between the commitments of the parties to decentralisation, but in practice they are a long way apart. Time and again in yesterday’s Communities and Local Government questions, we saw Opposition Members lining up to remind us that their local government policy is against growth, against jobs, against homes, against sensible transport planning and against the regional development agencies, which have helped to support numerous businesses through the downturn.
Surely the help that local businesses have received via the RDAs is a classic example of regional spending having an impact at a local level, where it would be beneficial for the public to know the quantities of money being spent in their areas.
I will come to that point, although I am glad that the hon. Lady does not seem to share the desire of the Conservative Opposition simply to do away with those structures and pretend that nothing should exist between central Government and local expenditure. That is a huge gulf between us, and it puts the Opposition in a terribly weak position when they try to argue that they have policies that will help us come out of recession and deliver decent public services.
The Secretary of State is right that there is a gulf between the two sides on the future of regional development agencies, but what on earth does that have to do with local spending reports? While he is on his feet, could he address the issue in the Opposition motion? For example, how can we take the experience being developed in Leicestershire through the Total Place initiative, which focuses on drugs and alcohol and which the Government say they support, and use it outside Leicestershire if, say, the youth offending service or the probation service does not publish the information that would allow other local authorities to use that experience?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He says that the Government say that they support Total Place, but the Government invented it. We are driving Total Place forward, and I am grateful for his support for it.
I will come to Total Place, the lessons that we can learn from it and how it fits into the wider picture in due course. However, it is important in a debate on local government to set the policy scene behind the demand for local information. The hon. Member for Meriden wrote in August urging Conservative-controlled councils to go slow on making land available for housing and jobs. That was an act of gross and irresponsible economic vandalism, but it speaks volumes about the Conservative party’s approach. Any discussion that we have about local spending information needs to set in that context.
Actually, the Secretary of State is going the right way about committing his own economic vandalism, by misrepresenting the policies of the Conservative Opposition and stoking unjustified fears about our clear plans to provide more housing and more jobs, which his Government have failed to provide.
Given the support that the hon. Lady gave to Conservative councils to resist attempts to provide land for housing, she has some difficultly in trying to explain how that would provide the land needed for housing.
The second point about local spending plans is that the Opposition would like there to be a lot less local spending. They are on record as saying that my Department should have its spending cut by £1 billion this year—not next year or when we look at deficit reduction, but this year. That is hugely damaging. I agree that making local spending information available is important, but it is also worth noting that the Conservative party fundamentally believes that there should be far less spending, although it has never been open and straightforward about its plan. The Opposition proposals are wrong, because they would damage recovery and lead to further huge cuts in housing, on top of their desire to block housing.
The background to this debate is that Government Members believe in strong, accountable and effective local government, able to influence the whole of public service spending in its area. We believe in devolution on principle, but we also believe in it for a purpose: to deliver high-quality public services while making each taxpayers’ pound work as hard as it can. We see devolution as a way of entrenching people’s entitlements to public services and ensuring that they are delivered. The proposals that I set out last July to extend the scrutiny power of local government will ensure that councils and councillors have the power to challenge how every pound of local public service money is spent.
The Conservatives couple the localisation of power with the abandonment of any concept of, or commitment to, the standards of service that citizens have a right to enjoy. That is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is a charter to make the postcode lottery the founding principle of conservatism in local government. The Conservatives have given the green light for “Ryanair councils”, where people have to pay twice—once in tax and then in an extra tax—to get a decent service.
I make that point because although the hon. Member for Meriden spoke a great deal about local spending, she said almost nothing about information on the quality of local services. That is not a surprise, because as part of their package, the Conservatives have promised to abolish targets, end standards and stop entitlements. They have also promised to stop inspections: they do not want to check on standards because there will not be any. Government Members support local spending reports, but I am sure that they agree that it is the outcome of the spending—the quality of service that our constituents receive—that matters most.
The Conservatives are uncomfortable when it is set out in front of them what their policies mean for the quality of local public services, so I am not surprised that I am being urged to move on. I will do so, but it is important to put this on record. There is a great deal of interest in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill outside this Chamber, and it is important to put on record the fact that there is no cosy consensus between us and the Conservatives on the future of local government and of local government services; there is in fact a big divide.
Before we knew the subject for today’s debate, I had already arranged to speak at the Royal Society of Arts, and I gave a lecture there last Wednesday on the future of local government. If I may, I should like to read from the part of that lecture that is directly relevant to today’s discussion. I said:
“Public data is an essential tool in creating pressure to drive improvements in public services—on the old principle that knowledge is power. It puts all the information, and therefore the power, in the hands of users, service providers and would-be providers—including social enterprises. People should be able to compare the outcomes and the costs for their own local services with the services delivered elsewhere, and suggest means of improving and driving change. An open data policy as part of our broader efforts towards democratic renewal is important for creating a culture in which Government information is accessible and useful to as many people as possible”.
That is a statement of principle that I am happy to restate in this House. It is, of course, exactly what local spending reports are about.
I want to set out what we have done so far, what the next steps will be and, crucially, how the Government’s wider policies for the reform of local government, local public spending and public data openness will continue to transform the availability of public data. As the House knows, we have completed the first stage of local public spending reports. There has been some suggestion in this debate that the Government have in some way significantly deviated from promises made at the time the Sustainable Communities Bill was being discussed, and that we have backtracked on them. In the debate on 2 May 2007, the Minister then responsible, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), rightly said:
“The local spending report would cover all public expenditure in each local authority area in so far as it is possible to define it.”––[Official Report, Sustainable Communities Public Bill Committee, 2 May 2007; c. 46.]
In that same debate, which many hon. Members attended, he also entered a number of caveats—[Interruption.] This is relevant, because the suggestion has been made in this debate that the Government’s response to that legislation was dishonest or disingenuous. It is therefore important to remind the House of the reasonable and practical qualifications that the then Minister made when talking about the public expenditure reports.
I should like to make a little progress, then I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend went on to say that he was talking about
“expenditure that can be easily identified as relating to a particular area”.
I have previously made the point about the desire of the hon. Member for Meriden to include the Infrastructure Planning Commission in this, but it would be difficult in an annual report to identify how much of that expenditure related to a particular area. My hon. Friend went on to say:
“We do not propose to create a new power to require additional information to be provided”.––[Official Report, Sustainable Communities Public Bill Committee, 2 May 2007; c. 51.]
He also said that the clause that was being discussed specified that the cost of producing the report must be limited.
I do not believe that what we have today represents the end of the process. I am simply making the point that it was clear from everything that my hon. Friend the Minister said at that time that there would be some limits on the data that were initially provided as part of this process. The important thing about today’s discussion is to determine how we move forward from where we are.
It was in response to me that the then Minister made several of those remarks in that debate. The impression that he gave was very clear to all present, and it was confirmed in discussions outside the Committee Room. It was that there would be detailed reports. There are detailed reports produced by others, which are based on Government information. That Government information has not been published. The Secretary of State cannot stand there and say that the Government have done what they committed themselves to do. I regret that, but that is the fact.
The Government made it clear at that stage that there were limits to what would be immediately provided, and that there were some absolute limits on what could be provided. This is an important point, and I will come in a moment to the case of Cumbria and to other examples. It is a completely wrong charge to suggest that what the Government have done so far represents a stepping back from the commitments that we made at that time. What we have now does not represent the complete process, but it does not represent a stepping back.
Does the Secretary of State accept, given the large numbers of individuals and organisations that supported these measures, that this will have undermined their confidence in the process and made them less confident that it will be successful? Is not that the fundamental problem? If we are trying to encourage people to participate, will not this failure to meet their expectations undermine that?
When I was listening to the hon. Member for Meriden earlier, I certainly shared the concern that if that is what has been communicated outside the House about the reasonable expectations and the Government’s attitude, it might well have had that effect. I share that concern, and it is something that I wish to address. It is important for Members of the House to provide information to those outside in a reasonable and balanced way.
I want the Secretary of State to address his mind to a specific question. The list of institutions relating to practical objections to the publication of this information locally includes the probation service. Will he explain what the practical objections are to publishing local information about the cost in each locality of the probation service?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and it is one that I wish to pursue in suggesting that the House support my amendment proposing a further report in December. I do not believe that the job is yet done in a number of areas.
Let me refresh the House’s memory on where we had got to. The first stage of local spending reports was published on 29 April. The data that they contained were wider than those originally proposed in the first consultation. Although the House has been told the opposite this afternoon, they include data on spending by the Department for Work and Pensions. That was not on the list, and the House has been told that it is not on the list, but it is on the list. In addition to principal local government spending, the data include police, fire, waste disposal, passenger transport, park authorities, strategic health authorities, ambulance trusts, NHS trusts, primary care trusts and spending by the DWP.
That first stage covered the data that were held in Government at—or primarily at—principal local authority level, and which could be made available without incurring significant additional costs. There is an important point to be made here. It is at that local authority level that the focus of interest lies. The first port of call in the exercise involved the data that were already held in Government systems, aggregated at principal local authority area level, that could be made available.
It is clear to everyone that a great deal of local public spending is not covered by the first stage of the reports. That is why we are having the debate this afternoon. Given my commitment to openness of data—and the statement that I made last week, when I was unaware that this debate was going to take place—I want to share frankly with the House some of the challenges involved in moving to the next stage.
If the right hon. Gentleman had waited for just a moment longer, he would have heard me explain that these are serious and practical issues that are worthy of a proper debate. Given the experience of right hon. and hon. Members who will speak later, I hope that they will also address them.
First, there is the question of how we characterise the spending that takes place physically in one area but serves a much wider area. Universities and prisons would be two contrasting examples. In one sense, leaving them out of the picture entirely is unsatisfactory, but pretending that the universities of Southampton and Southampton Solent are properly to be included only in Southampton’s local spending report would be equally unsatisfactory. Some very significant areas of public spending do not fit neatly into local spending reports. It would be useful to hear in our debate—I am genuinely interested in this point—whether the mood of the House is that it would be better for this to appear as expenditure on two major universities in Southampton’s spending report and nowhere else in the country, or whether it should be shared.
The hon. Member for Meriden referred several times to quangos. One quango that has had its expenditure doubled in real terms under this Government is the Higher Education Funding Council; I used to be responsible for it. I was once, for my sins, a member of Hampshire county council’s education committee in the 1980s when the then Portsmouth polytechnic and the Southampton institute of higher education were funded by local government. One of the best things that the previous Conservative Government ever did in education policy was to move those significant higher education institutions out of local government control in order to fund them centrally. We now have two significant additional universities in Hampshire that did not exist then, and they are much more successful because of the autonomy that they have gained.
I make that point because an argument running through this debate is that quango expenditure is by nature illegitimate, funds nothing of any great value and should simply be included in local public spending reports. [Interruption.] That was the gist of what the hon. Member for Meriden had to say. I do not accept that. When people outside hear the Conservative party attacking quangos in this way—[Interruption.] One of the reasons why the amount of money spent has gone up is because the Government have invested a lot extra in areas such as higher education. Of course the expenditure has gone up, but it is not a bad thing; this is what enables our constituents’ children to go to university and benefit from it. I raise this as a serious issue for discussion: why should Winchester prison, or Southampton and Southampton Solent universities, for example, feature in a local spending report? I shall come on to some other examples in a few moments.
I will, indeed. Let me give the Secretary of State a very comforting answer, which he could take back to the officials who, to our certain knowledge, have resisted this idea for three years. If he makes a judgment and states the assumption, we are happy. We are happy to have a public debate about whether the assumptions on which allocations are made are reasonable. It does not matter what they are to begin with, as long as they are open and public. Will the Secretary of State please just tell all the officials that what the House of Commons, across the parties, would like is the real McCoy on the basis of simplified assumptions, which are stated? The Secretary of State will then not have to worry about any of these questions, as they will be debated in public.
That would be one way of approaching it, although I fear that it might be misleading. The question of Cumbria has come up; indeed, the right hon. Gentleman himself may have raised it. There are two points to be made here—I shall come back to the second—and the one for this afternoon’s debate, in which I have some interest, is that Cumbria’s public spending includes expenditure at Sellafield. Everybody says that Cumbria has £7 billion of public expenditure—a figure that I have used myself in articles and debates. That appears to suggest, at face value, that public expenditure on public services in Cumbria is the same as in the city of Birmingham. I have to say that we must be careful in this process not to produce misleading results.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, as this is now beginning to be a productive debate about the actual subject for discussion. If he looks at the Cumbria publication, he will discover that the population of Cumbria has been treated intelligently. The figures are presented first on the basis that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is included and, secondly, on the basis of excluding it. I recommend this further idea to the Secretary of State: where he has doubt, he should publish on two bases. We would be happy with that, too.
That is a possibility that we will certainly continue to explore. When I produce my report in December, I may well form a view on this. The idea, however, that expenditure on Southampton and Southampton Solent universities is a secret that our constituents would find enormously difficult to discover if they wanted to know how much money was involved, is also ridiculous. What I am most interested in doing here—I say this in all honesty—is producing data that meet the public need. An illusion is being pushed that vast areas of expenditure are somehow kept secret by the state, and that it is enormously difficult to find out about them—yet through a couple of clicks on the internet, it is actually not hard to find the published information available. My predecessors and I have taken this exercise as one of great importance for trying to produce genuinely relevant local spending information. That is what I would like to continue to do. Everything could be put in, but that would not necessarily advance the quality of information.
The line of argument that the Secretary of State is following assumes that local communities want this information to compare their spending with that of other local areas. Actually, this is all about feeding into a process of how to reprioritise funding within their own areas. For example, the right hon. Gentleman talks about university funding, but the local community may be saying, “We think that investing more in very young children might impact better on higher education participation than simply providing money for the universities. Can we have a discussion about a process for focusing our priorities in that way?” It is not just about comparing spending in one area with that of another area.
This is an important issue. In my area, people in Southampton would be able to have that discussion, but people in Eastleigh would not, as they do not have a university. People in Winchester could have that debate—they have a university, or bits of a couple of universities—but not those in Eastleigh. I think that the hon. Lady would accept that it is a bit of an illusion to think that having this information is particularly useful.
The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) put forward a proposition: include the items in the figures somewhere and do not worry too much about where they are—Winchester has its prison and poor old Eastleigh loses out again—as long as they appear somewhere in the data. That is one way of approaching it, but I am honestly not convinced that this will prove enormously useful. I do not rule it out, as it might provide one way of dealing with some of this expenditure, but let us acknowledge that there are problems with it.
I shall move on to an example that might find more common ground. The Court Service is another example of spending that serves a wider area, as is spending on skills in association with FE colleges and training providers. Those examples might be even more challenging for this process, because spending on skills, or on the criminal justice service, is spending in just the sort of areas where localities often argue that different priorities might be set. I accept that excluding those areas of expenditure in the long term is inherently unsatisfactory, which I believe was also the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
The second issue to deal with is that some categories of organisation do not hold their data in a way that easily relates to local authorities. If we are talking largely about capital spending, it switches location from year to year. For example, one particular year’s report that included Highways Agency spending might not provide a great deal of information about the annual revenue flow or inflow from that organisation into a particular area. Again, we have to make a judgment about the value of information that comes in that sort of lumpy and essentially variable-over-time quantity.
I am grateful; the right hon. Gentleman has been extremely patient and considerate. What he has said throughout could be characterised in this way: he wants to manufacture information that he thinks will be valuable, but what we are arguing—collectively, I think, across the House—is that people as intelligent adults should be able to decide how to use the information in all sorts of ways that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor we can imagine. He does not need to worry about mollycoddling or nannying people into having the information that they “ought to have”; he needs only to provide such information as there is and let them get on with it.
I would make two points. First, I am not anticipating the next stage of the process in detail. I want to commit the Government to taking this process forward today, which is why I am approaching the issue constructively. Secondly, there are some real issues of presentation and understanding, and the sort of information that I am talking about is not hard to find. I am making what I think are reasonable points about the way in which we present data.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing himself to be persuaded. He has said twice that the information is available, and he is right about that. Someone who explores the internet and employs a researcher will be able to find a fair amount of it. Part of the point of producing a local spending report, however, is to invite those to whom the necessary resources are available to take action on behalf of the public, so that those who are interested can obtain the information in a more easily accessible form. Will the Secretary of State take that point on board?
I entirely take the point, but the Opposition are so determined to be cynical that they are suggesting that I am giving reasons for not providing data, whereas I am actually exploring real issues relating to the effective production of local spending reports.
A third problem is caused by data not being held in a way that correlates easily with local authority areas. Parties that wish us to cut our budget, as the Conservative party does, will recognise that a reasonable limit must be placed on the expenditure required to produce that data. That is precisely what the Minister said at the time of the debate that I mentioned earlier. Fourthly, as I also said earlier—I realise that this point is not a show-stopper, but it is important—the data that we are discussing give no indication of the quality of services or the outcome of public spending. I think it important for debate to focus on those issues at local level as well. Fifthly, as many respondents to our consultation on the next step pointed out, what people often want is much more “micro-area” data. Spending in local communities, rather than at an aggregate local authority level, can highlight disparities in investment and outcomes.
Finally, the procedures laid down in the Act restrict us, essentially, to publishing data prepared and validated in line with the principles of the Office for National Statistics, which means that data that may be held by Government cannot be published until they meet that standard and may therefore be published some time after the event.
One of the reasons why comprehensive spending reports have been published in Bournemouth, Cumbria and Birmingham, for instance, is that information has been made available by local partners who hold the information and are free to make it available. However, it is not produced to the same standard as the ONS statistics produced by Government. We are effectively limited. As has been pointed out, the quality of some of the local public spending picture is higher than we have been able to produce. The issue here is the necessary obstacle presented by the ONS standards.
The consultation on the next stages received a somewhat disappointing response, mainly from local government. Only six non-governmental organisations responded, although they included Co-operativesUK, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the National Housing Federation. However, there was a general desire for more information.
I suggest that we move forward in a number of ways. The first step will be to revisit Government Departments and agencies to find out what further information could be made available at reasonable cost to supplement the existing spending report. I hope to have completed that work by the time I report at the end of the year. Judging by today’s debate, I think that it should include considering the issue of lumpy and localised spending, which is of national and regional importance. However, I have expressed concerns about the value of some of those data.
Secondly, we have received overwhelming support for our proposals to enable local authorities to scrutinise not just their own spending, but all local public service spending in their areas. Subject to detailed agreement across Whitehall, those plans will enable local authorities to scrutinise as much as £100 billion of public spending. Of course, they will be able to do so only if they have adequate spending information, and spending bodies will have to have a responsibility to co-operate with the scrutiny process. Local spending reports that we produce will support that process, but more and more immediate information should become available where it matters: in local areas. At present, because of the ONS issue, the sort of information that I expect to be made available to scrutiny committees may well be more up to date and comprehensive than any local public spending report would be at any particular time.
Thirdly—as has been recognised today—the Government have established 13 local authority-based Total Place pilots, which are examining in great detail current public spending across different agencies on particular services such as provision for the under-fives, drug and alcohol services and young people’s services. That detailed mapping of public spending means that, for the first time, people can ask whether investing the money differently might produce not just better value for money, but better outcomes. They can consider the possibility that investment in, say, the prevention of unwanted teenage pregnancies might produce savings somewhere down the line in child care support, or that investment more generally in preventive health or substance misuse services might produce benefits down the line. We all want to see that happen.
Although Total Place is a pilot at present, many other areas are running similar initiatives. I believe that that approach—looking at every pound of public service spending in each area—is really gathering support. In many ways the Total Place was anticipated by the Sustainable Communities Act, but in many ways it is also potentially more comprehensive and more ambitious.
Part of our investment in Total Place is intended to enable local services to identify spending and outcomes at a much more detailed, and arguably more useful, level than the local authority level of local spending reports. It is often when one is able to identify the level of investment in a particular estate, community or target group of citizens that it is possible to identify whether public money is being used to best effect. One of the things that we will learn through Total Place is how data of that kind could be made much more widely available.
A number of Members asked earlier how it had been possible to make such information available in Bournemouth and in the Birmingham area, where I believe it shows public expenditure of £7.2 billion. First, we have provided extra financial support for the Total Place pilots to enable them to identify the data. Secondly, the data are not readily held by central Government in every circumstance. They are held by local partners, which is not a bad thing. There has been a general desire to reduce the level of reporting to central Government. However, I believe that that illustrates that we need to build on the Total Place pilots and see what lessons can be learned about making the data more widely available.
I think Members will agree that that local overview of public spending should be made available to professional managers of services and policy makers at local level, and to councillors who are involved in scrutiny. I also believe, as I said at the outset, that it should be made available to the public. The challenge that we face is to find a way of making these much more comprehensive local area spending data more widely available.
That is where the fourth strand of reform comes in. As the House will know, the Prime Minister has asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the original developer of the internet, to lead a project on making public data more readily available. The opening of his terms of reference makes the aim of that work clear:
“the Government is committed to implementing and to extending to the wider public sector the principle that public sector information should be available under straightforward licences and in standard formats for others to re-use: the principle that public sector information should be public.”
The House will be pleased to learn that one of the key subsidiary aims of the project is to drive a culture change in Whitehall towards an assumption of total publication of anonymous data using open standards.
That work clearly does not just complement the local spending reports. I believe that it holds the potential to go much further, with Government and local government data becoming much more readily accessible on a much faster time scale and in a format that is more readily open to interrogation and investigation. That is relevant to a point made by the hon. Member for Meriden.
I have made it very clear that I want my Department and local government to participate enthusiastically in this important work. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is supported in it by Professor Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton university. I have met Professor Shadbolt, and hope to agree soon—certainly by the time of my progress report in December —on how we will participate.
It would be premature to say that they should be subsumed into the Total Place report, but I think we should continue to publish and develop them, and to look at how they can be extended. However, it is only fair to say to the House that there are other processes of change around Total Place and the Government’s drive to put data on to the web will take the process further forward than could have been anticipated at the time when the legislation was piloted through the House. I hope that statement is helpful. Let me make it clear that this is not an attempt to use the potential development of Total Place or other mechanisms as a reason for not progressing our current commitment to local spending reports. It is instead based on an optimistic view that we can go even further and do even better, particularly if at local level the data we have been talking about is more routinely available as a matter of course in the publication of data by local government and other agencies, rather than through the procedure we have for local spending reports, where all that information has to be reported up the line and go through the Office for National Statistics and then back down again.
The Secretary of State has just said something very encouraging: he says he wants to publish more information than he is currently able to publish. Why then does he not just get on and publish all the information on the basis set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)? Is the Secretary of State not aware that if he is given a “Yes Minister” script by his officials he should tear it up and tell us what he is going to do and provide some leadership?
It is a great shame that the right hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening to the debate, because those of his colleagues who have participated in it have understood that I have been setting out precisely how I want to take us forward from where we are today, both in terms of local spending reports and in drawing to the House’s attention some broader moves to make local spending data more widely available. I had hoped that the House would welcome that, and I should point out that these steps are very much in keeping with the spirit of the original proposals of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you, at least, will be pleased to know that I have reached the point in my remarks that states: “So to summarise”. Therefore, let me summarise for the right hon. Gentleman the points I have been seeking to make.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and I think this latter part of the debate has been interactive and interesting.
Does the involvement in driving the Total Place agenda of the Treasury, which is essentially the largest cross-cutting Department, make it easier both to extract the information and to extract more clearly on a comparable basis how much public money is being spent, because the Treasury has an interest in knowing, as do the public, exactly how it is being spent? Is that the key detail in persuading the Secretary of State that the Total Place pilots have the potential he has been outlining?
I chair the cross-Government ministerial committee on Total Place. For me as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, it is enormously helpful to have the Treasury fully engaged in this project. Let me make the following important point, however. There are 13 formal pilots, but anybody who, like the hon. Lady, is out and about meeting people in local government or reading the local government press will know that many other projects are basically do-it-yourself Total Place pilots. That shows that the reality is that there is a deep understanding in many areas of the public services that the next great public service reform challenge is breaking down the barriers between different public services and then having the ability to switch investment from one area of spending to another in order to produce the best possible outcomes.
There is to some extent frustration. I can sense it from Opposition Members and I do not think it is misplaced. The frustration is that when partners voluntarily get together at local level, in the vast majority of cases they have the legal ability simply to share information—such as their current operating data, or their current financial systems—in order to come up with a total picture of what they are doing. We in central Government are constrained at present in respect of pushing out data because we all wanted ONS to be independent and our statistics to be verified and not to be used by Ministers for nefarious purposes—not that we would ever do so. Those partnerships are operating on real current financial operating data. At the risk of going slightly beyond any agreed Government policy, let me say that we must somehow find a way to get that much more timeous data out into the public domain at local level. I believe that in the time to come the framework we have for local spending reports will enable us to go further than at present, but I think we would probably all accept that in terms of the cutting-edge work that is taking place on mapping public expenditure at local level, some of the most interesting work is being done around the Total Place pilots. I am not putting Total Place to the House as an alternative to local public spending reports. I am, however, saying that we should acknowledge that there is some very interesting and exciting work taking place throughout the country which we should all want to build on in the future.
Let me now summarise. I share the belief that openness in public data is important to driving public service reform and improving the quality of local public services. We have made a good start in local public spending reports; I do not share the criticism expressed today of how far we have gone. I believe, however, that we can go further, even though there are some real issues to be tackled, and the Government amendment suggests I should report back to the House on this before the end of the year.
At the same time as reporting back on where we go next on local public spending reports, we should recognise three important developments since the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 that have the potential to take this work much further forward: first, our proposals to extend widely the scrutiny powers of local government to cover local public spending areas; secondly, the development of Total Place, and the understanding it will give on how best to map spending and outcomes at local, including community, level; and thirdly, the Government’s wider work to make public data available to common standards on the internet. Taken together, I believe those areas of work will over time produce an outcome that exceeds the original ambition of the Sustainable Communities Act, but also one that is very much in keeping with it.
At the start of the debate, there was talk about consensus on this issue, but the consensus has clearly broken down—although it may have started to return towards the end of the Secretary of State’s remarks. I have been struck by the extent to which the debate has descended into a process-driven discussion. One reason why it is such a privilege for me to have another opportunity to discuss the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which is dear to my heart, is that the matter is much more fundamental than that.
The Sustainable Communities Bill was the first Bill that I presented to Parliament after being elected. It carried on the work of Sue Doughty, a former Member for Guildford, who initially took the Bill forward. Ultimately, this legislation is on the statute book because of people power alone—the power of grassroots campaigning and local organisations in being able to vocalise the barriers to delivering what they consider to be the priority measures in their area. That is what the legislation is about.
I looked back at the remarks made by the Minister with responsibility for the matter in the final stages of the passage of the 2007 Act. He said that the 2007 Act would not necessarily catch the public’s eye as had some private Member’s Bills, such as one presented by David Steel, but that it was about fundamentally changing relationships and that it had the potential truly to affect the balance of power between central and local government. That is of particular importance to me, and it is the reason why I got involved in politics—I was frustrated that the voice of people living in my local community was not being heard, and I wanted to change that. What I have heard today from the Secretary of State is an argument that central Government know best, and from the Conservative Benches that local authorities know best. In fact, this is all about people knowing best and giving them the right channels to communicate that and to take control themselves.
I wonder whether the Government are slightly uncomfortable about dealing with this issue, because it is about a fundamental shift in power. It is for that reason that so many people had such high hopes for this legislation. It is important to remember that the local spending reports issue is about not only providing information, but enabling participation. We can put all the information that we like on the internet, but it is completely pointless if it is not a platform for allowing people to engage, to have input and to make a difference. That is the fundamental point to remember, and it is why so many people are so frustrated and disappointed with what we have seen so far.
Local spending reports are at the heart of the 2007 Act. They are based on the principle that people have a right to know not only what money is being spent, but how it is being spent, because once they have that information, they will have a view on how the money could be better spent addressing their priorities. From that flows the whole process of enabling communities to make proposals to remove the barriers that have been preventing them from having a say in the process until now.
I was slightly bemused by the Secretary of State’s characterisation that what is preventing local spending reports from being published at the moment is the fact that all the information has to be reported all the way up the line and back in order to be published in some kind of tabulated format, because that is not the case. My understanding of what is happening in the Total Place pilots is that the role of central Government is in twisting the arm of the local side of public service delivery—the agencies do not want to produce the information, which they have locally—to make the information available. There is no reason why local spending reports cannot be produced on exactly the basis that I am outlining.
I hope that the hon. Lady will deal with a point that I made. Government publication of statistics is now governed by procedures and rules, which have broadly been agreed with this House, about independent assessment by the Office for National Statistics. Most of the data that are made available in the Total Place pilots are perfectly good and usable at local level, but they are not of sufficient quality to enable the Government to publish them in the official form of spending reports. That is a frustration—it is not something that I welcome—but the House will understand the general concern about government use of public data, which led to the procedures. That is why we need to examine how more information could be made directly available locally.
That was an interesting exchange. We would be delighted if the Secretary of State were to make the next phase the universal publication of data on the same basis as occurs in the Total Place pilots. We would regard that as a sizeable step forward, regardless of whether the data did or did not meet ONS standards.
I do not want this to be a debate about the best process for making this information available; the debate needs to be about agreeing that people have the right to see this information and then to have an impact on any decisions flowing from its being made available. I do not see any need for the Government to be the ultimate national publisher; they just need to unlock the information being made available locally, and nothing in the 2007 Act prevents that from being the case.
We need this information because of the complete lack of transparency in public spending at the moment, nowhere more so than in local government matters, as can be seen even if one looks simply at how money is raised and spent locally through council tax—about 80 per cent. of what councils spend is not raised through council tax. That confuses everybody, because people cannot understand why their council tax increases by more than inflation every year, yet it appears that council services are being cut. This is all to do with the confusion created by the system, which multiplies out to all aspects of local public service delivery.
Anything that provides greater transparency is important. The issue is about more than just councils, because the most interesting thing is that the information provided at the moment through the local spending reports, which covers a large number of big-spending organisations locally, deals with so little spending; the reports do not cover the majority of public spending locally. Some 65 per cent. of the money spent locally is not included in the public spending reports, and that constitutes very large sums. If taxpayers’ money is being provided to deliver these services, taxpayers have a right to know this information.
This is not just about some of the big quangos. Part of the frustration with quangos is their lack of accountability and transparency; the argument is not necessarily about whether they are the correct delivery vehicle, but about the fact that they are remote and unaccountable, and that nobody understands how they work. The same can be said of local arrangements—one of the most confusing things in Cornwall is the number of area-based initiatives. It is not just about what the regional development agency or the primary care trust spends; it is about the fact that lots of small initiatives are funded in a targeted way, each having their own administration. They probably have competing, conflicting and overlapping aims and objectives, and the situation results in a fragmented approach. Delivering local spending reports in a way that is meaningful to people could help to overcome that.
Local spending reports are intended to get all this information out into the open in a public format with which people can engage. They are about starting the process of breaking down silos. One of my concerns about the Total Place pilots, as they are at the moment, is that they are very much an internal process—they are about taking the lead with the local strategic partnership. This should be about trying to engage people, not about just getting the relevant civil servants at the local level sitting around a table discussing how their budgets could be better spent. This is about getting the consumers of public services to have a say in how the money could be better spent.
We are in different economic circumstances from the time when the 2007 Act was initially proposed, but all these issues are more important now, not less. I have heard several people say that producing this information will be expensive, but everything I have read about the Total Place pilots suggests that what is exciting Ministers so much about the pilots is their ability to reduce waste caused by duplication and to focus on priorities. I am confident that if the process is properly rolled out, it will more than pay its own way, as well as encouraging more participation locally, and it will also protect some of the multi-agency working that is done locally. My greatest fear is that as public services budgets get squeezed, as I am already seeing happen locally, the first thing to go will be cross-agency working, which delivers some of the most innovative projects that make the biggest difference to people’s lives.
My concern is that when budgets are squeezed, public services retreat to their core; everything that is not considered to be core to the service is got rid of, and so the silos get reinforced again. Producing this kind of information will be key to preventing that invidious move, which undermines the delivery of local public services. This speaks for itself—it is a no-brainer. Even the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who was the Minister when we debated that Bill, gave very good examples of how the least obvious thing could help to make a massive improvement to people’s lives. I believe that he referred to the example of the Blackburn slipper, whereby a group of organisations locally agreed to buy every pensioner a pair of slippers. That saved the health service locally a fortune, because it prevented falls, and that would not have been achieved in any other way—other than by sitting down at a table and discussing it. It is exactly that principle that we should be following through.
It is because of all these potential benefits that people have been so disappointed. Let us consider the initial responses to the consultation. One response stated:
“What is now proposed in the consultation document falls short of the original intention.”
Another respondent said that they were
“concerned that these local spending reports do not go beyond what is already in the public domain and that local spend by central government…is conspicuously absent.”
There is real frustration that those expectations were not being met and that some key areas of local public spending were not being included.
The Secretary of State spoke about the challenges of trying to decide which information to include and which not to include, and he mentioned prisons and universities. I reiterate that the people who live in our areas have brains and are perfectly capable of deciding whether or not university spending will probably have an immediate, beneficial knock-on effect on the local economy, on jobs and on other public services. People need to be able to make their own judgments. It may well be that some local spending will be ring-fenced and people will say, “That was on a strategic transport route, so that is investment that you cannot have a say on, because it is part of the national infrastructure.” However, that does not mean that people should not have the right to see that that money has been spent in that way. No conflict is involved here, so we do not need to get worked up and have any angst about what we should include or exclude. The presumption should be to include everything but, if necessary, to add a caveat saying, “This can be a subject of scrutiny and debate, but not of reallocation.”
The fact that all this is so self-evident and obvious is why I feel so frustrated and mystified at the Government’s response so far, and it seems to be the same at every stage of the process when we try to deal with the matter. It was frustrating when we tried to raise these issues in our debate on the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill the other week—one would think that that was the most appropriate place to raise precisely these issues—that the Government seemed intent that they were the last thing that they wanted to discuss.
We have had a written statement today that was not on the Order Paper and that so far still has not materialised. It would have been very helpful to the debate. We still do not have a clear timetable—we do not know whether we will have any kind of local spending report next year, and we will now have to wait until December. The Sustainable Communities Bill became an Act in 2007. It is amazing that we have seen such progress on Total Place in such a short time, but such slow progress in the implementation of the 2007 Act.
What has been most frustrating is the complete failure of the Department to try to communicate with the thousands of people who have made a personal investment in the implementation of the 2007 Act. Ultimately, everyone in this Chamber wants to address the fundamental disconnect with politics and politicians, and people and organisations have put themselves forward and said, “This is something that we think can address this disconnect.” The way in which they have been treated has made matters worse rather than improved them.
Those people feel that they are being treated in a way that borders on contempt—contempt for the legislation, for the campaigners and for the councils that have invested in this process to such a great extent so far. Let us consider the levels of participation from the councils that have put forward proposals at this date: 28 per cent. of English authorities are taking part in this process, which I think is amazing in such a short period of time for something that is not statutory. Some 42 per cent. of Lib Dem-led authorities are taking part, and there have been more than 100 proposals from different councils. The Government should be heartened by that and should be using it as a springboard to try to take things further, rather than saying, “That process was not invented here, so we will now come up with a parallel process that we like more, because we invented it rather than somebody else.”
We also have to remember that a lot of councils will be waiting to see what will happen next. I remember speaking to one of my local councillors when the 2007 Act was being debated. A real paradigm shift is needed not just for central Government but for local government to understand the potential offered by the legislation. My local councillors could not get their head round the fact that they were entitled to have a view on aspects of public services that were not already their responsibility. An awful lot of councillors will be waiting to see what happens to the proposals that have been put forward, and that will spark off other ideas that will enable them to take more responsibility and to innovate in a way that has not been possible until now.
None of that will be possible unless we have local spending reports, in whatever shape or form—whether they look more like the Total Place pilots or are along the lines envisaged by the Secretary of State—and unless we have that financial information. Power cannot be transferred down if the opportunity to have a say about what happens to the money is not transferred down, too.
My greatest fear, which has unfortunately been reinforced by what I have heard today, is that the Government’s attitude will remain that they have a problem with proposals because they were not invented here and because we cannot put them into a nice, simple, one-size-fits-all approach. There are real issues about relinquishing power and control, and I am not sure whether the Government are up for dealing with them. That was reinforced by the debate that we had and the debate that we did not have on the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.
Ultimately, it seems that the Government’s perception of participation is to set out in primary legislation how councils should respond to petitions, to create more bureaucracy, quangos and unaccountable organisations, such as economic prosperity boards, to give more powers to regional development agencies and not to introduce devolution but, at best, to delegate more powers. That is not the same as devolution. It does not give communities greater decision-making powers but ensures that central Government decisions are implemented at a more local level. That is fundamentally different, and it is not localism. I hope that the rest of this debate will be an opportunity for the Government to prove me wrong for making these assumptions. I hope that they do, because the 2007 Act is really important to me, and it is really important to restoring people’s faith in democracy more widely.
Will the Minister or the Secretary of State confirm that the December 2009 deadline for the next stages will be debated and voted on in this House, and that we will not simply get a statement? Will we get a timetable for action? Will they confirm that we will get local spending reports and details of their format annually? Will they confirm in December 2009 the ongoing implementation of the 2007 Act? Will the Minister be able to confirm that the benefits of the Total Place pilots will be opened up to other authorities—perhaps those adjacent to those which are taking part—that might want to participate and benefit? Will the Minister also commit to extending this process to the local authorities that are closest to their communities—that is, our town and parish councils?
Given that this has been a grass-roots campaign from the start, it is really important that anybody watching the debate—I am sure that many people who have supported the campaign will be watching it—is convinced that their voice counts. It is very important that the Government do that this afternoon, in order to restore faith in our democratic process.
I am grateful that you have called me to speak in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Obviously, given the massed ranks of Labour Back Benchers, it has been difficult to find a slot in which I can deliver my speech. I notice that my two co-conspirators on the 2007 Act both sit on the Front Bench, whereas I sit in a lofty position on the Back Benches.
I feel some responsibility for the Act. I cannot pretend that I was its parent—that was the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd)—but I like to think of myself as its uncle. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) could be its auntie. I enjoyed the process so much that I tried to become a parent in my own right, by promoting the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. Sadly, I was not a very successful parent—it seems to have been stillborn—but I hope that if and when we move the 2007 Act forward, the Bill, which, importantly, would clarify the spending reports, try to bring parish councils in and roll forward how future programmes can operate, can be introduced.
I think that we have been a bit churlish. As someone who is not necessarily known as the most loyal Labour Back Bencher, I think that the Government have listened. The Department for Communities and Local Government, in particular, has made some moves. Obviously, it needs to go further and we will prompt and prod it to ensure that it does. However, it has made some moves, and although the Government’s amendment to the motion is a bit overlong—it took me a long time to read it last night—the most important part of it is the last line, which states that the Government will produce their response by December. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has said, we will hold the Government to that.
It would be nice to know how the Government—[Interruption.] Have I said something that I should not have? All the officials are going already. When the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), sums up, she must make it clear how the Government intend to respond by December. It would be worthy of a debate, and perhaps even a vote—that would be revolutionary, would it not? We need to be clear about what stance the Government are taking and how they intend to inform us appropriately. I hope that my hon. Friend explains exactly how we can trust that the Government have moved, that they are listening and that they want to get away from an entirely process-driven arrangement to one that has some meat on the bones. I say that as a vegetarian; we all have to be vegetarians now, of course.
We need to be a bit more altruistic and to recognise that the arrangement has been a good one. Cross-party work is greatly underestimated. We were only the forebears, as the Local Works campaign was relentless in driving the legislation forward. I give credit where it is due: the campaign has made sure that we did not slip and it is reasonably happy with the compromises that are being made. However, it is up to all of us to make sure that those compromises do not become soggy and that they have some real bite. That is what I intend to do, and I shall continue to play that part in negotiations outside the Chamber.
I want to say a few words about the local spending reports, which have not really been mentioned so far. We have spent a lot of time talking about what we are trying to do, but the reports are the basis for this debate and for the implementation of the legislation—[Interruption.] I am getting worried now, as I see my friendly Whip has come to look at me.
I have gone through the reports, and the reality is that they range from the dotty, undeliverable and downright unfair on the one hand to the utterly inspiring and really exciting on the other. It is important that we do not lose track of they fact that the Local Government Association must do a good job as the selector, and that is a task that it needs to get on with. Those of us who have been engaged in the process, and the people in the Local Works campaign, have had to knock the door down from time to time, but I hope that the Minister summing up the debate will say something about how we can be used as a source of knowledge for making sure that selection is as transparent and meaningful as possible.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the proposals put forward by councils, but 43 per cent. of the proposals that have gone forward to the LGA are related to devolving powers in respect of finance and decision making. Does not that make it even more important that the local spending reports are meaningful documents?
Absolutely, and I take in good faith what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in that regard. We need to get this right, but that will not necessarily be that easy and we will not get it right first time. Let us be realistic: this is an evolving and complicated process. We are trying to force central Government to come to terms with giving out spending information. I think that the Department for Communities and Local Government understands that, but I am worried about other Departments. DCLG should be given every encouragement in this debate to poke and prod, and to ask, request and demand the necessary information, because without it the legislation will fall down. If we are not careful, we will encounter the usual reluctance—from the Treasury, dare I say it?—with the result that the information that we want will not be forthcoming.
I say let us get behind DCLG and give it every encouragement. Let us look at the new politics and make sure that the Department is given every opportunity to make this piece of legislation work.
Some of us are still struggling a little bit with how the Total Place campaign relates to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. If someone could spell that out, it could not but help. If Total Place is a good model that we could extend and expand into the wider operation of the Act, we should get on and do it. We must make sure that there are not two processes that collide with one another and cause confusion. Some people are lucky enough to be in the pilot areas—and yippee for them—but it would not be right if the rest of us were to be merely marginal players and regarded as an afterthought.
I am very grateful, and I hope that this intervention is helpful. One of the key issues raised by the Secretary of State was that the format under which the local spending reports were set up made it more difficult to provide the meaningful information that the hon. Gentleman wants. However, the legislation makes the position absolutely clear. Clause 6(1) of the 2007 Act states:
“For the purpose of assisting in promoting the sustainability of local communities, the Secretary of State must make arrangements for the production, by the Secretary of State or another person, of local spending reports.”
So the Department does not have to publish the reports, but merely has to enable their publication. There is therefore no reason why the remit of the Total Place pilots could not be expanded to include publication of the reports.
I take that as read. The hon. Lady is my hon. Friend in this respect, and the people involved in those pilots have to read the legislation just as she and I have to. As I said, the process will evolve: it will not necessarily be right first time, but we have to get it right because we have to make people confident that the process is meaningful. It must engender belief that there is trust between local government and national Government—and, more importantly, between other players. We have not said an awful lot about the other agencies that we need to engage with, and I am talking, of course, about those in the voluntary sector.
If we get the process right, the greatest winners will be people in the voluntary sector. People in the statutory sector often say that an idea is great but that it cannot be done as there is no funding to lock it in place, but the legislation means that people in the voluntary sector will be able, for the first time, to insist on an examination of how public money is spent.
Passenger transport offers a real-life example. We all know that there are countless minibuses rushing around taking all sorts of people to different venues, but I am pleased to say that the local spending reports cannot but allow things to be done better, more effectively and in a fairer way. That is something that we need to get in place. We need to argue for it, and hope that the programme goes forward.
In this House, adversity and argument have their place but they are not always the best way to make progress. Sometimes we need to try and find compromise and consensus. In the end, we have to take a cross-party approach, as there are so many different elements involved. We all know that we cannot necessarily rely on our friends in local government to see things in exactly the same way that we, in our lofty position, see them. We have to work things out in a way that ensures that everyone gains.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke about the Regional Select Committees, which I think have been an interesting experiment. They can be a bit lonely, particularly when they are not quorate and people have to be dragged in. That is a pity, and there is nothing more to be said about that, but they can be interesting when people are brought in to give evidence. In areas such as transport and health, and certainly environmental protection, it makes a lot of sense to have a body that looks beyond immediate localities and considers an area which, whether we like it or not, could be called a region. We need a grown-up dialogue about how we can make sense of that and get some proper consultation—and more particularly some transparency when it comes to accountability—at that level.
I will support the Government tonight—[Interruption.] Or even this afternoon: it just feels like tonight, and I should not rush to the next debate. I believe that what those of us who have been involved in the campaign on this matter have done is negotiate, argue and persuade. We have tried to take the Government along with us.
I know that there has been consternation in some parts of the Government about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which they see as wishy-washy stuff. It has taken quite a lot of effort to persuade people that it is a meaningful bit of legislation and that it is not outwith other aspects of the Government’s agenda. We believe that it could be central to many of the things that we want, and it is really exciting. That is something that I do not want to lose: the Act is really exciting and meaningful, and I hope that the debate will help us to make it more so. That is better than being distracted by churlish point-scoring, which is not at all helpful.
I want to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing this subject. She has followed up the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) in getting this very important piece of legislation on the statute book, and making certain that the aspirations expressed in it are not allowed to rest on the shelf but are followed through.
The subject of the debate, local spending reports, sounds dry and bureaucratic, but it is nothing of the kind. It certainly is not a wishy-washy aspiration—the phrase which was not used by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) himself, but which he reported as being used by others. This is a debate about access to and use of power. For that reason, it is hugely important.
In his closing passage, the Secretary of State referred to the importance of Total Place, which develops many of these ideas, as one of the major reform programmes for the future of public services. I entirely agree. This is a debate about power. When the Secretary of State moved off his introductory rant about planning policy and got on to the subject of the debate, what was revealed was an important consensus between those on the two Front Benches—a consensus of rhetoric and a consensus of aspiration—to ensure that information is made available about the level of spending in each locality, in order that we can embark on the kind of reform programme implicit in the Secretary of State’s references to Total Place.
So far, so good. There is, across the party political divide, a shared aspiration. There is certainly shared rhetoric. The reason my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was right to call the debate is that although there is shared rhetoric and shared aspiration, the Government must be accountable for the pace of advance towards achieving the aspiration set out in the 2007 Act, which we are impatient to see carried through.
When put under pressure on specific aspects of the delivery of local spending reports, the Secretary of State repeatedly retreated into the proposition, “This is a first step. We’ll do better. There’s a further report in December. Please refer to my lecture of last week. I’m on your side really. I’m in the jungle and lots of people are against me.”
I suspect that that is an accurate description of the right hon. Gentleman’s position. His predecessors signed up on behalf of the Government to making the information available in order to achieve a transfer of power and, surprise, surprise, when the Secretary of State now tries to deliver on that aspiration, by making the information available—in his own words, in a timeous fashion—he is encountering the classic Whitehall resistance programme: “It’s frightfully difficult, old boy. We don’t collect information in quite this form. It’s terribly expensive. It would be very time consuming.” Anybody who has spent any time in a Whitehall office has heard it before. It is like drawing teeth.
That is the central charge that my hon. Friend makes against the Government—not that there is not a desire in the fullness of time to see the reform as a good thing, but that from the outside there is a sense that the delivery of the aspiration is disappointing. Looking step by step at the stages that we are going through, and the arguments that are being used, it feels like drawing teeth against Sir Humphrey.
I could not agree more. It was the hon. Lady who stressed the importance of the programme as a power transfer. It is a power transfer in the spirit of the times, but it is a power transfer with which people in Whitehall do not feel very comfortable.
I want to substantiate my sense that the delivery of the aspiration is like drawing teeth. I accept that the Government are now on this square, but it was only at the second attempt that the Government included the Department for Work and Pensions budget in the local spending report. What on earth is the sense of trying to get the Government to look across departmental boundaries if we do not include the DWP budget in the project? But the Government did not get there the first time; they only got there the second time.
Then there is the list of exemptions that are still not included in the current proposals for local spending reports. In an intervention, I asked the Secretary of State about the probation service. He did not even try to defend its exclusion. He as good as said that he agreed with me and that it would not be on the list next time. Let us go through one or two of the others—for example, the Learning and Skills Council.
Why on earth is the Learning and Skills Council even claiming the right to exemption? It would be slightly different if it said, “Sorry, we are not here now, but we will be here in a couple of months when we have sorted out the practical difficulties”, but we are being asked to accept, at least on the face of it, that the LSC should not be part of local spending reports. I do not accept that. It is disappointing that the Secretary of State is not prepared to say on the record that he does not accept it, either.
Another offender on the list is an institution for which I used to be responsible a long time ago, the Arts Council. There is not a shred of a reason why the Arts Council England should claim an exemption from the process. I know exactly why it is on the list. It is because it is embarrassed about the scale of funding that goes to the Royal Opera House and the London symphony orchestras, and the focus on London. It has its own private reasons for not wanting to see that information revealed. Who does the Arts Council think it is kidding? We know who the recipients are of Arts Council funding. Why does it almost draw attention to that by claiming exemption from such a programme? I could go on through the list, but I will not detain the House by doing so.
We are embarked on something that is important. There is a genuine will—a genuine willingness, at least—on both sides of the House to see the programme pursued. What we looked for from the Government, and the reason why the Opposition motion is rightly critical of them, is not simply a feeling of good will towards something that is a good thing, like apple pie and motherhood, but a willingness to fight battles to achieve the publication, because what we are seeking to achieve is a transfer of information, and therefore of power, from central Government to local government, and a willingness on the part of the Secretary of State to recognise that that battle will not be fought and won without his full-hearted consent and willingness to engage on behalf of an important principle.
The Total Place initiative in my constituency, in Leicester and Leicestershire, which is led by David Parsons, focuses on drug and alcohol services. There is no better example of a set of services that have for a long time been the prisoner of interdepartmental barriers and the inability to use funds from one budget in support of a relatively small group of vulnerable people across departmental boundaries.
I am delighted that Leicester city council and Leicestershire county council are embarked on a Total Place project to try to break down those barriers, but that makes no sense if the probation service and the youth offenders service are exempt from the process of empowerment through publication of information and, more positively, because drug and alcohol services are not just about treating the immediate need; they are also about improving life chances. How is it possible to deliver improved life chances for people suffering from drug and alcohol problems if it is not permitted to look across the fence into the LSC, the youth sports council and other services of that nature?
The Leicester and Leicestershire Total Place project is a very good step in the right direction, but it is also a good illustration of what is wrong with the Government’s delivery of their promise on the publication of information. We look to the Secretary of State to read his own lecture, to believe his own rhetoric, and to fight battles on behalf of the people who will benefit from the improved delivery of public service that will result from the successful delivery of those aspirations.
I think that I am the only hon. Member to speak who was not here when the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 was introduced. At that time, I was doing pioneering work as a county councillor in Oxfordshire to try to work out how spending could be allocated and understood in terms of my own division and the major settlements within it. Although that information was not readily available in the sense of being kept in that form all the time, it was not difficult to make that information available and to bring it together. That allowed me to look at how much was spent, particularly in the poorest village, and that was not simply to answer the question, “What do I get for my council tax?”, but to answer the question that others were asking, “Is the spend in the right place?”
When I listen to and read the statements from some of the agencies that have been too frightened to engage in the process, I imagine that the same arguments must have been run at the time of universal suffrage: do we trust the people enough to be able to grant them the vote? Exactly the same argument runs behind this: do we trust people to have the information? In the case of the information that I produced for my county council division and the conversations that I had, I had every right to trust people with that information. By and large they did not ask why they had or did not have a certain amount of money; they engaged in a much more intelligent debate about the priorities for the area and where was the best place for that money to be spent.
One of the issues that I had to deal with was raised by the Secretary of State—how to decide on the allocation of spending where it affected more than one area. The answer was simple. A judgment has to be made, the criteria are decided and those are the criteria that are made available. The issue at that micro-level concerned bus subsidies. The subsidy on a bus route clearly benefits the length of the bus route and the people who live along it, whether they are in a state of need or not. I took the view that the bus subsidy should be allocated to the place where it had the most social effect, for which it was designed. Everyone understood that. It was understood by the richer neighbouring villages, and there was no disagreement.
Again, the legislation makes it clear that the area covered can be one or more parts, whole local authority areas or any combination, and can include any other arrangements. There can be different arrangements for different reports. That is not excluded by the legislation.
The hon. Lady is right. My point, to reinforce the comments that have been made, is that it is necessary to decide and to be open about the criteria that are used.
The need for such information is even more crucial in an age of partnership. Many of us who were in local government when the partnership regime came in were quite cynical about it and about the democratic deficit, but having lived with it and seen it, I appreciate the enormous advantages of being able to organise services on a much better basis. However, it can still be opaque. For example, the use of pooled budgets provides little in the way of transparency, both about what is sought to be achieved and about the money that goes into them. What is missing from that is not so much the idea of pooled budgets, but aligned budgets, which again comes back to transparency and the need to ensure that everyone understands that.
The Total Place experiment has been mentioned, and I was particularly interested in that. Criticisms of the programme have largely been seen as practical, but in evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Child Poverty Bill, the leader of Kent county council says that while he is
“a great supporter of the Total Place concept, which is about joined-up public services looking at the totality of expenditure in any one area and sitting round and trying to go into solutions…there is still a silo mentality across the public agencies, which are acting in isolation and not in concert.”
So it is more than just a question of picking up the pragmatics of how Total Place works; it is also about getting to the concept of it and getting the agencies to agree that they are participating in a programme that is worth while.
Again, the Secretary of State mentioned on a number of occasions—I got the impression that this was his view of the main purpose of this measure—that this was all about allowing local government to scrutinise the amount of its expenditure. Scrutiny is a very important function. Local government is growing into it in a dynamic way, and it has the ability to achieve some important results and to take forward different initiatives. However, it is about much more than scrutiny; it is about the ability to reorganise services on the ground in a fundamental and practical way.
The leader of Kent county council made the point in a particularly fantastic way to the Public Bill Committee in relation to the Total Place experiment. He talked about his Margate renewal initiative, which relates to vulnerable families there, and he said:
“In one shape or form, the amount of public agency support going to those families is more than £100,000 or £150,000. When you then start to talk to the health economy and the educational economy through to special needs, all of them are acting in isolation. With the health economy, the special needs economy and the public agencies, if you looked at the totality of expenditure on those 15, 20 or 100 families—more than £150,000—and thought about that pooled resource, would you start to do things dramatically differently that would lead to much more positive outcomes for those vulnerable families?”—––[Official Report, Child Poverty Public Bill Committee, 20 October 2009; c. 53-55, Q124 and Q126.]
That is the whole purpose of the measure. The 2007 Act allowed me to try to get to grips with the information in order to be able to do something with it. I have never liked to collect data just for the sake of it, but it can achieve a valuable purpose.
The debate very much goes to the nature of the relationship between central and local government. I have said on a number of occasions in the House that my experience over the past 12 years has been of the way in which the Government have treated local government merely as the delivery arm of Whitehall, unable to take its own initiatives. The way in which that has come through most often is with regard to the ring-fenced grants, of which a considerable number are not needed and should be brought back into the pool. The problem with the ring-fenced grants is that they take a Whitehall view of how the money should be spent. It is a fixed view and, by and large, there is no flexibility for it to be targeted on areas of greatest need, which can be appreciated only on the ground. That was my experience of how the ring-fenced system leant to that view of local government as just the delivery arm of Whitehall.
If we are to make something of the situation and release the potential of both Total Place and the spending statements, we need to make a fundamental change in the relationship between local and central Government. We talked earlier of trust, and central Government must place considerably greater trust in local government—in the idea that local government knows what it is talking about, and that there are reasonable people there who make rational decisions on the basis of evidence that they have and are well prepared to use.
The current situation is a shame, and I have noticed it during the progress of the Child Poverty Bill, which is now in Committee. That Bill goes back to the old ways of doing things, entrenched in the Government view that, “We have a problem, we have some targets and, right, we will pass it straight over to local government to deal with.” The Government do it with pooled budgets and there is no thought about how those should be dealt with or about the level of transparency, and no real acceptance of the need for targets other than central Government targets to ensure that a very important area of our society is dealt with constructively. Unless we ensure that these spending statements transform the way in which we deal with policy and with government, we will miss one of the greatest opportunities that we have to take this country forward in a partnership between central and local government.
We have had a rather good debate since we made it through the first 10 minutes of the Secretary of State’s speech. That 10 minutes was badly judged, because the subject of the debate is legislation characterised by strong cross-party support. It was my privilege to be the promoter of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, and, as I sense that it will probably represent the pinnacle of my usefulness in this place, I am obviously keen to see it implemented properly. However, I am not alone, because, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) put it very well, many people can claim credit for what is a genuinely cross-party Act.
The simple truth is that it is on the statute book for one reason only, and that is people power. It is a grass-roots Act, forged by a wide, deep and extremely determined coalition who want to change how the decisions that shape the future of their communities are made. They are disappointed, and their disappointment is reflected in early-day motion 1064, which has been signed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, by more than 250 Members, including more than 90 Labour Members. Feelings run strongly through all parts of the House.
This debate has delivered some very clear messages to the Government. First, the 2007 Act is an important law that deserves greater attention from the Secretary of State, and I think that we have secured it in the run-up to and during this debate. Secondly, there is a perception that the Government have not delivered their promises on local spending reports. Thirdly, now is the time to change that perception and send a much stronger signal that the Department is committed to making the Act work, not just paying lip service to it. That has been the key theme of a good debate.
I shall acknowledge in particular two contributions, not least because they come from new players on the Act’s well trodden stage. In his interventions and in a brief but telling speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) drew on his considerable and relevant experience, not least as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. When he acknowledges that the importance of the Act is the transfer of effective power, we should listen. It was also useful of him to draw on his direct experience of Total Place in Leicester.
I also particularly welcomed the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), not least because he was not a Member when the legislation was debated. He none the less drew deeply on his experience as a county councillor and on the direct experience of wrestling with the challenge of partnership working. He stressed the importance of words such as trust and transparency and, critically, the importance of the ability to change how things are delivered. Without that sense of the potential to change how services are delivered and who delivers them, we will not be able to make the progress that we need.
The theme is clear: the Government could and should do better. I should like to do two things: first, make it quite clear why we are disappointed; and secondly, try to persuade the Government to change gear. Critically, they should get over the “not invented here” syndrome and seize the opportunity that the 2007 Act provides to get people involved again in the decisions that shape their communities, and to transform the efficiency of public expenditure. Never has that need been more pressing, and the key word that will drive such transformation is “transparency”.
So why are we disappointed? It is worth going back to what the Act set out to do. Its guiding principle was that local people know best, and that we should have much greater influence over the decisions that shape the future of the places where we live and work. To that end, the Act required the Government to seek proposals by local authorities for new policies and powers they needed to promote more sustainable communities. The Local Government Association would act as a selector, and the Secretary of State would have a duty to reach agreement on a shortlist of proposals. To assist local authorities in this process, the Government were required to produce local spending reports that would give local authorities and the communities they serve new information on public expenditure in the area, and local authorities would be free to challenge existing expenditure and make the case for the transfer of function and resource.
That goes to the heart of the response to the Secretary of State’s concerns about the absence of quality of service from the debate, because the local spending reports are in fact a catalyst for challenging and driving up quality. The example that we used in Committee, as agreed by the then Minister, was that of Business Link. The scenario was one whereby a local authority had a locally set target about supporting local businesses. The provision of full, effective local spending reports would have shown the local authority what Business Link was spending in the area. If the local authority and the community that it serves felt that Business Link was not doing an adequate job, it could then, under the provisions of the Act, make representations to get the function and the budget transferred from Business Link.
If colleagues think through that example, they will see what potential the Act has to change the dynamics of how decisions are taken at a local level and to challenge whoever makes them. That could be a real motor for driving up quality and for asserting local priorities. As the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the auntie of the Act, observed—I sincerely welcome his remarks—it is a wonderful opportunity for the voluntary sector. As shadow Minister for charities, social enterprise and the voluntary sector, I have said to people in the sector, “This Act is a great opportunity for you—seize it,” and they recognise that fact.
The bottom line, as anyone who was involved in the long trench warfare over the Bill in Committee knows, is that local spending reports were always seen as the meat in the sandwich—the genuinely radical part of the Act, as it now is. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden stressed that in her opening speech. It was also clear that the reports had to be as comprehensive as possible in order to be useful—a key word used by the Secretary of State. In the consultation response, the chief executive of Labour-controlled Gateshead said:
“Unless a comprehensive picture of expenditure is given within a specified spatial area, the reports could provide a misleading picture.”
The then Minister “got” this. He was frank about complexity, as the Secretary of State said. Nevertheless, the direction of travel was clear. That May, the House was told that the local spending report would cover all public expenditure in each local authority—in so far as it is possible to define it—that it would cover both current and future spending, and that it would include all public agencies. That could not be clearer. Such transparency must be right, not only because it is fundamental in giving local people meaningful influence, as the LGA put it recently, but because it is the natural bedfellow of efficiency and finding better ways of doing things.
There is a more fundamental point, which was made strongly by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. In 2009, surely we have a right to know what is being done in our name, in our area. We live in a world where we have so much information at our fingertips, yet it is almost impossible to find out what the state is doing in our name, in our area. I am a Greater London MP—or a Middlesex MP, as we prefer to say. I am told by London Councils that £74 billion of public money is being spent in London, £5.6 billion of which is being spent by 169 non-departmental public bodies, 15 of which spend about 80 per cent. of that money. I would like to know what they are doing in Hillingdon. How hard can it be to get that information? It is absurd that in 2009 my local authority does not know what the Metropolitan police are spending in the borough of Hillingdon, or how much flexibility the borough commander has over that budget: they need to be partners. There has to be a better way, and the public know it. This place should need no lectures about the public appetite for greater transparency. It is growing, and we must respond to it.
That is what the Act was intended to do, but what was actually delivered? One year after it was ratified it was formally launched at the LGA by the then Secretary of State, who had inherited it from her predecessor. Two things were clear to me as I sat in the audience. The first was that local spending reports were barely on her radar screen, and that she saw political risk in them because of the potential comparisons between areas. The second, which came from talking to officials, was that one year on, no real work had been done on making the local spending reports happen in a substantial way, even though they were due to be published six months later. That told me that there was no leadership or political will at the top of the Department, and that not enough time had been allowed to make the system work. Members can take their pick between cock-up and conspiracy. In my experience these things are normally cock-ups, but that is not the perception among supporters of the Act. The message that we received was that there was no political will at all driving the process.
I should say that it is not all bad news. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, we should take encouragement from how many councils responded to the Act despite wholly inadequate local spending reports. The LGA, acting in its role as selector, now has a large number of proposals to sift through, some of them very radical indeed. However, the LSRs were a big disappointment. The starting point was wrong, with the ambition limited to local authorities and primary care trusts, as the responses to the short consultation made clear. As the Secretary of State said, the Government responded and added lines of expenditure, but not enough. They did not even begin to engage with quangoland, and there were glaring exceptions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood have ruthlessly exposed.
Moreover, the relevant information is quite hard to find, being tucked away in pretty impenetrable Excel spreadsheets in the bowels of the departmental website. People find it difficult to engage with them, and they are given no prominence at all. Disappointingly, everything indicates that, as the LGA puts it, the first LSRs
“reflect a minimalist approach to the concept of, and commitments to, Local Spending Reports as discussed in Parliament during the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act”.
It states that they
“fall short of the ambitions for LSRs shared across all political parties at…local level.”
That sense of disappointment is shared by local authority leaders in Wealden, who have said that the LSRs
“fall significantly short of expectations and are of little or no value in developing proposals”.
According to Merton council,
“it is questionable about how useful this information is given that a great deal of it is already publicly available and that the data included is very high level”.
The truth is that the Government have simply repackaged information that, for those who could be bothered to look for it, was already in the public domain. The Secretary of State trotted out 96 different reasons why it was all so difficult, straight out of the Sir Humphrey playbook, but he did not convince us.
What makes the situation even more frustrating is that the Government actually appear to be committed to the mapping of expenditure. They have developed their own project, Total Place, which we have discussed at length, and they support it with taxpayers’ money, but they drag their feet on local spending reports. That looks to me like a bad case of “not invented here” syndrome. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State groans, but that is our perception.
The hon. Member for Stroud made a good point about potential confusion in the marketplace between LSRs and Total Place, and how the two will be reconciled. The debate has been useful in giving us a sense of the Government’s aspirations in that direction and highlighting the value of having the Treasury fully bound into the process, which we acknowledge. Still, the fundamental question is: if it can be done in Cumbria, why can it not be done elsewhere? I am not sure whether we have had sufficiently good answers to that. If part of the problem is that central Government do not hold the information, why can they not go and get it? If the problem is that the Department does not have the power of information gathering, we must consider what can be done to change that situation, and whether it is worth having that debate in public.
My concern is that local spending reports have not told local authorities’ leaders anything that they could not have found out for themselves. For those who went ahead and submitted proposals there is no visibility to show when they will get a decision on them, and for those interested in making proposals at a subsequent phase, there is no visibility to show how that will work. The risk is that an already sceptical market of local authority leaders will shrug their shoulders and move on. That will frustrate the grass-roots campaign that believes in the process and wants change.
I think that the Government have misread the mood, and a large number of organisations feel the same way, including Unison, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Federation of Small Businesses. A range of organisations have expressed disappointment and have urged the Government to do better.
The Government have set out their stall. They say, “Give us a chance. We’re getting there. As you know, government is terribly complicated and we’ve got to be careful about costs. There’s terrible inertia out there.” My response is that we will judge them by their actions, not their words. We have heard plenty of words, but they have not delivered.
I have three tests: first, let us hear a statement from the Department on how it intends to try to reach agreement with the LGA on submitted proposals. The Department is silent, and it should not be. Secondly, let us hear the Government make it clear that this process is not a one-off, and that local authorities will have the opportunity to submit new proposals in the near future. Thirdly, let us set a timetable for the delivery of effective local spending reports that include quangos—my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden made the very good point that it is actually in quangos’ interest to do more to explain to the public what they do, to justify their existence.
I am sure that government is complicated, but I am also sure that it is less so when people are clear about their priorities and really drive them. Effective LSRs cannot be that hard, because Total Place pilots seem to have the information. There will be costs, but they must be tiny compared with the efficiency savings that should be the dividend of greater transparency; that point was made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne.
Transparency must be a priority now. If the Minister has any doubts about that, I urge her to look at what is happening in the USA. Months, not years, after the election of President Obama, the default setting was changed from closed to open. Look at the Missouri accountability portal. It is not an obscure Excel file, but four buttons to click on. Look at SeeThroughNY, USAspending.gov or data.gov, the strapline of which is “Discover. Participate. Engage.” In America, they have been bold in opening the books, throwing open the doors and letting the light and the people in. They do it because they know that it will be the catalyst to engagement, efficiency and innovation; here, we continue to live in the dark.
That is not the future. The 2007 Act has wedged the door open and it will not close again. I urge the Government to listen to Parliament, embrace the future, change the default setting to open government, not closed government, start to treat people intelligently and commit now to full local spending reports that include quangos—and just get on with it.
This has been a very important debate on a subject that, I believe, goes to the very heart of democracy and participation in our country. The quality of the contributions has been high, which I hope has made up for the rather disappointing quantity.
I was both disappointed and surprised, however, by the tone of some contributions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a very real attempt to draw on the cross-party nature of the 2007 Act and to describe the progress made, and the process that we have gone through, in an open and fair fashion, but the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), despite his stated desire to be helpful, descended very swiftly—within seconds of starting his speech—into old-fashioned yah-boo politics. As a previous Culture Minister, I can assure him that I am very well aware how the Arts Council does its accounting. I can also assure him that we will be considering its inclusion in the December report, and also the inclusion of the learning and skills councils.
The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was one of the midwives of the original Bill, adopted a more helpful tone, but the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) made remarks about Government spending being veiled in secrecy, even though this Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act—some Members may wish at the moment that we had not done so. To suggest that this Government are not committed to transparency is ridiculous. I think that in her opening contribution, she established the suspicious and distrustful tone that permeated the debate in a rather silly and old-fashioned way.
I am sorry if the Minister felt that I was being overly partisan: I was simply seeking to put the Government under pressure to deliver shared aspirations. She said that she would look again at the Arts Council and, almost under her breath, that she would also look at the learning and skills councils to decide whether to include them in December. May we take that as a commitment that those exclusions will not be claimed by December? The Secretary of State virtually promised the inclusion of the probation service. Can that be included in the list for which the exemptions will be withdrawn?
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for losing my temper.
The yah-boo politics were very obvious in the impassioned contribution from, and constant heckling by, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). I admire her conviction and enthusiasm, and I enjoyed meeting her to discuss this subject recently. However, I did not admire her approach today. In fact, by the end of her contribution I began to feel a real need for a Relate counsellor in the Chamber. Her intervention was so filled with distrust and suspicion that I could not believe that I had spent half an hour talking to her about this previously.
Thankfully, Relate, in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), was present. His well-balanced speech poured oil—
This is very partisan.
Yes, but it is not yah-boo. My hon. Friend’s well-balanced speech poured oil on troubled waters while simultaneously spurring the Government on to greater efforts.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made a thoughtful contribution, and I especially liked what he said about the silo mentality of government at all levels. He is completely right, and his remark about the role of ring-fencing in reinforcing that mentality has been noted and received with sympathy by the Government and by this Department, which has made substantial progress in reducing the amount of ring-fencing.
I thank the Minister for that remark, although I am not sure that praise from someone on the Government Front Bench has done my career any good. May we look forward to the abolition of as many of the ring-fenced grants to local government as she can achieve?
The hon. Gentleman may certainly look forward to us looking at them. We need to move away from the old ways of doing things, and the hon. Gentleman’s call for the transformation of the relationship between local and central Government was a good one.
In response to the direct questions from the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, we will—as I said earlier—produce a report in December on the next stages of developing spending reports. On her question about when the next round will take place, it will be—as I again said earlier—when we have assessed and appraised this round. We will certainly consider the role of parish councils in the process.
That is something that has to be decided by the House. Because I had left that out, I was going to come to it at the end of my speech. I heard what the hon. Lady said.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) gave a clear summary of the progress of the Act and described my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud as the auntie of the Act. I am not sure that everyone would agree. The hon. Gentleman also said that transparency is the bedfellow of efficiency, which echoed the Secretary of State’s remark that knowledge is power. Like the hon. Member for Meriden, however, the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that information on local spending can be accessed only through the spending reports. As they know, that is simply not true. I am Regional Minister for the East of England, and the regional development agencies produce huge numbers of accounts and reports that are available to everyone. We have also looked at their value for money, and for every pound spent, we get £4.50 back. That information is available and is not collated in with the local spending reports, although I hope that eventually it will be—this is work in progress.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the problem is that the RDA spend is not broken down by constituency? From time to time, we get a letter from the chief executive telling us a bit of good news, but it is piecemeal. Does she accept that one of the reasons the debate at times has been tense—although I would not characterise it as yah-boo—is the absence today of the written ministerial statement promised on this very subject? That has coloured Members’ stances. That statement is still not in the Library.
I apologise for that omission. I have been told that it is in the Library. I also apologise, like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did, for the fact that we did not extend the normal courtesies and give it to the Front-Bench team. I shall personally ensure that it never happens again.
As the hon. Lady said, the information needs to be disaggregated, but, as someone who has spent many years attempting to get Government statistics disaggregated by gender, I can tell hon. Members that it is difficult and extraordinarily expensive. However, the Government and I are committed to open and transparent disclosure of public spending. We share that principle with other hon. Members. However, we share another principle—public money, especially in these difficult times, has to be used for the benefit of the people from whom it has been raised.
Most importantly, each pound of that money has to work harder than ever before. No one entrusted with the care of public money takes its use lightly, and we firmly believe that those who have earned this money should have the right to see exactly how it is being spent. That is why we are developing the concept of local spending reports alongside the Total Place pilots. I hope that that transparency will permeate everything that the Government do in the future, and that we can work in more accord with Opposition parties on this extraordinarily worthwhile venture.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House recognises the role of strong, accountable local government in delivering high quality local services and entitlements to services whilst ensuring value for money; welcomes Government investment, through local councils, in providing real help now to families; reiterates the importance of providing information about local spending and service quality to ensuring effective scrutiny and value for money; further welcomes the passage of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Government’s commitment to work with the Selector on its implementation, and believes that the first local spending reports published in April 2009 marked an important initial step in making local public spending more transparent; further welcomes responses to the consultation confirming the desire to see more data published; welcomes the Government’s intention to extend local spending reports to cover all local public spending which can be readily provided in this format at reasonable cost; further welcomes the Government’s proposals to extend local authorities’ scrutiny of all local public service spending in their area; further welcomes the Total Place pilots mapping in detail all public spending in key services in 13 areas; further welcomes Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s work advising Government on how best to make non-personal public data as widely available as possible; believes that these developments will enhance the Government’s ability to provide local spending information in the most effective manner; and asks Ministers to report back to the House before the end of December 2009 on the next stages in developing local spending reports.