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LABOUR CONFERENCE - STEPHEN BYERS ON PUBLIC SERVICES (FULL TEXT)

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Speech by local government secretary Stephen Byers at Labour's local government and women's conference in Cardiff a...
Speech by local government secretary Stephen Byers at Labour's local government and women's conference in Cardiff at the weekend:

'Twenty years ago I attended my first local government conference. At that time we still had genuine local government. The freedom to act and respond to the needs and aspirations of the local communities that we had been elected to serve.

Last June when I was appointed as Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions I looked at the condition of local government at the beginning of the 21st century. What was clear to me was the fact that in many areas we no longer had local government but something that looked a lot more like local administration.

I resolved then that we needed to put the relationship between local and central government on a different footing. We consulted widely and in December published the Local Government White Paper.

This White Paper sets out a new vision for local government at the beginning of the 21st Century. It seeks to establish a partnership between central and local government, reflecting the critical importance of local authorities - both as a tier of democratic government and with the responsibility to deliver high quality public services to local people.

Democratically-elected councils are part of the fabric of our communities. The services they provide have a vital part to play in sustaining and enhancing the social and economic prospects and environmental quality of our towns, cities and countryside.

I want to tackle the trend towards excessive central prescription and interference, which dominated central - local relations in the 1980s and 90s. We are reversing that approach. The White Paper marks a pronounced step away from centralisation.

It is about increased freedoms, better incentives, and a significant reduction in the number of controls, consent requirements, plans and over-elaborate guidance which have been all too characteristic of the top-down approach to local government.

It is truly about local government. It is a significant shift away from local administration.

Based on a belief that we don't need to control everything and a recognition that local authorities are often in the best position to respond to local needs and aspirations.

So the White Paper has at its heart community leadership and the democratic renewal of local government.

For all councils we want to reduce the bureaucratic burden and give them the freedom to innovate and focus on driving up standards.

We therefore intend to cut the number of plans and strategies that councils are required to produce. To scale back the number of area based initiatives and give greater scope to rationalise partnerships.

We shall remove many of the present requirements to obtain Government consent before acting. Over 50 will be abolished with another 30 under review.

And we shall also provide councils with wider powers to provide services to others.

Many of you have had to deal with the unfairness of the present system of grant distribution to local authorities.

Lets be clear about this. The standard spending assessment regime constructed by the Tories has nothing to do with the needs of an authority; bears no relation to the level of services actually provided; ignores the demands made by individuals and communities on local councils.

It was simply a political fix to divert money into a number of chosen authorities.

We shall introduce a new system of distribution from April 2003. Some have said we should change the SSA to make it fairer.

My view is that the SSA system is so corrupt in its creation that it cannot be changed to the good.

So we will abolish the standard spending assessment regime. We shall replace it by a system of grant distribution which is easier to understand; reflects the real cost of services and the needs of a local area.

We also intend to give local authorities greater flexibility to undertake capital investment. We shall scrap the system of credit approvals and instead authorities will be free to borrow for capital investment without consent provided they can afford to service the debt. So where a council sees the need, for example, for a new library or leisure centre, they will no longer need our permission to raise the necessary funds, provided they act prudently.

This year and next will see important local elections being held. They will be tough because we'll be defending a large number of seats and councils that were gained three and four years ago.

I want you to have the full backing and support of the national party in those local campaigns and I know that that's an approach supported by both David Triesman and Charles Clarke.

For some the Liberal Democrats will be the main opposition. Increasingly they look less like a national political party and more like a franchise operation. Sign up to the national brand but then do what you like locally.

How right my father was when be used to say: 'Had God been a liberal we wouldn't have had the Ten Commandments we would have had the ten suggestions'.

So nationally they say they will fund public transport improvements by congestion charging. Yet not one Lib-Dem council has put forward any scheme.

Nationally they express concern about road building. Yet locally they campaign for roads to be built and condemn the government if we don't provide the cash.

In their 2001 election manifesto they promised 6,000 extra police. We will provide 9,000.

They promised£3.5 billion over five years for the health services. We will provide£5 billion every year.

There was no reference to rail investment in their manifesto - not a single word. We'll deliver on average£4.3 billion a year for each year of ten year plan.

They produce Focus newsletters when they have no political focus. They make false promises to spend billions by constantly re-cycling a 1p increase on income tax.

They will say anything to anyone but we know they stand for nothing and for no-one.

So let's take the gloves off with the Liberal Democrats. Let's expose them for what they are and lets defeat them in the elections on 2 May.

Then we have the Conservative Party under the leadership of Ian Duncan Smith. New leader but it's the same old Tory Party. It's instincts haven't changed at all.

Nowhere has that been clearer than their response to my decision to refuse to give yet more taxpayers money to Railtrack.

The Tories cannot believe that my actions brought to an end one of their failed privatisations. It rolled back the Thatcher/Major legacy of privatisation.

But we did. And you know Conference despite all the sound and fury. The personal criticism that I have had to face. I have no doubt that the decision I took in October was the right thing to do.

Railtrack was a company that had failed. It's failure to maintain the track led to Hatfield.

It had no register of assets.

Train delays due to Railtrack at an unacceptable level.

The Tories difficulty with this issue is that Railtrack was the last throw of the privatisation dice when in the dying days of the Major Government it was floated on the Stock Market.

So desperate were they to ensure that it was a success that the shares were undervalued.

Sold for£2 billion, two and a half years later valued at nearly£8 million. A loss to the taxpayer of£6 billion.

Not my figures, but from David Davies the new Chairman of the Tory Party, produced when he led the Public Accounts Committee.

But it gets worse£1.4 billion of debt owed to the taxpayer was written off.

In addition£69 million of profit earned while Railtrack was in public ownership was held back from the taxpayer and then given to the shareholders by way of a dividend.

Taxpayers money being recycled as profit for Railtrack. Sprinkled like confetti among shareholders - yet not one of them was a shareholder at the time the money was made.

And now the Tories have joined the call for compensation to be paid to Railtrack shareholders. A billion pounds of taxpayers money to be provided.

My position is absolutely clear and resolute on this. There will be no more taxpayers money made available. For our government it is essential public services that come first and not the interests of Railtrack shareholders.

Our action in relation to Railtrack is also relevant to our debate about the role of the private sector in public services.

This debate is important and I welcome it. But lets make sure it is properly informed.

To say that the position of Railtrack is the same as Public Private Partnership is wrong and misleading.

Any involvement of the private sector must be a means to an end - the provision of high quality public services that represent value for money.

But when the private sector can enhance public services it does have a role.

To reject such an approach would allow dogma to triumph over the public interest.

And when the private sector fails we must be as robust in dealing with it as we would be had it been in the public sector.

At the last election the people were faced with the clear choice. Short term tax cuts or long term investment in public services.

The electorate's verdict was decisive. They wanted investment in public services.

So our priority as a Government is to deliver better public services for the people of our country.

This has to be right across the board - in health, education, transport, fight against crime and in local government.

It won't be easy. People are impatient. Expectations are high.

The legacy of years of neglect and under-investment is strong. It is now being tackled.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to deliver better schools, better hospitals, step up the fight against crime and to sort out our transport system.

And we'll only have one opportunity to get it right. If we fail then it will be the Tory prescription for public services that will take centre stage. Services being broken up, sold off and funding cut.

Labour rejects this approach. We've made our choice.

We invest in reform and insist on results. An approach endorsed by the electorate.

We recognise that our public services are not as good as we want them to be.

But the difference between the Government and the Tories is clear.

We are ambitious for our public services.

The Tories talk them down.

We want them to succeed.

They do not believe they can ever succeed.

We are investing the money. The Tories would take it away.

Once again they would allow dogma to triumph over reason and the national interest.

The present Tory dogma is the classic response of the political right - it is to say that the state is too big.

The Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Home Secretary are united - not just in their hostility to Europe but also in their view that public spending should be reduced to around 35% of GDP.

That would require cuts in public spending of at least£50 billion.

We believe investment in high quality public services is crucial.

Provides the foundation of economic prosperity and social renewal.

It generates wealth as well as supporting welfare provision.

As a nation we have suffered for generations due to chronic under-investment.

It is because we believe passionately in public services that we need to make sure that the extra money we are putting in is used to deliver real improvements.

That means we must push forward on our agenda of modernisation and reform.

It will be a battle between the reformers and the wreckers.

We won't let vested interests stand in our way. We will act in the national interest

We do that because in the end it is the hospital patient, the school pupil, rail passenger and the potential victim of crime who must come first.

The British people won't be fooled by the Tories new rhetoric on public services.

People know from their own bitter experience that those factors that motivate the Tory Party - envy, self interest and greed are quite simply incompatible with the provision of quality public services.

Now of course the great hope for the Conservative Party is that there will be collective amnesia by the electorate. That they will forget the Tory approach to public services.

This now seems official. Ian Duncan Smith in his Financial Times interview two weeks ago said about Margaret Thatcher:

'My children don't remember her at all. As memories fade, so people's recollection of what was done fades'.

Well I've a message for the Tories. We'll keep reminding people of the Thatcher legacy and the consequences for individuals, families, communities and our public services.

We'll remind them that

Every indicator of economic and social failure at least doubled under the Tories.

Crime doubled.

National debt doubled.

Long term unemployed doubled.

Homelessness doubled.

Child Poverty doubled.

We'll remind them that in the early 1990's

Interest rates over 15%

Inflation over 10%

One million homeowners in negative equity.

We'll remind them that by 1997:

The numbers of National Health Service waiting lists rose by over 400,000.

Around half 11 year olds failing to reach expected levels in Maths and English.

Nearly .5 million 5, 6 & 7 year olds in classes of over 30.

And Railtrack privatised.

A catalogue of neglect, prejudice and dogma from the Tories towards public services.

Labour's commitment to public services reflects our values, principles and beliefs as a political party.

Labour believes in opportunity for all our people.

Labour believes in social justice.

Labour believes that there is such a thing as society and we achieve far more together, acting collectively then we ever can as individuals, isolated and on our own.

It is through collective provision, delivering social justice and providing opportunity for all that:

Under Labour hospital waiting lists cut by 120,000.

Under Labour crime down by 22%.

Under Labour all 4 year olds guaranteed a pre-school place.

Under Labour infant class sizes cut.

Under Labour 27,000 more nurses.

Under Labour Railtrack no longer serving the interests of shareholders but putting the travelling public first.

Labour in power acting in the public interest.

Labour in Government delivering for our people and our country.'

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