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ROUNDUP OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT STORIES IN THE NATIONAL PRESS

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UNISON CONFERENCE REJECTS PRIVATISATION PLAN ...
UNISON CONFERENCE REJECTS PRIVATISATION PLAN

Britain's biggest union has rejected government proposals to end a row over local government privatisations in an anti-Labour backlash, reported The Guardian (p10).

Unison activists threw out plans negotiated over the past six months by their own leaders which were intended to avoid the creation of a two-tier workforce by requiring private contractors to employ staff on terms broadly similar to councils. The decision is a blow to ministers who hoped to put the issue to bed and underlined the rift between the government and the main public sector union.

Unison's annual conference in Bournemouth will today discuss calls for national demonstrations against privatisation and cuts in the union's£1.36m annual funding to Labour.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: 'There is a real feeling against the government's policies as it affects our members'.

Unison wants statutory protection of pay when council contracts are awarded to firms.

Mr Prentice also called for a halt to the public finance initiative after he claimed deals were 'bordering on corruption' with the big five accountancy firms advising the public sector on£54bn of contracts while at the same time auditing many of the bidders. A Unison report accused the accountancy firms of a conflict of interest in 45 cases by using subsidiaries and consultancy arms to charge double fees.

BLUNKETT BACKS DOWN ON EXTENSION OF E-MAIL SNOOPING

Plans for an extension of state access to e-mails and mobile phone calls were shelved indefinitely yesterday as the government admitted it had 'blundered' and called for a public debate on privacy, reported the Financial Times (p1 and p4).

'We got it wrong', home secretary David Blunkett admitted. 'When you are in a hole you should stop digging'. He claimed critics who had branded the proposals a 'snoopers' charter' had interpreted the in 'entirely the wrong direction'. But he said the force of public concern had persuaded him to act.

Draft secondary legislation giving a host of Whitehall departments and all local authorities the right to access e-mail addresses and location data for mobile phones has been scrapped. While it has officially only been deferred for consultation, no timetable has been set for its introduction. The home office insisted the decision would not damage the fight against crime since the police and security services already had access to online data under legislation passed two years ago.

Some of the bodies that were to gain similar access rights - which include the Office of Fair Trading and Financial Services Authority - are now likely to be disappointed.

'We need a much broader debate about other bodies involved in this area, particularly given that none of them have joined in the debate over the past week', said Mr Blunkett. See LGCnetfor further details.

12,000 TRUANTS NETTED

More than 12,000 children were stopped in a month-long crackdown on truancy last month, the government announced yesterday, reported the Financial Times (p2).

Almost half of them were with a parent or another adult and of these only half had a good excuse for not being in school.

Education minister Stephen Twigg said:'This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. Parents have to take responsibility otherwise they are jeopardising their children's future'. See LGCnetfor further details.

CARE HOMES FACE£1BN SHORTFALL

Care homes are underfunded by more than£1bn a year, according to a study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reported the Financial Times (p2).

Councils are prepared to pay fees of between£75 and£85 below the reasonable cost of running such a home, the study by Laing and Buisonn, the healthcare analysts, concludes. With nearly 250,000 older people living in residential and nursing homes who receive state support, the figure points to an annual funding shortfall of£1.4bn a year, said William Laing, the report's author.

That figure is far larger than the£400m added to social services spending in England for next year in the Budget. The increase was an attempt to reduce NHS beds being 'blocked' by older people awaiting discharge from hospital.

WHITEHALL ROWS OVER HOUSING ASSOCIATION RULES

Deputy prime minister John Prescott is at odds with the treasury and the department of trade and industry over a move to subject housing associations to the same strict insolvency rules as proposed for companies, reported the Financial Times (p5).

The proposal - contained in the Enterprise Bill - will throw housing associations into administrative and financial chaos, according to the National Housing Federation, which represents about 1,400 not-for-profit housing organisations.

Housing associations and other forms of registered social landlords now provide 1.8 million homes and are key to the government's drive to improve low-cost rented housing, both by new build and by transfers to them of council housing.

The sector has borrowed£25 billion. But as most operate as industrial and provident societies they are able to borrow more cheaply than companies that are subject to different insolvency provisions, according to both the federation and the Council of Mortgage Lenders. The change could both push up borrowing costs and involve associations in 'nightmare administration' as they would have to demonstrate their assets still covered their loans each time they sold a home, the federation said yesterday.

DTI minister Melanie Johnson has promised consultation before any decision through secondary legislation. But Liz Potter, the federation's head of policy, said that by then lenders could already have acted to alter loan conditions. The office of the deputy prime minister said it was 'monitoring the position closely'.

Ms Potter said the provisions 'could have an immediate and extremely damaging impact on the provision of affordable housing'. Sheadded it seemed to be a case of one government department, the DTI, shooting another in the foot.

KENNETH CLARKE WARNS OF VIOLENCE AROUND ASYLUM CENTRES

Former home secretary Kenneth Clarke warned the government yesterday that its proposals to hold asylum-seekers in rural accomodation centres would lead to vandalism and violence in village communities, reported The Times 9p14).

Speaking before home office officials visited his Rushcliffe constituency in Nottinghamshire to reassure residents about their plans to house 750 asylum-seekers in a former RAF base near the village of Newton, Mr Clarke strongly criticised the idea. His views were echoed by residents of the village, one of three proposed sites for the new centres.

Mr Clarke, who has supported the campaign against the centres, said he believed violence would spill over from the camps and could lead to clashes with local youths.

YARL'S WOOD REPORT PROPOSES SURPRISE CHECKS

Independent inspectors should conduct unscheduled checks on immigration detention centres in the UK according to an inquiry on the riot and subsequent fire at the Yarl's Wood detention centre near Bedford, reported The Times (p14).

The inquiry, overseen by Bedfordshire County Council, calls on the home office to set up an independent inspectorate to oversee detention centres and introduce a start-rating system so that each centre's performance could be compared. It also asks the government to help the council fight a£90 million insurance claim being made against the police authority for the riot, which could increase council tax bills in the county by up to£100.

Bedfordshire CC leader Philip Hendry said he was concerned that people with criminal records were housed at Yarl's Wood when local residents had been promised by the government that such people would not be held there. See LGCnetfor further information.

CUT COUNTRY SPEED LIMITS, SAY MPs

Harsher penalties for speeding and the introduction of a 40mph limit on minor country roads are recommended today by the commons transport select committee, reported The Daily Telegraph (p14).

The MPs are highly critical of government for failing to give a lead to the police and local authorities on curbing speeding and improving road safety for fear of appearing 'anti-car'. They argue that existing penalties for speeding are inadequate.

The MPs say road traffic accidents cost the country£17bn a year and claimed 3,409 lives in 2000. 'If any disease killed as many people as die on the roads, there would be an outcry', says the report.

The national 60mph speed limit on single carriageway roads is not a reasonable maximum speed on many country roads, argue the MPs. They recommend local authorities should be given guidance to set a 40mph limit on C and unclassified roads. On some A and B roads councils could set a 50mph limit and in villages it should be 30mph.

The current sign indicating the national speed limit should be scrapped. Road signs should indicate what the actual speed limit is.

The committee is dismissive of government's attempts to placate motorists by insisting speed cameras should be more visible by being painted bright yellow and no longer hidden behind traffic signs or trees.

'The new rules about the visiblity and location of cameras are unreasonable. Crashes do not just occur at accident blackspots', the report says. The MPs say the police and local authorities should decide where to locate cameras and whether they should be visible, and there should be no further reductions in traffic police numbers.

DEATH OF FORMER COVENTRY LEADER

The Guardian (p18) carries an obituary of Peter Lister, former leader of Coventry City Council, who has died of cancer aged 78.

Under his ruthlessly determined chairmanship of Coventry education committee the city became in 1971 one of the first to sweep away all of its grammar schools in favour of a comprehensive system. As leader of the city council for most of the Thatcher years, he was regarded as a major figure in local government.

The present leader of the city council, Nick Nolan, said: 'Peter was difficult with his opponents and impossible with his friends. He had incredible intellectual clarity and made enormous demands on himself and others. He was also a man of puritanical integrity, not at all interested in the trappings of power'.

Mr Lister lived in a council house in one of Coventry's least salubrious suburbs and turned down the chance to be lord mayor.

Although his political heroes were almost all from the left, by the 1980s, however, he was firmly associated with Labour's pragmatic rightwing. His decision to co-operate, albeit reluctantly, with the Thatcher cuts lead to the Militant Tendency unseating him from his safe Labour ward. Undeterred, he held on by winning a once safe Conservative seat.

He walked away from local politics in 1988 when he reached the age of 65. He was then also chairman of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority.

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