08 October 2004
Tories pledge to keep a 'reformed' council tax
Reforming council tax and equalising the balance of funding would be priorities for a first-term Conservative administration, according to the shadow local government secretary Caroline Spelman.
In an interview with Public Finance, she made it clear that a Tory government will keep the tax, explicitly ruling out alternatives such as a local income tax.
Spelman, speaking before she was due to address the conference on October 7, said she would focus on making changes to council tax so that it no longer operated as 'the ultimate stealth tax'.
'There is no question that the level to which council tax has risen is unsustainable and it is the level that needs to be addressed,' she added. 'It has been loaded with central government requirements without matched funding.'
Spelman said one of her first acts in government would be to conduct a wide-ranging 'cull of the unnecessary burdens' that have been imposed on local authorities by Whitehall. Statutory duties that remained in place would be properly funded, she pledged.
Such an approach would also help to restore the balance of funding, Spelman said, which was now so skewed towards the centre that it was affecting local election turnouts.
'The public are perfectly aware of the imbalance of funding. There is no denying that it is one of the causes of voter apathy. It has created a democratic deficit and we have to address it.'
Detailed research will be conducted over the coming months and firm proposals will be outlined before the general election.
Earlier, speaking at a Social Market Foundation fringe event, Spelman also pledged to do away with the slew of targets and performance indicators that councils have to meet.
Fears of a postcode lottery had instead led to 'dull uniformity' in local services that had strangled innovation, she said.
Basic national standards would be set but, beyond that, authorities would be 'given their freedom' and Whitehall micro-management would end. Best Value and Comprehensive Performance Assessments, which she said cost £1bn a year, would go.
'Inspection should be proportionate to risk,' Spelman said. 'The inspection regime should be turned around to focus on customers. What matters is whether customers like the services they receive.'
She insisted that these reforms were readily achievable in the first term of a Tory administration.
Schools promised savings from culled bureaucrats
The Conservatives would lay off two-thirds of civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills and pass the savings directly to schools, the shadow education secretary has vowed.
Tim Collins told delegates on October 5 that his war against the bureaucracy endured by teachers would begin with the bureaucrats, who send 2,000 pages of circulars to schools each year.
The proposal is part of the Tories' wider review of government being conducted by business troubleshooter David James.
'The only way you can get rid of the paperwork is by getting rid of the bureaucrats,' Collins declared to wild applause.
He expanded on the party's 'choice' theme, pledging 600,000 extra school places to allow parents to get their first preference school. He said some 100,000 parents more would get a place at their first-choice school by 2010, paid for by increasing education funding.
'Conservatives will invest more, up by a third over five years, an extra £15bn a year more for schools,' Collins promised. 'Head teachers, not Whitehall, will decide how to spend it and we will distribute money fairly between urban and rural areas.'
Collins also promised to give state funding to private schools and let new education providers into the system.
Collins promised, too, to restore discipline in schools. He said Conservatives would legislate to protect teachers from malicious allegations and give schools the final decision over expulsions.
Private health sector wants foundation trust deals
NHS foundation trusts should be allowed to team up with health insurers to offer their own health insurance and cash benefit plans.
The Patients Association and the Centre for the New Europe used a fringe event to launch a report calling for radical reform of the health service to create a much larger role for the private sector.
The organisations want foundation trusts to be given powers to sign deals with private health care companies, and to sell locally branded products to service users.
They are also calling for NHS treatment centres operated by the private sector to be allowed to provide acute surgery to private patients, in addition to the work they are currently contracted to deliver.
CNE director general and report author Tim Evans said such reforms were necessary for the government to meet consumer expectations that outstrip health service capacity.
'Finding a way forward with health care reform not only demands that opinion-formers catch up with the changes that have already occurred, but that all key players develop new, innovative and politically viable reforms,' he added.