Who pays for respect initiative, asks LGA

12 Jan 06
The Local Government Association has warned ministers of 'potentially substantial' hidden costs of proposals to combat antisocial behaviour, outlined in the prime minister's 'respect' action plan this week.

13 January 2006

The Local Government Association has warned ministers of 'potentially substantial' hidden costs of proposals to combat antisocial behaviour, outlined in the prime minister's 'respect' action plan this week.

Council finance experts expressed immediate concerns that central government money set aside for new local initiatives and responsibilities under the RAP might not be enough to combat crime and antisocial activities effectively. They fear that further burdens will fall on already overstretched authorities.

Amid much ministerial backslapping, Tony Blair launched his long-awaited plan on January 10. Later that day, 16 ministers from ten government departments toured carefully selected potential 'trouble spots' in England to promote the agenda.

But the Home Office – which is co-ordinating the battle against antisocial behaviour – revealed that just £80m in new cash has so far been earmarked over the next two years. This is for a project that encompasses national education and other children's services, policing, housing services and additional neighbourhood renewal policies.

Just £28m applies to the latest initiatives – £52m has been set aside to boost existing programmes.

That has left question marks over the real cost of Blair's proposals.

Plans to slash councils' housing benefit payments to repeat antisocial offenders, for example, have been questioned. While authorities welcome new powers to tackle nuisance neighbours, experts believe ministers have not fully considered the impact of their proposed changes.

Sarah Wood, policy director at the Local Government Association, told Public Finance: 'The proposal to cut housing benefit requires a better, more sophisticated understanding. Cutting payments to offenders…would financially penalise their children and families. Councils have a duty to care for children, and reducing payments to their families would increase risks.'

Wood also believes the policy would be 'inequitable' – applying only to lower income households – and could lead to higher levels of rent arrears, which would punish councils directly.

Wood said Blair's last resort plan to evict the worst-offending tenants for up to three months – described by political opponents as the use of 'sin bins' – had not been accompanied by a full understanding of where families would then be housed.

She also raised concerns over plans to impose on councils a time period within which they must provide full-time education to excluded schoolchildren.

'While we agree with the time period reduction, we believe the extra cost should be met by the government,' she warned, reminding ministers of their commitment to the 'new burdens rule', designed to ensure that any new policy costs passed on to councils are covered.

Other bodies to raise concerns over cash allocations included the Association of Directors of Social Services, which said that the initial £80m investment was dwarfed by an estimated £600m shortfall in children's services this year.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: '[The RAP] is not all about new funding. There is a commitment right across the government to prioritise and deliver upon the respect agenda through existing funding streams.

'We have, for example, recently made available an additional £53m to expand Youth Opportunity Funds.'

Other vital components of the RAP, such as police funding for new community support officers, would receive cash boosts, the Home Office said.

Meanwhile, human rights experts have condemned Blair's proposed extension of local summary powers.

New policing powers, the prime minister admitted, would significantly alter the legal burden of proof required to prosecute individuals.

In future, youths could face on-the-spot fines for antisocial actions, such as spitting at another person, that rarely reach the courts. The onus would be on the accused to prove their innocence quickly, or face fines, ministers revealed.

Shami Chakrabati, director of the human rights group Liberty, said this presented 'the most direct challenge to the human rights framework' since Labour came to power in 1997.

Blair argued that the RAP did not involve the abandonment of human rights. 'It means deciding whose come first,' he said, adding that the current legislative framework was 'utterly useless' at dealing with low-level disorder.

The Conservatives dismissed Blair's proposals as 'one-dimensional knee-jerk populism,' while the Liberal Democrats said they were a 'mish-mash of gimmicks'.


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