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Points of Order

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we have established for the official record that the case referred to of the mother who took certain action after the raping of her child is not sub judice, as the Leader of the House told us in what I think was a slip of the tongue. It would be sub judice only if the appeal had been registered, and I do not think that it has. I am sure that the Leader of the House would not want unnecessarily or unfairly to curtail discussion of that matter in the House.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham) : I only reported what was advised to me.I did not intend to curtail discussion ; I simply felt that since an appeal is pending, even if it has not already been lodged, it would be unwise of me to express any views on the matter.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise two matters arising out of supplementary questions to the Prime Minister? The first relates to the extent to which it is legitimate to ask the Prime Minister in the House about local authority matters. Local authorities are the creations of statute. The Department of the Environment is responsible for their supervision and my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) had hoped to complete his supplementary question by suggesting to the Prime Minister that she should abolish Cleveland county council. Surely that is a matter for which she has responsibility.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : She should abolish?

Mr. Smith : That she should suggest to Parliament that it should be abolished.

My second point relates to the supplementary question that was asked by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). When Conservative Members were protesting about the terms of his question, I think that you, Mr. Speaker, thought that they felt that he, too, should be subject to your strictures on the question about local authorities. In fact, his supplementary question bore no relation to the question on the Order Paper and that was the point of concern.

Mr. Speaker : I hope that hon. Members, particularly those who have been here for some time, will endeavour to get their questions to the Prime Minister in order. I shall look carefully at Hansard because it is difficult in the hurly-burly of debate to take account of everything, but I think that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) said that he was seeking the Prime Minister's guidance in dealing with a constituency problem, which is a different matter from an issue for which she has responsibility. However, I shall look at the matter carefully. The House well knows that at Question Time Members must direct questions to Ministers, and to the Prime Minister, on matters within their responsibilities.

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On the second point, Question No. 2 on the Order Paper tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was a definitive one. I did not hear anything out of order and I was listening carefully.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. However experienced one is, there are only two ways to approach a question to a Minister--either by asking the question and then substantiating it, or substantiating the question and then putting it. If one takes the latter course, and one is faced with the baying of the mindless morons on the Opposition Benches and with your intervention, Mr. Speaker, it makes matters difficult. It may well be that I did not finish my question as I would have liked to have done. If I had not been interrupted, I might have been able to put my question to the Prime Minister in my own manner.

Mr. Speaker : If the hon. Gentleman gets another opportuniy, as I hope that he will during the course of the Session, I suggest that he puts his question first and follows with the rationale.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East) : On a completely different point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been a Member of the House for 15 years but I have never before seen the procedure followed during Prime Minister's questions today when, because the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) had lost her voice, you, Mr. Speaker, allowed the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) to put her question for her, which had to be read because the hon. Lady did not know precisely what the hon. Member for Cynon Valley wanted to say. When was that procedure last followed and in what circumstances would you allow that to happen in future?

Mr. Speaker : I happened to know that the hon. Lady had lost her voice. Since her question was reached, it seemed chivalrous that she should have the opportunity to ask another hon. Member to read it for her. I have no knowledge of any precedent. I hope that it will not happen too often, but that seemed to be the right thing to do today.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In order to assist you, I can tell you that the last time that an hon. Member lost his voice and another hon. Member was allowed to read what he wanted to say was in the case of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook).

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I should like to know what happens when the Prime Minister loses her voice.

Further to an earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is fair to record, since my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is not in his place, that he courteously gave notice of his question to the Prime Minister's Office. Conservative Members should know that.

Mr. Speaker : I do not know about that, but I do know that he had a definitive question on the Order Paper and it seemed to me that his supplementary question was relevant to it. Let us move on to the debate on local government finance.

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Rate Support Grant

4.9 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer) : I beg to move,

That the Rate Support Grant Report (England) 1989-90 (House of Commons Paper No. 75), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

I understand that it will be convenient to discuss also the four related motions on the Order Paper :

That the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) 1989-90 (House of Commons Paper No. 14), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

That the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 2) 1987-88 (House of Commons Paper No. 13), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

That the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 4) 1986-87 (House of Commons Paper No. 12), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

That the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 4) 1985-86 (House of Commons Paper No. 11), a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

In December, following consultation, I announced to the House decisions on next year's rate support grant settlement and on the outstanding supplementary reports for the remaining years of the present system. Right hon. and hon. Members will therefore be familiar with the contents of those reports. It was suggested that I should say that, but I am not sure that it is true, although this year we have tried to give as much detail as possible to those wanting it. We have also tried to produce the reports in a comprehensible form, though I admit that the present system is not easy to follow.

I remind the House that next year aggregate Exchequer grant, which is central Government's contribution to local expenditure, will be £13,575 million. When using percentages, it is important to make clear what the underlying figures are. The increase in Exchequer grant is 9 per cent. more than the amount of grant to be paid to authorities this year, representing a cash increase of £1,100 million. The amount of local authority expenditure in the Government's spending plans increased by 8.6 per cent., which is £2, 300 million above the level previously planned for this year. That will allow local authorities to increase their current expenditure broadly in line with the gross domestic product deflator. Those decisions on grant and expenditure together provide a generous settlement for local government. If local authorities spend in line with the Government's spending plans, next year's average rate increases will be about 2 per cent. or 5p in the pound. Even if authorities increase spending by 2 per cent. in real terms, rates need only rise by about the rate of inflation. I hope that local authorities will not increase expenditure but if they do

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer : I have hardly started, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

If local authorities keep their rates down, they will be able to spend more because they will make a number of the savings that have already been identified. That will be to the benefit of their ratepayers.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) rose--

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Mr. Gummer : I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Greenway : I apologise for intervening so early in my right hon. Friend's speech, but I hope that it will take account of the direction of spending in the London borough of Ealing. Is he aware that that Labour- controlled borough is proposing a 35 per cent. increase in rates this year, having increased them by 65 per cent. only two years ago? At the same time, the borough intends to reduce important services such as refuse collection and street cleaning, while increasing staff in the gay and lesbian unit, and so on. Is my right hon. Friend aware of my constituents' extreme rage and suffering as a result of that disgraceful situation?

Mr. Gummer : Despite what my hon. Friend says about the London borough of Ealing--and I live in it--it may be better to live there than in Fulham and Hammersmith, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) does. When the cost of having a Labour council in Ealing was a mere 72 per cent. rates rise, Hammersmith ratepayers suffered a 126 per cent. increase in one year. From the outset, we are in the business of telling local councils that they can keep their spending down. Ealing did so when it was rate-capped, and it does not need to increase spending now.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith) : The Minister is off to a bad start, and I shall deal shortly with some of the sillier examples he and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) gave. As I know that we disagree on the basics, I put to the Minister the views of an independent expert, writing in the Local Government Chronicle. With regard to the 2 per cent. figure for average rate increases to which the Minister refers, the independent expert comments :

"Such an outcome is most unlikely. First, to achieve this rate rise figure, authorities would have to keep year-on-year cost increases to just over 3 per cent. Second, authorities are certain to rate up in 1989-90 to build up their reserves for the first year of community charge."

If that is an independent expert's view, what makes the Minister think that he is right?

Mr. Gummer : What argument can there be for building up reserves for the first year of the community charge? If that is the independence of the independent expert, it suggests that his independence is in one direction. It is not true that such reserves will be necessary. The community charge will lay the burden of rates on all the people instead of some of them. The 40 per cent. of people living in above average rated property and having below average incomes will be relieved of the unfair rate burden. The hon. Gentleman makes a very bad point. If it is typical of the points that he will be making in his speech, we look forward to it with considerable interest.

The Rate Support Grants Act 1988, which the House passed last November, will ensure that the full amount of grants of £13,575 million will be paid out. The independent expert to whom the hon. Gentleman refers may like to remember that. All the grant will be paid out, and nothing will be left over because of overspending authorities. During our debates on the Rate Support Grants Bill, several hon. Members expressed disappointment that local authorities would no longer receive additional grant for any shortfall on their expenditure. But when the Act is viewed alongside the very generous settlement being debated today--under which the grant in London, for example, is increased by 11 per cent.--it must be seen as

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fair and reasonable. If Ealing proposes a rates increase of 35 per cent. when the London grant is rising by 11 per cent., some of us living in shire counties--where the grant increase is much less and where rates will not increase by anything like the level that Ealing proposes--may consider applying the word "incompetence" to Ealing council.

To those who argue that local authorities need to spend more, I say that there is plenty of scope for savings, which could be used either to benefit ratepayers or to allow a modest expansion in the provision of services. The Audit Commission, which certainly is an independent body, has identified short-term savings of about £500 million annually which can be achieved now. A large number of areas where savings can be made have been identified, and I shall refer to them later.

The Local Government Act 1988 introduced competition into a number of local authority services. Substantial savings can be made by opening up a number of services to competition. Suffolk county council will not mind my saying that it did not think that introducing competition would be satisfactory. It felt that its system of running services was very good, as indeed it was. Nevertheless, Suffolk has discovered that competition and the ability to make wider choices provide an extra spur and it now expects the new arrangement to work extremely well. I say that of an authority that was not among those falling over themselves to accept the rationale of going out to tender. When services are subject to competition, savings of up to 20 per cent. have been achieved. The services subject to competition currently cost authorities £2,500 million to £3,000 million annually, so there are potential savings to be made of several hundered million pounds per year. Ratepayers will expect local authorities to take advantage of those opportunities as soon as possible.

Inevitably, the system and the settlement do not please everyone, although I am surprised that Opposition Members are among those not pleased. It is galling for a well-run authority to see a neighbouring high-spending and wasteful authority receive more grant. It is perfectly possible for people living in an authority to have high needs, even when the council is badly run. That is a real issue, and it must be faced. The Government have a responsibility to measure the needs not only of local authority tenants but also of the generality of ratepayers and others living in the authority's area. It is very often found that councils serving people having considerable needs may not be using the money they have as efficiently as they could. It is galling for a neighbouring authority, whose needs may be less but whose efficiency may be considerably greater, to find that its efficiency is not receiving the recognition that it should, because the needs of a neighbouring council must be met.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : Under the clawback system, it was the so-called "overspenders" who lost grant, which was redistributed to authorities that "underspent" and followed Government guidelines. That is the opposite of the case that the Minister makes. Far from money going to high-spending authorities, all that will happen--and I welcome this--is that the absurd penalty system will disappear and the block grant will work, at least for the coming year, as a block grant.

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Mr. Gummer : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman brings considerable knowledge to the subject, but on this occasion he is wrong for two reasons. First, the present redistribution system means that people living in areas of high rateable value, even if they are poor, subsidise those living in areas of low rateable value even though those people may be rich. Poor people living in Solihull, for instance, subsidise rich people who happen to live in a neighbouring area, irrespective of their means.

Mr. Blunkett rose --

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman must allow me to finish my answer to his point.

Secondly, the amount of grant being offered to authorities is at present based on a complicated formula. Needs are an important part of that formula ; in future they will be the only part. Authorities are given the opportunity to receive the grant that they need, but some authorities such as Camden refuse Government grant because they overspend when savings could so easily be made. Southwark is another example--it does not even both to collect its rents, and 30 per cent of its annual rent and rates roll is outstanding. We cannot ask for even more money to be poured into an authority like that.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford) : My right hon. Friend made an excellent point when he said that it was galling for efficient authorities to find their grant being taken away. Is he aware that that feeling reaches a peak in my district authority, Guildford, where no grant at all is being provided this year although it is massively below GREA and its rates have risen at one fifth of the inflation rate over the past eight years?

I realise that this is a whimsical system with colossally wide variations in distribution, but is it really necessary to provide no grant at all for a borough that has performed so well? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the new arrangements will remedy the vast spread of distribution and unfairness that results from the present system?

Mr. Gummer : I am glad that my right hon. Friend has raised that. Only yesterday I saw a delegation from the county which contains Guildford, and we examined exactly those points. My right hon. Friend's constituents should be told that the new system is designed to provide grant where the need lies and to stop the subsidising of some people by others unconnected with their needs, regardless of their ability to pay. Under the new system Guildford will at least be involved in a sensible relationship with other authorities and will receive grant according to its needs and its ability to raise income. Its grant will not be diverted by a system that is clearly unfair, and very hard on those who happen to be poor but live in an area with generally high rateable values.

I wish to place it on record that sensibly run local authorities are the norm in local government. I have been very impressed by the way in which the majority of local government officers run their affairs, and by their independence of mind. Local government is so often characterised by incompetent authorities which are caricatures of what a properly run authority should be.

An example of a well-run authority is Solihull, which gets on with the job of providing good local services and meeting the needs of its ratepayers. It finds that because its local resources--that is, the total of rateable values in the area--are rising faster than its needs, it actually receives

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less grant. The same is true of a number of other authorities such as Eastleigh, Harborough, and Tonbridge and Malling. Because their local ability to raise income continues to rise faster than the average they receive less grant, however efficient they are. I understand the sense of frustration felt by such authorities. The present system treats areas like Solihull unfairly, because it requires them to subsidise other parts of the country with low rateable values. That unfairness will come to an end when the community charge system is brought in. Then all the taxpayers will subsidise those in need, rather than just people who happen to live in an area with high rateable values.

I must admit to the hon. Member for Hammersmith that before I became Minister for Local Government I used to take press accounts of some of the sillier antics of certain local authorities with a considerable pinch of salt. I thought that they made good stories, but I did not believe in the context. But the more that I have observed such authorities since I started doing this job, the more I fear that what happens in some of them is understated rather than overstated. I am not talking about the activities on the extremist fringe, although we all enjoy such party political arguments ; I am talking about the sheer incompetence of some authorities. That incompetence often means not only that the people are inconvenienced, but that they are put at risk. The weakest and most vulnerable people need local authority services more than anyone else.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that such authorities exist outside the London boroughs? It is wrong to believe that such incompetence is restricted to London. Some shire councils in counties such as Derbyshire are well on the way to being equally loony in some of their practices.

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend must have been reading my mind. I was going to take Derbyshire--which is not far from his home--as an example. I did not intend to refer to Mr. Bookbinder's statement that Derbyshire would have enough money to provide £20 million for any buy-out of BREL, although that is an interesting comment on the council's ability. I was going to say that in October-November last year Derbyshire issued a leaflet inviting ratepayers' views about libraries entitled "Do You Want a Tax on Knowledge?"

It would be possible for me to criticise that document on the ground that what it says is untrue. I could also criticise it on the ground that it contains tendentious party political statements paid for by the ratepayer. I prefer, however, to base my criticism on incompetence. The document set out to suggest to the people of Derbyshire that they could write in and explain to the local council how to answer the Government's discussion paper on libraries, but the closing date for consultation was 31 July-- three months before Derbyshire's leaflet was published. That shows once again that Derbyshire is not only on the fringes of sense, but is unable to use the money that it receives from ratepayers effectively. It is not surprising that it has such a high rate poundage.

Just before Christmas I announced that we had redetermined expenditure levels for certain rate-limited authorities. In doing so, we set a number of conditions related to certain aspects of their expenditure and financial management. I felt it right to try to bring back into the

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argument not the party politics of extremism versus moderation, but the sensible argument about competence versus incompetence. In Southwark rent and rate arrears total £53 million-- £318 per adult in the borough. That approaches 30 per cent. of the borough's rent and rates roll. Clearly, that must be reduced, but it can be reduced only if the authority sets an example and is competent to do so. When we hear that the London borough of Brent does not even know who its tenants are, it is not surprising that it does not collect their rents. In Lambeth, I understand that a councillor who is vice-chairman of the housing committee and a member of the panel which reviews rent arrears has arrears of about £2,000 dating back several years. How can she expect people to pay their rent if she does not do so herself? How could officers in the London borough of Brent expect to be supported by the elected councillors if those councillors, including the leader of the council, were in considerable rent arrears?

Mr. Tony Banks rose --

Mr. Blunkett : That is trivial.

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman must not tell me that it is trivial that someone who is elected to represent a borough should owe that borough rates and rent yet ask other people to pay. If that is trivial, it is a curious triviality.

Mr. Soley : The Minister is getting such a response from the Opposition because his comments are not worthy of a journalist from The Sun. The Minister is picking out one individual about whom he knows very little. I could do the same with Conservative councillors. Conservative councillors in Sheffield are trying to persuade people to sell estates to companies in which they have an interest. There are many such examples. I am not in the business of knocking councillors who, whether they are Labour, Tory, Liberal or anything else, generally do a damned good job for this country at no great cost to the community. It is about time that the Minister had the courage to stand up for local government instead of attacking it, undermining it and demoralising it.

Mr. Gummer : I will condemn unreservedly any occurrence such as that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Will he condemn the leaders and members of local councils who do not pay their rents? I give him the chance to answer that.

Mr. Soley : My answer is quite simply no--because, like the Minister, I do not know the facts. When I know the facts I will decide on my moral position. The Minister must not ask me or any other hon. Member to judge people before there has been a fair tribunal. The Government are very fond of saying that the rule of law should apply, so we should let it apply. Let us make sure that a person is guilty before we condemn him.

Mr. Gummer : I invited the hon. Gentleman to condemn a councillor who does not pay his rent and who is in considerable rent arrears over long periods of time. I invited him to do that, not to judge any individual case. The hon. Gentleman refused to do so. I have condemned any situation in which a councillor uses his position to forward his own personal interests. I do so unreservedly. I note that the hon. Gentleman does not do the same.

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Mr. Soley : The word "wilful" is missing from the Minister's comments. I would condemn a wilful intention to avoid paying rent. Let us suppose that the person concerned had suffered severe illness which had affected his functioning. I have no idea whether that explanation would apply to the Minister's example, but if that were the case, would he condemn such a person?

Mr. Gummer : We have a most generous system of helping people with their rents if they cannot pay them. The case I mentioned involved someone who has claimed very large sums of money, amounting to £28, 000. I challenged the hon. Gentleman to condemn a situation in which those who sought to lead the community were not examples to that community. If he will not do that, I fear for the future of local government.

Mr. Tony Banks rose--

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Will the Minister condemn the leader of Westminster city council for her conduct in relation to the cemeteries which was an absolute disgrace? Will he condemn her and her comrades? I am not supporting the individual the Minister mentioned because I do not know much about that person, but I know what the leader of Westminster city council did because I am a Westminster ratepayer. Will the right hon. Gentleman condemn her?

Mr. Gummer : I am already on record as wholly supporting the comments which were made by the local government ombudsman in that case. The matter has been fully investigated and I fully support the independent judicial body.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, in the stance that he has adopted today, has supported one Labour council against another. The Labour council in Salford has rent arrears of about 5 per cent. of their rent roll because it sets an example and collects the rent. That means that they are able to make sure that people who pay their rent are not put at a disadvantage by people who do not pay their rent. I commend such local councils. The hon. Gentleman asked me to stand up for local councils. I have done so ever since I took on my present job. I began my speech by saying that local councils such as Lambeth and Brent are not characteristic of local authorities. They are extreme examples, but they spend a great deal of taxpayers' money and fail to produce the services that the weakest and poorest in their community most need.

Mr. Soley rose --

Mr. Tony Banks rose --

Mr. Gummer : I give way to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) who has tried three times to intervene.

Mr. Banks : Perhaps the Minister could return to the rate support grant instead of indulging in an unseemly tirade against alleged debtors. If we were to talk in those terms, we might wish to chuck into the arena the names of some Members of Parliament who are not particularly prompt at paying their debts. I would not want to do that, and I am sure that the Minister would not want me to do that. As for the level of rent arrears in inner city areas, the Minister must understand that the population movement in many inner city boroughs makes it a complex and bewildering task to keep track of the various tenants.

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Secondly, does the Minister accept that since the £600 million cut in housing benefit there has been an average 37 per cent. increase in rent arrears in all local authorities in London and outside? The Minister must address that point.

Mr. Gummer : I would accept what the hon. Gentleman said if it were not the case that local authorities seem able to collect rent in Salford but not in Brent. Why is it so much more difficult in Lambeth than in Wandsworth? When we compare like with like, it is clear that it is not more difficult.

I must make it clear to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), for whom I have a great deal of respect, that this is not a trivial matter because a councillor who does not believe in the system cannot support his officers in seeking to collect the rents. Those Labour- controlled authorities which believe in the collection of rents and set an example find that their officers are able to achieve what is, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West said, a difficult task. However, if councils such as Brent do not keep a list of tenants, it is very difficult indeed.

Mr. Soley : The Minister is leading the debate into a discussion about which local authority and which councillor is worst. A number of Conservative-controlled local authorities are guilty of, to put it mildly, some pretty gross errors of judgment. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is right in saying that it is only a matter of time before we start dragging up the individual behaviour of Members of Parliament. If we do that, we shall start undermining democracy in this country. It would be useful if the Minister, who I understand has strong connections with the Church, would bear in mind that it is not a good idea to condemn people in that way as it prejudges and undermines the very democracy in which most of us believe.

Mr. Gummer : I am concerned about the situation in some of our big cities where people who need help do not receive it because others do not pay their way. I am suggesting that it is not easy to ask people to pay their rents if the individuals doing the asking do not pay their rents. That does not seem unreasonable. [ Hon. Members :-- "What about tax evasion?"] I condemn tax evasion as well. However, the hon. Member for Hammersmith does not condemn such behaviour. I fear that that is dangerous.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Gummer : I must get on, but I have promised to allow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) to intervene.

Mr. Blunkett : I accept that the Minister has made a very useful political knock-about point, and I place it on record that all Opposition Members would want people to set an example and to pay their way, whether that involves tax or rent. However, does the Minister accept that regardless of a moral or political judgment the amount of rent not collected because of the accountancy system being used does not affect the rents of other tenants, nor does it affect the rate account, so it does not affect this debate one iota?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman is not correct. If a local authority thinks that it will get a large sum in rents and does not get it, it does not have that money to spend

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on other services. Further, the fact that it does not get that money but keeps the figure in the accounts as though it will distorts not only the accounts but the authority's ability to gain grant. So the local authority finds itself in a less proper position to deal with the problems.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) rose

Mr. Gummer : I have already given way a great deal. The hon. Gentleman has not been in his place for the whole of the debate. I hope that he will find an opportunity to speak.

The least that local people should expect from their local authority is that it should be competently managed. When the local government and housing Bill is introduced, the House will see that we are concerned to strengthen the role of local government officers. I am determined to give local government officers the considerable independence that they should have and support them in every way because we owe a great deal to them. We need to encourage and develop their undoubted professionalism and reduce the polictical interference which leads to incompetence.

How much rates will rise next year will depend on how much local authorities choose to spend, As I said, if they budget sensibly in line with the realistic spending provisions which we have made available, rates on average--I emphasise that it is on average--need rise by only about 2 per cent., substantially less than the GDP deflator.

The subject of rates is a touchy issue for the Opposition Front Bench. That is why they tried--unsuccessfully I believe--to pre-empt this debate by asking a carefully contrived parliamentary question about percentage rate increases. I pointed out earlier that when looking at percentages one must also consider the underlying figures.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is not at present in his place but he will not object to my referring to a statement that he made recently in which he drew attention to rate increases by percentage. I was interested to note that my council of Suffolk Coastal did rather badly on that figure, and as I often have arguments with that council I thought that I should look into the matter.

The hon. Member for Copeland talked about percentages without talking about the total rate poundage. That led me to take another look at the figures. I then discovered that, on that basis, Suffolk Coastal was 46th among shire districts, as opposed to second in terms of rates in the pound. I also discovered that the hon. Member for Copeland did not draw attention to the fact that the five shire districts with the highest rate poundages are all Labour controlled and that there are no Conservative authorities in the top 25. So again we find that an attempt to pre-empt the figures by a little selective choice has failed.

Mr. Soley : Selective choice?

Mr. Gummer : Yes, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is known in his constituency as "126 per cent. Soley." His constituents remember the past. That is what the local council did for him and I will not let him forget that.

Mr. Soley : I was re-elected.

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