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Column 520provisions, but why do his Liberal colleagues in Liverpool campaign for schools to opt out of the local education authority?
Mr. Taylor : I will certainly not tell our councillors in Liverpool or anywhere else what to do. I am sure they know Liverpool better than I do --I hope the hon. Gentleman at least accepts that--but I am sure of this : there are good reasons on occasions for closing down schools, and, on others, for resisting closure--
Mr. Taylor : I do not know about Liverpool, but one of the problems in my area is how to maintain adequate provision for small village and local schools when the Government will not allow the necessary cash to be spent. That forces the choice between maintaining them with less than adequate facilities for the sake of the local community, and combining them at the cost of local roots and connections. Each case must be judged on its own merits--
Mr. McLoughlin : The hon. Gentleman said that he did not know all the circumstances in Liverpool, and of course we accept that. He then said there might be good reasons for schools to opt out. Why then did he vote against the Education Reform Act 1988, which allows them to do so?
Mr. Gummer : It may be difficult to ask the hon. Gentleman a specific question about Liverpool, whose particular problems we do not know. However, can he answer a general question about county councils that used to be Conservative-controlled but which, for the past four years, have been dominated by the Liberals or the SLD? Why, of those eight authorities, have seven become higher rate demanders, moving up towards the top of the rate league? Is it part of SLD policy to increase rates disproportionately compared with other authorities, all of which suffer the disadvantages that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned? That has nothing to do with the Government ; it is a matter of comparison.
Mr. Taylor : There are two answers to that--[ Hon. Members :-- "Yes and No."] Average rate rises in councils run by us and in those in which we are the leading group have been lower than rises in Conservative and Labour-controlled authorities.
Secondly, I offer an example from Cornwall of why more money is being spent. Again, it concerns schools. In the past, so little was spent on capital expenditure for schools--on maintaining and rebuilding them--that 70 or 80 schools still have outside toilets. There are schools with leaking roofs, schools that have to close classrooms in high winds for fear that they will be blown down, and schools in which books and teaching provision are inadequate. Some schools have been kept open only by dint of sharing music teachers, and so on.
Therefore, before we led these councils, they had ducked spending and not invested as they should have. Now we have to increase investment. Even after all that,
Column 521we are not in a position to meet the targets that the Government want for schools--they will not allow us to spend enough to do that.
Mr. Gummer : I wonder whether that explanation would stand up in Cambridgeshire, which has, under different authorities, had a good reputation for education. When it was controlled by the Conservatives, it was 34th in the list. Since the Liberals became dominant, it has moved up to 25th. The same applies to Essex, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Devon. That seems a little beyond an accident. It seems that, when people chose to be dominated by the Liberals, their rates are consistently pushed up out of proportion. Quite rightly, the hon. Gentleman has not commented on any one council. Is that on the directions of SLD headquarters? Is that the policy of the SLD or is it the accidental conjunction of many local SLD councillors always coming to the same conclusion that they ought to increase rates?
Mr. Taylor : The one consistent point in the Minister's intervention was contained in the examples of councils that he gave the House, because the previous Conservative administrations were not providing an adequate level of service, and we have been moving in the right direction by increasing services. He mentioned Cambridge. I think he would accept that under us it has pioneered many educational changes and the Government have followed us. One such change is in local financial control.
A relevant part of these figures is that the aggregate Exchequer grant has fallen from 46.2 per cent. in 1988-89 to 43.3 per cent. in 1989-90. That cut is partly as a result of the transfer of the funding of polytechnics. However, even after that adjustment, central Government support to ratepayers continues to decrease from the 1979-80 level of 61 per cent. That is another reason for many of the higher-than-inflation rate increases that the Minister likes to mention.
According to local authority representatives on the joint local authorities -central Government expenditure groups, the Government expenditure provision is inadequate by about £1 billion, and that figure is merely to maintain current levels of service, not to improve them. Sadly, as a result local authorities will be forced to increase rates and the Minister will attack them for doing so. The truth is that the responsibility for such rises falls directly on the Minister.
Earlier, I spoke about the costs of introducing the poll tax and said that, by sleight of hand, the 4.8 per cent. increase that local authorities are meant to get included direct provision for the introduction of the poll tax. Since the commencement of that implementation, it has become
Column 522clear that insufficient finance has been set aside for it. I understand that, in Scotland, £18 million was granted for the introduction of the poll tax, and that costs are now running at about £28 million.
Many councils will have to increase their levels of new technology to meet the poll tax requirements. Birmingham estimates that the hardware will cost £4 million and that the community charge will cost £15 million a year to collect compared with the present figure of £6 million for the collection of rates.
Another example is Harborough district council in Leicestershire. In 1989, its rate support grant was cut by 40 per cent. The Government have contributed £71,000 to setting up a poll tax department, but the council thinks that it will cost an extra £262, 000. One of our councils, Adur, has been severely penalised by the arbitrary system of the rate support grant. The leader of that council wrote to the Secretary of State on 10 January. He said : "Grant for 1989-90 is now set at £59,000 compared with £95,000 for 1988-89. Your promise that Poll Tax implementation costs would be met through the BSG system does not seem to apply to this Council despite a specific grant of £60,000 for 1989- 90. The costs of implementation which are likely to easily exceed a quarter of a million pounds will very regrettably have to be passed on to the ratepayer. Could I remind you that in 1983-84 my Council received approximately one million pounds in Block Grants and if any form of fairness were to prevail, then this Council is owed at least five million pounds since that time?"
That shows the inequality in the grant system because Adur council's neighbours, Hove and Worthing--councils of a different political complexion --are to receive grants of £8.131 million and £3.874 million respectively for next year. Adur spends £81 per head, while Hove spends £99, and the figure for Worthing is £77. In effect, £12 million is dished out to Adur's neighbours while Adur is forced to increase its rates to maintain the current level of services. The point that was correctly made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh applies equally in this case. He said that the Government have not acted to help some councils through a difficult time that has arisen because of the Government's policies.
I shall now deal with the supplementary reports for 1985-86 to 1988-89. The announcement on 6 July 1988 to freeze grant entitlements for the years 1985 -86 to 1988-89 demonstrates the arbitrary nature of the procedure. I do not want to say any more than that, because I have spoken about this matter before. I plead with the Minister to reconsider. He should set the figures from the time that those councils were asked to report, and not from a time a few weeks before, which none of them could have anticipated.
We should also look at the question of block grants versus specific grants. The Minister has said that bad councils are a rare exception, a caricature rather than characteristic. However, time after time the Government have consistently moved from block grant to specific grant. They are saying that they do not trust local government or councillors. That means that they do not trust local people to make decisions affecting their own areas. Whatever the specific grant may be for--perhaps for introducing the poll tax--it should be given to the local authority, which should be allowed to set its priorities. Local people should be allowed to say what they want to see, and things should not be imposed on them. The Government will not do that because they do not believe
Column 523in local government but merely in local administration which, given the current restraints that are in force, could be carried out as well by civil servants as by councils.
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton) : I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) on his speech which made local government both interesting and funny. If it is any consolation to him, Eastleigh's loss of grant is Ealing's gain. Against the background of a generous settlement, the decision by the council to increase by 35 per cent. its domestic rates is almost inexplicable. I shall return to that. The rate support grant settlement is generous. When my right hon. Friend the Minister started his speech there were just three Opposition Members in the House, so the Benches were hardly seething with indignation about the lack of generosity by the Government. I should like to quote from the article that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) prayed in aid when he sought to portray this settlement as unreasonable. It is a quote from an article by Tony Travers in the Local Government Chronicle of 13 January. It says : "The Government has, both in terms of expenditure and grant, ended the 1980s in a far more generous mood than it started."
Talking about inflation, Mr. Travers says :
"If authorities budget for 7 inflation, with no change in balances, average rate increases would be closer to 6 -7 ."
That is a long way adrift of the 35 per cent. that my constituents are facing on the assumptions put forward by Mr. Travers. I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will not try to defend the rate rise in Ealing.
Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) rose--
For two reasons it is important to have a fair settlement. First, it enables central Government to look local government squarely in the eye and say, "We have provided a realistic settlement in the interests of sensible rate increases. Will you now please play your part?" Of course such a posture is less credible if the settlement is ungenerous or unrealistic.
Secondly, I hope that this settlement marks the beginning of a better relationship between local government and central Government. Pressure has been put on that relationship during the past ten years. The responsibility rests mainly on a small number of local authorities which broke through unilaterally the conventions that had governed local government for many decades. As with the trade union movement, there is now an outbreak of realism and a new mood within local government. Central Government can now respond to that new mood and try to build bridges. The appointment of both my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State has been warmly welcomed within local government and I hope that that marks the beginning of an improvement in relationships with local government generally.
May I now turn to the specific position of Ealing and quote from the article to which I referred earlier in which Tony Travers said :
Column 524"A significant shift of grant from the counties to London, particularly to the non central inner boroughs, will be seen in 1989-90. This pattern is a repeat of earlier years."
Ealing is a non-inner London borough. In 1989-90, Ealing will receive £72.9 million of block grant, an increase of £8 million or 11 per cent. over 1987-88, after taking account of the adjustment for polytechnics. The GREA increases for Ealing are 9.7 per cent., so a greater proportion of local needs will be met in grant next year than in the current year. Ealing is also receiving an extra £2.8 million from the supplementary reports.
Against that background, it has been reliably estimated that Ealing needs only increase its local rate by about 3 per cent. next year, following a reduction of almost 25 per cent. this year as a result of rate capping. That is why my constituents are astonished at the initial decision of the policy committee to increase the rates by 35 per cent. Two years ago, Ealing won the cup for the highest rate increase, 66 per cent. There are slight differences according to the basis that one takes, but, at that time, it was generally recognised that Ealing had the largest rate increase in the country. Its attempt to win the trophy for a second year running was rightly frustrated by the Government's decision to rate-cap it and rescue my constituents. This year, we have a 25 per cent. reduction. It has now crept under the rate-capping wire and has started the rate-making season this year with a figure of 35 per cent. which remains to be confirmed at the council meeting.
The creative accountant has run out of work to do. The accounts in Ealing are as creative as a sandcastle built on the edge of an incoming tide. If we consider the figures for the current year, we see that expenditure was buoyed up by £14 million from balances and £17 million from what are called "Funds" of uncertain pedigree. Even with that, Ealing has overspent by £7 million which means that it approaches next year £38 million short. It was warned last year by the director of finance that it had adopted a high-risk strategy, but it paid no attention.
One might have expected that, with a high level of spending, we would enjoy good services in Ealing. In the light of what was said in the consultation paper on rate support grant settlement, I want to ask my right hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that the Government money that we are voting tonight is securing a good level of services. Paragraph 13 of that document states :
"The Secretary of State considers that these control totals are sufficient for the level of service and efficiency which he considers is appropriate in respect of each service."
One important duty of local authorities is building control to ensure public safety in the construction of new buildings. Building control is self-financing. The fees that one pays to have one's building inspected cover the cost. My constituent, Mr. Morton, of 13 Arlington Road, wants to do some work to his house. He sent off a cheque and asked for building regulation approval and a surveyor to come round. He received a letter from the chief building surveyor, dated 12 December, which stated :
"Due to staff shortage"--
there are now 1,500 more staff than there were when the Tories left office- -
"the Council's Building Surveyors are unable to inspect your work."
What is Mr. Morton to do? He cannot run the risk of doing work in breach of the regulations when he has been warned by the council. The chief building surveyor went on to say :
"In the event of a specific contravention being brought to my notice, appropriate action would be taken."
Column 525The council is not carrying out its obligations so far as building regulations are concerned and is in effect telling people that they cannot build an extension to their homes.
Mr. Soley : I understand the hon. Gentleman taking the opportunity to knock Ealing council. He is from a different political party and is entitled to do so. However, he should give a fair analysis of the situation. I am glad that he recognises that the decision about rate increases has not yet been made. More importantly, he is now talking about the local authority using money efficiently. He knows that the Government have not answered the question about the use of bed and breakfast accommodation in Ealing and about allowing housing associations to use it profitably for one year. I understand that he supported the decision of Ealing council to try to do a deal with the private sector to provide extra housing. That deal was cancelled by the Government. Let us have both sides of the picture.
Sir George Young : I note that the hon. Gentleman did not seek to defend the action of Ealing council in not carrying out its obligations under building control regulations. I am being asked tonight to vote for rate support grant to fund services in Ealing that are not being provided.
Mr. Gummer : The real issue in Ealing is the competent use of money ; it is not a party political issue. If Ealing has this money, why cannot it provide the services that other authorities with less money are able to provide? Is some of that money being used for things which are not necessary and which the ratepayers in Ealing do not wish to fund, particularly if it means that they have to forgo ordinary services? There are few who would wish to fund an investigation into the deprivation of Irish women in Ealing. Most would prefer to see that the building control surveyors did their job.
Sir George Young : My right hon. Friend is right. The Labour party does itself no credit by seeking to defend the indefensible with regard to incompetent Labour authorities. It would do far better if it said, "It is no part of our manifesto to stand behind authorities like Ealing. We wish to see them perform slightly better." One way in which the council could have saved money is by not writing to my constituent Mrs. Miller. She is a pensioner who does not enjoy good health. She received a final notice and a summons for her rates last November, but she was convinced that she did not owe the money. None the less, she was frightened and borrowed the money and paid. I made some inquiries and, on 13 January, the director of finance wrote to Mrs. Miller. He said :
"You were initially sent a Final Notice and Summons as the Housing Benefit Department made an error in their calculation of rebate which they have subsequently rectified. This means that you are now in credit by £129.04 which will be refunded to you as soon as possible. I apologise for the inconvenience caused in this matter." Mrs. Miller had a miserable Christmas.
The council is not replying to letters as efficiently as my right hon. Friend no doubt wants. I wrote about Ms. Wright, of 26 Carisbrooke court. I received an answer dated 10 January which stated :
"I apologize for the delay in replying to your enquiry regarding Ms. Wright's application for transfer."
I wrote on 9 September.
The local authority has responsibility for housing benefit. Last year, we introduced transitional help for
Column 526people who missed out on housing benefit. One of my constituents, Mrs Keating, of 48 Cheriton close, applied to the unit in Glasgow for help ; nothing happened. I have here a letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, dated 13 January, which states :
"The Transitional Payment Unit received Mrs. Keating's application on 9 August and on 11 August sent an enquiry form to Ealing District Council requesting Housing Benefit details pre and post April 1988. To date the form has not been returned but to avoid further delay the Unit obtained the relevant information by telephone and calculated Mrs. Keating's entitlement."
Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) : The hon. Gentleman does his case great harm by quoting these examples when he knows very well that the Government are responsible for the situation. The amendments to the social security legislation in April last year caused untold problems for local government in trying to deal with the backlog of applications. If there are delays, the fault rests fairly and squarely with the Government who made the changes. We urged the Government to face up to the situation in the Social Security Act 1986, but they did not do so and were forced to introduce wholesale amendments in April. It is the Government's fault.
Sir George Young : I have some respect for the hon. Gentleman. However, I hope that he is not defending the action of the London borough of Ealing in not replying to requests from a Department which wants to help a constituent who has had trouble finding rent. We are voting Ealing money tonight to carry out services. It is not carrying out those services and it should be doing that.
The planning department is meant to respond to applications for planning permission within 13 weeks. On 8 December 1988 my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment published a league table of London boroughs which processed planning applications within 13 weeks. The Labour-controlled borough of Barking and Dagenham processed 90 per cent. within 13 weeks. Good luck to it. Bromley did even better and processed 92 per cent. However, Ealing is right at the bottom of the table. It processed only 9 per cent. of planning applications within the statutory period.
Many of my constituents are trying to buy their homes from the London borough of Ealing. Mrs. Tobin of 92 St. Dunstan's avenue applied to purchase her home last February. Her property was valued in April, but she still has not been told its value. Many of my constituents have found the same problem and cannot buy their homes within the statutory period under legislation passed by this House. Ealing is taking Mr. William Smith to court. He is 95 years old and house-bound. Everyone has tried to stop Ealing doing that, including Mr. Smith's homehelp, a chief superintendent of police and myself. However, he is still being taken to court although he is completely incapable of leaving the house.
Refuse collection in Ealing over Christmas was an absolute disaster. The Leader on 13 January reported :
"Town hall staff were flooded with angry calls when dustmen took a 10-day holiday over Christmas and New Year.
Council officers apologised for the mess outside homes caused by uncollected black sacks and promised to sort out the backlog." When the Tories left office in Ealing I understand there were about 88 families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. There are now 1,223. Part of the reason for the
Column 527increase is Ealing's more generous approach to applications for homelessness. To its credit, it has changed its policy and made it slightly tighter. However, that increased figure poses real problems in terms of planning as more hostels receive planning permission within the borough. Expenditure on bed and breakfast could be reduced sharply if the large number of voids in my constituency were filled. By citing those examples today, I want to try to explain why people in my constituency are not receiving the service to which they are entitled. I hope that Opposition Members would not defend the level of services in Ealing. I am being asked to vote this evening for another £9 million of taxpayers' money. Obviously my constituents and I would like an assurance that if that increase in money is approved this evening, we will get better services than we have received so far.
Two years ago there was a 66 per cent. rate increase in Ealing. That caused damage within the borough. Employers were less able to invest or pay wage increases because of the higher rates. People had less money to spend in the shops because they had higher rates to pay. People who were thinking of moving to the borough changed their minds. That damage was contained for two reasons. First, at roughly the same time as the rate increase the Budget reduced taxes and to some extent counterbalanced the higher local taxes. Secondly, the Government intervened very promptly in July and announced that for the following year Ealing would be rate capped. People then realised that their problem would be relatively short-lived and they could see some light at the end of the tunnel.
When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, will she tell us what is the timescale for announcements about rate capping or poll tax capping for next year? What are the criteria likely to be? Can my constituents expect some help from the Government so that when the Labour-controlled council--as I fear Labour will still control the council in a year's time--fixes the rates, we will not be exposed to yet another rate increase like this year's and some help will be forthcoming from the Government? When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, I hope that she can shine that ray of hope on my constituents.
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : When the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) opened his remarks, he referred to the Minister's bridge-building task. I support the hon. Gentleman's call for the Minister to adopt a constructive approach to local government.
When I listened to the Minister for Local Government today I got the impression that he is fixed in the oppositional mode in the way that he challenged the policies of the Social and Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. He still seems to be fighting the last general election, if not the one before that.
In his introduction the Minister referred to sensibly run local government as the norm for local authorities. However, his comments seemed to be in the context of a tirade based on the bad practices of some authorities, but aimed generally at all local government. He had a tone of malice in his voice which developed into a regular rant against local government. When the Parliamentary
Column 528Under-Secretary of State replies I urge her to assure us that, instead of continuing their assault on local government, the Government are really interested in solidly supporting it. Although the Minister said that sensibly run local government is the norm for local authorities, after this rate support grant settlement, what will happen to the sensibly run local authorities which constitute the norm? There might be some surprises. For example, Leeds has never been rate-capped and the Minister might call it a model of a sensibly run local authority. At this point I would like to pay a brief tribute to the council's retired leader, Councillor George Mudie, who led the city council for the past 10 years. His grasp of local government arithmetic was second to none. I wish his successor, Councillor Jon Trickett, well and congratulate him on reaching that post. However, he is up against it because the Government are stacking the odds against that sensibly run city council.
Deficit financing is an issue which has come before this House within the past 12 months since I have been a Member of this House. By making prudent provision for those proposals, Leeds was caught by the retrospective rules for the financial year 1984-85. Due to a minor technicality in the earmarking of reserves for the financial year 1985-86, the council was again caught by the retrospective rules in that year. All the council did was to transfer £7 million from the general fund to a specific fund. If we consider the transfer of higher education funding, it is clear that within the settlement the grant has been reduced by the full amount of expenditure on the polytechnic in Leeds although Leeds had only received 41 per cent. of that amount in grant.
The figures show clearly that Leeds fares badly in comparison with other local authorities in west Yorkshire and elsewhere. Despite repeated representations to the Department of Education and Science about the unfairness of that matter, the ratepayers of Leeds are being penalised to the tune of £4 million. Reference has been made to metropolitan districts whose spending is equal to or below grant-related expenditure in 1988-89. Solihull was referred to and its spending is 96 per cent. of GREA. Leeds is equal to GREA. In other words, it spends at the Government guidelines. Obviously the council has well interpreted all the tables which the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) referred us to earlier. It has matched up to the figures it is expected to reach. However, its grant has been reduced from 43 per cent. in 1987-88 to 41 per cent. in 1988-89. In other words, its grant will fall by £7.3 million in 1988-89 even though its rates are the lowest in west Yorkshire.
There must be a deeper strategy behind the Government's policy. It seems that the Government are deliberately forcing up the rates in Leeds because they cannot offer or sell their poll tax proposals as a palliative to high rates because the poll tax will be higher than the rates. In order to disguise the fact that the poll tax will massively increase people's bills, the Government are deliberately forcing up rates. That is a strategy to cushion the introduction of the poll tax. The present cost of living in Leeds under a Labour-controlled authority is much lower than it will be once the poll tax is introduced. Even the Conservative councillors of Leeds know that and are relieved that there will be no local elections this year in which that view can be challenged.
The Prime Minister took an incredibly backward stance in an interview last year in the Financial Times, entitled
Column 529"Vision 2000". She referred to the great Victorian merchants as models for local authorities. Her vision of local government is that it should go back to the days of the local burghers-- centrally selected, power personalities who run local authorities and businesses, who will simply host one dinner a year at which they sit down and share out the tenders for the services that are left, such as sweeping the city streets.
But the Prime Minister's strategy is more vicious than simply handing local authorities over to the burghers and rubbing out locally elected members. The strategy seems to imply an appalling twist for the poor who live in inner cities throughout Britain. If, as the Minister for Local Government says, local taxation depends upon spending according to local needs, local authorities will not be able to compare their circumstances with their neighbours--something to which the hon. Member for Eastleigh referred-- because each local authority will have to stand on its own feet, independent of neighbours and the Government. We shall not be able to make real comparisons.
Those areas in which the poor are concentrated will not be able to raise the revenue to support the services that their people need. Are we saying that, because people do not have sufficient income or a part in the booming economy which is so often talked of, they do not deserve basic services such as street cleaning, education for their children and housing? I hope that the Government are not pushing us down that road. It is still worth reflecting upon the fact that 2.5 million people are unemployed and there are high rates of unemployment in many northern towns and cities and in some areas of London. When the Government decide how to change the system and assess local needs, those facts need to be taken into account. My area has a low-wage economy. Wage rates in west Yorkshire are lower than elsewhere. It is well known that 9.4 million people--40 per cent. of the working population--are on low wages. Conservative Members often suggest that the average wage of £254 per week is a national minimum. I remind them that those on low wages earn well below half that average wage. Therefore, their circumstances need supporting with local services.
Behind the myth of average computation, whether it be of wages or rates, the Government are hiding a policy that reduces local government's ability to respond. I urge the Government not to hide behind the myth of the national average. If they do, the poor will be penalised because local authorities will not be able to raise the revenue for the services that are required.
When local authorities are left to their own resources, local elections will be about whether the people are prepared to finance and support the poor in their areas. "Will you subsidise the poor?" is a question that we can see now appearing on election leaflets. That is a particularly divisive and invidious question which could arise in some areas. I hope that that is not a direction in which the Government are going.
I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government are not taking the poor in our inner cities out of the national budget so that they no longer figure in the national budget and pushing them back on the local authority, forcing them back on the local parish as seemed to be the suggestion in the interview with the Prime Minister to which I referred earlier. I hope that the local authorities will not be left to sort out whether the poor receive services.
Column 530The Government have already laid down in legislation that everybody, regardless of their income or means, must pay at least 20 per cent. of the poll tax. That will hit families on low incomes, pensions and low wages particularly hard. I hope that we are not heading back in the direction of parish relief and ghetto politics.
I seem to recall that on election night the Prime Minister said about the inner cities, "We must get them next time." That hardly came over as a friendly overture. It did not seem to be a statement about rebuilding local communities and local economies. It seemed to be more about mugging local government. The Minister's tone this evening seems to reflect the Prime Minister's real intentions--if she does not like something she will abolish and replace it. That is a far remove from local democracy.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of what Lord Salisbury said in defence of the introduction of local government, because the Widdecombe report on local government sets out why local government was introduced in the first place. Lord Salisbury emphasised that we need strong local government, supported and defended as an essential check to central power. It should be supported in the House publicly by the Minister.
Mr. Michael Carttiss (Great Yarmouth) : I am sure that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) will forgive me if I do not follow him down the path towards parish relief and ghetto politics. Equally, I shall not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) in the interesting details that he has given of one local authority which clearly does not administer its affairs in the interests of the people that it is supposed to serve. Although my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in his robust opening of the debate talked about good local authorities being the norm, much of what the Government say and do about local authorities tends to lead to the suspicion that they regard the Ealings, Brents and Derbyshires as much more common than they really are. Therefore, I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that he knows that the vast majority of councils operate effectively and with good intent.
My right hon. Friend said that the rate support system is not easy to follow. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), in his elegant and witty contribution, surely knocked the last nail in the coffin of the rate support grant.
Unfortunately, right hon. and hon. Friends who have successively occupied the Government Front Bench in the five years that I have been a Member have similarly asserted that the rate support system is unfair and incomprehensible, but it has taken a long time to arrive at a new arrangement. I do not share my right hon. Friend's confidence that next year's revenue support grant will prove to be a much better system. As the interchange between the two Front Benches has indicated, it will still be necessary to identify needs and to measure them.
In my intervention, I drew attention to the current lack of provision in the revenue support grant for meeting the problems of authorities in seaside resorts that have a coastal protection responsibility. It is no use my right hon. Friend saying that that is a matter for the local authority associations to overcome. I acknowledge that there needs to be greater awareness of the problem. As a member representing a seaside resort, it is a matter of concern to me
Column 531that the Association of District Councils does not have on its committee examining the new system anyone from a seaside resort. However, I take the point made by my right hon. Friend, in his determination to ensure that all such matters will be carefully examined when the time comes.
When I first spoke in the rates support grants debate five years ago, I drew attention to the system's unfair application to Norfolk county council and its budget. I have been drawing attention to unfairnesses ever since. I have served on delegations to the Department of the Environment, together with other hon. Members and with East Anglia local authority leaders, in trying to secure recognition of the problems of East Anglia's rural shire counties. Even when I was a county councillor, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) occupied the hot seat at the Department of the Environment, I was assured that everything would work out eventually. We are hearing the same story from the Government Front Bench today. I look forward to the fresh new approach that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will undoubtedly bring to her Department, and to receiving from her the reassurance I have received before--but I hope that, this time, it will mean something.
The fact that individual authorities' block grant entitlement is no longer linked to expenditure, and that therefore, like every other authority, Norfolk will not lose £1 for every £1 it spends above the Government's figure, is welcome. However, the spending assumptions underlying this year's RSG are inadequate, and give rise to unrealistic expectations about rate increases. It is one thing to appear to penalise low-spending authorities, but it is another to keep ramming down their throats that if they do not keep their rate rises down to an average of 2 per cent., and certainly below 5 per cent., they are in some way guilty of mismanagement and of failing to adopt proper measures, such as competitive tendering.
As loyal Tories, we can put up with some of the Department of the Environment's current aberrations under my right hon. Friends, but when we are told, having been offered an inadequate rate support grant, that we should keep our rates down to an average of 2 per cent., that is really galling, and I can tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that it goes down very badly.
Nationally, total local government expenditure provision of £27,669 million is only 3.2 per cent. above local authority budgets for 1988-89. My right hon. Friend wrote to Norfolk county council on 9 January, and I know that he has written to others in a similar vein. In his letter he comments :
"I know Norfolk has a good record as a low spending authority, and I am sure ratepayers appreciate their rates being held down. If Norfolk spends in line with the settlement provision the county precept need rise by no more than about 5 per cent."
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) pointed out that the Government's figure does not take into account various other matters. I refer, for example, to the settlement for council manual workers of about 5 or 6 per cent. The hon. Member for Truro pointed out also that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science intimated to the teachers' pay advisory committee that it ought to work to a figure of 5.1 per cent. Teachers'