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Column 532salaries represent a significant proportion of county council expenditure. There is also an argument about what inflation will prove to be.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government wrote to Norfolk county council saying it should not need to increase rates by more than 5 per cent., he failed to take account of one further factor. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will be familiar with the case of Cakebread v. Severn-Trent water authority which, on appeal, changed the rating of sewage works. That affected many local authorities, and its impact on Norfolk county council was to add £2 million to this year's budget--a 1 per cent. increase in the precept without any changes being made in the level of service. My right hon. Friend totally ignores such considerations when he says that average rate increases should not exceed 5 per cent. in Norfolk.
If Norfolk county council is to observe a 5 per cent. limit, it will have to cut back on services. When I was its deputy leader, my colleagues and I were widely and, on reflection, perhaps justifiably, criticised for being parsimonious. That may be why the SDP made such advances in the elections four years ago--which, despite the rate support grant settlement, we shall soon reverse.
Mr. Matthew Taylor : I shall not dispute with the hon. Gentleman the election's outcome, because the electorate will decide that in May. However, I agree with him about the difficulties encountered by councils that have been sensible and low spending over a long period. I raised with the Minister the question of Cornwall's education spending, which was held down because that is what Cornwall was told to do. However, now that Cornwall needs to invest in capital and other expenditure, it is not permitted to do so, and is attacked for increasing rates to cover the extra costs.
Mr. Carttiss : I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Norfolk county council, with a precept for 1988-89 of 190.9 pence, is the lowest rated authority in England, other than Hereford and Worcestershire. We heard earlier that Derbyshire's precept is 297.5p. Only one other English county has a precept lower than Norfolk's figure of 190.9p, yet my right hon. Friend, in writing to Norfolk county council, tells it to keep its rate rise to below 5 per cent. That just is not realistic.
Grant entitlements are no longer linked to expenditure and that is welcomed, but we now have the famous "relevant spending" figure. The Government have said what they think a county council's relevant expenditure should be, and the figure for Norfolk is £300 million-- £34 million below the old grant-related expenditure.
I wish to make two general points, applicable to all local government, about an issue mentioned by the hon. Member for Leeds, West with particular reference to Leeds. Instead of reducing relevant expenditure by the cost of advanced further education, which has now been transferred from local government expenditure, the Secretary of State has reduced the block grant by the gross cost.
That has two major implications. First, overall rate poundages will be unaffected by the transfer ; ratepayers, however, will still, in effect, be funding AFE, despite having no responsibility for that expenditure. So much for local accountability, by which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set such store, particularly when
Column 533arguing for the community charge as a replacement for the rating system. Local authority associations have rightly argued that ratepayers should see the financial benefits of the transfer of services away from local authority responsibility.
The second implication of the transfer of AFE is this. Some education authorities receive no block grant at all. I am open to correction, but I believe that--besides ILEA--that is true of Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey, the county of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. That means that, to extract from local government generally the full cost of AFE, £91 million must be taken from local education authorities that receive block grant--which again hits Norfolk.
There has been a further 1 per cent. fall in the county council's share of grant while, ironically, they are contributing £166 million towards safety nets to limit the loss of grant to others. That figure represents 4.7p of Norfolk county council's precept. Again, the proportion of rate support grant taken up by specific and supplementary grants has increased. Not only do such grants, based solely on expenditure, disadvantage prudent authorities, but as they reduce the amount of block grant available for distribution, authorities' choice of priorities is further restricted.
There are four new grants for 1989-90. Specific and supplementary grants now represent 29.4 per cent. of the total Government RSG, compared with 25.9 per cent. of the total in 1988-89. In 1981-82 the proportion of RSG covered by specific and supplementary grant was 13.3 per cent.
The burden of my complaint on behalf of Norfolk ratepayers is that--as has already been recognised many times--the system is not only capricious, but positively works against prudent authorities such as Eastleigh which just happen to be under Conservative control. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton pointed out that Opposition Members were not seething : that is because they have not done too badly out of the system.
Of course my right hon. Friend is quite impartial about whom he penalises. Perhaps one of the worst-hit authorities in Norfolk is represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. South Norfolk district council has suffered far more than any other Norfolk authority. I mention that not on behalf of my right hon. Friend or the constituents whom he has represented so effectively and efficiently for so many years, but to illustrate the way in which low-spending authorities are penalised by the system. The neighbouring authority--high-spending, overwhelmingly Socialist-controlled Norwich city council--benefits, but South Norfolk district council's grant has gone down by £134,000, or 13.5 per cent. In other Norfolk districts the RSG has produced results ranging from gains of nearly 16 per cent. to losses of about 7.5 per cent. In the period from 1985-86 to 1989-90, Norwich's RSG gain has been some 18 per cent. ; South Norfolk's loss in the same period has been some 30 per cent. Broadland, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder)--Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--has had a cut : it will receive £993, 000 in grant this year, and my hon. Friends have both expressed concern about that. As
Column 534the two constituencies were once part of the Great Yarmouth constituency, I too know something about them.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government told the Broadland authority that, although its settlement was not as good as it might have been--he acknowledged that it was disappointing-- "The 1989-90 settlement concentrates on provision for key services such as police. This benefits counties rather than districts." Let us hope that Norfolk county council's request for 50 extra policemen will receive a better reception at the Home Office than it has received before, given that--apart from the Thames Valley--it has the lowest number of police officers per thousand members of the population.
The Minister went on :
"In addition, there have been substantial increases in local authorities' assessed need to spend. Grant is distributed on the basis of common principles and this change benefits areas with higher assessed needs, such as Norwich, to a greater extent than those with lower needs."
That is fair enough. My right hon. Friend the Minister believes that the settlement does not deliberately favour high-spending authorities. He says that block grant is distributed on the basis of needs, and high-spending authorities may nevertheless have high needs. I recognise the validity of his point. However, low-spending, rural shire counties also have needs.
The notion that only those who live in major urban conurbations have needs that the Government must recognise and that there is no such thing as rural deprivation can be believed only in Whitehall. It takes a long time to get through to Whitehall. I am surprised that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has not recognised that. Although he represents a fairly wealthy part of Suffolk, he must know that some rural areas have different needs but still demand Government and local authority attention. Although higher-spending authorities, which often turn out to be Labour- controlled, have higher needs that the Government rightly recognise, those needs should not be met at the expense of lower-spending rural authorities.
I have raised matters referring to a number of districts with which I am not directly involved to illustrate the continued unfair application of the system and to strike the note that I remain to be convinced that next year I shall be able to make a different speech from the one I have just made.
Finally, in my constituency of Great Yarmouth, the Conservative party kept the borough council rate at the same level for five years. The reward for the effective management of local affairs by the Conservatives was that in 1987-88 the rate support grant for the current year was cut by 12.13 per cent. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to defend the fact that in 1987- 88 a Conservative administration received a cut of 12.13 per cent. Not surprisingly, last May the Conservatives lost control of the council. This year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in the 1989-90 settlement, rewarded them with a 16 per cent. increase in rate support grant. I am grateful to the Government for finally recognising the needs of Great Yarmouth to the extent of increasing the RSG from last year's figure of £2,635 million to £3,059 million for 1989-90. As it has taken a local election and a change of control to bring about that result, I wonder what message
Column 535my right hon. Friend wants to give the constituents whom I represent. If we win back control in a year's time, will there be a cut in our rate support grant?
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for increasing the borough council RSG this year, regardless of what party is in power, because it helps the ratepayers. Unfortunately, although the borough rate is 25p in the pound, the county rate is 190p in the pound. The second lowest-spending county council needs greater support within the RSG settlement than my right hon. Friend has been able to deliver.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) in which he defended his local authority. I was glad to hear a Conservative Member defending a local authority that is not controlled by his own party. I only wish that a few other Conservative Members were as ready to defend their Labour-controlled local authorities as the hon. Gentleman has just done. I have heard the hon. Gentleman speak on this subject before. Once again he has underlined the lunacies of Government policy on local authority finance.
Before I talk about the rate support grant settlement as it affects London boroughs, I must say something directly to the Minister. Frankly, I much regretted his personal attack on an elected Lambeth councillor concerning rent arrears. I do not know who that councillor is, and I do not particularly wish to hear the details. The attack was snide and vulgar and it was not fitting for a Minister of the Crown to make such an attack from the Dispatch Box. It is difficult enough being an elected local councillor these days whichever party one represents, but to have one's personal affairs dragged through the House of Commons serves no purpose whatsoever other than to lower the Minister in the eyes of the House, and certainly in the opinion of the Opposition. We could have mentioned the names of Conservative councillors who, for various reasons, have got themselves into difficulties over loans, rate arrears with their local authorities or far more serious matters involving criminal proceedings. However, we consider ourselves to be honourable, and although we could join in that particular dirty little battle, we do not intend to do so. If the Minister wants to call my bluff with regard to names, I shall be happy to speak to him outside and tell him precisely to whom I am referring. It ill behoves Ministers to question the financial probity of other elected representatives. That is a dangerous game which could involve hon. Members.
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is perfectly justified and right to condemn any personal attack. I repeat that I sought to suggest that it is important for all local councillors to be concerned with collecting rents. When there are very large rent arrears in a number of London boroughs but there are no large rent arrears in many Labour- controlled councils elsewhere, it seems reasonable to ask why the Opposition were not prepared to support my call for leadership by local councillors in making sure that they did not have rent arrears. I noted that the Opposition refused to say that they were opposed to that situation, but I was happy wholly to condemn any improper behaviour of the sort that the hon. Gentleman
Column 536outlined. That is the difference between the two sides of the House. I condemn such behaviour by either side, but the Opposition refuse to do that.
Mr. Banks : I do not accept that. In principle, of course we agree with the Minister, but the Minister did not leave the matter in general terms. The Minister was very particular. He all but named a councillor. It would not take a great deal of sleuthing around to work out to whom the Minister was referring. He mentioned the position that that councillor held and the particular local authority. The Minister mentioned a particular case. We cannot go along with personal attacks of that nature, although in broad terms of course we agree that councillors should take the lead and ensure that their own positions are beyond reproach. That should also be true for hon. Members, although we know that some hon. Members fall rather short of those standards. It is wrong to use individual cases.
I do not know the personal circumstances of the councillor to whom the Minister referred, nor I suspect does the Minister. It is quite wrong for one to drag an individual's personal affairs through this place unless one possesses the facts, which I do not, and I am damned sure that the Minister does not either. That is why we object so strongly to the Minister's approach.
As chairman of the London group of Labour Members, I have pushed my local authority, the London borough of Newham, in an endeavour to make sure that it does something about the level of rent arrears. We are as enthusiastic to make sure that the affairs of Labour local authorities are well run as the Minister wants us to be. Indeed, we may be more enthusiastic because we do not want the Minister to have at his disposal cheap debating points on occasions such as this. The problems of inner London boroughs are like those of no other borough in this country. This is the capital city. That makes it different, and the amount of population turnover is a factor which only hon. Members who represent London constituencies can fully appreciate.
London local authorities achieved in the last financial year a welcome reduction in rent arrears. The Minister knows that and he has acknowledged the fact. But all that work was undone at a stroke when the Government changed the regime on housing benefit. By cutting £650 million from housing benefit, about one million people were taken out of the system. It is not surprising now that the most recent survey by the Association of Municipal Authorities showed that the average increase in rent arrears in council properties had gone up by 37.5 per cent. since April. That is the direct responsibility of the Government because of the change in the housing benefit regime and the requirement that everyone shall pay 20 per cent. of the rate. We are talking about some of the poorest people in Britain. It is not surprising that the incidence of rent arrears within that population is high, and a little more understanding on the part of Conservative Members and a little less willingness to jump in with two boots would be greatly appreciated on that score.
I come to the rate support grant settlement for 1989-90 as we see it affecting Labour local authorities in London. We believe that the RSG settlement shows that the Government have failed to recognise the pressing demands
Column 537facing local authorities in the capital city and the financial constraints and difficulties that they face, some of which I have mentioned.
The Government's apparent objective of stability in the settlement must be constrasted with the increasingly difficult task confonting London local authorities to provide a satisfactory level of service to some of the most deprived communities in the country. I remind the House that the three most deprived local authority areas in England and Wales happen to be the three East End boroughs of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
The Association of London Authorities recognises that the settlement is the result of the Government's desire to close down the present discredited rate support grant system. But responsibility for the unfairness and inadequacies of the system must be laid directly at the door of the Government. Through constant change in the basic rules of the system, the use of grant-related expenditure assessments as prescriptive spending levels rather than as a means to distribute grant, spending targets and rate-capping to control in detail local expenditure decisions, and the withdrawal of huge sums of grant, the Government have attempted to thwart the aspirations of democratically elected local councils to provide good quality, responsive services for the communities they serve.
The settlement fails to take any serious account of the particular difficulties facing many local authorities in London. These include, first, the economic and social problems in inner-city areas resulting from deprivation and poverty ; secondly, an infrastructure requiring immense sums for rehabilitation and renewal ; thirdly, the difficulties of coping with the consequences of legislation such as poll tax implementation, the transfer of education in inner London, privatisation, housing changes and care in the community ; fourthly, the difficulties of recruiting and retaining staff ; and, fifthly, the inadequate resources of local authorities following cuts in grant and the use of rate-capping.
The 1989-90 settlement is based on current expenditure by local authorities of £29.14 billion. The Association of London Authorities believes that this level of provision is completely inadequate. Although it sounds, and is, a great deal of money, the Government have claimed--I heard the Minister say it--that it represents an increase of 4.8 per cent. on 1988-89 budgets. But the increase allowed is well below the level of inflation in the economy as a whole and the likely rise in local authority costs.
The best indication of the level of spending required in 1988-90 to maintain services comes from the expenditure working groups, which are composed of civil servants and local authority officials. They suggest that expenditure of about £30.2 billion is necessary, though it should be noted that these estimates were based on inflation forecasts calculated in March 1988.
The expenditure provision in the consultation paper implies cuts of 3.5 per cent. compared with the assessment of the expenditure groups. So the basis of the proposed settlement rests on flawed foundations. Again, those local authorities which are not the subject of rate-capping will face difficult choices between rate increases above inflation or cuts in essential local services.
The level of grant for 1989-90 is also completely inadequate. Although no doubt the Government will present the settlement as resulting in an increase in grant in excess of £1 billion, this is due not to any generosity on
Column 538the part of the Government but to the decision to close down the rate support grant system, which means an end to grant holdback. The proposed level of grant represents yet a further cut in the proportion of local spending met by grant--from 46.2 per cent. in the 1988-89 settlement to 43.3 per cent. in this settlement. If the grant proportion had remained at the 1988-89 settlement level, the grant total would be about £897 million higher than the Government propose. Comparisons with the levels of grant which applied in 1978-79 show that the shortfall in 1989-90 will be in excess of £5 billion and that the cumulative shortfall is over £28 billion.
If one wants a reason for the increases in rates that led us to rate- capping, one need only consider the amount of clawback that the Government have imposed on rate support rant settlements. That is the key. One does not have to be a philosopher or even understand the nuts and bolts of local authority finance to realise that. If the Government keep taking money away from local government, that imposes more burdens on local ratepayers if the elected local authority wants to sustain, let alone enhance, the level of services to the local community.
That is where the crisis in local government originated. That crisis was engineered by the Government and, as is often the case, they engineer a crisis and later say that they have the solution--and the solution is to impose draconian financial measures on elected local authorities. That is why we are so annoyed, angry, distrustful and disturbed about the way in which the Government still attack and approach local authorities--as though they were the enemies within. It is about time that the House, including Conservative Members--and there are a few of them--stood up and defended the system of elected local authorities in Britain, instead of continually denigrating authorities and treating them as though they were aliens from outer space with no part to play in the democratic system.
A major concern to the ALA and London local authorities is the Government's decision to continue with rate-capping in 1989-90. Again, London authorities will bear the brunt of rate limitation. Of the eight authorities designated for rate limitation next year, all but one are in London. They are Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and the Inner London education authority. The concentration of rate limitation on London authorities is a consequence of the inadequacies of grant-related expenditure assessments for London authorities and a continuing failure by the Government to realise the unique problems of the capital city and of the local authorities in that city.
The Minister must recognise that. I appreciate that he is new to the job. Unfortunately, the Government are continually changing the faces of Department of the Environment Ministers at the Dispatch Box. That enables them and Conservative Members generally to continue to blame somebody else, as did the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth. They say, "I appreciate that this is not the responsibility of the new Minister, because it was begun by the Minister who went before." The Government keep changing them round. They are like ducks at the fairground. We stand there and they keep coming round and no matter how much we pop them down, more keep popping up. They keep changing the names and trying to transfer the blame, but this is a
Column 539collective decision and the present Minister is as responsible for the policies that he has inherited as he will be for the mistakes that he will undoubtedly make.
Mr. Gummer : I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to pop up ; no doubt he will attempt to shoot me down. I was previously the hon. Member for Lewisham, West and had considerable respect for the idea that he is advancing. Do features of London authorities give credence to what the hon. Gentleman says? Until I considered the matter carefully I did not understand that the problem with most London authorities is that they are unbelieveably more incompetent than most authorities elsewhere. They must become more competent before the hon. Gentleman's suggestion can be taken more seriously. I beg him to try to encourage his friends to run their affairs more sensibly so that those of us who are on their side can find more money for them. Unless the hon. Gentleman is able to do that, more money will not be given to people who cannot run their show properly.
Mr. Banks : The Minister has missed the point about the unique problems of London. I should like to know how close his association with Lewisham has been over the years. One needs to understand the problems of London, which have become worse. The Government's social and economic problems have exacerbated the problems of inner-city areas. The problems of unemployment, social deprivation and others are concentrated in London as in no other area.
I assure the Minister that Labour Members are devoted to the idea of efficient local government--especially efficient Labour-controlled local government. I say to my colleagues who run London authorities that unless we can show that a Socialist-controlled authority is better at running the affairs of the local community we cannot expect people to vote for us ; they will vote for the Tory party. I therefore do not need any lessons or encouragement from the Minister. He must accept that we are doing our best, given the scale of the problems.
Mr. Soley : My hon. Friend is right, but the matter must be put into perspective. The Minister and his hon. Friends were making great play of Ealing council. I have done some checking and discovered that Ealing's rates are lower than some Conservative-controlled authorities, including Harrow, Enfield and Barnet. Perhaps the Government should look more carefully at their own efficiency.
Mr. Banks : We must also consider the level and quality of services being provided. Conservative Members are too willing to accept that efficiency equals running down services to the point where, as a charge on revenue, they almost disappear. One must try to balance the optimum level of efficiency of services with a charge acceptable to ratepayers. To demand high rates for the sake of it is ridiculous, but to say that rates have no relationship to the level of services for which they are supposed to pay misses the central argument. The task of local authorities is to provide efficient services for their communities, compatible with a reasonable charge for rates.
Column 540The level of rates is largely determined by Government policy. If the Government keep removing rate support grant--they have taken a cumulative £28 billion of rate support grant from local authorities--it is not surprising that in trying to defend and enhance services, Labour-controlled and some Conservative-controlled local authorities have increased rates. We should speak of not only rate levels but the efficiency of services.
Mr. Gummer : This is an important argument, and it is a matter about which the hon. Gentleman and I care very much. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) said that, although I have significantly increased Ealing council's grant, it wants to increase its rates more than independent people suggest is necessary. I wax loud about Brent because it is so inefficient and because the people who most need its help suffer. We should be concerned about that problem, which is why I want the hon. Gentleman to persuade Brent to be competent. When it is, it will deserve help from all of us.
Mr. Banks : The Minister will receive as much assistance from me as he requires to make local government in London as efficient as possible. I expect him to give sympathetic consideration to the problems of boroughs such as Brent and Lambeth. The racial mix in those boroughs is different from that in the majority of Conservative Members' constituencies. Until the Government understand that, they will not begin to understand the problems of Brent and Lambeth. I give the Minister an open invitation. I will go with him to Brent and we will sit down with its officers, elected councillors and Labour party local government spokesmen-- [Interruption] I am happy to go with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). We shall try to forge a partnership that recognises the problems of Brent and, so far as is possible, the constraints of Government policy to see how we can make progress. We have constantly said that we are prepared to sit down even with the devil--the Secretary of State for the Environment--provided that he will approach the problems of local authorities in London constructively and in a conciliatory fashion and not attack them, as the Minister did in his speech. Conservative Members attack local authorities in London as though they were put there by an alien civilisation. We object to that and it is the reason for much confrontation in local government in London.
There have been many Environment Ministers, but we at the London borough of Newham have always asked whether they would like to come and see how our borough operates. We should be delighted to see the Minister, and we shall listen to him provided he listens to us. That is the prescription for progress in local government.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I thought that he was on shaky ground because in one part of his speech he was obviously reading verbatim from a prepared text. Had it not been for interventions, his speech would have been much shorter. He is usually one of the wittier speakers, but the prize for that in this debate should go to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price).
Column 541When debating rates and rate support levels, the argument tends to be polarised on London boroughs, as though everything happens there and there are no bad councils outside London. I can give numerous stories about percentage increases. One of the funniest letters that I received last year was from a parish councillor who demanded that I call on the Secretary of State to rate-cap the parish council because it was about to increase its rate by 100 per cent. I thought that that was a slight exaggeration. The council intended to increase its rates from 1p to 2p, so I decided not to take the matter any further.
I wish to speak of the Derbyshire Dales district council--which covers the area that I represent--and Derbyshire county council. Last year, the district council and I made representations to my right hon. Friend the Minister about the settlement for Derbyshire Dales district council--and I did so again this year. I am glad to see that in the revised figures we have come off slightly better and that the points made by myself and the district council were eventually taken up by the Minister. We must remember that of the total rate levied in a county the district council levies only a small amount. In Derbyshire, over the past year, the amount has been getting smaller. In 1981-82, the district rate was 11 per cent. of the total rate bill. This year it is 8 per cent. One reason for that is the way in which the county council rate has increased so drastically. The same is true in another part of my consituency--Amber Valley--which, for the first time, has a Conservative-controlled council. We enjoyed exceptionally good results in this year's local elections in Derbyshire. We won control of Derby city council for the first time in about eight years and we won Amber Valley district council for the first time. That augurs well for the future. I wish to talk about the record of rate rises since the Labour party took control of Derbyshire county council. We should draw some conclusions from this interesting set of figures.
Labour's first rate rise was in 1982-83, with an increase of 25.2 per cent. In 1983-84 it increased the rate by 12.2 per cent. and in 1984.85 it increased by 13.1 per cent. However, in 1985-86 it increased the rate by just 4.8 per cent. Only the most cynical would say that that had anything to do with the fact that the council was standing for election that year. I should not be so cynical as that. In 1986-87, after the election, the council got back on track and increased the rate by the largest amount ever --25.9 per cent. It increased the rate by 48p to make up for the previous year. In 1987-88 it increased the rate by 12.4 per cent. Last year it increased the rate by 13.5 per cent., which does not sound too bad in the context of Labour authorities. It is not bad if it is 13.5 per cent. of 5p or 6p. However, 13.5 per cent. of 262p means a rate increase for my constituents and all those in Derbyshire of 35.5p in the pound.
Mr. Soley : I wish to help the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) with his argument. During the period of Conservative control in his local authority there was an increase in the rate of 168 per cent. However--this is the interesting point--expenditure rose by only 78 per cent. Does not the hon. Gentleman want to take the Minister to task? His local authority increased expenditure by only 78 per cent. over seven or eight years of both Labour and Conservative control. Yet suddenly he is whacked with this enormous 168 per cent. increase--
Column 542most of which came from Conservative, not Labour councils--because of his Minister's rate support grant distribution.
Mr. McLoughlin : I am interested in what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has to say. I am surprised that he has come armed with facts about Derbyshire county council. Perhaps he feels vulnerable. I shall deal with the point that he raised.
Since the Labour party has controlled the council--it set its first budget in 1982--we have seen an increase of 186.5p in the rate, that is, 168 per cent. Derbyshire county council is now the highest-rated county in the country, in figures only. Not many people who live in Derbyshire consider the council to be number one. It is important to put that into context. Why have Derbyshire's rates increased by so much? We should look at neighbouring local authorities. I know a little about Staffordshire because I served for some time on Staffordshire county council. The Conservatives on Staffordshire county council want to make a few changes when they win the election in May. In 1981 Staffordshire and Derbyshire were controlled by the Conservatives. Staffordshire has a population of just over 1 million and an area of 271,000 hectares. Derbyshire has a population of 916, 000 and an area of 263,000 hectares. They both have cities--Derby and Stoke-on- Trent--so they make good comparisons. They also appear together in the Audit Commission cluster.
In 1981-82 Derbyshire county council's rate was 111p and Staffordshire county council's rate was 112.5p. Staffordshire county council's rate today is 215p, yet Derbyshire county council's rate is a staggering 297p.
Mr. Soley rose --
One of the difficulties of the present system is that it is difficult to explain to people how the figures reflect the money in their pocket. For the average house in Derbyshire with a rateable value of £150 the rates would be £446.25. In Staffordshire the rates for a similar house would be £325.50--a difference of £120.75. A house with a rateable value of £200 would have to pay rates of £595 in Derbyshire and £430 in Staffordshire--a difference of £160 or £3 a week. I am a little fed up with the Labour party telling me about the poor, the neglected and those who cannot cope when it continues to support local authorities which levy high rates and have high spending.
Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) rose--
In 1981-82 Derbyshire was 30th out of 39 shire counties in its rate level. Today it is first. It levies the highest rates in the country.
Mr. McLoughlin : Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will help on that. The Labour party might complain about the way in which local authorities have been treated, but they have all been treated in the same way. If that is not so, perhaps my right hon. Friend the
Column 543Minister will tell me whether a special Act of Parliament has been rushed through without anyone knowing about it. It would probably be called the Rate Support Grant (Derbyshire) Act, but I do not know of such an Act. I have checked with the Library and I understand that Derbyshire county council has been treated in the same way as every other county council in the country. If the hon. Member for Hammersmith is saying that it has been treated unfairly, the same must apply to every other county council.
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is making perfectly reasonable comparisons. He is doing precisely what he has been asked to do. He is being polite about some of the marginally better Labour councils and comparing them with his council, which is one of the worst. He has the disadvantage of seeing all that is bad about Labour councils within his own council. It ill behoves the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) to interrupt my hon. Friend when he is merely comparing Derbyshire with other councils, all of which have been subject to the same system. The difficulty with the present system is that the Government cannot say, "We will do a little better with that council because it is a good council". One cannot make such distinctions. Mr. Bookbinder in Derbyshire runs a thoroughly bad council.
Mr. Bernie Grant rose--
My right hon. Friend referred in his opening speech to a survey that the county council carried out about libraries. I wanted to look at the county council's record on the library service, so I turned to the public library statistics in the County Councils Gazette, which was published last October. It provided several interesting facts. In Derbyshire, it was estimated that there were 1,769,371 books on 1 April 1988. It cost £8,647 per 1,000 people in Derbyshire to administer that service. Staffordshire county council has 2,743,906 books, yet it cost £6,413 per 1,000 people to administer the service. In other words, it cost £2,000 more to administer 30 per cent. fewer books. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West talked about efficiency in local authorities and said that he wanted to see efficiency. Is it efficient that it costs £2,000 more per 1,000 of population to administer 30 per cent. fewer books? That kind of efficiency is lost on me and on my hon. Friends.
I wish to make another comparison. On 7 November, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State answered a question about the number of people employed by county councils. In 1979, Derbyshire employed 35,835 people. In 1988, it employed 44,145 people--an increase of 8,310, so that the hon. Member for Hammersmith can get it right. Why has Derbyshire had the highest increase in staff in the country? I shall be fair
Column 544and take the example of Durham. Are all Labour councils like Derbyshire county council or have we a special council? I would not mind if Labour Members said that Derbyshire was a one- off. However, in Durham 24,807 people were employed in 1977 ; in 1988, the figure was 23,927. That shows that even Labour-controlled councils can reduce their staff. I must give them the credit that some of them reduce their staff--unless one happens to be in Derbyshire.
I should have thought that I had given an ideal opportunity for a Labour Front Bench spokesman to say that Derbyshire is a bit special and not wholeheartedly supported by the Labour party, but I suppose that that would be difficult. I live in Matlock, in my constituency, and in my local press last week there was an article about a letter from the Leader of the Opposition. He sent greetings and messages to Derbyshire and, in a letter to council leader David Bookbinder, he praised the authority's performance. Councillor Bookbinder went on to say :
"We believe this County Council enjoys an enviable
reputation--efficiency has never been greater and our service delivery has never been more effective. We are committed to provide a wide range of quality services to those who need them most and it's nice to know our efforts have been recognised in Westminster." I do not know about recognising their efforts and I am not sure that there was not an ulterior motive in the right hon. Gentleman's comments.
Derbyshire county council has a bit of a reputation for looking after failed Labour Members of Parliament. I have read recently about the Leader of the Opposition's lunch with John Mortimer. One may read shortly that the right hon. Gentleman is looking for a job. He could look in Derbyshire and perhaps that is why he wrote the letter. It may have been a soft soap insurance policy for the future. At the beginning of last year, Derbyshire county council employed a certain Reg Race, whose only qualification was that he had once been a Labour Member of Parliament and a publicity officer for the National Union of Public Employees. He was appointed not as a publicity officer, but as a chief executive or county clerk of the county council at a salary of about £46,000.
Mr. Tony Banks : I must tell the hon. Gentleman to have a care. Reg Race worked for me when I was chair of the Greater London council. I would not tolerate an inefficient local authority officer working for me. Derbyshire county council had a good bargain in Reg Race and it was foolish to get rid of him.
Mr. McLoughlin : I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I might even believe what he said. Perhaps he wants efficient local authorities and that is why he employed Mr. Race. I do not know what the qualifications of Mr. Race are, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman for Newham, North-West could tell me why Derbyshire county council sacked Mr. Race after nine months. Was it because he was being too efficient? Was it because he was doing what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West wanted? I have no idea, but I also have no idea how much it cost for that nine months' youth training programme to get under way and how much it cost the ratepayers of Derbyshire to get rid of Mr. Race. I do not
Column 545know how much subsistence and travel to Derbyshire cost or how much it cost for his travel away from Derbyshire. That information has been singularly lacking from the county council. A mist of secrecy has built up around the whole scenario. Mr. Race came out of a puff of smoke and went in a puff of smoke. He was appointed on 23 December 1987 to take up an appointment on 1 January 1988. I said at the time that that was indecent haste and I was criticised for that. It is fairly quick for somebody to take up such a post in four days. I would not say again that it was indecent haste, but flaming well quick and there are several questions to be answered.
I know that a large number of hon. Members want to speak in the debate, so I shall not go through all the other reasons why we have high rates. However, I shall go through some of the county council's other actions. The council supports nuclear-free zones. That is fair enough and a number of Labour councils do that. But I object--and find it most repugnant--that school notepayer is taken back from schools to the county council to be overprinted with the words :
"Derbyshire supports Nuclear Free Zones."
I know that the parents find it repugnant as well.
The county council recently gave student miners £1,500 for a jaunt to the European Parliament and the European Bank in Luxembourg. It also held a conference to look into the needs of black women, which cost £1,000. Under the libraries' multicultural fund, the council at present spends £50,000 per year on mother tongue printed material and English language books.