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That if Tuesday 14th March is an allotted day as provided under the Order [23rd January] relating to Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill (Allocation of Time), Mr. Speaker shall at Seven o'clock interrupt proceedings on any Ways and Means Motion, and any Debate thereon shall stand adjourned.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
That, notwithstanding that the Scottish Grand Committee may not have reported that it has considered the matter of the National Health Service in Scotland, the Committee may at its meeting on 20th March consider the matter of Scottish Enterprise, referred to it on 27th February.-- [Mr. David Hunt.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Alan Howarth.]
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : About a fortnight or three weeks ago, I intended to raise the matter of Derbyshire county council and rate support grant, but it was late one night and a lot of Tories--about 70 in number--were tempted to ambush my speech. I was tipped off by someone who overheard the plot in one of the bars, so because I knew all about it, that great ambush never really came to pass.
All sorts of Tories were present on that night. There were the Derbyshire Tories who wanted to object to Labour's case being put, while others had come from the bar or from Lady Porter's flat after discussing the question of surcharges. There were also solicitors and barristers present. There were the Tory greens, the estate agents, the bookies' runners, and some from the South African tendency. All in all, the political wing of the SAS.
Now that I am able to raise the matter in a proper fashion, I will make the point that local authority work has changed dramatically over the past 20 to 30 years.
When I was on Derbyshire county council we were able to carry out the programmes and spend the money. Now the Government have cut rate support grant repeatedly throughout the country, notwithstanding the large-scale increase in the need for services. The school-leaving age has risen twice, ending up at 16. More young people go to universities and polytechnics-- although not enough--which has imposed an increased strain on local government. We have also had to bear the cost of additional administration.
All in all, one would think that, in a decent world, rate support grant would have been raised because of those extra demands. In the past 20 or 30 years many more people have come to own private cars, and road traffic has increased massively. The problem is not just police cars but general road maintenance, and there are more bypasses. All that means that local government, including Derbyshire county council, needs more money.
Earlier today we discussed the growth in crime, and I pointed out that cuts in rate support grant had lost the Derbyshire police about £15 million. Over the past 20 years we have also had to contend with demographic changes. Most counties have an aging population, with 20 per cent. of pensionable age. That means that more services are needed. More elderly people also means more disabled and chronically sick people, who require more equipment, social services and telephones. Elderly people need more aids, meals on wheels, sheltered homes and home helps.
Local government should have received more money from central Government over the past 20 or 30 years, not less. Yet RSG and successor grants have been reduced from 61 to 43 per cent. nationally, and Derbyshire has been treated even more badly.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : My hon. Friend mentioned disabled people. Does he agree that Derbyshire county council has a fine record in assisting them? Ripley contains the Derbyshire centre for integrated living, which was established with council support, and in the running of which disabled people are themselves
Column 1203involved. In Clay Cross, where my hon. Friend lives--he is one of my constituents--there is the Derbyshire coalition for disabled people, which also does fine work and is supported by the council. The Government's Employment Bill hits disabled people by removing the protection that they currently enjoy in relation to dismissal notices. The period for such notification has been extended from six months to two years rather than steps being taken to ensure that disabled people generally receive full information when they are dismissed. That relates to their ability to obtain jobs, which will certainly interest those involved in the two organisations that I mentioned.
Mr. Skinner : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I shall refer later to what we could have done with all the rate support grant that has been lost. I have a list of ways in which disabled people in particular could have been helped had the £121.8 million that the council has lost been available as a result of successive cuts during the past 10 years been available.
Local authorities have to run to stay in the same place. Derbyshire has increased its staff by about 8,300, but we are told by some Tory Members that they want to sack those people. They have put down an amendment to a motion on the Order Paper to the effect that if the Tories won the next election in Derbyshire they would want to get rid of them.
I want to let people in Derbyshire know where the cuts would come. The number of fire fighters has been increased. Will the Tories sack them? Because of the demographic changes there has been a dramatic increase in the number of social services staff. Will they get rid of those? Will they get rid of the extra people employed in nursery education? There has been an increase of several thousand in the number of home helps ; do those Tory Members and their colleagues in Derbyshire want to get rid of them?
I said that the rate support grant nationally had been cut from 61.9 to 46.2 per cent. In Derbyshire it is worse. Since 1979 the grant has been cut from 61.9 to 37.4 per cent. Is it any wonder that if the Derbyshire county council Labour group wants to maintain and improve services it has had to take more money from the ratepayers? There is no other way to do it. Either we get the money from central Government or we get it from the ratepayers. Derbyshire county council decided to maintain its services. That is why a high rate has been fixed in Derbyshire.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Will my hon. Friend refer to a recent vote in a Chesterfield school? By an overwhelming 2:1 majority the parents voted to keep the school within the Derbyshire education authority's control, thus illustrating the confidence of Derbyshire people in that fine school's maintenance of an excellent education service.
Mr. Skinner : Yes. It was a very good campaign that had at its heart the views of Chesterfield people. It was an encouraging result. Ironically, that vote may help the Secretary of State for Education and Science. He has more schools on his plate than he bargained for, after the introduction of opting out. It had been decided to close some of those schools. Our Labour colleagues in Derbyshire made a conscious decision to ensure that
Column 1204services were maintained, even though it was difficult to do so. Against the most difficult odds, they have been extremely successful.
There are 23,450 home helps in Derbyshire. They look after not just Labour- voting people but all those who need their services. Nobody pays for their services ; they are free. The number of home helps has doubled since Labour took over in 1981. The price of school meals in Derbyshire is the lowest in any shire county--45p in junior schools and 55p in secondary schools. The price of meals on wheels is the lowest in Britain--35p per head--and 750,000 meals are distributed each year.
During the miners' strike, the Derbyshire county council Labour group refused to pay the extra police bill. The Tory Government said that the bill had to be paid : that Derbyshire ratepayers--Labour, Tory, rag, tag and bobtail--would have to find £25 million. Derbyshire county council, and Opposition Members, led deputations to ensure that Derbyshire ratepayers would not have to pay the £25 million bill, with the result that Derbyshire ratepayers have not had to pay it. Rates were not increased, because of that deliberate stand not to pay money that the Government ought to provide. The Government sent in the police, so eventually they had to pay the bill.
Derbyshire also operates a travel scheme for the unemployed. Anybody who is unemployed travels for half price on public transport. I may be wrong, but I believe that it is the only scheme in Britain. It has been an antidote to what the previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told people to do--to get on their bikes. In Derbyshire they travel on the buses at half price.
The Tory Government have used another method in recent years to force up the rates. They have introduced what is known as a grant cap, and Derbyshire ratepayers have had to pay an additional £70 million in rates. Many of them are Tory voters. I call on the Minister, who I believe is to meet some of these people at Matlock next week, to pay back the £70 million so that Derbyshire county council does not have to take the Government to court. We could save heavy court costs, the ratepayers would be better off and services could be improved. At least we shall be able to put the matter to the electors in May. It is interesting to note that after the Government's decision to remove the rate/grant cap, the Derbyshire county council Labour group was able to reduce the rates. Rate/grant capping was imposed for three years. We told the Government that grant capping was forcing up the rates. When I was told last week that the Derbyshire county council Labour group had reduced the rates by 8p in the pound, I was not astonished. Many people were astonished, but I knew that, after the removal of the grant cap, Derbyshire county council would have more money to play with and that it would be able to maintain services and not sack employees. It proves my point that if the Government do not grant- cap local authorities they can set lower rates and provide the same or even better services. That has been proved in Derbyshire. I have now been able to put that on the record.
I hope that during the next two or three years, while they remain in office, the Government will look kindly on restoring to Derbyshire ratepayers the £70 million that they have taken away from them, so that services in Derbyshire can be improved even further.
Column 1205It is important to remember what we could do with the money that has been lost. Since 1979 we have lost £121.8 million in central Government grants. We could have spent an extra £80 million on education, an extra £5 million on firefighters, an extra £15 million on the police, an extra £20 million on social services, and so on. Here are the matters which earlier I said I would explain. If we had had that money, we could have abolished all adult education charges, had 5,000 extra nursery places, a 100 per cent. increase in the number of youth workers, 4,500 extra teachers and lecturers, no school closure plans and an extra 1,500 personnel in both the fire and police departments.
Mr. Harry Barnes : Despite all the cuts and what could have been done with the money, Derbyshire county council has an excellent record on education. It is one of the best shires. It has an excellent pupil-teacher ratio, it has the best ratio for special education and secondary education, and, by a hair's breadth, is second only to Nottinghamshire, which is also Labour controlled, for primary education. It provides money for adult education and for assistance for scholarships for working-class people and others to attend places such as the Northern college, which has a fine educational record.
The same is true of social services. If we had had that extra £20 million, which the Government have taken from us during the past 10 years, we could have had five additional day nurseries, 1,100 more home helps, who would have looked after a further 8,000 cases, two additional hostels for the mentally handicapped--we hear a lot of talk about care of the mentally handicapped, and here is a possibility of helping them--a 100 per cent. increase in aids and adaptations for handicapped people generally, four more day centres for the physically handicapped, a 100 per cent. increase in the flexibility care schemes for those leaving mental homes, a 25 per cent. increase in staffing at old people's homes and 10,000 extra telephones for the elderly and disabled people who are housebound and come under the terms of the chronically sick and disabled persons legislation. We could have done, and still could do all that if the grants were restored.
Next week the Minister has a meeting with the county council. He has a great opportunity. He can tell it that he will restore the grants. The court case would be dropped. We would save ratepayers' money on court costs, so everybody would benefit. We would be helping the pensioners with better services, and the disabled with all the services to which I have referred, and we would be providing a better, more dignified life for them. Young people would have better education. There would be no school closures or threats of them and the beautiful county of Derbyshire would remain as beautiful or become even more beautiful.
Those possibilities range before us. Clearly, if the Government cut rate support grant, in this case in Derbyshire but also in any other case, they will call on ratepayers of all views and descriptions to find extra money. What happens? If local authorities sack people, those people must go to the labour exchange, so they are paid for out of the pockets of ratepayers or taxpayers by a different method. What economic lunacy. We have an aging population with people living longer and more
Column 1206disabled people needing more services. It does not make sense to hammer local government year in and year out. Let local government expand those services so that they can provide them for the people who really need them in Derbyshire and elsewhere.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer) : For the past few years until this year, Derbyshire has had the highest rate poundage of any shire county in England, even though it was operating the same system as other shire counties. Therefore, using a system which provides money for local authorities, it has actually done worse by its profligacy than any other county in England. It has wasted ratepayers' money and increased its rates every year. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) pointed out that the county stood to gain an extra £17.5 million in grant for 1988-89 if it fixed its budget sensibly. It could have increased its precept by less than a penny. I need hardly say what actually happened : the county's spending rose by 8 per cent. and the precept increased by 13.5 per cent.--another 35.5p. That was nothing to do with the Government but was straightforward extravagance on the part of the Derbyshire county council, which is the worst run county council in England.
This year, we shall get rid of the grant cap--which was an attempt to allow the extra gains to be phased in reasonably. I cannot say more than that because, as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, a court case is under way and, therefore, I am restricted because the matter is sub judice. Derbyshire lost more in penalties than other councils because it spent more than any other county thought was reasonable. The losses in its grant were the fault not of the Government but of Derbyshire county council because it overspent knowing perfectly well that in so doing it would lose money.
Mr. Gummer : From a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman shouts "Rubbish". The last time that we were on the radio together, the hon. Gentleman shouted "Hypocrite". He finds it extremely difficult to contain himself when the truth is told because he does not like the truth.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Lectures on waste come ill from a Government who wasted £1 billion on the Nimrod project and waste billions of pounds on weapons of war when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, everyone knows that there are pressing needs for services in Derbyshire. The penalties to which he referred were imposed by the Government for the purpose of cutting services that are needed by the people in that county and throughout the country. The Government could well afford to pay for those services had they not engaged in wasteful military expenditure.
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman and his friends undermined the possibility of peace by giving confidence to the hawks in the Kremlin to believe that Britain would crumple. The ludicrous nuclear-free zone on which Derbyshire council spends its money is disgraceful, as is its policy of promoting propaganda in schools by overprinting the children's literature and documents and holding up the peace programme.
Mr. Gummer : The peace programme came to this country only because cruise missiles were introduced. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends are like the peace movement, which led to Hitler marching on and made war inevitable, which discouraged rearmament before the war.
Mr. Benn rose --
Mr. Gummer : I shall not give way because the hon. Member for Bolsover has given me much to say. The right hon. Gentleman has done more in his time to undermine Britain's defences than almost anyone else, and I am not prepared to listen to more lectures from him. In 1989-90, comparing like with like, Derbyshire's grant will rise by £23 million. Its entitlement will be £148.6 million, a substantial sum by any standards, representing more than 30 per cent. of the spending level for which we have planned. That means that Derbyshire has a real chance to cut its rate properly, not by the small amount by which it has cut down. It could do that because of the extra grant that the Government have given it. The trouble with Mr. David Bookbinder is that he has cut the rates by much less than he could have done. He has taken the extra Government grant but failed to use it as he could, and as the administration that will replace him will.
Mr. Skinner : I find it strange that the Minister is attacking the rate cut that resulted in Derbyshire's rate cap being removed. His Tory friends on the council in Derbyshire voted against that rate cut. The Minister cannot have it both ways. Has he admonished his friends as well?
Mr. Gummer : The rate cut is good, but not good enough. Mr. Bookbinder could have cut it by much more. as I made clear in my letter to him and as I shall make clear to him again when I take up his kind invitation to see him next week.
As Derbyshire county council has now cut its rates, it is no longer the county council with the highest rate poundage of any county in England : it is the council with the second highest rate poundage, the first being the Labour run county of Cleveland. It is not surprising that the two counties with the highest rate poundage are Labour councils, both of which receive considerably more Government grant because of their particular needs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) made a good speech on this subject in the House in which he compared Derbyshire with Labour-controlled Staffordshire. It was not a party-political point. He showed that the trouble with Derbyshire is that it is such a wasteful county that it spends more to distribute fewer books in the libraries and more to run less good
Column 1208services than its neighbour. It is true that much could be done to improve Staffordshire, but a comparison with Derbyshire explains why, whenever I receive a delegation of Labour Members in the Department of the Environment, they are happy to discuss other authorities but they look under the table and pretend to have dropped their pencils if I mention Derbyshire. They do not want to have to defend Mr. Bookbinder's running of the council.
Mr. Gummer : If Mr. Bookbinder ran the council properly instead of appearing to promote not just the council but himself in particular, he would be able to cut the rates even more and make up for the continual rate rises since he came to power.
It is not surprising that the people of Derbyshire showed clearly what they thought when given the chance to do so recently ; I expect they will do so again in the county council elections.
As a result of this generous settlement, I have given Derbyshire the chance to cut its rate by 8 per cent. Mr. Bookbinder has failed to do that, and is therefore taking more money than necessary, having already taken vastly more than was necessary from the ratepayers of Derbyshire.
Less money should be spent on political propaganda on the rates. I have in mind the so-called impartiality of "Derbyshire Insight", whose headline reads :
"Your privacy invaded : Poll tax threat."
Mr. Gummer : It is difficult to find a single truthful fact in that organ. It is entirely aimed at misleading the people of Derbyshire and at making them pay to be led by the nose. They pay the price, and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman supports that shows how shamefully he has descended in the evening of his life. After all these years he ought to have grown wiser rather than sillier. Page after page of party propaganda is paid for by the ratepayers.
Mr. Gummer : An example of something that was put in the Library was a document asking people to write in so that Derbyshire could protest to the Government about the changes in arrangements for libraries. The article did not say that the leaflet was printed months after the final date for consultation. Derbyshire was asking for advice after consultation was over. Even if it is running its politics on the rates, it is incompetent as well as wasteful. Derbyshire has no right to say to the nation that the taxpayer should further subsidise the appalling waste of ratepayers' money which has been the mark of the Derbyshire county council's activities. I am looking forward to going to Derbyshire to say personally and directly to Mr. Bookbinder, "Derbyshire's difficulties are your fault, and if you do not change your ways and reduce the rates by 8 per cent. as earnests of the future, the people of Derbyshire will wreak havoc on you when the election comes". Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.
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