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The Attorney-General : The right hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that, in 1979, the bill for legal aid was £100 million annually ; it is now £500 million annually. We have to give the Legal Aid Act time to work before fair castigation of arrangements can possibly be made. That is an important matter with which the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree.
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-East) : Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the solicitors' profession as a whole will be pleased to learn that the representations made on its behalf by the Law Society have been so carefully and considerately dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues? Will he provide us with further assurance that the proposed regulations on conveyancing will be carefully and vigorously monitored at all times?
The Attorney-General : I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. The consultation has been unusually fruitful. More than 2,000 responses were received and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has given careful thought to each and every one. I am glad, but not surprised, that my hon. Friend believes that solicitors will be greatly reassured by the way in which their genuine and sensible anxieties have been heeded. That reassurance is justified. The whole purpose of the Bill is to try to achieve a balance between the need for competition and the need for the maintenance of standards. It is for the professional bodies, under the structure laid down by the White Paper, to make regulations, but they will also have
Column 357to have the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor and of the heads of division. They must also receive the attention of the independent advisory committee.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : What has the Attorney-General on offer for those who are involved, or wish to be involved, in the provision of public legal services? In particular, I see no reference in the White Paper to the development and extension of law centres, and no solution to the recruitment crisis that is gripping the Crown prosecution service.
The Attorney-General : I pay tribute to the great amount of important work that is done for the public good in the provision of legal services. When the hon. Gentleman has had time to read the White Paper more closely, he will see that the "Civil Justice Review", which the Government have accepted, contains proposals for wider representation by lay people in the county court and small claims court. I believe that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that. It is something that is in part established, and it will be built upon. That is not neglected in the White Paper, and it is important that it should not be.
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Lord Chancellor is to be congratulated upon having listened to constructive criticism of his original proposals, on having stuck to his guns on the main lines of his proposals, and on resisting the pressure, which was originally of an intemperate nature, which came from the Bar and the Bench?
Is not the Lord Chancellor to be congratulated also on his thoroughly welcome proposal that there should in future be the abolition of the lay observer, who is nothing but a snare and a delusion, being usually just an apologist for the Law Society, and the substitution of a legal services ombudsman, who will have a new statutory power to investigate the original complaint? This will be a great improvement and a tremendous help to lay people, who do not understand why their complaints have not been properly considered.
The Attorney-General : I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. The Government's purpose in bringing forward the Green Papers was to secure greater competition and lower costs, and at the same time the maintenance of high standards. There has been no departure from any of these purposes or objectives. Considerable anxiety was expressed in some quarters that certain aspects of the proposals in the Green Papers might work in the opposite direction, and the Government felt it right to heed some of the objections. I am glad that my hon. Friend believes that there has been an improvement without any departure from the important objectives to which I have referred.
I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the ombudsman. The ombudsman system is well tried, and I think that there is a good place for it in the provision of legal services, and especially in monitoring the operation of the professional bodies in the way in which, for example, they deal with complaints from the public.
Column 358The legal profession in Northern Ireland has had to cope with problems in circumstances very different from those experienced by the profession in England, Scotland and Wales. I feel that it has contributed much to normalising the difficult situation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we are dependent on confidence being maintained in the administration of justice. To that end, may the House be told whether a legal aid board will be established in Northern Ireland and that those facing serious charges will continue to have the services of the most competent advocates?
The Attorney-General : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has published a supplement to the Green Papers that is applicable to Northern Ireland. I think that the hon. Gentleman's question about a legal aid board is one that he will need to be written to about rather than receive an answer today.
Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham) : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend and the Lord Chancellor for bringing peace where there was conflict. Will the proposals make the administration of justice cheaper for the consumer than would otherwise have been the case? Will the course of justice be made any quicker as a result of his proposals, considering the interminable delays in litigation now?
The Attorney-General : I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. To the extent that the proposals promote competition, which they do in a real way, they will operate on cost in the way in which my hon. Friend desires and which the customer for legal services desires.
The "Civil Justice Review" published last year by the Lord Chancellor, whose provisions will form part of early legislation, is in part aimed at making litigation simpler and quicker. That is very much to be desired. Substantial proposals will be brought forward ; they have already been outlined in the "Civil Justice Review". The entire Government share my hon. Friend's view.
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) : I congratulate the Attorney- General on his triumph in throwing back the Picts and Scots and free market hordes from north of Hadrian's wall. Is it not a humiliating climb-down for the Government? Does it not sanctify the system of government by barristers, for barristers, of barristers? Is it not true that he has done nothing about the restrictive practices of the Bar--for example, barristers' clerks, QCs, double fees and so on? He has not-- [Interruption.] He has not allowed the Crown prosecution service to compete-- [Interruption.] It is competition under the control-- [Interruption.]
The Attorney-General : I suppose that the hon. Gentleman enjoys making that sort of speech, and we all enjoy listening to it, even though we hear it year in and year out. It is not fair to describe listening to consultation as a climb-down; indeed, it is rather hard to do so. If the Government fail to come forward with changes to their original proposals following a consultation period, they are accused of being arrogant and of the consultation being a sham. If, however, they come forward with
Column 359changes based upon that consultation, they are accused of a climb-down. I suppose that it was ever thus, but it is a little hard--not that that will disturb the hon. Gentleman.
I do not think that it can be described as a departure from the Government's original principle. The whole problem of, for example, rights of audience has been going on for 20 or 30 years. People ask why it was not left to rest after the royal commission. The answer is that the problem did not go away, and nor did the debate. That was recognised by the Bar and the Law Society when they set up the Marre committee.
I believe that what is now set out in the White Paper represents the skilful balance achieved by the Lord Chancellor, and it provides a real opportunity for evolutional change. It will break the logjam without risking breaking up the whole system.
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the past six months have been well spent and that the proposals in the White Paper are greatly preferable to those in the Green Paper? Is he further aware that there has been a genuine exercise in consultation? Is it not only right that, when sensible proposals are made following a Green Paper, there should then be changes?
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend two questions about restrictive practices? In future, will those members of the Bar who wish to accept instructions direct from a lay person be able to do so? Secondly, does my right hon. and learned Friend propose to remove the present restriction that non-contentious probate work can be done only by certain people?
The Attorney-General : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks, particularly because he is a distinguished solicitor. There has been a great deal of work during the past six months and that has led to improvements. I am grateful that my hon. Friend recognises that. On the question of the Bar taking direct instructions from a lay client, the White Paper makes it quite clear that the Bar Council should come forward with proposals in the form of rules of conduct. Those rules, whatever they may be, will need to take account of the views of the advisory committee, and my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and the senior judiciary will have to give their approval. It is not possible to say what will be the outcome of any proposals because the Government no longer propose to hold that matter under their own control.
There are proposals on probate in chapter 6 of the White Paper. Rather than take up the time of my hon. Friend and of the House in dealing with a matter of some technicality, I commend the fairly short proposals to be found in that chapter.
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : In view of the new restrictions on corporate conveyancing, what further assurances can the Attorney-General give rural solicitors in respect of three specific issues? First, how will the regulations on conveyancing costs be policed, and who will be responsible for ensuring fair competition? Secondly, what will be the position in respect of the unequal balance of advertising whereby building societies and banks will be able to promote their services far in excess of the level that
Column 360solicitors in rural areas can afford? Thirdly, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman know that the first port of call for anyone involved in the conveyancing process is banks and building societies? How will people be encouraged to approach solicitors to establish whether their charges are competitive?
The Attorney-General : I shall try to answer briefly the hon. Gentleman's complex questions. Rural solicitors will be advantaged by the White Paper's proposed changes. Lending institutions will be required to set out their costs and to report the charges that they have been making. It will be open to those with an interest in such matters to determine whether those charges genuinely reflect the cost of the services provided.
There may be a disparity in the level of advertising as between the big lending institutions and rural solicitors, but small firms of solicitors have advantages that the big firms have not, including a local clientele and close contact with the communities in which they live and which they serve.
I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's final question when I remember what it was.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : As a non-lawyer and an ordinary consumer who, from time to time, uses the services of the legal profession, I should like to know how many of the protestations against the Lord Chancellor's excellent proposals were made by ordinary citizens wanting access to justice but who are unable to obtain it because of the cost and complexity of the legal system. I doubt very much whether many such people thought to write in with their point of view.
The issue of contingency fees seems to evoke an hysterical response based on experience of the American system, which cannot be extrapolated automatically to suit our personal circumstances. Contingency fees provide a method by which ordinary people can gain access to the law without resort to legal aid. Therefore, they are an extremely important part of the original proposals. The situation in Britain is different from America, because in this country the amount of damages awarded is strictly controlled by the justices, and the cost of conducting the case in the courts can also be controlled to some extent.
The Attorney-General : My hon. Friend is right to say that in this country judges and not juries determine the level of damages. That is a significant difference between the American system and our own. Nevertheless, strong objection to contingency fees was expressed in the consultations. I believe that the Government are right in seeing more disadvantages than advantages in that method of funding litigation.
My hon. Friend spoke about members of the public writing in, and asked how their interests were considered, particularly in respect of the speed and cheapness of legal advice. As I said, the "Civil Justice Review" contains many significant proposals for quicker, cheaper and more efficient provision of legal services.
As to consultation, chapter 1 of the White Paper reveals that 29 per cent. of the 2,000 responses came from members of the public, groups representing consumer interests, educators, and others.
Column 361surrender to a bunch of self-seeking judicial hooligans led by Lord Chief Justice Lane, who is in danger of choking on his own hyperbolic verbosity?
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the conclusion can be drawn that the Government have been deafened and blinded by the cannon of the Bar and Bench but have taken little notice of the grapeshot that has come from the ordinary jobbing solicitor? The argument that he has advanced about ensuring that banks and building societies compete fairly is, in my judgment, so much froth.
We should like to know precisely how that fair competition is to be policed. For instance, will a bank or building society be allowed to add the cost of its fee to a loan, and would that be prevented if the individual saw an independent solicitor? Those questions may seem petty at this point, but they go to the root of the matter. If the independent solicitor is to be destroyed, whether in Ynys Mo n or the Wirral, anyone who thinks that there will be cheaper or more efficient conveyancing should consider the probate fees charged by banks.
The Attorney-General : What my hon. Friend has said about insufficient notice being taken of criticisms made by solicitors is at variance with what has been said this afternoon by some of my other hon. Friends who are solicitors.
Careful attention has been paid to what solicitors have said, and there is genuine anxiety about unfair competition. If, however, my hon. Friend has time to look at paragraph 5.13 of the White Paper he will see that, in addition to the provisions of the code of practice which appear in the Green Papers and are set out in annex D of the White Paper, there is a requirement for a personal interview with the solicitor responsible for the convey-ancing to be offered to the customer. He must be told that independent advice will not be available from the solicitor acting for the lending institution, and that is then drawn to the attention of the client, who will be able to decide whether he wishes to go elsewhere for independent advice. Conflicts of interest must be drawn to the client's attention, and there is also a requirement for the true cost of the conveyancing service to be set out.
Questions of policing are important, and will be a matter for mature and detailed consideration. I believe, however, that the White Paper has gone as far as it reasonably can to meet the anxieties that have been expressed.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Can the Attorney-General explain to someone who is not a lawyer the dividing line between listening carefully to barristers and brewers and giving in completely, and listening to dockers, trade unionists and the former GLC and deciding to ignore all opposition?
The Attorney-General : The distinction is one that the hon. Gentleman would find it very hard to understand. It is based on paying attention to individual circumstances, and establishing whether objectives that everyone agrees are correct are likely to be achieved by the initial proposals or could be better met as a result of listening to what is said in the course of a consultation. That is what the Government have done.
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : Notwithstanding the invective employed in the last two or three questions, the package announced by my right hon. and learned Friend wil be widely seen as a reasoned, balanced judgment on a number of important and difficult issues. May I ask a question about the multidisciplinary practices for solicitors? Once the statutory restrictions have been removed, what will happen if the Law Society and the governing bodies of other professions are either unable or unwilling to reach agreement on the terms on which such practices can be set up? What time scale will be involved before the Director General of Fair Trading can intervene? Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that the evolutionary process that he has described will require the redrawing of professional demarcation lines to reflect the realities of the market place more accurately?
The Attorney-General : I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the proposals, because he speaks as a solicitor. One of the difficulties involved in putting control of such matters into the hands of the professional bodies--with the requirements for the concurrence of the senior judiciary and the taking of advice from an independent advisory committee--is the impossibility of foreseeing the outcome, let alone when the end will be reached.
I am not able to answer to my hon. Friend's question about the time scale ; we shall just have to see how matters develop. I believe, however, that we should welcome the proposal for the professional bodies to be invited to present suggested rules that will take account of the lifting of the present statutory bar--in this instance, on the forming of multidisciplinary partnerships by solicitors. Whether the professional bodies take that opportunity, and when they do so, is not a question with which I can deal today.
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : I welcome the Attorney-General's commitment to the independence of advocates in the higher courts. Will he join me in hoping and, indeed, expecting that the Law Society and the Bar-- as part of their professional rules for independent advocates--will insist on the continuation of the cab rank rule, and that advocates in the highest courts should not take part in the preparation or investigation of evidence for courts save in an independent and advisory capacity?
The Attorney-General : What the hon. and learned Gentleman has said about the cab rank rule is very important, and the Bar has always attached great professional significance to it. What the solicitors and other professional bodies may do in that regard remains to be seen.
As for advocates' involvement in the preparation of cases in the criminal court, the principle laid down in the royal commission chaired by Sir Cyril Philips, which lies at the heart of the Crown prosecution service, provides that there should be a separation. That is a valuable principle.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : My right hon. and learned Friend may remember the views that I expressed in an Adjournment debate. Although I am a barrister, I found it difficult to defend an absolute bar on solicitors being heard in the higher courts. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that this seems to be a sensible compromise based on evolution and self-regulation? Will he confirm that the onus is now placed on
Column 363those who want to argue against solicitors being heard, and that the heads of division will have to bear that in mind if they do not want to be taken to task by a judicial review?
The Attorney-General : I am glad that, given his previous interest in the matter, my hon. Friend sees the value of the evolutionary structure provided in the White Paper. There is an opportunity for change, and the statute will express the intention that change should come. We shall have to wait and see how the structure, with its careful and sensitive balance, will operate in individual cases. An important feature, however, is that individual consideration can now be given by all concerned to separate types of cases, which I believe will make for a much more reliable result.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Once again the Government have retreated in the face of opposition from powerful vested interests. Last week it was drinks all round for the brewers ; today the barristers will be throwing their wigs in the air with joy at the Attorney-General's announcement.
May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman how much his rumoured threat of resignation if the Green Paper proposals were implemented in full influenced the Government's White Paper proposals?
The Attorney-General : Lord Denning once said that he had every Christian virtue except that of resignation. I certainly do not want to investigate such matters, save to say that the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in any newspaper. There is no question of a retreat. I prefer to regard it as an advance : we have advanced much more reliably towards the attainment of the objectives that we have set out. Let me add that the present Government have contributed more to the establishment of competition and the break-up of old, traditional arrangements that did not operate to the advantage of the consumer than any Government that the hon. Gentleman has ever supported, or will ever have the chance to support.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I, too, congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the clever compromise that he has announced today. Further, however, to the answer that he has just given, may I ask him to exemplify the improvements that there will be for people who want to go to the Bar but who want to train first as solicitors? As a result of the White Paper proposals, will access for people coming from other European countries and for people coming from other branches of the profession be easier in the higher courts?
The Attorney-General : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome of the proposals. I believe that there is material in the White Paper that should reassure those who wish to join the Bar straight away and young barristers. The Law Society recognises that as soon as someone has qualified as a barrister, from the time that he or she finishes pupillage, rights of access will be available to all the courts. In the case of solicitors, the Law Society recognises that it would be more appropriate to proceed by stages by reason of the fact that solicitors will not necessarily be specialist advocates. The Bar has also made substantial changes to its arrangements. It has provided
Column 364for the payment of pupils and also for a very much more advantageous environment for young entrants to the Bar. I believe that that in itself, very creditable as it is to the Bar authorities, is a consequence of the White Paper. Much advantage has been achieved, and I am glad that my hon. Friend thinks likewise.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : During the Attorney-General's statement and climb-down from the Lord Chancellor's original proposals, he used the phrase that the new proposals were designed to preserve the viability of the Bar. Does that mean to preserve the huge fees that members of the Bar are used to receiving? Would not a reduction of the astronomical sums that they demand for often indifferent and incompetent work in the courts give greater access to ordinary people who cannot afford the sort of fees that the Bar demands? Is it not an outrageous example of the Government's unjust attitude that they can make a statement about people whose fees, if they were reduced to £100 an hour, would represent a marked reduction in the sums that they earn when they are busy attacking trade unionists, such as NUR members, who are lucky if they earn £100 a week? What is the Minister going to do about reducing the astronomical and parasitic sums that lawyers earn?
The Attorney-General : I have heard all this before. As it happens, I did not use the phrase that these proposals are designed to secure the viability of the Bar. I said that the Government attach great importance to the continued existence of a vigorous and independent Bar. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the effects of competition, as opposed to what is experienced by the consumer when there is a monopoly or a nationalised industry. If one wishes to go to the most fashionable silk, one can expect to pay a very large sum of money. If one wishes to go to the able but as yet very young practitioner, one will pay very much less money. The point about an independent Bar is that 6,000 barristers are available to be chosen by anybody who wishes to secure their services. That is why it is so important that an independent Bar should be preserved. Therefore, for all the malice that the hon. Gentleman brings to bear upon those who provide legal services, I do not believe that there is any material here that can attract sensible criticism along the lines that the hon. Gentleman has just advanced.
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that these sensible proposals will be welcomed not least because of the improved access to justice and to lawyers' advice that will be available to members of the public and also because they will provide the means for the customer to complain about inadequate services? Does my right hon. and learned Friend also accept that the principle of self- regulation that is enshrined in the White Paper and the independence of the legal profession are both very much in the interests of the consumer?
The Attorney-General : I readily acknowledge that. The White Paper uses words to the effect that the Government believe that self-regulation in the professions is the most effective form of regulation in the interests of the consumer. I believe that to be true. I am extremely glad that my hon. Friend regards them as sensible reforms. He also speaks as a solicitor. Since it suits certain Opposition
Column 365Members to say that there has been a climb- down at the expense of solicitors in favour of the Bar, it is very welcome that he, speaking as a solicitor, along with many others this afternoon, welcomes the proposals.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Is the Minister aware that his very presence at the Dispatch Box today suggests that the so-called radical reforming Government have now come to an end? It is one thing to take on the trade union institutions, the education authorities, local government and other aspects of British life, but when it comes to the lawyers versus the people the Minister runs away and gives in to the lawyers. During this parliamentary week one Minister has given in to the brewers who provide the money for the Tory party while another Minister, the Attorney-General, has given in to the lawyers, the very people who launder the money from the brewers and get it to the Tory party.
The Attorney-General : I should be very interested to be present in any court over which the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) presided in a judicial capacity. Considerable fees would have to be demanded before anybody was prepared to appear before him, and very well earned they would be. [Interruption.] I wonder whether I might be allowed to intervene, however briefly? When the
Column 366hon. Gentleman speaks of lawyers versus the people, he might reflect on the fact that without any law and the professionals to serve it there would be no freedom for the people.
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) : The Bar will welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement. Could he assure hon. Members and law students who are studying in our universities and polytechnics that the system that he is devising, under which members of the public will be able to go direct to solicitors who will be able to take the case right through to the High Court, will provide sufficient advantages and encouragement to young people to go to the Bar so that the Bar does not wither?
The Attorney-General : My hon. Friend puts his finger on an anxiety that has been expressed in quite a number of responses to the Green Paper proposals. Since the Law Society recognises that it is appropriate that those who have been called to the Bar should have rights of access immediately to all courts once they have finished their pupillage, any students in the law schools who want to become specialist advocates are likely to opt for the Bar. There might have been some reason for anxiety if that were not the case and if everybody had to proceed by stages. However, since that has been recognised by the Law Society, it has enabled the Lord Chancellor to come forward with a very much simpler scheme for qualification for rights of audience. Therefore, anybody who really wants to be a specialist advocate and who is now a law student should feel that it is entirely appropriate to join the Bar and take his or her chance in that most competitive of professions.
Dr. Cunningham : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before the Secretary of State resumes answering questions, I hope that he can clarify what appears to be a difference between his statement and the document that has now been issued to Members from the Vote Office. In his statement, the Secretary of State said :
"the maximum amount of gain deferred will be £75 per adult." As hon. Members can see, the following statement is made at the top of the tables :
"Safety net allows losses of up to £23 per adult and 47 per cent. of gains subject to maximum of £70 per adult".
The statement does not accord with the information on the tables. They show examples of over £70 per adult. Which is right?
Mr. Lamond : Earlier today, while the Secretary of State was making his statement at the Dispatch Box, I thought that I saw the civil servants in the Box to your right, Sir, hand out a number of copies of the paper to Conservative Back Benchers. I say that I thought I saw that happen--I was not sure. I would not raise the matter with you, Mr. Speaker, if I had been assured by the civil servants that that was not the case.
Naturally, I went to ask the civil servants. When I did so, the Secretary of State and the Minister intervened to say that on no account were those civil servants to answer my question and that the only answer that I could have was from them. I am sorry to say that I am not prepared to accept any reply from the Secretary of State or the Minister. I prefer to have the truth, if possible, from the civil servants.
Mr. Ridley : With regard to the point of order that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) raised, if he looks at the tables he will see that they are for 1989-90, whereas the arrangements that I announced for the safety net are for 1990-91, a year later. The figure of £75 which is the maximum contribution in 1990-91 should be reduced, because of the effects of inflation this year and next year, to a comparable figure. The hon Gentleman will therefore understand why we have used the figure of £70 as the cut-off point in exemplifying the system for the current year as opposed to next year.
The hon. Gentleman asked for details of the national non-domestic rate. The Inland Revenue has not yet completed its revaluation and given the details that we
Column 368need before we can give the hon. Gentleman those figures. They will be made available as soon as possible, and certainly in the autumn. The hon. Gentleman asked also about the standard spending assessment. He is right--that is the variable in this package which we have not yet given the House and which is essential before any authority can calculate what its community charge may be next year. The authorities do not know what assessment we will choose. There is good reason for that, as the hon. Gentleman should know. We have been discussing the standard spending assessment with local authority associations since Christmas. We have been exemplifying all sorts of suggestions that the associations have put forward and asked us to exemplify, some of which the hon. Gentleman quoted. No choice has yet been made, because we should like, if possible, to carry the associations with us on what is the correct assessment from their point of view as well as ours. We cannot be firm until those decisions are taken.
The hon. Gentleman described this settlement as a "cut", which surprises me. It is an 11 per cent. increase in the provision that we made for the current year. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to base his opinions on the budgets for this year, because the current year was a strange year in the history of rate support grant. It was the last year of the system and a number of authorities increased their spending, partly to unwind creative accounting, partly because they were not subject to grant penalties for so increasing their spending and partly for other reasons. It is, therefore, the worst year that the hon. Gentleman could possibly use to base his calculations on the budgets.
The hon. Gentleman asked in what way local authorities could achieve this settlement as the Government suggest. There can be enormous efficiency savings, some of which I mentioned in my statement. The tendering-out process, which has started, is beginning to show ever-greater opportunities for savings, and I think that that is the right answer.
The hon. Gentleman moved on to his constituency and said : "the likely poll tax in Copeland in the next financial year will be about £350 per person."
I have very good news for the hon. Gentleman. The safety-netted charge in Copeland is £196 this year, not £350. The hon. Gentleman is therefore totally wrong--almost by a factor of two--in making that claim. His council has an opportunity to get the amount even lower if it will look at its spending. The hon. Gentleman is a great beneficiary of the safety net that we have produced.
The hon. Gentleman may like to cheer up his constituents by telling them that there will be a 17.1 per cent. reduction in the business rate. He may not want it, but his constituents do.
Several Hon. Members rose--