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Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East) : May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1172, which requests the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on the Birmingham children's hospital?
[That this House is seriously concerned at the irresponsible statement which the Minister of State for Health made to the National Association of Health Authorities, that a 900,000 hospital waiting list could be attributed to surgeons not doing as much work as they should ; considers that sweeping statement an affront to the young surgeons at the Birmingham Children's Hospital whose revolutionary techniques have reduced the time babies spend in intensive care from days to hours, giving the surgical team the capability of carrying out 380 operations annually ; and in the light of the Minister's categorical assurance that, regardless of cost, patients would get the treatment they required, believes he should make a statement to the House countermanding the Central Health Authority's restriction, which is putting at risk the lives of 140 babies waiting for open heart surgery, thereby allowing the surgeons to work to their maximum capacity of 380 operations and disband the special committee set up illogically to investigate why a surgeon in the process of saving babies lives exceeded the Central Health Authority's restriction quota.]
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to include in that statement an investigation into the Central Birmingham health authority's threat to dismiss surgeons who exceed the restriction of 320 patients which has been placed on them by that authority.
Mr. Wakeham : On the position of the Birmingham children's hospital, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State referred to a waiting list total of 691,000 in September 1988 and not 900,000. He referred to the findings of a study into 22 districts with problem waiting lists, which showed, among other factors, that some surgeons' workloads were below the level of most surgeons and those recommended by their professional bodies. My hon. and learned Friend drew attention to those other factors, too. The motion's criticism of his speech, which was well received and extensively reported, is entirely unfounded. The vast majority of surgeons work hard and
conscientiously. For example, the planned level of 320 open heart operations at Birmingham children's hospital this year is more than double that of the year 1987-88.
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South) : I support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) for an early debate on the abject surrender by the Labour leader of Bury council to the demand of the National Association of Local Government Officers that the council
Column 529meeting last night be cancelled. Would a debate not show that it is an absolute sham for the Labour party to come here and talk about local government accountability, while at the same time denying local democracy to my constituents?
Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North) : Does the Leader of the House accept that there is a strong case for a debate next week on a major constitutional issue? The Prime Minister should come to the House and explain why, in spite of all the rhetoric of the Bruges speech and subsequent postures, she is allowing the European Commission to prevent the reopening of the most modern shipyards in Europe, which are situated in my constituency, which have buyers who require no public funds or ongoing subsidy and who have immediate ships to build there. Is the Prime Minister to continue to allow that massacre of jobs in a great British industry, and may we have an urgent debate next week?
Mr. Wakeham : I disagree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has spoken and written to the hon. Gentleman about this and has discussed the matter in the House. I repeat that I do not accept the premise of the question.
Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : Can my right hon. Friend help me? During his enunciation of next week's business, I thought I heard that the Opposition had run out of things to debate for the second debate to be launched by them, yet we have had a torrent of suggestions from Opposition Members about what they should debate in Government time. Can my right hon. Friend help the Leader of the Opposition in arriving at a subject for debate next Tuesday? If the Opposition cannot come forward with ideas, should we not impose a subject for debate on them, such as the rail strike?
Mr. Wakeham : I have enough responsibilities without having to choose subjects for Opposition Supply days. My hon. Friend is not necessarily right in saying that the Opposition have not thought of a subject for debate. It is possible that they are having a little quarrel among themselves about which one to choose.
[That this House condemns the extravagant and obscene pay increases awarded to the chairmen of former publicly owned assets since their privatisation by the present Government ; notes that the percentage pay increases of the chairmen of the following companies since privatisation have been for British Aerospace 440.4 per cent. since 1980, British Airports Authority 111.7 per cent. since 1986, British Airways 631 per cent. since 1987, British Gas 91.8 per cent. since 1987, British Steel 28.7 per cent. since 1988, British Telecom 154 per cent. since 1985, Cable and Wireless 113.3 per cent. since 1985, and Rolls Royce 29.6 per cent. since 1987 ; and believes that these increases are an insult to the public and the low paid and show that privatisation results in private profit rather than public service.]
Column 530The motion relates to the pay rises of the chairmen of privatised companies and has been signed by 74 hon. Members. It describes the rises as "extravagant and obscene". Will the Leader of the House condemn those pay increases and arrange for a statement to be made next week on this important matter?
Mr. Wakeham : The Government do not support unjustified pay increases at any level. Pay is for the parties directly concerned to determine, taking into account performance and labour market conditions. It is not for me to comment on any individual case.
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that the publication yesterday of the White Paper on the reform of the legal profession has been greeted with fairly broadly based and widespread support on the basis of the balanced compromise that has been reached. Nevertheless, the House has not yet had an opportunity to debate the important issues involved. Is it my right hon. Friend's intention to give the House the chance for a debate before legislation is brought before us?
Mr. Wakeham : I recognise that it would have been much better if I had found time for a debate. I am still looking to see whether I can find the time for a debate. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall have plenty of opportunity to discuss these important issues.
Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) : May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1187? [That this House expresses concern that the answer given by the Prime Minister to the honourable Member for Wolverhampton South East on 18th July, Official Report, column 218, was in complete contradiction to the advice received by the honourable Member for Wolverhampton South East from a senior Training Agency Manager in Wolverhampton, which indicated that information on Employment Training filled places statistics should not be given to the Member of Parliament, and therefore demands that an investigation be made in order to ascertain on whose authority the instruction was given.] The motion brings into question the answer that the Prime Minister gave to me on Tuesday at Prime Minister's Question Time about the availability of information on employment training. In the light of the answer that the Prime Minister gave me and the evidence that I was flatly refused that information at local level, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to come to the House to make a statement, because the rights and responsibilities of Members of Parliament are at stake? We need some clarification about whether that information can be made available to Members of Parliament.
On the subect of early-day motion 1187, it is very definitely not the Government's policy to withhold from Members of Parliament information about how ET is performing. Evidence for that is the enormous amount of information that is being given in answer to written questions. I am delighted to announce that there are now
Column 531virtually 200,000 trainees on employment training. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to join me in congratulating the programme on its outstanding success.
Mr. James Cran (Beverley) : Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to discuss the vexed problem of child cancer clusters in the United Kingdom, which is a matter of concern not only to the parents and certainly to the children involved, but to every Member of the House of Commons? Such a debate would allow those of us who are interested to assess what the Government are doing--which is not inconsiderable--to assess what other agencies are doing and perhaps also to discuss the fact that there are far too many reports of child cancer clusters in this country, but not enough research into the epidemiology of leukaemia.
Mr Wakeham : I recognise the concern and interest that my hon. Friend has taken in that subject. I understand that Dr. Cartwright's report has been referred for independent medical assessment, the results of which are expected shortly. I cannot comment on Dr. Cartwright's report until I have seen the results. The Government are funding several other studies on the incidence of childhood leukaemia and the Department of Health will continue to monitor closely the results of those studies and of other national and international work.
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : Will the Leader of the House reconsider his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on the business for next week? Next week will be the last week of business before the summer recess. In the past consecutive four weeks we have made temperate requests for a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee on the Health Service in Wales. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that some of us are becoming as intemperate as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who asked a question earlier. We are sick and tired of asking the Secretary of State to come to the House or to the Welsh Grand Committee to debate the emotive subject of the Health Service in Wales. It is no good his having consultations with others in Wales if he is not prepared to answer questions from elected Members of Parliament. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will agree that the Leader of the House--I have always thought of him as a temperate person and I do not share the views expressed by some of his colleagues, and even the Prime Minister, who might be getting the knife out--should give time for such a debate and put pressure on the Secretary of State for Wales, who is sitting round the corner, to come to the House before the end of the Session for that purpose.
Mr. Speaker : Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that. Yesterday that word was bandied about the Chamber. We have strict standards and we do not accuse each other of lying. Will the hon. Gentleman, who is a Front-Bench spokesman, withdraw that?
Column 532some weeks ago on the same issue, I said that the Leader of the House was misleading the House in saying that the matter had not been brought before the Welsh Grand Committee because of the Opposition's objection to it, and you allowed that. It really is shabby for the Leader of the House to come here--
Mr. Wakeham : The subject for debate in the Welsh Grand Committee in June was chosen by the Government's supporters and they properly chose the valleys initiative, an important subject. I hope that the next meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee will take place in October when the Opposition will be able to choose the subject. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales would very much welcome a debate on the Health Service in Wales on that occasion.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Health Service in Wales has been considerably disrupted in the past few weeks by the rail strikes which have meant that our constituents have not been able to get to hospital, but there has not been one word of condemnation from Opposition Members to reflect the views that I have heard from the elderly and the infirm? Will my right hon. Friend use his offices to persuade the Opposition to use their second debate on Tuesday to consider the rail strike so that we can get them off the fence and on to the side of the public, not the strikers?
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the unsatisfactory nature of the law relating to the camping of itinerants in public parks and on public land? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I have a petition signed by more than 370 people living on the Braunstone estate in my constituency? Is he further aware that I have also received complaints from constituents in Western Park, Beaumont Leys and other areas about gipsy encampments in parks, which are a danger to the environment and to public health and order at any time, but especially during hot weather and school holidays?
Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that such a debate covers the question of how permanent sites might be provided so that those people can have the privacy to which they are entitled, well away from others who are also entitled to privacy and peace? In the meantime, will he please refer the matter to the Law Officers and the Home Secretary so that the law may be recognised and the police and local authorities given the powers necessary to deal with this growing and very serious problem?
Mr. Wakeham : I recognise the difficulty of the problem especially as, from time to time, my constituency suffers from it. The Department of the Environment also has an interest in the matter. I know of no proposals for changes in the law. However, it is a perfectly sensible subject for the hon. and learned Gentleman to raise and to which a Minister can respond. I shall refer his concern to the appropriate Ministers.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : Will my right hon. Friend think again about his answers to my many hon. Friends who asked for a debate or statement on the rail strike? Is he aware that it is causing enormous inconvenience throughout the country, but especially to commuter constituencies such as mine? Is not the National Union of Railwaymen, apparently supported by the Opposition, depriving many people of their living on strike days? They cannot get to work and so have to stay at home and get no pay. That is a very serious matter because individuals and families are suffering greatly. Is it not time that the House debated the matter and flushed out the whole question?
Mr. Wakeham : Refusing, or simply being unable, to provide time for a debate in the near future does not in any way lessen the concern that I share with my hon. Friend about this matter. Strikes are always damaging. They do harm to businesses and services and are bound to put jobs at risk, as well as causing great inconvenience to commuters. There is no need for a debate on this matter because the issue is quite clear. The NUR should take the same line as the other unions, accept the generous offer made to it and return to work.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : The Leader of the House said that he had nothing to add about the difficult question of the setting up of a Scottish Select Committee. Is he aware that the Scottish people have a great deal more to say, as was shown in the recent European elections when Scotland was made a Tory-free zone? If the right hon. Gentleman is genuinely concerned to tackle undemocratic practices, when will he change the Government's undemocratic stance and announce that Scotland is to have the Select Committee that it not only demands, but which is its right under the Standing Orders of this House?
Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman has a weird idea of democratic arrangements. The House determined that that Committee should not be set up and there was a majority for the line that I am taking. The hon. Gentleman is in the minority. Nevertheless, I am seeking a way to set up a Scottish Affairs Select Committee, and I shall continue to do so although, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, certain difficulties are involved.
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen) : Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the Welsh Development Agency, a matter raised by several Members during Welsh questions on Monday, and to which there was an unsatisfactory response from the Secretary of State for Wales?
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 1194, which draws attention to our concern about this matter?
[That this House expresses its deep concern on the future of the Welsh Development Agency ; notes that legal, press and information services have already been contracted-out ; seeks clarification as to whether the growth of private sector funding will infringe the statutory obligation of the Welsh Development Agency ; expresses its deep concern that discussions have taken place between the Finance Director of the Welsh Development Agency and the privatised National Freight Corporation ; calls on the Secretary of State to clarify the reasons for the week-long meeting which he did not when asked by honourable Members during Welsh
Column 534Questions on 17th July ; expresses serious concern at the detailed discussions between a leading merchant bank and officers of the Welsh Development Agency ; can only conclude that the Government is undertaking a policy of privatisation by stealth ; further, expresses its deep concern that the Secretary of State for Wales claims not to have known that such important and detailed discussions on the future of the Welsh Development Agency were taking place ; asks why, if a number of Welsh Office officials knew of the proposals as the Secretary of State admitted during Welsh Questions, they did not come to the attention of the Secretary of State ; and also asks how many other radical alterations to bodies under his reponsibility are being planned, which he currently does not know about.]
We are aware that the WDA is contracting out legal services, publicity and information. It has had talks with the National Freight Corporation about privatisation and about how that company was privatised. There have been long discussions with Barclays de Zoete Wedd, the merchant bank, and the WDA in Cardiff. During the past six months there have been many comings and goings that make us suspect that there is a policy of privatisation by stealth. May we please have a debate on these matters?
Mr. Wakeham : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has already answered a large number of parliamentary questions on that subject, and I have nothing to add. There are no plans to privatise the Welsh Development Agency, but, as my right hon. Friend told the House, the agency is perfectly free to explore any ways of bringing more private sector funding into its activities. If it does so, the Government would expect the agency to hold whatever discussions are appropriate with outside interests and advisers.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Leader of the House reconsider his decision on a debate about the activities of Lady Porter and Westminster city council.? Is he aware that as a result of last night's "Panorama" programme on BBC television, the public are demanding that the matter be raised in Parliament? If Parliament is not for debating matters of extreme public interest, what is it for? I have a special interest in the matter, because of the way in which the Government and the Tories of the time treated my brothers and their colleagues on Clay Cross council, who did nothing other than refuse to raise rents. The Government were also prepared to surcharge Lambeth and Liverpool councillors. Why is it that there is one law for Tory councillors and for friends of the Prime Minister such as Lady Porter, and another law for Labour councillors? The only redeeming feature is that there is a strike at Westminster city council and that the men and women on strike there are, thank God, stopping Lady Porter getting rid of more taxpayers' and ratepayers' money today.
Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman may wax indignant, but whatever may or may not have happened to his brothers and to others in the past, it was the result of the due process of law and not of trial by television, which the hon. Gentleman seems to support. If anything needs to be investigated, it will be investigated by the proper authorities--not in the manner that the hon. Gentleman seems to think is appropriate.
Is the Leader of the House aware that 15 years ago troops from the Turkish mainland invaded the beautiful island of Cyprus? Is he further aware that my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) have a particular interest in that event? Is he aware that in the past few hours there has been a serious incident in which more than 100 people were arrested by the Turkish authorities at the green line--females, on the Greek Cypriot side? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware also that I tried and tried, on behalf of my friends, to obtain information about the 1,600 people who disappeared during the 1974 invasion? Will the Leader of the House, in the last week before the recess, get a Foreign Office Minister to the Dispatch Box, to see whether he can help the Greek Cypriots, who are in desperate need?
Mr. Wakeham : I cannot promise that, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman--quite exceptionally, because such a matter is not usually noted from this Dispatch Box--that the all-party Cyprus group is currently meeting in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room and that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office is addressing it on that very subject. If the hon. Gentleman nips round there quickly, he might be in time to hear her.
Mr. Speaker : I have a short statement to make about arrangements for the debates on the motion for the Adjournment that will follow the passing of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill on Thursday 27 July. Right hon. and hon. Members should submit their subjects to my office not later than 9 am on Wednesday 26 July. A list showing the subjects and the times of the debates will be published later that day.
Normally, the time allotted to each debate will not exceed one and one half hours, but I propose to exercise discretion, to allow one or two debates to continue for rather longer--up to a maximum of three hours. Where identical or similar subjects have been entered for debate by different right hon. and hon. Members whose names are drawn in the ballot, only the first name will be shown on the list. As some debates may not last the full time allotted to them, it will be the responsibility of right hon. and hon. Members, if they are not to miss their turn, to keep in touch with developments.
I remind right hon. and hon. Members that on the motion for the Adjournment of the House on Friday 28 July, up to eight right hon. and hon. Members may raise with Ministers subjects of their own choosing. Applications should reach my office by 10 pm on Monday next. A ballot will be held on Tuesday morning, and the result will be made known as soon as possible thereafter.
From April 1990, as the House will know, the new local government finance system will be in operation. Domestic rates will have been replaced by the community charge ; there will be a national non-domestic rate with a uniform rate poundage throughout the Principality, and there will be a new grant system. In order to assist local authorities in making their plans for the first year of the new system, I am today announcing my proposals for the overall level of support towards local authority revenue expenditure in Wales from grants and non-domestic rates.
My proposals must be seen in the context of local authority spending in 1989-90. For the current year Welsh councils have budgeted to spend £1,850 million--some £42 million, or 2.3 per cent., above the Government's plans. This year-on-year increase in spending of 8 per cent., although closer to plans than that of their English counterparts, is nevertheless too high.
I have taken account of the local authority associations' representations on the pressures for spending in 1990-91--I discussed their views with them in the forum of the Welsh consultative council on local government finance on 12 July--but I have also had regard to the need for authorities to seek and achieve efficiency savings, taking steps to control staffing costs and restricting budget increases to affordable levels.
In the light of all those considerations, I propose that for 1990-91 the total of standard spending--under the new system, this is the amount that I consider appropriate for local authorities to spend in order to deliver a standard level of services--should be set at £2, 109 million. That is an increase of £182 million on the comparable figure for 1989-90, and represents an increase of £140 million on authorities' budgeted expenditure for the current year.
I propose to set the level of aggregate external finance--which comprises three component parts : revenue support grant, the distributable amount of national non-domestic rates and certain specific grants towards current expenditure--at £1,733 million. That is an increase of 8.6 per cent. on the equivalent figure for 1989-90, adjusted for changes in functions. In the autumn I shall announce details of the division of aggregate external finance into its three component parts.
Let me now deal with the consequences of the proposals for the individual community charge payer in Wales. The components of aggregate external finance, taken together, will represent some 82 per cent. of total standard spending. After account is taken of community charge benefits, only 15 per cent. of local government spending will be financed by community charges. That broadly maintains the relative shares in the present financial year. The community charge for standard spending in Wales will be £175, only £4 more than the average rate bill per adult in 1989-90. That reflects my commitment that no resources would be lost to Wales as a result of the change to the new system. Charge payers will quickly understand the reasons for variations from this figure, which--subject to the transitional arrangements that I shall describe in a
Column 538moment--is achievable by each and every authority that spends in line with the Government's standard spending assessment.
I have considered again the extent to which the effects on charge payers of the change to the new system should be phased in through an appropriate "safety net". In the light of the favourable settlement that I am proposing, I have decided that it would not be right to freeze the position as it was in 1989-90 by using a full safety net : that would delay the benefits of the greater accountability which the new system brings. Instead I propose to introduce a safety net which will move us substantially towards the new system in the first year. That means that--on the basis of present estimates--in 1990-91 in the Rhondda, for example, charge payers would contribute some £50 less than the Welsh average of £175 towards their council's services. The arrangement will also benefit charge payers in areas such as Newport and Cardiff, who should contribute only around £20 to the cost of the safety net. The proposals strike the right balance between protection for those who, in moving to the new system, face the largest increases, and reasonable contributions from those who stand to gain.
I will inform the House about the position of individual authorities following further consultation with the local authority associations about grant distribution arrangements, including the precise details of the safety net. I agree with the associations that it would be misleading to produce illustrative figures for 1990-91 in advance of that.
Mr. Walker : I will speak very slowly, as the next passage is of great importance. It concerns the arrangements we have made to assist those on low incomes. Those on the lowest incomes in Wales who qualify for income support will be better off with the community charge than they were under the old rating system, because income support payments will include an amount--which will be the same throughout Great Britain--to help pay the community charge. Owing to the low levels of community charges in Wales, people would actually be better off than they would if they received a 100 per cent. rebate.
A couple on income support paying the community charge for standard spending of £175 each would get the maximum rebate of 80 per cent. leaving them with a combined liability of £70. To help them meet this their income support will have been uprated by an annual amount equivalent to £119.60, leaving them £49.60 in pocket. We estimate that over 300,000 community charge payers in Wales--about 14 per cent.--will qualify for the maximum assistance.
I will be bringing forward more detailed arrangements for all aspects of the settlement in the autumn, following discussions with the local authority associations. But the proposals I have announced today offer charge payers in Wales the prospect of community charges averaging £175 provided that their councils take responsible spending decisions. They offer authorities--particularly those who seek and achieve the efficiency gains which are available--a fair and realistic framework within which to set their budgets for 1990-91. If they budget sensibly, the rewards are self-evident.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside) : If the new system is so wonderful, why the eleventh hour acrobatics to alter and improve it? Are they not a tacit admission of its unpleasantness by delaying its impact?
Will the Secretary of State explain why there appears to be a shortfall on the aggregate external finance figure? We note a paucity of the detailed examples that were provided yesterday. On that basis the Secretary of State has made a defective statement. Has not the right hon. Gentleman made inadequate provision for inflation? With the RPI at 8.3 per cent. and pay awards well over 7 per cent., the Government's estimate of the effects of inflation this year is likely to be about 3 per cent. out at outturn. Therefore, many of our councils are cheated of a lot of money.
The statement fails to take full account of the high interest rates on local councils' capital charges. Regarding the Rhondda exemplification, of which the right hon. Gentleman made much in his statement, the House should know that professional opinion is that the right hon. Gentleman is engaged in a doubtful conjuring of the figures. A current ratepayer in the Rhondda faces an average bill of £183. An average poll tax payer in the Rhondda will be paying £50 less than the Welsh average, which amounts to £125. A couple will therefore be paying £250 which is considerably more than £183, and that is before the safety net is removed. The position next year will be bad and in future it will be even worse.
Does the Secretary of State realise that the cost of preparing for and eventually running the poll tax will be at least double that of the current system? Welsh councils expect millions of pounds more to help them over that hurdle.
The statement is a wretched milestone in the history of local government. Does not the poll tax represent reaction, not reform? It is a medieval tax which will hurt ordinary families in Wales. Is it not opposed by almost everyone, except the Government? Will not the poll tax shift the burden of local services on to those least able to pay? Ultimately, the poll tax will hammer the valley communities. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to come here with a masking operation, but will not the poll tax bite most ferociously at the end of the transitional period?
This is a confidence trick. Did not the Scottish Office underestimate its eventual poll tax by 12.5 per cent.? Today we have heard fine words and clever packaging, but it is shaming to see a Secretary of State for Wales as an advocate of a poll tax. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what he proposes goes against the grain of Wales's concept of fair play? Where is the Government's mandate for this pernicious tax?
What of teacher shortages? Will there be additional funds to secure more modern language, science and maths teachers and more teachers in Welsh? Where are the additional major resources to cover the financial burdens of the Education Act 1988 and the implementation of the national curriculum?
This is the 10th year that a Conservative Secretary of State has stood before the House to make a statement on local government finance. The Government's record has been shabby, with a 12 per cent. real terms cut in money for our councils. In return for tax cuts to the rich, we have poorer services to our local communities, a demoralised education service, a housing crisis and social services stretched to breaking point.
Column 540We reject the poll tax even now. Will the right hon. Gentleman withdraw this unwanted tax?
Mr. Walker : I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) on the thunderous cheers that he received at the end of those remarks. It is easy for someone in his position to say, "What a dreadful thing is being imposed on us." Wales is having 85 per cent. of all local government expenditure being financed by the Government and only 15 per cent. being put on the community charge. That would be the envy of England and Scotland, yet the hon. Gentleman says, "How terrible it is."
Let us consider what the local government associations have said about the talks and so on and about how disappointed they are at the figures. On every occasion--certainly in my lifetime, and I am sure the same is true of the hon. Gentleman--all local authorities under all Governments have been disappointed at the figures. I am sure that in the last few years they have been disappointed while we have been in power, when the support to local authorities has gone up by only a small amount in real terms, and I admit that.
But how they must have felt when the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside was a Minister at the Welsh Office I cannot imagine. In 1976-77, the figure went down by 4 per cent. in real terms ; in 1977-78 it went down by 8 per cent. ; and in 1978-79 it went down in real terms by 4 per cent. If they are unhappy now, they must have been in tears when Labour was last in office. I suggest, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman should not concentrate on that aspect. In terms of the retail prices index, it must be remembered that we are referring to the year 1990-91 and that we cannot be certain what the rate of inflation will be at that time. The hon. Gentleman referred to interest rates in relation to inflation. With house mortgage interest rates, it stands at 8.3 per cent., and without them it is 6 per cent.
In terms of local authority interest rates, a great volume of borrowing has been borrowing long, so the average increase in their interest rates is far lower than, for example, the average for house purchase. Thus, without that aspect they are much nearer the 6 per cent. than the 8.3 per cent. now.
I am the first to admit that the standard community charge, with the safety net, will mean an increase for the Rhondda. But I am glad to say that next year Rhondda will remain the lowest community charge authority in Wales-- and, if it were in England, it would be the lowest community charge authority in England.
We appreciate that there are many people on low incomes in the Rhondda. The benefits under the rebate system will mean that in the coming year, with the safety net, the average payer in the Rhondda will obtain £72 more in rebate and service charge than he or she will pay in community charge. Therefore, instead of a rebate of 100 per cent. under the rating system, they will be getting a rebate of 130 per cent. under the new system. I hope that hon. Members will ensure that the people of Rhondda are aware of those benefits.
I am glad to say that it is estimated that businesses in the valleys will benefit as a result of the change in the business rate by about £10 million a year.
Column 541aware that there will be admiration and amazement throughout Wales at the skill with which he has managed to screw so much money out of the Treasury? There will be no advantage, indeed the reverse, for the poorest, though, and I am not clear what the position is for those just above the income support level. He has also managed to shoot the fox of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). Is my right hon. Friend also aware that, by his skill in so lightening the burden, he has gone a long way to demolish the argument for the community charge--that it brings home to people the cost of local services?
Mr. Walker : It will mean that any local authority that involves itself in extravagant expenditure will hit community charge payers in that locality. There will, therefore, be a degree of discipline. I am pleased to say that in Wales there is no doubt that low-income families will benefit from the change in the system.
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) : Is the Secretary of State aware that, after all the fiddling and fudging, working people in Aberfan, Merthyr Vale and New Tredegar in my constituency, who are home owners but who do not receive benefits and are not likely to get rate rebates of the kind he mentioned, will face almost a doubling of their present rates bills as a result of the community charge?
Mr. Walker : In those areas people will still have the enormous advantage of 85 per cent. of all local government expenditure being met by the Government. Because of that, the people the hon. Gentleman has just described, who are on low incomes and not able to take advantage of rate rebates, will be better off. The average for the community charge in Wales will be £175, compared with £275 in England and, last year, £280 in Scotland. The people of Wales should realise that they are considerably better off.
Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn) : Is it not very revealing that, when my right hon. Friend reached the section in the statement that concerns the dramatic benefit that it will bring to the 300,000 people in Wales who are on income support, it met with silence from Opposition Members? Is it not also revealing that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) is as churlish as usual, and cannot pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for what he has done for those who are in real need in our community? It is a tremendous achievement and the Secretary of State deserves our thanks for that.
Returning to the local situation in north-east Wales, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer). Does my right hon. Friend agree that Delyn and Rhuddlan borough councils could end up with community charges that are significantly higher than the Welsh average, because Clwyd, which is under Labour control, is a high-spending, improvident and chaotically managed county council?
Mr. Walker : As my hon. Friend says, during the past year Clwyd county council increased its expenditure, compared with its budgets and estimates, which was out of line with the majority of Welsh local councils. I hope that it will recognise that, if it continues to do so, that will be a considerable disadvantage to community charge payers in its county. I hope that it will budget and spend prudently during the coming year. As my hon. Friend says,
Column 542this is a total settlement which is of considerable advantage to the lowest income people in Wales. I am as surprised as he is at the Labour party's reaction to the statement.