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Column 410However, they should have added that if we cut education expenditure by 11 per cent. and destroy our children's futures ; if we cut social services expenditure by 7 per cent. and close old people's homes ; if we cut 4 per cent. off the police budget and give the criminals a bonus ; if we cut the highways budget by 19 per cent. and reduce our lifeline for economic viability ; and if we cut the fire service budget by 28 per cent. and put lives at risk, then we could have a poll tax in Cumbria of £239. That is the truth. That is what would have to be done if we are to reach the SSA that the Government specify.
In reality, the Cumbrian councils will not make those cuts. Indeed, the Tories on the county council have said that they will not make such cuts, and neither will the Tories on the district councils. In fact, the Lake district special planning board, over which we have no control and which has put precepts on us, will not make any cuts.
A terrible burden has been placed on the people of my constituency. The poll tax in Carlisle, and probably in most of the south lakeland, will be between £300 and £400 rather than the £239 that the Government suggested.
I have asked for this Adjournment debate for three reasons. First, I want the Minister to change his mind on the SSA for Cumbria. I am sure that that is why Conservative Members are here. Secondly, I wish to place on record the terrible way that the county has been treated not only by the Government but by Conservatives representing constituencies in it. On 18 January, we had a debate and then a vote on a measure that would have given Cumbria and other councils extra money. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and the hon. Members for Barrow and Furness and for Penrith and The Border all voted against it. That is the day that they deserted the people of Cumbria. Thirdly, I want to lay down a marker for the Government and the Minister. They have done it once to Cumbria. If there is any justice, next year they will give us a fair deal with the SSA. 10.41 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory) : My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) wanted to reply to the debate, but, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has been told, my hon. Friend was called away at short notice to Southampton. However, the reason is a happy one. His wife is expecting a baby, and it is arriving early, so it is right that he should be there.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle on securing the debate and on the vigorous way in which he has put the case for a higher spending assessment for Cumbria. This is not the first time that there have been consultations and discussions between Ministers from my Department and representatives from the county council about the SSA. On 6 December last year, a cross-party delegation from Cumbria county council met my hon. Friend the Member for Itchen and put to him many of the points that the hon. Member has raised again tonight. The council put its case clearly and identified a number of aspects of the SSA where it did not do as well as it thought it should. The fact that Cumbria was able to identify so specifically where it
Column 411was not happy with the SSAs demonstrates that, at the very least, the new system is, as we had intended, much more understandable than the complex grant-related expenditure assessments that it replaces. Ministers in my Department have met many other delegations, from local authorities throughout the country, about local authority grant settlement for this year. We have also received many written representations. Nearly every authority from which we heard put forward reasons why it should be treated as a special case and why some element of the SSAs was not appropriate to its circumstances. My righ hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment considered all these sometimes conflicting representations and laid before the House the distribution report which defines how SSAs are calculated. He said :
"Excluding the parish councils, there are 426 local authorities in England, and the more deputations I have received concerning SSAs, the more I have realised that there are at least 424 special cases".--[ Official Report, 18 January 1990 ; Vol. 165, c. 435.] Drawing up a means to distribute standard spending assessments between the 426 authorities is a difficult task. My right hon. Friend has reached a basis that is fair and strikes the right balance between the differing points of view put to him.
The basis of the distribution is in no way arbitrary and does not seek to reward or penalise particular authorities. It is set out very clearly in the distribution report, approved by the House, which gives a formula for each of a number of service blocks. These formulae apply in exactly the same way to all authorities providing particular services. The information which feeds into the formula is derived from nationally available data sources, so that these data are provided on a consistent basis for all authorities.
Mr. Martlew : Can the Minister explain what went wrong with the computer when it decided that Cumbria would receive £90,000 for winter maintenance but that Camden would get £125,000 for the same purpose?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I shall come to that in a minute. It was a useful element of the earlier consultations that such factors were spotted and dealt with. I am entirely satisfied that the settlement that finally emerged was fair and was on a consistent basis for all authorities.
Mr. Franks : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and thereby displaying far more courage than the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who saw fit to use up only 13 minutes of a 30-minute debate, yet chose not to let me intervene.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind two points? First, the hon. Member for Carlisle said that Conservative Members representing Cumbria had deserted the county. Six Members of Parliament represent Cumbria, three Conservative and three Labour. All three Conservatives are in the Chamber tonight to hear the debate ; two of the three Labour Members are not.
Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend to take into account the bloated bureaucracy of county hall. It is a shameful waste of expenditure. Should not the hon. Member for Carlisle direct his fire at his Labour colleagues on the county council instead of at the Government?
Column 412hon. Member for Carlisle is the only Cumbria Labour Member to attend, whereas all three Conservative Members from the area are here. I refer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who has taken time out of his ministerial duties to attend this debate. All three of my right hon. and hon. Friends have consistently and vigorously promoted the interests of their constituencies and the county. That has been more productive than the mistaken allegations made by the hon. Member for Carlisle. If the Labour party ever makes progress in bringing forward alternative proposals for local government finance--we await them with interest--the hon. Member will still have to face up to the problem of how to distribute grant between local authorities. A balance must be struck between making the system reasonably simple and
understandable--by limiting the number of criteria--and including ever more criteria to take account of every conceivable circumstance. The latter system would immediately become too complex and
opaque--features of the system that we have replaced. It became too complex to be understandable even by those who work in local government.
I shall return to the details of the SSAs for authorities in Cumbria, but first I must mention the overall provision in the settlement for 1990-91 for England as a whole. The plain fact is that the total standard spending for 1990-91--the amount that we consider it appropriate for local authorities to spend in total from revenue to provide services--is a full 11 per cent. higher, at £32.8 billion, than the equivalent for 1989- 90.
Perhaps I may now turn to Cumbria itself and put on record that for 1990-91 Cumbria county council told us that a budget of £278 million would, in its terms, be needed to maintain services. This represents a cash increase of more than 11.5 per cent. over its equivalent total expenditure for 1989- 90, and seems to me to be rather more than should be needed simply to maintain services. It does not suggest that the council has made further efforts to find savings. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness pointed out where it could start to look. I hope that, now that it knows its final standard spending assessment and the grant and business rates going to district councils in Cumbria, it will be able to look again and find further savings to benefit its charge payers. In broad terms, every £1 million by which Cumbria county council could reduce its budget could lead to a reduction in community charges in its area of almost £3 per charge payer. All savings that local authorities can make will now feed through, pound for pound, into reductions in the community charge.
As I have already said, my hon. Friend listened very carefully to the points that Cumbria county council made when it came to see him. One of the points that most strongly concerned it was its assessment for highway maintenance--a point raised by the hon. Member for Carlisle also--and in particular for winter maintenance. Several other authorities with climate and geography similar to Cumbria's also told us that the winter maintenance SSAs seemed out of line with expenditure. As I have said, we looked again at this and realised that the formula we published in the consultation documents on 6 November did not adequately reflect my right hon.
Column 413Friend's desired treatment of winter maintenance. On 8 December last we wrote to all local authorities informing them of this. This has been of very considerable benefit to Cumbria county council--a point not made by the hon. Gentleman. Its SSA for highway maintenance in the final figures is £1.587 million higher than the figure published on 6 November. Taken with other changes--in particular, more up-to-date figures for credit approvals--Cumbria county council's SSA is now almost £2.5 million higher than the figures published in November.
Mr. Martlew : The Minister does me a disservice. I indicated that the £90,000 that had originally been given by the Government was increased. But that was not because of anything done by the Minister or any of his minions ; an all-party delegation of councillors from Cumbria had to come and tell the Minister that in the winter it is colder in Cumbria than in Camden, and that Cumbria has many more roads and a lot more housing. Otherwise we would have received £90, 000.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : Cumbria county council was not the only authority to raise that point with my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend. It was as part of the wider consultation procedure that we took a further look at highway maintenance and, in particular, winter maintenance and came to the conclusion that an adjustment was necessary. I wish that the hon. Gentleman were rather less grudging in conceding that we moved very significantly to increase the subsequent SSA. All of this means that the SSA for Cumbria county council is now £246.476 million, which is an increase over its equivalent GRE in 1989-90 of 7.3 per cent. That figure is close to the current rate of RPI inflation, and well above our estimate of the GDP deflator, which is perhaps more relevant to local government spending. Not only does Cumbria have an increase of about the rate of inflation, but its SSA per adult is around the average for shire counties. Its SSA is £643 per adult and the average is £653. Some 19 out of 39 shire counties have lower SSAs per adult than Cumbria.
Column 414That cannot be construed as unfair treatment for Cumbria. The hon. Member for Carlisle stayed away from those figures.
Mr. Jopling : Those figures are all very well, but my hon. Friend must understand that many people other than those in Cumbria are complaining. The way in which the SSAs have been worked out taxes the loyalty of many of the Minister's supporters. As the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said, how can one possibly justify an SSA which says that spending on the fire service must be cut when the Home Office says that spending should be increased?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I had hoped that in the closing minutes of the debate I could come to some of the specific points made. The review of SSAs for the fire service looked at many options. The approach that was finally adopted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has the support of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the fire services.
Although the SSA for an authority is made up of a number of elements, we do not ask authorities to compare their expenditure with those elements service by service. It is the overall comparison between spending and SSA that is important. Local authorities retain discretion to set their overall level of spending and to decide how that should be distributed across the services that they should provide. Cumbria will see a 7.3 per cent. increase between its SSA for 1990-91 and its equivalent SSA for 1989-90 GRE.
I welcome this chance to debate the matter in detail. I hope that I have covered all the points raised by the hon. Member for Carlisle, but I shall write to him on any that I have failed to cover. I am satisfied that the new system of SSAs is simpler and more understandable than the old system of GREs and that the result for Cumbria is fair. It is for Cumbria county council to examine its expenditure plans and to play its part in setting a reasonable community charge.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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