Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Leighton : It is true that we have a large number of refugees-- some 7,000 Somalis, as I mentioned previously. I visited one primary school recently, where there were over 20 home languages in one class. I also mentioned Langdon school in my constituency, which has done extremely well. In its reception area, there is a list of over 20 home languages. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has said, no one can say that we are not willing to do our best for refugees, but that presents extra challenges, for which there should be some financial recompense. Despite that additional difficulty, we have to spend less on education than the Government say we should in their SSA, because we have to spend more than £10 million on capital financing and more than £10 million on homelessness than we get in SSA. Can that be right? Can Ministers be proud of that? I want them to visit my borough, talk to the teachers and justify that situation. It cannot be right. I hope that Ministers will take that matter on board, and will be willing to discuss education with the borough's teachers. We must have new needs indices, because they too penalise Newham. Newham has been relegated. The Secretary of State said that Newham was fifth in the country. That is not true. It was fifth last year, and it is now 10th. The Under-Secretary knows that his Department is drafting indices with Manchester university which put Newham first. One of Newham's especial objections is that the lack of bathrooms or inside WCs, which was previously required in the all-ages social index, has been removed. That is an example of deprivation. Many houses in Newham do not have those facilities, yet the requirement is being dropped from the new index. Once again, that penalises us. Expenditure data in the SSA are used to measure the need to spend. From 1990 to 1993-94, that measure was based on the 1987 expenditure data. However, that has been changed this year, and we are now going to use 1990-91. It is unjust to Newham to use that year, because, in that year, Newham cut its expenditure by £7.6 million in

Column 1082

the face of anticipated rate-capping. That year is compromised as a basis because of the expenditure constraints in that year. I hope that Ministers will re-examine that.

I have mentioned the four areas which must be re-examined to give justice and a fairer deal to Newham. I hope that Ministers and officials will consider my comments seriously. I hope that officials in the Department will read what I have said and consider it for future years.

Newham has great potential. It is anxious to work in partnership, but the Government must prove to be a better partner than they are being at the moment.

6.50 pm

Sir Peter Fry (Wellingborough) : I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) will forgive me if I do not follow his argument. We have heard rather a lot about Newham today, and perhaps it is time to move on to other parts of the United Kingdom. No doubt the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), thought that he gave a very clever speech. All he proved was that he has excellent research assistants. His speech seemed to be composed entirely of quotations from other people. It was very short on Labour party policy-- except perhaps that relating to removing the cap, with the typical Labour contempt for the problems of local council tax payers.

Over the years that I have been a Member of this place, I am afraid that I have had to make representations several times about central Government funding for local government in Northamptonshire. I have always done that on behalf of the county council. This year, the problem is somewhat different.

Hon. Members who represent the county find themselves in a difficult situation, and I would like to explain briefly why. As we all know, on 2 December last year, the provisional revenue support grant settlement was announced. It apparently became clear to the present county leaders that Northampton was going to be very badly affected.

Unfortunately, there was no communication from the county leadership to the county's Members before the consultative period ended on 10 January. Therefore, we as a group had no opportunity or information to enable us to intervene or make proposals during the consultation period.

None the less, the new Labour leadership managed to put a case together, and asked for, and obtained, a hearing on 12 January with the Minister for Local Government and Planning. I want to assure the House that the county's Members would have been willing, and indeed anxious, to take action at that time. Parliament had already resumed after the Christmas recess and alas, as we all know, we have been in almost constant attendance ever since.

It is also interesting to note that, on that same day--12 January-- Northampton's education department issued a letter to all head teachers and chairmen of governors announcing that there would be a cut in the most sensitive area of all : the age-weighted pupil unit. That is the money given directly to schools on a per-pupil basis, and it was a cut of £3 million.

That cut seemed to run contrary to what the chairman of the education committee stated on that day. He said that his policy was one of protecting front-line services as much as possible. What was worse was that he then had the gall to

Column 1083

call on the county's Members to attack the core problem. At that time, he knew--or he should have known--that the details of that core problem had not even been communicated to us.

School governors were urged to hold meetings. They were told to write to their local MPs and to persuade parents to demand action. All that took place without any direct contacts between the county council leadership and me or my colleagues. Indeed, my first intimation of the extent of the problem occurred when I received a lobbyist, a member of UNISON, the county council's local trade union, on 18 January. That was six days after the papers were issued to head teachers and governors.

That trade unionist gave me a summary of the meeting that took place between the county leaders and the Minister on 12 January. Irrespective of one's political affiliations, I suggest that many people would agree that that was hardly an ideal way to conduct affairs between the leadership of the county council and those who have the honour to represent it in this House.

I have listed those events because, like some of my colleagues, I fear that we have been deliberately set up for purely party political motives. Historically, we have always supported the county leadership, be it Conservative-controlled or Labour-controlled, to do our best for the people of the county and to try to keep the tax at a reasonable level.

I want to make it quite clear that, although we may be angry about the way we have been treated, that does not prevent us from being concerned about the way in which the county's SSA has been calculated this year. To begin with, it is necessary to set out the county's basic case. That case is fairly simple.

If we consider the movement of population between 1981 and 1991, the latest year for which figures are available, we see that, while the population of England and Wales was virtually stagnant and increased by only 0.08 per cent., the population of Northamptonshire rose by 8.2 per cent. Our school population dropped by only 10.2 per cent., while it dropped by 15.9 per cent. in the rest of the country.

Perhaps even more significantly, in the zero to five age group, national figures show a rise of 10.9 per cent., while ours increased by 15.2 per cent. Therefore, I submit that, on population grounds alone, it is at least somewhat surprising to discover that our SSA shows a reduction of 0.3 per cent. for 1994-95. Ours is the only shire county in which there is a reduction.

It has been suggested that previous county councils were never over- generous in education provision. The current average primary expenditure per pupil in England and Wales is £1,632.

Northamptonshire is spending £1,555. For secondary level, the national figure is £2,310, while Northamptonshire is spending £2,139. In the expenditure league tables, we are 32nd of 39 shire counties on primary school expenditure, and 28th on secondary school expenditure.

One does not have to be a public relations genius to be able to whip up strong feelings based on a presentation of the figures to which I have just referred. However, I will refer later to another issue that is very relevant to those figures.

Column 1084

Many people in the county are saying to themselves, "What's gone wrong?" My first reaction to what has happened was to remember the story of the lonely man who went to a dating agency and asked for a young, beautiful, exotic female with slim legs and red hair. He discovered to his horror that the computer dated him with a cockatoo. The problem with the system is that one can feed the information in, but one does not necessarily get the result one expects.

From my discussions with the Department, I now understand that other factors in the calculation outweigh our population increase. I understand that there have been changes in the weighting of payments to take account of the number of children of single-parent families and the number of families on income support and of ethnic minorities--quite apart from changes concerning homelessness, unemployment and long-term sickness.

It seems to me, however, that Northamptonshire may well be losing because it has become slightly more affluent. One accepts that a more affluent county should have to bear a greater proportion of its essential costs, but the increasing population, by causing a reduction of the allowance for sparsity of population, has resulted in a wider gap, and this has been very damaging in the current year. I turn now to the one aspect of the county's current education spending that has been common to the Conservative and Labour leaderships in recent years. Northamptonshire is one of the counties that have for some years been educating all their rising fives. This has had a considerable effect on the primary-sector budget. It takes about £10 million to make provision for all children to go to school after they reach their fourth birthday. Thus, the average cost per pupil is brought down, as under-fives expenditure is not recognised by the Government on the ground that it is purely voluntary, and no grant is forthcoming. That complication indicates a very crucial fact--that, no matter what the budget is, the county council decides its own priorities. If the county is to continue its policy of educating the rising fives, the next 12 months will undoubtedly be very difficult indeed.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : I--like all my

Northamptonshire colleagues, I believe--share my hon. Friend's plea for a fair deal. We are deeply concerned about this matter and are confused by the fact that a county with a rising population and an increasing number of children should receive a lower grant, even at a time of low inflation.

Sir Peter Fry : It is clear that, if the standard spending assessment were based merely on the number of schoolchildren, the result would be different. The SSA and the way in which the level of grant is worked out are now so complicated and so continually refined, and there are so many other factors--to some of which I shall return in a moment--that the increase in school population does not automatically ensure that funds come from central Government. That is the terrible truth that we in Northamptonshire have discovered this year. In a moment, I shall suggest how we might address it. On the basis of all the discussions that I have had, I believe that, no matter how we look at it, the Government's calculation was absolutely correct. It may not suit Northamptonshire--we may be the odd one out--but there is not much doubt that the figures that were fed in and those

Column 1085

that came out were correct. I should make it clear, however, that I do not regard the result as at all satisfactory-- in fact, it is far from satisfactory.

For the reason to which I referred at the beginning of my speech-- involvement only after the end of the consultation period--I regretfully accept that at this stage very little can be done about the amount of SSA, and therefore about the grant that we shall receive for 1994-95. I accept that any formula change at a late stage would affect not just Northamptonshire but all other local authorities, with the confusion and delay in settlement that would be caused.

I should like to deal with two matters at which I hope the Government will look carefully over the next few months--certainly before this time next year.

First, at present, the date on which we take the number of children at school for the purposes of grant calculation is 1 January. I suggest that that is far too early, and that it certainly does not take into account areas where the school population starts to rise. From the under-fives figures that I have provided, it is very clear that we shall soon have a considerable increase in the primary education needs of the county.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confer with the Department for Education to see whether the date could be changed to 30 September. That would have the very real advantage of including part of the school year in which the financial year starts at the beginning of April. The Government say that they want to use up-to-date figures. Here is a way in which that could be achieved. The second matter at which I hope the Government will look carefully has been mentioned by the Secretary of State and by other hon. Members tonight--the area cost adjustment. To those of us who have been members of county councils since this adjustment has been in force, this is not a new Department of the Environment problem. What we do not understand is why, no matter how worthy the adjustment, and however necessary it is in London and other inner-city areas, there should be such disparate figures for adjoining counties. Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire--the last two hardly less affluent than Northamptonshire-- receive more than £20 million extra in grant. I do not expect the Government suddenly to give us parity with those counties, but there should not be such a stark contrast between adjoining counties with very similar standards.

Surely this allowance should be revised, the support varied or tapered, so that it is reduced as one moves further and further from London. Surely that would be better than the current sharp break. I submit that, nationally, it would be much more equitable. It would remove the grievance of my constituents about their being unfairly penalised. This is a matter that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department must consider over the next few months.

Because of the complications that have been introduced at such a late stage, we can only make these representations tonight. I shall not withhold my support in the Division Lobby, but the people of Northamptonshire would not forgive me if I were to fail to tell the Government that we feel that there must be some improvement in one or both of these areas before we come to next year's settlement. If there is no improvement, support will become more problematical. In the meantime, the county council will have to live within the budget that has now been fixed. However, the arbitrary reduction of the age-weighted pupil unit is the worst possible option that the county council could have

Column 1086

taken. It may lead to a number of redundancies in the teaching profession. When one realises that there may be a need for increased redundancy provision, one sees the weakness in the policy. The truth is that, because of the increase in the provision for redundancy, a cut in the AWPU figures will produce a much smaller gain than we had thought.

There is another element. When I suggested to the leader of the council that implementing some of his election pledges on extra expenditure could be put off this year, I was met with a refusal. In other words, the current council leadership are saying that they are prepared to see teachers' jobs sacrificed to their social doctrine or--dare I say it?--their own pig- headedness. That is the attitude of the county council, and I hope that the teachers and unions will take note of it.

Many other savings could have been made. I pay credit to the Conservative opposition on the council, who presented an alternative budget which would have reinstated the AWPU payment in full. It would have gone further than that--it would have reduced the level of the total council tax that is required, and the county would not need to spend up to the capping limit.

I suggest that, in the interests of both our schoolchildren and county taxpayers, it is a tragedy that the leadership of the council ignored that alternative strategy, refusing to consider even a part of it. I can understand the concern of many parents, teachers and governors, but we must make the point that it is the county council, not the Government, that sets the priorities within the budget available.

What I am asking for is a clear commitment that the present system, refined and complemented as it has been, is not perfect, that some change is desirable and that that will be considered over the coming year. In all local authority finance matters, there must be a balance between the level of service and the cost to the taxpayer. On both counts, we shall be losing in Northamptonshire in the coming 12 months.

The loss of grant, plus the political decisions of the ruling group, make for a bleak year. I am making a public plea today for a return to the traditional co-operation between the county's MPs and the county leadership, regardless of their politics. That would be a first and useful step forward. But an encouraging response from my hon. Friend the Minister tonight would do us much more good, and give us real hope for the future.

Our opponents have claimed that Northamptonshire has been punished for electing a Labour county council. Of course that is totally untrue, but the only way of proving it untrue by actions is in the hands of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I look to them to consider our case, and to make us somewhat happier when we debate these matters next year.

7.11 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) : I hope that my remarks will help to persuade the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry) that he should use his vote in line with his conscience and what appear to be the wishes of his constituents and join the Opposition in the Noes Lobby. Certainly, it seems to be important that we should take real action now not simply to talk about this issue but to persuade the Government that none of the three reports should be approved.

Column 1087

The Government introduced the council tax originally to overcome their unpopularity over the poll tax. It was a fairly desperate move. I do not believe that it has worked, and it will be seen not to have worked even more this year as a result of the huge increases in council tax levels which are liable to take place in certain parts of the country at least. Such increases are due to the fact that transitional relief has nearly ended. In my authority, for example, the only places that will be left with any transitional relief are those houses in bands G and H--the top two bands. One might think that if relief is to be given to anyone, it should be given to the poorest members of the population. In practice, what is happening in my authority is that relief will be given only to the richest members of the population--those who own houses in the top two bands. That is a topsy-turvy policy if ever there was one.

External support for local authority funding will be increased, but not by as much as SSAs. Because SSAs are becoming not simply the maximum but the minimum amount of money to be raised and used by local councils almost everywhere, that means in effect that council tax payers will be paying much more in council tax. Certainly, the increases will be greatly in excess of inflation.

We must make it clear as far as we can to all and sundry that those huge increases are directly to the account of the Government, not local authorities. Especially hard hit will be those who are currently appealing against council tax bandings which are too high. The reason, as I found out in the reply to a written question that I put down recently, is that some of those people will still be waiting for their appeals to be decided three years after they started paying council tax. In some cases, when their appeals are decided they may be owed £500 or £600. If that is the case, that money will eventually be paid to them but without interest. It is interesting that the Government claim interest on unpaid national taxes after only a few months but refuse to repay overpayments of council tax with interest even after three years.

The Conservative party will suffer in the local elections this year as a result of the big increases in council tax. It is interesting that the special grants that the Government are making to reduce their losses will affect some of the largest and most notorious Conservative-run county councils and local councils. Of course, very few areas where the Liberal Democrats are in charge will gain anything from the special grants.

As has already been said, there is one interesting aspect of the Minister's statement which is welcome--his promise to review the area cost adjustments. There can be no sense at all in giving a much bigger area cost adjustment on the east side of, for example, the Dorset-Hampshire border than is given on the west side. There is no reason to suppose that teachers are more expensive one mile further to the east, so a review of that system will certainly be welcome. The sudden breaks that take place at present as one moves across the boundary of an area subject to an area cost adjustment are nonsense and should be reviewed.

Local Government financing is in a mess at present--I do not think that there is any doubt about that--and desperately needs to be reviewed. Perhaps one way to force a review is by voting against these three reports tonight. Too high a proportion of local government finance still

Column 1088

comes from central Government. That is bad for democracy. Another thing that is bad for democracy is capping. By capping local government spending, central Government are inevitably using their power to take from local electors the right to decide on the level of local services.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : I wonder whether I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly. Did he just say that too much of the money came from central Government? His colleagues in Cornwall are for ever saying that more money should come from central Government to help council tax payers.

Mr. Rendel : The two are not incompatible. What we need to do is to change to a system of local income tax. If we did that, it would be possible to reduce the proportion of local spending funded by the Government while at the same time reducing national income tax, which would allow us to make the two compatible. Unfortunately, we do not have such a system.

Mr. Gummer rose --

Mr. Rendel : I am sorry--I have been asked by the Speaker's Office to finish quickly and not take interventions. I have already taken one intervention, which is one more than I should have taken. The Secretary of State will have a chance to respond at the end of the debate. [Interruption.] I have been asked by the Speaker's Office to finish quickly, and I respect the Speaker.

I am unhappy to have to say that there is another reason why local government funding is in a mess at present : the grant system is too obscure. It is difficult for local people and, indeed, for local authorities to work out why they are receiving the level of grant that they receive. This year it seems that nothing is being allowed in total spending for increases for our teaching staff ; yet we have been told today that increases will be given. It is hypocritical of the Government to say that no increases should be allowed in the total spending for local authority teachers and at the same time give teachers their increases.

Huge increases have been caused by the Government's decisions about what local government will receive to spend and what will have to be raised from council tax payers. That will also bring local government into disrepute. I believe that that is the wrong way to go. Sometimes local government funding is based on out-of-date figures. It is often unfair and it is always obscure. It desperately needs a total review. We know that there will be huge national tax increases in April. In addition, we now see the likelihood of huge local tax increases. I believe that the Government are set on a path to even greater unpopularity. If the Government want to avoid that path today the House should refuse to approve any of the three papers.

7.20 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) : I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) refused to take interventions, because he suggested that a local income tax might be workable. It is a fact that the man who devised the local income tax for the Liberal party, Dr. Truscott, is on record as saying that at the election the Liberal party seriously underestimated the effects of a local income tax.

Column 1089

Mr. Gummer : Is it not a fact that a local income tax under the present system would mean that there would have to be people in every town hall who would compute how much local people would pay? Would not everybody in those town halls know what each person's income tax was? How would that affect poorer people who would not like people to know how small their income was? Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the usual Liberal business of having a busybody in every town hall?

Mr. Pickles : I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right, but he should go further. Such a tax might prove to be quite expensive for poor people, who would have to pay a lot of money.

The hon. Member for Newbury also complained that no Liberal county council was receiving any of the dampening. The simple reason is that the dampening is designed to go to county districts, metropolitan authorities and London boroughs.

It would be churlish of me not to thank my right hon. Friend for the settlement, particularly as two authorities within my constituency received increases. Epping Forest received a 21 per cent. increase on its SSA and Brentwood a 36 per cent. increase. Those increases have been welcomed by all political parties within my constituency, and even on the pages of the much-quoted Brentwood Gazette.

The Conservative group at Brentwood stressed to me that the most challenging thing facing the council was its SSA. It was my view that serious underestimations had been made of the needs of the people of Brentwood. The truth is that the early versions of the SSA repeated many of the anomalies which existed in the previous grant-related expenditure. That is not a particularly tough criticism, as trying to find a system to distribute grants is extremely difficult. The local government information unit has commented that the

"difficulty of achieving fairness is at a premium".

Many overseas countries have faced similar problems. I commend to the House two recent reports concerning SSAs which give an overseas comparison. The Audit Commission said :

"a more sophisticated system for equalising needs does not exist in any overseas system."

The much-quoted Tony Travers said that no overseas country appears to have a full grant system which goes so far in achieving full equalisation.

The changes in SSA are extremely welcome. I particularly welcome the changes in social services, with respect to the indicator of long-term illness among the elderly. I believe that the changes go a long way towards encouraging the Government's initiative of care in the community. In terms of the social index, I particularly welcome the recognition of the position of homeless households, children in rented accommodation and children with parents on income support Mr. Robert Ainsworth : The hon. Gentleman has welcomed the inclusion of homelessness as one of the indicators of deprivation or need. Does he accept that one of the authorities which asked for homelessness to be included was Westminster council, which happens to be the ninth-best gainer out of that inclusion, while Coventry, which anybody would have a hard job saying was less deprived than Westminster, comes 264th ? Will the hon. Gentleman explain how that is a measure of social need ?

Column 1090

Mr. Pickles : From memory, I note that Westminster city council last year rehoused 1,297 homeless people. Frankly, that record is far better than that of a number of adjoining Labour authorities, which spend their time leaving council houses empty and not rehousing homeless people.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) made some important and coherent points about ensuring that a number of economic factors, and unemployment in particular, were included in the calculations of SSA. I am particularly pleased that the words of the hon. Gentleman and of his colleagues in local authorities have been listened to and that unemployment has been included in the calculations of SSA.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) : The inclusion of unemployment and other health indicators is to be welcomed, as it has marginally helped the position of Sheffield in relation to other authorities. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in terms of SSA distribution, the problem is that the year-on-year capping restrictions mean that Sheffield city council cannot use the extra SSA to spend on services for the public? Does not that mean that there is the nonsense of cuts in services and reductions in council tax at the same time?

Mr. Pickles : I may regret mentioning and praising the hon. Gentleman in my speech. I must remind him--I say this in friendship--that Sheffield council decided before the election that there was going to be a Labour Government, and that it was going to go for bust. There were one or two minor problems with the financing of the world student games, and perhaps that has more to do with what he says than the level of capping.

If the council decides that there are rules which will apply only to Sheffield and that it will look towards a Labour Government to bail it out, we should not be surprised if it has to face the consequences thereof. Nevertheless, I did agree with the hon. Gentleman on unemployment.

As someone who has moved from the north of England to the south, I am more persuaded about the need for area cost adjustment. The argument now with regard to employment costs in the south-east of England--

Mr. Betts : The hon. Gentleman has changed his mind.

Mr. Pickles : I have had more experience of the employment costs, which I recognise are much higher in the south-east. I hope that area cost adjustment will remain within the calculations of SSAs for the foreseeable future.

I was also particularly pleased to see that day visitors will be compensated for. We must recognise that the populations of many of our cities, towns and resorts artificially grow during the day. There are many extra burdens for authorities in those areas, ranging from litter to general wear and tear on the fabric of the city. My right hon. Friend should recognise that there is need for a period of stability in SSAs. We must recognise that the census will have some effect on next year's figures, particularly with regard to the age profile of councils. Such changes in SSA can mask efficiencies and inefficiencies. A period of stability would give local taxpayers a better chance of comparison.

The standard spending assessment should be a living thing and it should adapt to modern circumstances. The changes which have been made are important. They have

Column 1091

been broadly welcomed by local authority associations, academics and individual councils. We must not lose sight of the fact that stability is as important as resources.

The system places enormous burdens on those authorities that are winners. Those authorities must share the increases in their SSAs with their populations, and the most effective way to do that is to cut the council tax. I welcome the commitment given by many Conservative authorities to do just that.

I hope that in his reply to the debate my hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity to scotch a silly rumour that has been circulated in some councils that if councils do not spend up to their additional SSA, the Government will penalise them. That is clearly ridiculous. It is clearly not what is going to happen. It gives credence to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Blackburn that capping encourages people to spend up. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take the opportunity to nail that lie.

It is important that we do not have misleading information on local government finance. I was shocked to hear the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is no longer in the Chamber, say on 2 December :

"the Secretary of State has sought to distort the system so as to stuff grant the way of a few favoured Tory councils."--[ Official Report, 2 December 1993 ; Vol. 233, c. 1177.]

It is a matter of regret that that allegation was repeated this afternoon. It is clearly not the case that the system has been distorted. It has been checked by academics and the specialist press. The allegation has been found to be untrue. In the words of the Local Government Chronicle :

"There is a myth of a political fix by Conservatives."

I hope that the hon. Member for Blackburn regrets his remarks. He has not made a good start by continuing to suggest that there will be job losses. He suggested that the settlement would cause thousands of job losses. That is a familiar tale. It is a tale that we heard last year. We were told that thousands would be put on the dole. I recall that in Birmingham--

Mr. Betts : Fifty thousand.

Mr. Pickles : The hon. Gentleman talks about 50,000 job losses. With the figures for grant-maintained schools and further education taken out, we get down to a figure of about 30,000, or the part-time equivalent. Given the millions who are employed in local authorities, that figure hardly justifies the number of redundancies that people said would take place last year, I cannot find a better way of putting it than to quote the Local Government Chronicle. It said : "Last year Birmingham City Council grabbed the national headlines when it announced 3,000 jobs would be cut to find savings of £40 million, while tens of thousands more were said to be threatened across the country.

A year later it is obvious many of the more vocal councils were crying wolf and their supposed job cuts have failed to materialise." I believe that the figures produced by the joint staffing in December bear out that view. It is certainly my view that, if councils run their authorities in a prudent, efficient and sensible way, they should avoid compulsory redundancies this year. The hard truth is that councils were expecting a much tougher settlement. I cannot remember a settlement welcomed by so many local government leaders at any time in my experience of local authorities. But there is still

Column 1092

some room for savings. I noticed that the hon. Member for Blackburn fell into perhaps the worst sin that a politician can fall into by quoting himself. He quoted from this morning's Tribune article, in which he castigated Tory Brent for having the worst record for rent collection in the country. What he did not say was that for many years Brent was Labour controlled. The Conservative administration is trying to get back to the position of a normal authority. He did not mention that the top 10 authorities with the worst records for rent collection were Brent, Hammersmith and Fulham, Lambeth, Ealing, Southwark, Greenwich, Newham, Hackney, Haringey and Camden. We have heard much about the London borough of Newham in these deliberations. The good people of Brentwood and Ongar do not have much experience of Labour councils--that is to say, except for the tenants of the estates run by the London borough of Newham. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking for ways in which to judge the pleas that he has heard today, let him bear in mind the way in which that council mismanages the estates in my constituency. That Newham mismanages its estates is the view not only of a Conservative politician but of the local citizens advice bureau. I have had a disproportionate number of cases from the London borough of Newham. People have been threatened with eviction. They are usually elderly. They have usually paid their rent. They are usually fairly confused as to why they have been threatened.

The cases follow a particular pattern. My constituents write to the London borough of Newham and ask why they are being threatened with eviction when they have paid their rent ; they are ignored. They get their children to write to the London borough of Newham ; they are ignored. Eventually the tenants either go to the citizens advice bureau or come to see me.

I have never in my years dealt with a more inefficient bunch than the London borough of Newham. Letters are lost. Care of the elderly people is ignored. If the London borough of Newham wants increased resources, the first thing it should do is look long and hard at the way in which its housing department is run. It might be good enough for the London borough of Newham, but it is not good enough for the people of Brentwood and Ongar.

There is sufficient room for increases in efficiency in local authorities. More savings are acceptable. Compulsory competitive tendering has proved to be a great boon to local authorities. It has challenged the way in which local authorities are run. It has given them much more commercial sense. I was pleased to see that Mr. Jeremy Beecham, the leader of Newcastle council and chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, recognises that many of the savings that have accrued under compulsory competitive tendering would not have accrued without it.

It worries me that much of the creative energy behind compulsory competitive tendering has been dissipated by local authorities trying to get around the regulations. Bristol made it impossible for a private company to bid for its contracts. It put out a single huge tender for refuse collection, street cleaning, public convenience cleaning and building cleaning. Not surprisingly, no private firm felt able to provide a contract.

Birmingham put out a 2 ft high stack of documents on the cleaning of just 364 buildings. One could virtually have

Column 1093

stood on the stack to clean some of the windows. All the contracts had to start on the same day, thus making an outside bid unrealistic.

Mr. Betts : Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on the case of South Oxfordshire council, which I understand is Conservative controlled? Without going out to tender, it awarded a computer contract to one of its own officers. That matter is now being investigated by the auditor there. As well as awarding the contract, the council awarded a lot of subsidies to that officer to set up a company, which has subsequently made substantial profits. Does the hon. Gentleman regard that as a proper way for local authorities to behave?

Next Section

  Home Page