Column 697those adjustments are necessary in the light of the latest returns of non-domestic rate income collected by authorities for the three years in question. Overall, as hon. Members will doubtless be delighted to hear, the order provides for a net additional payment of £31.8 million to authorities. Clearly, there are swings and roundabouts as far as individual authorities are concerned.
I do not believe that the second order is controversial in any way. It has been fully discussed with COSLA. The settlement to Scottish local authorities provided for in the main order is entirely realistic, given the present low level of inflation, the Government's approach to public sector pay and the public expenditure situation and I commend both orders to the House.
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton) : This will be an interesting evening, because we have started the debate earlier than anticipated. Hon. Members will therefore have a good opportunity to discuss the orders.
We can also reflect on the fact that, although the Secretary of State has come to join us, he still manages to duck out of dealing with local government issues, as he did during Scottish Question Time last week. At the weekend, it was noticeable, however, that when he was debating with, or should I say when he was being attacked by, Conservative councillors, at a conference he managed a few remarks about the conduct of the Standing Committee considering the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, although he has not even popped his head around the door of the Committee. He is, presumably, receiving detailed reports from the Parliamentary Under- Secretary, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart). Great debate and dissent are undoubtedly caused by them.
Mr. Gallie rose
Mr. Gallie : Given the hon. Member's words of welcome to the Secretary of State, it would be churlish if Conservative Members did not mention the presence of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) on the Opposition Front Bench. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) will benefit greatly from his hon. Friend's advice on, and sound knowledge of, local government.
Mr. Robertson : I have no doubt that if the hon. Member for Ayr turned his mind to it, he could turn that intervention into an amendment for the Committee tomorrow, because his ingenuity seems to have absolutely no limit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is, of course, welcome to join us. A trip down memory lane is never bad for people. I am sure that he will enjoy the debate, just as he always enjoyed the previous ones. In fact, he is probably one of the few people who enjoy such debates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden is certainly welcome, because he never shirked or dodged the column in dealing with important issues, especially those concerned with local government. I must admit that many a heart dropped when a study of the Order Paper revealed that the House intended to discuss the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 1994 and the Revenue Support Grant (Scotland) Order 1994. Frankly, the Minister with responsibility for local government has just revealed the deathlessness of the prose and the complexity of the concepts as he explained different components of the aggregate external finance levels compared with the Government's supported expenditure levels. That explanation left the House of Commons more than cold in its appreciation. It also has the unfortunate effect of leaving the Government in the advantageous position of putting their figures forward as the truth--something which anyone with half a mind on the past would automatically dismiss.
The Minister told us that this is a good settlement, but he has said that every single year, just as his predecessors have in the past 15 years. It is no more true this year than it was in the previous ones. Why should the Minister change the script ; after all it is recycled year on year ? A few different civil servants may be involved and Ministers may go round in circles, but, each year, we are given the same speech about more cash being available for local councils and that, as a result, council tax, poll tax bills and rate levels should fall across Scotland. As the Opposition know only too well, Ministers are not telling the whole truth.
The truth, buried deep in the figures, is not just a matter of interpreting dry, obscure statistical complexities, but means money, which comes from the pockets of the people of Scotland. They are expected to shell out more money and more taxes. All those taxes are new ones, which are a direct result of this incompetent Government. Whatever Ministers say tonight--they have sold us this stale, unconvincing justification year on year--the minimum estimated effect of the orders will be an extra 10 per cent. on council tax bills across Scotland. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has authoritatively estimated that that is equivalent to £1.20 a week on average council tax bills.
Mr. Robertson : As the Minister has said, there will obviously be swings and roundabouts. Because of the differentials involved and a number of other factors that apply, there will be differences of view about the figures. But the estimate, published this morning by the same professional officials whom the Minister has praised up to now, means an extra £1.20 a week on every council tax bills. That is equivalent to an additional 10 per cent. on top of all the other added expenditure which results from the Government's policies.
Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside) : Would the hon. Member care to ponder on the fact that another Labour-controlled regional council, Grampian, has said that it intends to freeze its council tax levels ? I wonder whether he attaches a lot of credibility to COSLA's figures.
Mr. Robertson : There are not many Conservative Members present, but I hope that they will come up with examples of the good housekeeping of individual Labour local authorities, which have been able to act in that manner in the face of the settlement and the circumstances dictated by Ministers. Those Labour local authorities have been able to do that because of the sheer professionalism of their approach. I shall explain, however, that the figures mean that it will be difficult for those authorities to uphold that behaviour.
Mr. Robertson : The hon. Gentleman can take it any way he wants. The Government say that the aggregate external finance level will be up 2 per cent. this year, but when one takes away transferred moneys from the other purses of Government--from the careers service, which has been transferred, and the care in the community cash, which has been transferred to local authorities from the Department of Social Security--that level is down to 0.97 per cent., on the Government's own estimates. That is an increase of less than 1 per cent. in the aggregate external finance, the totality of Government support to local authorities.
That is the estimate before one takes into account inflation. If one takes away the Government's own estimate for inflation, which is published each year in the Red Book, as it was in the unified Budget, Scottish local councils budgets will be down this year by 2.91 per cent. That is almost 3 per cent. down not just on their current budgets but on those for last year. That means that, based on the figures for last year and not even on those on which the budgets that they reasonably proposed for the following year were based, a total of £148.8 million will be taken out of local authority budgets. In other words, almost £150 million will be taken out of local government budgets which are already stretched to breaking point. The consequence will be simple, brutal and unavoidable.
Mr. Kynoch rose
The consequences of that reduction will be job losses, service reductions and an increase in council tax. All that is due to a direct, dictated, ordered, forced and even desired consequence of the Government's direction from the centre. At least £1.20, on average, will be added to council tax bills.
That will be on top of an extra £10 a week which, from April, every family will have to pay for the broken promises on national taxation for which the Government are responsible, and on top of the cost of VAT on fuel, which will come into effect on 1 April. More taxes will be set on more taxes. All of them are the price to be paid by taxpayers as a penalty for the incompetence and the deceit of the Conservative party, which told the people two years ago at the election that it would reduce taxes year on year.
Column 700The simple message behind those complicated figures is, "The Tories pick your pockets and then waste the money that they have taken". I wondered whether I could draw an analogy with Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, or with the sheriff of Nottingham, who stole from the poor to give to the rich. But the Government are acting like "East End Hood", who steals money from everybody and then loses it. That is the reality of the additional taxes which the Government are now imposing. They are picking the pockets of the Scottish people with extra taxes all the time. In return, we get less : fewer services and jobs, and longer dole queues.
The bulk of the 300,000 people employed in local government in Scotland face a year in which the Government estimate that inflation will run at 3 per cent. The Chancellor has published that estimate in the Red Book. Where is the justice in saying that people face 3 per cent. inflation plus all the tax increases that will be heaped on them, but no increase in pay ? It is yet another gift from this high-promising Government.
The Government say that all that is fiction and exaggeration. They say that they have provided local councils with a pot of gold and that tax increases, service cuts and job losses are down to individual local council decisions. I say that that is hogwash. There are few Tory local authorities, but Stirling and Kyle and Carrick district councils are flagship Tory authorities which perform the role of shop windows for the Tory councils of tomorrow. Two weeks ago, Stirling district council fixed its council tax level, reducing it by between £34 and £100. In its headline making that announcement, the local newspaper, the Stirling Observer, made it clear what the price was. It said :
"Jobs are lost to pay for tax cuts".
The loss of at least 18 jobs and huge increases in charges will be the price paid by those in Stirling district who will enjoy a reduction in council tax.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) does not participate in many Scottish debates. He does not enjoy a walk down memory lane and, as a begetter of the poll tax, there are few highways and byways in Scottish debates which he would like to visit. But the same edition of the Stirling Observer quoted him as saying :
"The councillors and officials of Stirling district must be the toast of my constituents tonight".
Some celebration for the 18 people who were to lose their jobs as a consequence of that decision, those who would pay up to 200 per cent. more to let a hall in Stirling district, or those who would have to pay more to bury their dead in the area because of the rise in burial charges.
The Stirling Observer has not taken a partisan view. Indeed, the hon. Member for Stirling has received much favourable publicity from it over the years. But in its editorial opinion that week, Mr. Alan Rennie said :
"Perhaps the district council should line up the 18 people whose jobs are to be axed and explain to us and them why they are surplus to requirements. Then line up the people who are expected to assume many of their functions overnight.
I'm fed up with those who treat ordinary people as pawns in a political game or as mere figures in an accountancy exercise. There may be champagne corks popping in Conservative party HQ but elsewhere this budget is like a glass of flat beer."
Interestingly, the story did not end there. The following week, the saga continued in the editorial opinion. Mr. Rennie told his readers :
"One of the first calls to my office on Wednesday morning came from MP Michael Forsyth, who felt that I had been unclear in my criticism."
Column 701How touchy of the Minister of State, Department of Employment. Anyway, Mr. Rennie analysed the comments and other points put to him and concluded :
"So I am going to stick to my guns. It's not the Observer that is playing politics. That charge lies at the door of the ruling Conservative group on Stirling District Council. And it is my readers who will suffer the consequences. Just wait and see."
Mr. Rennie adequately makes the point about a council that has contracted out its legal services and handed them over to Professor Ross Harper in Glasgow, with a loss of jobs in the district and a legal challenge for unfair dismissal ; contracted out its grass-cutting service with disastrous consequences ; and spent £60, 000 on designing a new logo and corporate identity for the district council. I heard it described as :
"a Lego man for a loco council".
The council has made itself a national laughing stock as a consequence.
Given that grimy, unattractive shop window for Tory councils, it is small wonder that there are so few Tory councils around to talk about. But there is one more--the district council based on Ayr : Kyle and Carrick. It is still strong and is run on the Stirling model of champagne-popping, job- slashing, charge-increasing and
standard-dropping councils. But Kyle and Carrick council is slightly more sinister at the edge because it now flouts the law as it seeks to break agreements that were freely entered into and contracts that were legally adopted. It seeks to dump existing contracts and the people who were party to them, and to sack loyal local workers and bring in contractors from Spain to handle the cleansing contract for the area. Loyal, decent, hard- working human beings will be dumped by those Tory fanatics--the loony right of Scottish politics--as they try to squeeze through some European loophole and illegally break signed contracts.
That example, not the statistics of the aggregate external finance, is the true face of the Tory party in dealing with local government.
Mr. Gallie : Will the hon. Gentleman advise the House how Kyle and Carrick district council has flouted any law, contractual or other ? Is he aware that an announcement has only just been placed in the Journal of the European Communities and that no contracts have been placed ? Certainly, no contract has been placed with a Spanish company, yet the hon. Gentleman seems to have the inside story. Can he put up the evidence ? If not, he should come off that track.
Mr. Robertson : The hon. Gentleman has been involved in all those shenanigans and probably knows more than anyone else. Instead of posing questions, he would be well advised to provide answers. The House and the electors of Kyle and Carrick need to know whether those contracts, which were freely entered into, will be broken.
Mr. Foulkes : Is my hon. Friend aware that Kyle and Carrick district council announced that it would cancel a contract that had one to two years to run with the in-house tenderer for cleansing and refuse ? Once that was announced, it was revealed that, prior to the announcement, five separate meetings had taken place between Provost Gibson Macdonald and its officials and the Spanish company, FOCSA. Does that not smell of a rat and some kind of collusion or corruption ?
Mr. Robertson : The words "rat" and "smell" certainly come to mind. There is little doubt that something funny is going on in Kyle and Carrick district council. There is certainly an intention to break a contract freely entered into with local workers. No doubt the law courts will ultimately adjudicate on whether the law has been broken or whether the council has found a loophole that will allow it to break the law. What is clear, however, is that there has been a breach of faith with local people who are adequately providing a service but are going to be mercilessly dumped because of blind ideology.
Mr. Gallie : It is courteous of the hon. Gentleman to allow me to intervene again. He has suggested that something funny is going on in Kyle and Carrick district council. I read a newspaper article at the weekend which, under the headline "Spend, Spend, Spend", said that the council tax was being frozen. There is certainly something going on--it is very good news for the people of Kyle and Carrick.
Mr. Robertson : All I can tell the hon. Gentleman is what we know about the council's attitude to agreements and contracts, and to its local people, who will draw their own conclusions. There is little doubt that the Conservative party is setting out its stall in the area, and it is a wholly unattractive one.
The Tory principles--higher taxes, broken promises, fewer jobs and bargain basement services--adopted by the Stalinists of the Scottish Conservative party
Mr. Robertson : The Tory Stalinists are not going to stop there. Those who dissent from the one nation, one party idea get the chop. The hon. Member for Eastwood may roar with laughter, but I should like to draw his attention once again to the case of Colonel Frank Saunders. That should wipe the smile off even his face.
Mr. Stewart : I have heard the story before. I have great respect for Colonel Saunders, whom I have known for a long time. The hon. Gentleman talks of the Stalinist tendency. Who does he have in mind as Stalin ?
Mr. Robertson : That is an open question--which could be answered by anyone who cares to fill in a postcard and send it to St. Andrew's house. [Hon. Members :-- "The Minister is Stalin."] Well, it is certainly not the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton). I cannot imagine him leading that tendency, although he might be playing the part of a quiet Beria. If so, he has not yet disclosed the fact.
As we all know, Colonel Frank Saunders has nothing to do with chickens of either the fried or the cowardly variety. He serves as leader of the Tories on Central regional council. He is therefore a man of no small distinction. He lives in Stirling district and is a constituent of the hon. Member for Stirling. He has been an active Tory for more than 52 years, and a councillor in Stirling for more than 30 years. Yet the colonel said, when the tap on the shoulder came in the night, in words evocative of eastern Europe :
"After being told of the decision I asked if I was being dismissed because I had failed as a councillor. But I was told that
Column 703it was because I didn't support the local authority reform proposal."
So he bit the dust, because he did not agree with the new architecture.
I took a self-denying ordinance to the effect that I would not quote Councillor Brian Meek again. In a recent article he said that he wanted to be paid lineage if he was to continue to be quoted endlessly in the House. I fear that I must quote him again, however. Councillor Meek of Edinburgh district council had this to say about Colonel Saunders :
"He was deselected. Because, it seems, Frank Saunders disagrees with the Government's plan to reform local councils, particularly as they affect Central region, he has been booted out. I support the move to one-tier authorities. Nevertheless I am concerned that the price of speaking one's mind"
Mr. Robertson : Of course you are right, Madam Deputy Speaker. Colonel Saunders would agree with you : he agrees with most of what the Conservative party is doing. He would probably agree with the orders that we are debating. We are talking about the financial base for local government in Scotland--a huge figure which the Minister outlined in his speech. It is extremely pertinent to this debate to know the policies of the councillors who will spend the money that Parliament, presumably, will vote through at the end of this debate. I assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that Colonel Saunders' fate is of immediate relevance to these orders.
Councillor Brian Meek went on to say
"Are we not big enough, not magnanimous enough to recognise the sincerity and integrity of Frank Saunders, an active member for 52 years ? Are we supposed to be speaking puppets ?"
Perhaps the Minister would like to answer that question.
Mr. Robertson : They have not been deselected as candidates. The party is entitled to its own disciplinary procedures, but we are talking about a man with 52 years' service to the Tory party, 30 of them as a councillor. He is a man of enormous distinction in Scottish local government and he has been deselected. I am quoting here the views of another Conservative, not my own views.
Mr. Raymond S. Robertson : Far from it. The hon. Gentleman has championed the cause of deselected councillors. Will he come to my constituency and champion the cause of Labour councillor David Falconer, who has just been deselected for not toeing the party policy line ?
Mr. Robertson : I think that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have saved the hon. Gentleman from the embarrassment of the irrelevance of his comparison. I notice that even he did not try to defend the decision to boot out Colonel Saunders.
The disenchantment with the butchery of Scottish local government all across Scotland is not confined to the leader of the Tory group on Central regional council. Many people are now realising that this gerrymandered upheaval, done without the consensus of, or demand by, the people, without a review and on a crazy and impractical timetable, will cost them a packet. The new gerrymander tax is going to be substantial--yet another tax on the people of Scotland for Tory convenience. We do not have to take my word for that ; it might be thought slightly partisan, despite the fact that it is accurate and dispassionate. Let us look at the report in yesterday's Scotland on Sunday about the Association of Scottish Conservative Councillors. Kenny Farquharson's article begins :
"Scotland's Tory councillors yesterday sent a warning to Scottish Secretary Ian Lang that he has badly underestimated the price to be paid for the reorganisation of local government."
It is not the Labour party, or even the suspect professionals of COSLA, who are telling the Government that they have underestimated the costs, but Tory councillors themselves. That is extremely relevant and pertinent. The Secretary of State for Scotland is quoted as saying :
"The Labour leadership has lost the argument on the costs of reform".
He went on to describe our claims as "extraordinary and wild". The Secretary of State was told by the Tory councillors
Mr. Gallie : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We seem now to be discussing the cost of the reform of local government in Scotland rather than the revenue support grant. Could you give me guidance on that ?
Mr. Robertson : Absolutely. If the hon. Member for Ayr had bothered to listen to the speech of the Minister, he would realise that there is specific inclusion in the orders for the transition costs to move into the new local authority structure. What I am saying is not only relevant but highly
Column 705inconvenient for the hon. Gentleman if he chooses to believe the sort of nonsense that is peddled by his Front Bench.
It is interesting that the councillors are being quite specific. They said in Scotland on Sunday :
"Yesterday's meeting of Tory councillors said Lang was deceiving himself over the true cost."
The article then quotes Jim Evans, the chairman of Berwickshire district council and the association's new chairman, as saying : "We are a little bit more cynical than the Government about these things."
The Government's centrepiece--their plan for reorganising local government based on saving public money--was torn into tatters by a Conservative councillor speaking at the weekend, but speaking the truth. All he is telling Ministers is what everybody else in Scotland knows and what we have been telling the Minister for weeks since the White Paper was published ; it will cost more than the Government says, and substantially more at that.
I can remember the words of Mr. Arthur Bell--another bosom buddy of the Minister