Just because we aim to ensure a fair distribution does not mean that everyone will be happy with the result. I totally refute any suggestion that the distribution system is somehow rigged in a party political way. If anyone cares to look at the figures, they will see that a large number of the local authorities that have gained this year as a result of recent SSA changes are Labour-controlled authorities.
In his evidence to the Select Committee, Mr. Tony Travers, who is generally recognised as an objective and informed academic in this area, said :
"A number of commentators have accused SSAs of being politically rigged . . . Yet there is no evidence of such political intervention".
The review of SSAs last year was thorough and wide ranging and I agree with the Select Committee that there will always be a trade-off between improving the technical content of the SSAs and increasing its complexity.
I do not plan such a wide-ranging review this year. Of course, that does not mean that there will be no changes. We will always continue to discuss the SSA methodology with local authority associations and with individual authorities which wish to make a contribution. St. Helens was one of the authorities that benefited from the review of SSAs. It got more money this year than it would have done under the old formula--although I recognise that it was not as much as some other authorities, nor evidently as much as the hon. Gentleman would have liked.
St. Helens SSA went up by just over 3 per cent.--more than the average for metropolitan districts of 1.3 per cent.--and under the capping rules St. Helens can set a budget some 5 per cent. above SSA. If one compares what St. Helens actually spent last year with what it can spend this year-- comparing like with like--that is a permitted increase of 1.7 per cent. It is an increase and in no way a cut. St. Helens education SSA increased by 3.1 per cent. ; its personal social services SSA increased by 5.7 per cent. and its all other services block SSA increased by almost 11 per cent. As a result of the introduction of an index measuring economic circumstances, for which St. Helens and others in the Webber Craig group of local authorities have campaigned, it did extremely well.
St. Helens will also benefit from committed spending under the single regeneration budget of £11.4 million in 1994-95 and a share of the £1 billion objective 1
Column 936programme money for Merseyside. The Department of Transport has also been able to provide an extra £6.6 million of borrowing approvals to help finance the additional costs of the M62 link road--again in response to a case put by St. Helens in which Environment Ministers took a close interest.
I am disappointed by the hon. Gentleman's comparison with Westminster. I think it is cheap stuff ; I think it is poor stuff. It is belittling and it is not worthy of the hon. Gentleman. The measures used to arrive at the standard spending assessment for Westminster are exactly the same measures as are used for every other authority. They give a higher SSA per head than in St. Helens simply because that is what the statistics show. But the statistics also show that 23 out of the 32 London boroughs get more per head than St. Helens, irrespective of political control.
The SSA review this year reduced Westminster's SSA by 1.6 per cent.--a greater reduction than the average for inner London boroughs. Total external support per head for Westminster--made up of revenue support grant, redistributed business rates and SSA reduction grant--is below the average for inner London boroughs. The low level of council tax in Westminster is, in large measure, simply a reflection of the excellent budgeting by Westminster council, which set a budget some 11.6 per cent. below SSA.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will study the SSA grants for the London boroughs this year. Having done so, I hope that he will take back any scintilla of a suggestion that they have been politically rigged. Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea has had a reduction in its SSA grant this year of 8.3 per cent. In Conservative-controlled Wandsworth, there has been a reduction in SSA of 10.6 per cent. Conservative-controlled Brent has seen a reduction in its SSA of 8.5 per cent. Ealing, which, at the time that the SSA was set, was Conservative controlled, has seen a reduction in SSA of 3.8 per cent. Redbridge, which, at the time that the SSA was set, was also Conservative-controlled, has seen an SSA reduction of 1 per cent.
The hon. Gentleman could then look at some of the Labour-controlled boroughs in London. Greenwich has had an increase of 7.6 per cent. in its SSA grant. The SSA grant for Barking and Dagenham has increased by 11.8 per cent. The grant for Hillingdon has increased by 7.7 per cent., and so on. It is complete nonsense to suggest that any of the SSAs are politically rigged in any way. They are set objectively using the best possible criteria after lengthy and extensive discussions with the local authority associations.
Mr. Baldry : If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, marks out the word "Westminster" and puts in its place practically any other London borough, he could make exactly the same speech again replacing the word "Westminster" with "Greenwich", "Lambeth", "Newham" or "Islington". That is simply because that is what the statistics demonstrate in terms of need and in terms of the formula that has been worked out openly and objectively with the local authority associations.
Column 937I am delighted that St. Helens has welcomed the review of the SSAs and, in particular, the inclusion of health and economic indicators. The work that we have done this year with the Webber Craig group of authorities clearly demonstrates our preparedness and determination to make the system as fair as possible.
Expert independent commentators agree that the process by which we decide the distribution of resources between authorities is as open and as fair as practicable without creating a system that is impossibly complex. The formula is exhaustively discussed with local authority representatives and the data come from statistical returns which are common to all local authority areas.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman would like to see St. Helens do better from the system. Many hon. Members would like their areas to do better. Of course, we shall continue to strive to balance these conflicting demands as fairly and reasonably as possible. In a system such as this there may always be scope for further improvements.
Column 938As I have made clear, we are always happy to consider with the local authority associations any proposals for improvements. But the improvements will be objective and they will apply to every local authority, irrespective of political complexion. If St. Helens wishes to press further for specific changes to the SSAs, it needs first to seek to persuade other local authorities to put a case to us in the discussions that are already under way. As always, any case that is put forward will be discussed openly with a view to arriving at an approach that is fair to all authorities.
In the meantime, I am sure that St. Helens council wants to make the best use of the £105 million of grant that has been made available to it this year, in addition to the money that it has The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.
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