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Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): Thank you for granting me this debate, Madam Speaker. Having heard the technology debate, when we looked forward, perhaps I can delve into the past. Before I do so, I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to his first Adjournment debate on the funding of services on the Isle of Wight and I also welcome the fact that there are two Whips on the Front Bench, both of whom were my favourite candidates for
promotion--especially since they became Whips.
If my record is anything to go by, my hon. Friend will be answering many more of these debates. Since my arrival in the House in 1987, I have had or participated in 11 debates on the subject, which is an average of 1.5 per annum.
Tonight, I intend to try to turn the tables on the media by being the first Member of Parliament to offer a bribe to the public. I am offering a free holiday for one week on the Isle of Wight, which far exceeds the offerings of a fat Egyptian in some run-down and shabby establishment on the far side of the channel. That parliamentary prize is available to anyone who can name me one constituency that has campaigned for longer than the Isle of Wight on any issue that he or she likes to name.
Our campaign began in 1960, when my predecessor but one, the late Mark Woodnutt, said in the debate on the Local Government General Grant Order:
"I wish merely to protest against the adverse effect it has on some authorities, including my own county of the Isle of Wight. I realise that the Isle of Wight is one of a small minority affected in this way, but for that very reason I feel that something should have been done to give relief."--[ Official Report , 8 December 1960; Vol. 631, c. 1488.]
As a result of Mark Woodnutt's relentless campaign, in 1962 the Edwards committee reported to the House on the workings of the rate deficiency grants in England and Wales. The chairman, Mr. F. L. Edwards, was Under- Secretary for Finance and Accountant-General at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I am delighted to see that a distant relative of my hon. Friend the Minister--Mr. J. A. Jones, clerk of Knighton rural district council--was also a member of the working party.
Chapter 4 of the report is headed "The Special Position of the Isle of Wight". Paragraph 30 of that chapter states:
"Prima Facie there is a case here for some weighting to take account of the inevitably higher costs caused by severance by sea (as is provided for the Isle of Scilly.)"
So there we have it. A firm and unequivocal recommendation from the Department of the Environment's predecessor, and 32 years later the Isle of Wight is still waiting. If anyone can beat that unenviable record, a free holiday on the Isle of Wight is his. The only rule in the competition is that only those who hold British citizenship may take part.
Next year, the island will have the first unitary authority in the country and that provides us with a unique opportunity. I believe that we have already achieved victory on our standard spending assessments, as the very fact that the Department's officials are considering our case together with the Association of County Councils--
Column 729It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[ Mr. Bates. ]
Mr. Field: The fact that the Department's officials are considering our case together with the Association of County Councils is, I believe, official recognition of our long-standing problem. Tomorrow, as my hon. Friend knows, I shall be leading a deputation to see the local government Minister. I hope that this debate, and my hon. Friend's knowledge of local government and of the Isle of Wight's problems from his time on the Environment Select Committee, will tip the scales in our favour.
Before I deal with the fire standard spending assessment, I shall mention the situation over the community care special transitional grant for 1995- 96. The island has consistently argued that the violent swing in using the SSA formulae for 1994-95 should have been damped by applying a floor and ceilings approach. Such an approach is a quite usual arrangement in the Department of Health and, given that no changes can now be made to the 1994 -95 distribution, a mechanism should be found to redistribute the unused grants of local authorities for 1993-94.
Ministers at the Department of Health have said recently that that has been ruled to be illegal, but something is clearly wrong when some authorities that are unable to spend all their grant publicly announce their embarrassment at receiving too much money and at their inability to spend it. The Isle of Wight feels that it should have had a smoother transition from STG to SSA for community care. Having been in Parliament for more than seven years, I know that all things are possible if the good will of officials exists and if Ministers give the nod. I hope that my hon. Friend's Department will explore this point again for us. In view of the council's request to see the Prime Minister on this issue, my hon. Friend might give me an undertaking to come back to me on the matter when his officials have looked at it again. I can then tell Downing street that we have explored every possibility before troubling the Prime Minister. It is, however, on the fire SSA that I wish to concentrate tonight. Several delegations have seen Home Office Ministers about this problem, the first of which was in 1988 soon after my election. My noble Friend Lord Ferrers-- then the Minister responsible for the fire service--has been a consistent supporter of the island's case and expressed himself to be very surprised at the small amount of money, which was causing such problems for the island. His exact words were, as I recall, "Amazing! You couldn't buy a cup of tea and a wad for that!"
Lord Ferrers and Nick Roberts, his assistant private secretary, confirmed to me, to the Isle of Wight county council and to His Excellency the Governor of the Isle of Wight that he had written and spoken to the Minister for Local Government following our subsequent meetings. I have passed copies of our correspondence to my hon. Friend and I am sure that he will see that the tenor of the papers is that the Home Office has always supported our case. Under the Fire Services Act 1947, the fire authority has a statutory duty to provide an adequate fire service. Successive inspections by Her Majesty's inspectorate of
Column 730fire services have agreed that the current levels are the very minimum required, yet this service costs 50 per cent. more than the SSA formula provides.
The ferry crossing for a fire vehicle takes on average 50 minutes and for a large part of the night there is no scheduled crossing. It is important to remember that the crews of the ferries live ashore and not on board the vessels. Therefore, in the event of an emergency requiring assistance from mainland fire tenders, 24-hour cover is not available. The island's fire service therefore has to be self-sufficient. We have a total of 16 operational appliances at 10 fire stations and two in reserve. Of those 10 stations, only one of them is staffed by full-time firemen; all the rest are part-time volunteers or "retained men" as they are known. That situation has remained roughly the same since 1948.
As I have already stated, a succession of inspections by Her Majesty's inspectorate of fire services, a Home Office appointment, have all found that the level of appliances and personnel per 1,000 of the population on the Isle of Wight is higher than any other on the mainland. They have, however, all warned the island that the number of personnel, appliances and stations cannot be reduced because of the isolation of the island. Indeed, the inspectorate sat in on the meeting with Lord Ferrers and fully supported the claim that the island's fire service was the minimum acceptable. In 1988-89, the Minister of State, Home Office and Her Majesty's chief inspector of fire services confirmed that view in writing. It was repeated again in 1992 and 1993 by Her Majesty's inspectors.
Mr. Field: We are talking about nearly 130,000 people, who are served by just 10 fire stations, one of which is full time. We also get more than 2 million visitors a year, so the population is even larger at the height of our holiday season.
The best illustration I can give to the Minister is that, as he knows, the island is about the size, both in population and in geographical terms, of an average district council. If we were part of a county on the mainland, our 10 stations would be reduced by between five and seven, allowing for the mutual assistance that is available to mainland fire services, as required under section 2 of the 1947 Act.
The problem does not stop there. Because of its dislocation by sea, the island has to have its own pool of specialist vehicles, which are exceptionally expensive--an hydraulic platform appliance costs more than £100,000. A community of the island's size and particular architecture would never normally warrant such expenditure, let alone operational requirement.
Throughout the centuries, and because of the position of the Isle of Wight, its people have been content with their historical role as the first line of defence of England's liberty whether from the unwashed hordes of Napoleon or the satanic ranks of Hitler's legions. We are very resentful of the fact that we have been up-anchored and positioned in Whitehall between the Home Office and the Department of the Environment. We have watched with increasing frustration as the pin-stripe warriors battle it out over our island's fire service. One says it is only just big enough while the other says it is costing too much. It really is the original good game played slowly. I even discussed whether we should approach Sir Robin Butler to see whether he would act as the island's umpire in this
Column 731Gilbertian campaign, but I was counselled to stay my hand. "Wait" said the island sages, "wait for the arrival at the Department of the Environment of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones)." I did and tonight I have great expectations that I may finally close the file opened by Mark Woodnutt 32 years ago. If I am correct in my expectations, I am sure that the Minister will not feel inhibited by recent revelations in accepting the second prize of two weeks' holiday on the Isle of Wight, for he will be the hero of Vectis. The Isle of Wight has become rather anecdotal in the House and, to some, I am the epitome of that article in "The House Magazine" that interpreted Back-Bench speak. It said that, "So and so is a good constituency Member," really means that he can talk of nothing else. When the Prime Minister mentioned the "action thing" in his speech the other day, it struck a chord with me. For far too long, the islanders had been fed the "vision thing" and, in 1987, I promised them and myself that I would devote my time to correcting those anomalies. Next year, we shall have a unitary authority, thanks to the "action thing".
I hope that one day soon I can debate human rights in China, the abolition of child benefit and the Christmas bonus for higher rate taxpayers, the failure of the doctrine of universality in the benefit system, the abolition of vehicle and television licences and light dues, and the publication of coroners' reports in the same way as I now debate the publication of maritime accident reports. All those and many more subjects are dear to my heart, but so, too, is the Isle of Wight and until I have dealt with its problems and obtained the action, I cannot launch myself upon the vision.
I hope that tonight my hon. Friend will put the final brick on the chimney so that together we may top out the country's first unitary authority and I and the House may be released from my monotone culture.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones): My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) began by tempting me to look back over the history books and find a record equivalent to that of him and his predecessors. It does not require that to tempt me to the Isle of Wight, as the climate and hospitality of his constituents are enough to make me visit it anyway. Just in case he thinks that it is a record, when I looked back at the history books on my constituency, I found that, since the 1930s, my predecessors have been campaigning for a bypass for the town of Berkhamsted. But there is some hope for my hon. Friend because that bypass was opened recently, so there is sometimes a happy ending to the story.
I welcome this debate on the standard spending assessments for the new Isle of Wight council and the opportunity that it provides to address the issues that my hon. Friend has highlighted this evening and put to us on other occasions. I pay tribute at the outset to his tireless efforts on behalf of the island's interests. Few hon. Members fight as hard as my hon. Friend, and he deserves success for persistence, if nothing else. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will meet my hon. Friend tomorrow, when he leads a delegation from the island, no doubt to re-emphasise the points made tonight.
My hon. Friend will be aware, from his work on the Environment Select Committee and his close interest in the subject, that SSAs are calculated on a common basis for all
Column 732authorities that provide the same services. He may also know that we put considerable efforts into getting the right methodology to deliver SSAs that properly reflect the needs for local authority spending.
Our efforts to get the right methodology involve a dialogue with local authority associations and a full examination of both the options for change and their consequences. Between March and September, officials from my Department met representatives from local authority associations and other Departments to look at technical issues and options for improvements to the current SSA methodology.
Ministers are currently considering a report on the options for changes that this group has examined. Thirty-five possible changes in SSAs have been exemplified, together with a further 12 options on the police SSA. The local authority associations have received copies of this report and we have received many subsequent representations and comments about the various options before us.
We are looking closely at all the possible changes, the impact that those changes would have and the views that we have received. I cannot say tonight what conclusions we shall reach on those options, but the Secretary of State will announce our proposals for 1995-96 SSAs shortly after the Budget. At about the same time, local authorities will be told the technical basis for those proposals. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that our decisions will not change our aim of fairness and consistency in the methodology.
We have considered whether the change to a unitary authority has implications for SSAs. The change to a unitary authority for the Isle of Wight will improve the co-ordination of services, but we also believe that it will help to reduce the bureaucracy and running costs that eat away at the funds that the Government and local council tax payers make available for delivering local services. The Isle of Wight will be treated no more or less favourably because of its unitary status. We expect gains in efficiency in the delivery of services as a result of the new arrangements. They will give the local authority the scope to improve local services or to reduce the burden on the local council tax payer.
We recognise that there may be transitional costs, but those will be met by borrowing and will be repaid out of the savings arising in the longer term. A change to a unitary authority does not change the underlying need for the local authority to spend.
It may reassure my hon. Friend that we have calculated what SSA would have gone to a unitary Isle of Wight, had reorganisation happened on 1 April this year. The results show that there would have been only a minimal difference in the SSA for the island as a whole. We have shared the figures with the authorities on the island. The SSA for the new Isle of Wight authority will be calculated in the same way as for other authorities with responsibility for the same services. The SSA will not be calculated by simply aggregating SSAs for the county and the two districts. Details of the calculations will be available when the provisional settlement announcement is made.
The Department will specify, as part of the settlement package, a "notional amount" for the new Isle of Wight council. That will be used as the base position for the operation of the capping regime for the year immediately following reorganisation. In essence, the notional amount will be the sum of the budgets set by the three island
Column 733authorities for 1994-95, but police service spending will be removed, since that will become the responsibility of the newly formed Hampshire police authority in 1995-96.
My hon. Friend emphasises that the Isle of Wight is unique, and so it is, but my hon. Friend and his family have had a long involvement with local authorities. He knows that every local authority would say that it is unique. Each argues its special circumstances strongly whenever that might win the area a larger share of what is available. There is nothing wrong with that.
However, the total available each year for SSAs is fixed. If one area is given more, the others must have less, so we must ensure that our decisions about SSAs are as objective and fair as they can be. We examine the case for new factors to be taken into account, but new factors cannot always be considered one by one.
Any change in the SSA formula is bound to be scrutinised closely by individual authorities. They will not only wish to probe the justification for the change, but to ask themselves whether our latest change could be prayed in support of making some other change to the formula, from which they would benefit. Therefore, we sometimes have to ask ourselves: if it would be right to make one change, ought we to make others as well, if we are to be fair as between authorities?
However, changes often bring complexity, and we are worried about the complexity of the SSA formulae. My hon. Friend will remember the predecessors of standard spending assessments--the grant-related expenditure assessments. One of the factors in their downfall was their complexity. One of the benefits that we sought, when we introduced SSAs in 1990, was a more understandable system. We are continually trying to balance the arguments for refinement of the formula, with the attendant increase in complexity, against the original wishes to keep the formulae reasonably straightforward. I acknowledge that there are long-standing contentions that the island is confronted by greater costs on account of being cut off from the mainland. Parallels have been drawn with the Isles of Scilly. The case for increasing resources for the Isle of Wight due to its island nature is still a matter of debate. Other authorities may also feel that they suffer, in other ways, from poor accessibility. The Isle of Wight cannot be compared with the Isles of Scilly. I note, for example, that the Isle of Wight has 60 times the population of the Isles of Scilly, and we should also bear in mind the fact that the Isle of Wight is far closer to the mainland than the Isles of Scilly.
I recognise, however, that there are different circumstances on the Isle of Wight compared with local authorities on the mainland. For example, none of the roads on the island is maintained by the Department of Transport. However, the SSA formula takes full account of all the roads for which a local authority has responsibility. The Isle of Wight, therefore, receives full recognition of that responsibility.
Column 734I also wonder whether the island benefits from some lower costs, too, as a result of its separation from the mainland. For example, it gets the same percentage allowance for higher labour costs as Hampshire, but are rates of pay on the island as high as on the mainland? Even without any other special allowance for being an island, the Isle of Wight has done well on SSAs in recent years. For instance, the Isle of Wight had an increase in SSA of almost 3 per cent. this year. That is well above the average for England of 1.8 per cent., and above the average for shire areas as a whole of 2.5 per cent. South Wight gained 13.7 per cent. Those changes mean that the Isle of Wight area received an increase in revenue support grant of £2.73 million in 1994-95. I also note that the Isle of Wight county council this year has an SSA per head 10 per cent. greater than Hampshire county council or West Sussex county council and 15 per cent. greater than Dorset county council.
My hon. Friend has raised specific, detailed SSA worries this evening and on other occasions. I recognise his concern about the SSA for the fire service, where actual expenditure by the Isle of Wight authorities is significantly higher than that provided for by the SSA. As my hon. Friend knows, Home Office colleagues also understand that concern.
A number of authorities have suggested that the formula for the fire SSA should be reconsidered. Our proposals for changes in SSA will be announced very shortly after the Budget. But I can say now that we have been considering closely ways in which the formula might reflect the way in which the coastline makes it more difficult for brigades to obtain reinforcements--a point made by my hon. Friend. The area cost adjustment has similarly been considered by the technical group. We are concerned to find a more robust basis for the taper of the adjustment outside London. A number of possibilities have been considered, including the use of more detailed data on employees' earnings or an approach based on distance from London. We will, as always, consider carefully all the evidence about the robustness and fairness of changes, including the points submitted by the Isle of Wight, before announcing our proposals for consultation. The transition to community care has also, I know, been a matter of concern to the island. For all authorities, we provided a special transitional grant for 1993-94 to assist in the transition from the previous arrangements. Since those previous arrangements were based on income support, the transition was based partly on income support data. But that was always intended as a temporary feature of the grant. We now base the grant on the same factors as the relevant part of the SSA formula for social services. I realise that the income support data were more beneficial to the island, but I do not think that we could justify continuing their use.
My hon. Friend has very properly raised points about the standard spending assessment for the Isle of Wight. We are very willing to consider such concerns. We will give full weight to what he has said this evening. I am sure that he, and those in his delegation, will make the points in more detail when they visit us in the Department tomorrow. We wish the Isle of Wight success in its transition to a unitary authority.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Ten o'clock.
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